Two-Foot Rules

Rules-1

One leg of this scale has been cleaned with lanolin. The other has been wiped with wood bleach, which lightened the boxwood but didn’t affect the markings.


This is an excerpt from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” by Anon, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz.

The two-foot rule was the standard measuring device for woodworking for hundreds of years. The steel tape was likely invented in the 19th century. Its invention is sometimes credited to Alvin J. Fellows of New Haven, Conn., who patented his device in 1868, though the patent states that several kinds of tape measures were already on the market.

Tape measures didn’t become ubiquitous, however, until the 1930s or so. The tool production of Stanley Works points this out nicely. The company had made folding rules almost since the company’s inception in 1843. The company’s production of tape measures appears to have cranked up in the late 1920s, according to John Walter’s book “Stanley Tools” (Tool Merchant).

The disadvantage of steel tapes is also their prime advantage: They are flexible. So they sag and can be wildly inaccurate thanks to the sliding tab at the end, which is easily bent out of calibration.

What’s worse, steel tapes don’t lay flat on your work. They curl across their width enough to function a bit like a gutter. So you’re always pressing the tape flat to the work to make an accurate mark.

Folding two-foot rules are ideal for most cabinet-scale work. They are stiff. They lay flat. They fold up to take up little space. When you place them on edge on your work you can make an accurate mark.

They do have disadvantages. You have to switch to a different tool after you get to lengths that exceed 24″, which is a common occurrence in woodworking. Or you have to switch techniques. When I lay out joinery on a 30″-long leg with a 24″-long rule I’ll tick off most of the dimensions by aligning the rule to the top of the leg. Then – if I have to – I’ll shift the rule to the bottom of the leg and align off that. This technique allows me to work with stock 48″ long – which covers about 95 percent of the work.

Other disadvantages: The good folding rules are vintage and typically need some restoration. When I fixed up my grandfather’s folding rule, two of the rule’s three joints were loose – they flopped around like when my youngest sister broke her arm. To fix this, I put the rule on my shop’s concrete floor and tapped the pins in the ruler’s hinges using a nail set and a hammer. About six taps peened the steel pins a bit, spreading them out to tighten up the hinge.

Another problem with vintage folding rules is that the scales have become grimy or dark after years of use. You can clean the rules with a lanolin-based cleaner such as Boraxo. This helps. Or you can go whole hog and lighten the boxwood using oxalic acid (a mild acidic solution sold as “wood bleach” at every hardware store).

Rules-2

Here I’m using a zig-zag rule and a carpenter’s pencil to lay out the cuts on the pine stock for the Packing Box. I dislike zig-zags for this work because they don’t lay flat. They have the precision of a hand grenade.

Vintage folding rules are so common that there is no reason to purchase a bad one. Look for a folding rule where the wooden scales are entirely bound in brass. These, I have found, are less likely to have warped. A common version of this vintage rule is the Stanley No. 62, which shows up on eBay just about every day and typically sells for $20 or less.

The folding rule was Thomas’s first tool purchase as soon as Mr. Jackson started paying him. I think that says a lot about how important these tools were to hand work.

Meghan Bates

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12 Responses to Two-Foot Rules

  1. Salko Safic says:

    I’ve had many issues with tape measures in the past until I purchased a starrett and have never looked back since. They are the most accurate tape measures I have ever come across, their measurements accurately line up with their rules and with all the modern day Luftkin brands as well. I paid, believe it or not for a brand new Starrett tape measure only $5.95, shock horror their so cheap for such a high quality tool.

  2. A short while ago I came across a new meter long four fold rule made somewhere in Europe. It works just like the old Stanley’s, although it doesn’t have pins to align it when closed. It also suffers from what I’ve noticed is the common problem with most folding rules…the measurements on the brass hinges have been sanded down to where they are unreadable. Beyond that, the extra 15 inches comes in handy sometimes.

    • jleko says:

      I have and have used one of the Larson folding rules. Be sure to calibrate it against a known reference such as a Starrett rule (or whatever other scales you’re using in your shop). I’ve found that some sections of the same rule can be off by as much as 1/16 inch. =:-O

      If possible, use a story stick instead…

  3. bsrlee says:

    Your description of your sister’s broken arm just gave me flashbacks to the last road accident I attended in my previous career – ick.

  4. I have “misplaced” my dad’s 2 foot folding rule. (I am 75). But have been using a three foot folding rule from Lee Valley catalog. Made by Sybren in Holland. Just a little bigger but works great.

  5. Paul says:

    Great! this is the first time I see a zig zag rule mentioned in an anglophone context. Here in Germany almost every professional woodworker (and all other trades too) relies on the precision of the hand grenade. What stellar precision we must be capable of if we switched to tapes measures and steel rulers!
    I always wondered why the zig zag appears to be exclusive to the German speaking countries. Is there any application or example in which Americans and Brits do indeed use them?

    • wldrylie says:

      As a Union Steamfitter for 38 years the Lufkin 066F inside reading rule (zig zag) was what I used to measure my precision pipe fits for root passes made with tungsten inert gas welding. Every fit with a 1/16″ tolerance for pipe carrying super heated steam at 1200 degrees F at 1000 to 1600 PSI. That particular rule lies flat on the top of pipe even when not extended all of it’s length. It is the only tool we are allowed under contract to bring to a job when we go “auf der Walz” from state to state. During my five year apprenticeship, I was told it was the only “proper” rule to use for fitting.

      I used a tape measure in the lay down yard to measure pipe to find lengths close to what I needed to minimize waste, Rarely used a tape when fitting.

      Now retired and building cabinets and desks I use the Lufkin inside reading rule for measuring all of my wood cuts.

  6. drehlarry says:

    Chris,
    I have a Lufkin folding rule, the number on it is X46F. Both sides of the extension end start with 1 inch and at the other end both sides read 72 inch, allowing the ruler to lay flat on the work while measuring with the remainder of the rule folded. I much prefer using this rule over the more common X46, which is more likely the one you are using in the photo.

    I looked on the Lufkin site and they have an X46FN that they are offering now. But the description
    on the site is not very clear on how it is marked. I would recommend contacting Lufkin to find out if this rule is marked like the older X46F.
    Hope this is of some help.

    LD

  7. bgjfurniture says:

    Okay. I got my oxalis acid in powder form. What kind of ratio to (hot I assume) water do I use?
    I don’t want to melt my rule!
    Martin

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