“MORE THAN YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SIX-FOOT FOLDING RULES!”
Most people today use a flexible metal tape for measurement, except for some old-timers. There are reasons for this besides stubborn intransigence – although that surely plays a part. First, most set-in-their-ways people like me suspect metal things are more affected by temperature than wooden things, which is correct. Steel thermally expands or contracts roughly three times as much as the wood in a ruler. For example, a six foot length of steel tape will expand or contract about 19/1000” with a 40 degree F temp change, and the change with wood is only 6/1000”. Since that is less than a 1/64” difference, in practical terms, it makes no difference. Maybe in rocket science, but not in woodworking.
Another reason? Well, by golly, we JUST DON’T LIKE those flimsy, fluttery, noisy darned things, that’s what! Face it, we DO stick with the things we are used to and like. And, that isn’t anything new either, I recall as a young person in the boat shop, the old guys back then sneered at my shiny, new six foot folding rule, clinging stubbornly to their gnarly old two foot versions! And don’t even dare bring a steel tape into the shop! Ah well, times change, and so does everything around us.
And, just for the record, I have a two foot folding rule too, because there are a few interesting things you can do with those you can’t do with anything else so conveniently, if at all. More about that perhaps later in another post.
I have seen many an old-timer flick out their two foot rule in one motion, and have the saw set and in action before I got my six-footer out of my pocket. And, I’ll bet you, man for man, I can do the same thing these days against the young guy with his noxious steel tape clipped to his belt. And just try shoving a bit of scrap out of the way on the other side of the bench with your wimpy tape! The fact is, we work best with the things we like and are familiar with. To me, there is very little warmth and friendliness in a sterile piece of metal compared to my friendly boxwood rule, with its nicks, patina, splatters, easy and familiar action, and even its smell – but then, that’s just me, and trust me, don’t try that kind of comparison with your wife, husband or significant other!
I’ve had a a couple of favorites now for close on to forty years if not longer. I’ve broken several over the years of course – rulers, not wives! And, I keep a spare or two around, because if you can’t measure in a woodworking shop, you are shut down until you can. This brings me to my first point. A year ago I went off with my brother for a day to look at a boat for him. When he left, he drove off with one of my much-loved rulers in his car by accident – my fault. When I missed it, I called him – I said I loved it, didn’t I? By that time, he had flown 5000 miles away and could not send it back. I told him not to bother, I’d just get another one – although the one I lost was so well seasoned and easy to use – I could flick it out and have it fully extended in about half a second, and I really hated to lose it. One thing about folding rulers is the more you use them the easier they operate, especially if the joints are kept oiled periodically. Eventually though, they can get too ‘easy’ and become sloppy – but just try getting a steel tape to hold up for forty years!
Problem was, no local supplier had the ruler model I had and preferred – a ‘Master Mechanic’ Inside Reading six foot folding ruler made of boxwood. Not the local hardware, not Lowe’s, not Home Depot, no one! After a little research, I found the manufacturer no longer makes this model in boxwood. In plastic yes, but not for me – I’ll pass on plastic, thank you. Besides, I strongly suspect those are made offshore now.
Then I got lucky, I thought. Lufkin still makes a boxwood model which looked exactly the same as mine in the pictures online – their model #066F. I ordered one and it came ‘Made in the USA’ right on the side. But it wasn’t the same at all. Sure, inside reading, and all that, but it was different – thicker, bulky, heavier, klutzier. I practically hate it in fact, but kept it since it is the only spare I have now. Meanwhile, my brother has inherited my old rule and since he seems to like it, I don’t have the heart to ask for it back. But, if I go visit him, I will take the new one and swap them out surreptitiously – he’ll never notice the difference, will he?
Here is a picture of the old Master Mechanic versus the new Lufkin.
Now to my second point – why “Inside Reading”? Just in case you are not familiar with the difference in styles, inside reading means when you fold out part of your rule and lay it flat on your stock with the unfolded joints up towards you, you look at the numbers naturally reading from left to right, from low to high numbers.
This is called ‘English Measure’. The ruler lays nice and flat against your work, as you work from left to right, which seems right to me. See below:
The more common type – called ‘American Measure’ is reversed – the low numbers are on the outside, so you must use it from right to left. If you try to use the rule from left to right, the unfolded joints are underneath, and you can’t lay the rule flat on your work – it either must hang off the edge of your work – which is not convenient if you are working inside a large piece of stock like ply, or you are forced to read the numbers from high to low, or, you must unfold the full length of the ruler and flip it over for it to lay flat – then the numbers are upside down! For the life of me, I still can’t figure why that style is dominant – and the only one available most places now. Have you noticed how hard it is to find really high quality hand tools now?
You will notice in the picture below there are small holes drilled around the one inch mark in my rules. That serves two purposes; one is to hold the end in place with a nail when I am marking off multiple smaller increments without fear of shifting, and the other is I can use my rule to swing an arc of up to a 71” radius on occasion:
The are things I do like about steel tapes, one being the little thingy on the end to clip on the edge of something to hold the end – but those are the first things to go too. And of course you can have steel tapes in almost any length is you don’t mind the weight. Don’t tell anybody, but I do have a couple lying around. Another thing to keep in mind about your favorite rulers – or tapes – if you love them, don’t ever, ever loan them or let anyone use them, anytime, no time, ever, and most especially children, who are drawn to them like magnets!
The last time one of my grandchildren took a shine to my ruler, I went out and bought a brand new one just for him – American Measure of course since it was all I could find.
-- ''Woodworking has always been the best therapy for me!''