The Essential Stick of the Lawn

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This is one of my favorite stories that doesn’t involve a colonoscopy.

When I traveled to Devon, U.K., to teach a tool chest class at David Savage’s shop and school, Rowden Atelier, I sent my usual tool list in advance for the students. When I arrived, David said they had gathered most of the tools on behalf of the students. But there was a problem.

There was one tool on the list that they couldn’t find. David said they looked everywhere in Devon. At all the tool merchants. They had even gone to a lawn and garden supply store.

Wait? Lawn and garden? “Which tool are we talking about?” I asked David.

“It was the ‘yard stick,’” he said. “We couldn’t figure out what the hell it was. Could it be something Americans used to clean their yard?”

We had a good laugh when I explained it was a “meter stick,” a term that sounds just as weird to me as “yardstick” did to David.

I love yardsticks for woodworking and have long had one handy. The aluminum one above I’ve had since I was a boy. My dad gave it to me when we were building our houses on our farm outside Hackett, Ark., and it has been a constant companion. You can see the holes I’ve drilled in it to use it as a compass/trammel. It’s a “good enough” straightedge for large-scale layout. And I feel no guilt about modifying a wooden one for some nefarious purpose.

The wooden one above I bought a couple years ago when we needed yardsticks for a tool chest class. I asked for a yardstick at our local hardware store, and the ones they were selling were from the 1960s when the store was on Greenup Street in Covington. Price $1. It’s gorgeous.

And so it is with great pride that I am announcing that Crucible Tool will not be making and selling artisanal yardsticks from plantation purpleheart.

Just go buy a wooden one from your local hardware store – heck buy a few. Hang them by the bench and any machines with a fence (we use one at the table saw all the time).

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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38 Responses to The Essential Stick of the Lawn

  1. Richard Mahler says:

    I have had several of those same aluminum yardsticks for decades – and I have used them to scribe circles, not by drilling holes but by taping the exposed end of a paper clip to the edge at the required dimension, providing a loop to hold the tip of a pencil. My favorite is a bright yellow enameled one. I have practically worn the markings off of some of mine over the years. Cannot imagine not having a stick! I also use an 8’ metal tape permanently attached to the edge of one of my benches.

  2. Richard Mahler says:

    Speaking of using a stick for scribing circles, I have a liking for the cast brass trammel points of yore, having several both simple and ornate sets in my antique tool collection, as well as a few interesting carpenter-made wooden ones ranging from crude to quite sophisticated. Alas, no plantation purpleheart!

  3. Mark Kessler says:

    Wait, there’s a story about a colonoscopy? I searched the blog but can’t find, please repost

    • Brian says:

      If there isn’t one on the blog, search Dave Barry Colonoscopy on Google. It’s laugh out loud funny.

  4. josef1henri says:

    Reminds me of the time I worked in a Phillips lab in the Netherlands and asked for a Philips screwdriver. ha ha. What? It’s called a cross point screwdriver there.
    Words are fun. A quarter note here is a a crotchet there. I personally like hemidemisemiquaver.

    • Choirboy says:

      The English language and the US in particular has a bit of a reputation for being confusing and illogical (“Why can’t you people just use metric like everyone else!!”) but we get a few things right, and one of them is our rhythm naming system. But I guess it is logical enough that there are 32 hemidemisemiquavers to the minim…

      • Jesse Griggs says:

        You mean 32 thirty-second notes to 1 whole note. Incidentally, did you hear about the violist who got a special scholarship to study at the royal conservatory? Each month he would write his girlfriend raving about how much he was improving. After the first month, “I’m practicing 5 hours a day and have learned to play quarter notes!” After the second month, “I learned eighth notes!” Third month, “sixteenth notes in two octave scales!” Around the fourth month, his girlfriend writes back, “When can you come home? The mayor wants to give you the key to the city, and everyone wants you to give a recital and masterclass!” He writes back, “I’ll be on the next train. And, oh by the way, I also learned thirty-second note!” So, he arrived at his home town, the local kazoo band greeted him with the red carpet and the Yellow Rose of Texas. There was a full day including a parade, recital and masterclass. At the end, a little boy asked, “Maestro, could you demonstrate thirty-second notes please?” The violist evaded and dodged the question claiming “It would be like a magician telling his secrets.” But after much pleading, he relented, saying, “Ok. But just one.”

