How Do You Measure?

Over the weekend I spent a few hours in Woodcraft with fellow MWAmembers after our monthly Atlanta meeting.  As usual, I migrated to the hand planes isle and couldn’t help but notice on the other side an entire isle of measuring instruments.  This made me start thinking…are measurements really that important to a successful project?  Do we need to measure to a 1/64″?

For me the answer is, at times yes and others no.  Don’t get me wrong I am the worst person to ask for a measurement.  I can remember many times when I still strapped on a tool belt framing and would call out measurements for a 2X4 cut 8′ 3 3/32″ only to receive blank stares. It’s just that if I need to take a measurement I like to be as close as possible but the fact is I rarely measure in my shop.  Most of my project are built from an idea in my head and really only need to be the size that I think looks best.  I tend to build projects from “the outside-in” meaning that I start with the outermost carcass first and everything else gets filled in.  If and when I build something that needs to fix to an exact measurement then of coarse I want to measure as accurate as possible.

For measuring using fractions there are many options that you can work with.  Many traditional woodworkers frown upon using tape measures but growing up in the construction field I am still fond of them.  I know that they have their limitations and adjust accordingly.  For instance, the hook on the end of a tape has a little play in it but this is intended to compensate for holding to tape against a wall or hooking it over something to measure.  The only problem is that it is not perfect and the groove wears out over time.  When measuring with a tape measure I normal “cut” an inch, meaning that I hold the one inch mark at the edge being measured and add an inch to the other end, the problem with this is you have to be very careful or you will cut all of your boards and inch too short!

For smaller projects I prefer to use a metal ruler, I keep a 2′ and a 6″ around me all the time for quick measurements.  A good 6″ rulers has more uses than I will write about now but include marking and laying out mortise and tenons to spot checking board thickness.

There are many more instruments that can be used to accurately measures such as the dial caliper but for now I want to move on to alternate methods that do not require conventional scale systems.  Often all that is needed is to transfer a dimension from either a pattern or opening, in instances such as this a story stick is a perfect choice.  A story stick is simply a length of wood that is used to transfer dimensions by marking the story stick against the pattern and then using the markings made to transfer the dimension to your work.

Dividers can be used to transfer distances or layout in equal parts such as dovetail layout or even laying out drawers.

Marking gauges can be used for layout and transfer dimensions and are often used for layout of mortises, dados, or rabbets.

The point is that there are a lot of options out there on the market for measuring mainly because well we all have different ways of doing things.  Really there is no right or wrong way if it works for you.  Countless pieces of fine crafted furniture have been built with minimal amounts of tools and resources.  Choose your own path and see where it leads you.


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7 Responses to “How Do You Measure?”

  1. Chris Adkins
    November 18, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    Thanks Shannon, and I agree with you about the 6" ruler and always have it by my side.

    As for the folding ruler, I would like to find a good one as I think that is something I could get used to.

  2. Shannon
    November 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    My little 6" ruler is a great tool and is never far from my hand. It has 16th and 32nd on one side and 32nd and 64th on the other. I wish it would just list 16th as the others are too dang small to even see. My boxwood folding ruler now gets more use than anything as it is marked in 16th and 8ths.

  3. Chris Adkins
    November 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    Thanks Rob, good idea with cutting 10", I have always use 1" but that is just what I am comfortable with.

    I think a lot of us relative dimensioning as our projects progress but I also think it is important to let new woodworkers know that it is not only ok but the preferred meathod by most to do this.

  4. Rob Porcaro
    November 17, 2011 at 12:26 am #


    When measuring with a tape without using the hook, I usually start at the 10" mark. That way, it's more likely to be obvious if I forget to add the extra 10" when marking the length, and it's an easier addition.

    Thanks for the post. There's all sorts of trouble with measuring to absolute amounts, so, in general, I only do it when necessary. The deeper I am into a project, the more my "measuring" consists of matching parts relative to previously cut parts.


  5. Chris Adkins
    November 16, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    Bill, I remember my dad and grandfather doing the same with a folding rule. I have always wanted to find a good qaulity folding rule to keep in the shop, if nothing more than for sentimental value.

    Dyami, pretty much the same as my shop. And I really love my Veritas marking wheel, I find I use it more and more.

  6. Dyami Plotke
    November 16, 2011 at 2:28 am #

    For measuring a woodworking project, I only use a tape measure for rough dimensions. Once I get to real measurements, I use a rule (typically aluminum) if I measure. I try to use relative dimensioning as much as possible and use my Veritas marking wheel as well as a number of story sticks and stop rules to transfer dimensions without ever actually measuring.

  7. bakins
    November 16, 2011 at 1:48 am #

    Good article on marking tools. I've used all of the above. I like to use a tape in the beginning and then use relative dimensioning on the rest. Let the project dictate the lengths. I remember as a kid working with my Dad and Great Uncle. They could unfold a folding rule in a second with one quick pop and fold it back up again just as quickly. I tried it and broke the old rule in pieces.

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