By Nose & Eye

estonian-compass

“Whatever tools you need, you have the eye as the calipers, and the nose as the square; in the old days all work was done by the eye.”

That is how old time measuring is popularly described. This method of doing everything by the eye was quite common in the villages until the end of the 19th century, the hand often aiding as a measuring instrument. To this day some of the Avinurme container makers measure the size of various containers by the hand span, the middle finger and the width of the palm. Thus, for instance, the average-sized wash tub has a base and sides of two spans (12″ or 30 cm), a cabbage dish – three spans, an average-sized vat – two spans and a middle finger (22″ or 59 cm), etc.

Until inches were introduced, the accepted unit was the “pöid,” which was actually the equivalent to an inch but had no subdivisions. A measuring rod was made by “cutting the pöids on a straight rod.” The measuring rods were used by craftsmen and it was the general practice to prepare rods of fixed sizes. Thus, for instance, sleigh builders would have a rod the length of the sleigh width, of the spoke of the wheel, etc. It was not till the end of the 19th century that the ruler divided into inches was introduced and it could then be bought in the shops.

— Ants Viires, from the forthcoming official third edition of “Woodworking in Estonia” from Lost Art Press

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14 Responses to By Nose & Eye

  1. Ed Kenney says:

    This may have been the case for Estonia. However at least 9 Rules with inch and sub inch markings were found aboard the wreckage of the English war ship Mary Rose that sank in 1545. Ref: Before the Mast; life and death aboard the Mary Rose PG. 334

    • Not that I disagree with any here about the application of “rulers” of many forms from English to other Asian forms (based on unit 10…not…12;) through history and today…Nevertheless…they HAD NOT (nor are in many regions still today) the “normative modality of measure.” IT IS…the “nose and eye” as suggested in this fine post.

      I didn’t touch a “tape measure” (or ruler per se) for more than half of my apprenticeship as a Barnwright with Old Order Amish. Further to the point…I just laid out joinery on about 100 plus meters (I work in metric for the ease and logic of it) of White Oak timber and there is not a “ruler” to be actually applied to the work…There are “templates,” and “DIVIDERS”, and models/blueprints, and story poles…AND…(of course) the ubiquitous “SQUARES.”

      So, it’s not that we don’t have (or even like our metric tape measures) in hand at times…We do, but they are not a necessity nor even of much use beyond a certain point in “traditional work” and for the most part..are entirely unnecessary…if the actual traditional modalities are understood and embraced…

  2. I quite agree with Ed Kenny that rules were used very early in England and probably elsewhere such as Italy, France, Greece etc. However the body measurements were also used and indeed in the 1940s were still being taught to Boy Scouts in England. One missing critical measurement in the list is the inch – taken as the widest width of the thumb. Surely the foot was the length of a man’s foot? I still use these quick references if I am stuck without a rule. I am sure there were others such as the arms length and the outstretched arms length but I don’t know about these.

    The key thing is why are these important? After all they are not accurate so why bother? Well they are body parts so things made using these units are human sized they fit the hand, the foot, the thumb etc. It is no mistake that Leonardo da Vinci drew his Vitruvian Man that shows how mans body parts are related by certain proportions and sizes. He understood how these measures looked beautiful to the human eye. The Golden Ratio looks beautiful because it occurs very often in nature.

    • Damien says:

      Maybe the length of the emperors statue foot (that was bigger than life), few people have shoe size 14. Now the length of the radius bone (lower arm) comes close and extends by a span to the cubit.

  3. Richard says:

    Chester Cornett was building chairs in Kentucky using hand and finger measurements, even into the 1970s.

    • And Jim Tolpin and George Walker are still doing it…..

      • Richard says:

        It’s interesting, although perhaps more anthropological, to consider Cornett’s inheritance of the practice, compared to Tolpin and Walker who I presume learned it later in their careers.

  4. Not that I disagree with any here about the application of “rulers” of many forms from English to other Asian forms (based on unit 10…not…12;) through history and today…Nevertheless…they HAD NOT (nor are in many regions still today) the “normative modality of measure.” IT IS…the “nose and eye” as suggested in this fine post.

    I didn’t touch a “tape measure” (or ruler per se) for more than half of my apprenticeship as a Barnwright with Old Order Amish. Further to the point…I just laid out joinery on about 100 plus meters (I work in metric for the ease and logic of it) of White Oak timber and there is not a “ruler” to be actually applied to the work…There are “templates,” and “DIVIDERS”, and models/blueprints, and story poles…AND…(of course) the ubiquitous “SQUARES.”

    So, it’s not that we don’t have (or even like our metric tape measures) in hand at times…We do, but they are not a necessity nor even of much use beyond a certain point in “traditional work” and for the most part..are entirely unnecessary…if the actual traditional modalities are understood and embraced…

  5. Tanel Vakker says:

    I checked the original and it’s not pöid (the part between heel and toes), but pöial (thumb).

    • Thank you. That seems a very odd error for the translator to make.

    • Hi Tanel,

      I am currious about your deeper understanding of this??? I enjoyed reading this post when it first came out…mainly because it covers a subject I greatly enjoy…”Layout and Measure.” However, I also study “Folk Architecture” and the Estonian timber frame (et al) forms fascinate and intrigue me…

      In Estonian (if I have it correct from the few translators and student speakers I reached out to) “pöid” means “rim” or “foot.” Pöial does mean “thumb,” yet I don’t believe that changes the narrative of this post…or does it?? So, in this context, as I have thus gathered my understanding…”pöid”…as referenced here in this post is a…”measure of distance,”…and not…”poial”…which I think (please correct my understanding if I am in error) is an anatomical phalangeal bone of a thumb.

      • Tanel Vakker says:

        I have the 2006 edition of the book in Estonian and I am Estonian.

        The book says: “Tollimõõduna oli üldiselt tuntud pöial – üks pöidla laius vastas ühele tollile. Puust mõõtpulkade (mõõdupuude) tegemisel “tollid leigati pöila esimese liikme järge puu pulga paale””

        Which in my crude translation means:
        “For inch measurements a thumb was used – one thumb’s width matched one inch. When creating wooden measuring sticks, “inches were cut on on a wooden stick using thumb’s first phalanx””.

        In the footnote there is a reference to Pöide, which is a village in Saaremaa.

  6. Can’t beat having the text in front of you with an orgin language speaker…

    That is great to know Tanel…thank you so much for more detail to your clarification…Your (native speaker) translation of that passage is much more thorough than what I could fully glean myself…

    Do you have deeper knowledge of how they used (if they did??) a “foot measurement” and was it based on 12 or 10? Would that word be “pöid? What of other forms within the culture and architectural application? I would love it if you sent me an email connection for deeper discussion perhaps and future reference…

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