  5. In the UK, the term is “Garden Stick”. Most Americans do not know the garden stick is actually the cause of many a North American headache…

    This nomenclature goes back several hundred years to the middle of the 1700’s. In parts of the UK that were deforested to support His Majesty’s Royal Navy, such as London proper and… all of Ireland… your typical 300 year old hovel no longer had trees in their garden (US/UK Translation: In the US, a “garden” is where preppers dig out rows of dirt for the purposes of planting vegetables they will eat or store in jars for eating later during the Apocalypse. In the UK, a “garden” is just like… the front and back yard of a house… and is where grass is grown and fastidiously maintained by the “gardener” (oft spelled “gardeneur” in British vernacular), a peasant-specific title bestowed by the lord of the manor house.).

    Because they no longer had trees to deposit detritus on their manicured gardens, the gardeneur was forced to purchase or barter for twigs and branches, imported from wooded regions in bundles, called “garden sticks” at the local DIY store. Traditionally, these bundles were the approximate length of three paces of the gardeneur’s feet and sometimes referred to as “three feet trees” or “feeters”. The gardeneur then strategically spread these garden sticks about the garden. Later, whilst ensuring the Lady of the house was nearby to take notice, they would retrieve them and dispose of them in a “bin”.

    Around the turn of the 19th Century, several invading Normans overheard two gardeneurs arguing over a bundle of sticks. Through a rapid and heavily-accented discussion involving the terms “garden sticks”, “three feet trees”, and “feeters”, they mistakenly came upon the idea of a “meter stick” and quickly expounded upon that to define an entire system of measurement.

    That’s how the Metric system came to be.

    Or at least that’s how I heard it…

  6. wadeholloway says:

    I found a beautiful wooden yard stick for my wife that was 4 feet long. Up until then I had never seen a 4 foot yard stick 🙂

    • Nik Hughes says:

      I remember those. I’ve seen them next to firewood for sale. So you can easily measure your cord of wood.

    • Richard Mahler says:

      I see the antique 4 foot sticks for sale occasionally – they were used in the wood industry.

  7. I’m just happy the nuns didn’t have access to aluminum rulers. I wouldn’t be here if they had.

  8. Steve says:

    And the joke. I have a 36 inch ruler. Yes – I bought it at a “yard” sale.”

  9. Hank Cohen says:

    Not to mention they don’t constantly roll off the work or reel up like a steel tape measure. You can put it down and it will stay there.

    Sorry to hear that the Brits have gone so metric as to have forgotten what a yardstick is.
    In Israel they don’t know any Yiddish. Don’t know what a klutz is and never kvetch.

  10. Steven Poetzl says:

    I, too, love the yardstick from my childhood days of going to the hardware store with my dad. I can smell the hardware store when I see a yardstick. Please tell me more of the use of a yardstick around the shop. I can’t invision the use of a yardstick at the table saw. Love to know more.

    • Al says:

      I use mine to set the fence and check it for square (check distance between saw teeth and fence, then distance between fence and miter track in same spot, then knock fence around till front and back measurements are same to miter track, recheck fence to blade measurement). Also can lay it right on a piece of wood to mark out stuff. I use mine often for laying out rough sizes of boards out of one board. I just mark before/aft of defects with a square and set to stick to the mark and see if a part will fit in the spot that is left. I then mark out the part and its name or size plus a bit of waste and get to sawing. It is then just a matter of joining and shooting the edges and flattening if thats needed.

  11. jpassacantando says:

    What a lovely post. Reminds me of the nicest thing I ever heard from a friend about something I wrote to him, he said it was like a Dust of Snow.

    Dust of Snow
    BY ROBERT FROST
    The way a crow
    Shook down on me
    The dust of snow
    From a hemlock tree

    Has given my heart
    A change of mood
    And saved some part
    Of a day I had rued.

  12. John Gornall says:

    A slightly more refined version in stainless steel is my primary shop measuring tool. Just completed a kitchen of cabinets and this is the only measuring tool used. Measure and mark, set the tablesaw, layout hardware, one tool and consistant. Can mark on the rule with pencil so it’s also a story stick. All those years of tape measure errors – finally saw the light.

  13. Joe says:

    I like them as well. What I also like is that they aren’t covered in tiny measurement increments. I find that annoying to my eye. I wish I could find engineering squares and other rulers that stopped at 1/8″ or 1/16″ at most.

  14. Larry Barrett says:

    I have a stash of a half dozen or so, all from around the Indianapolis area and acquired by my father or grandfather and passed down to me. A couple from Vonnegut’s hardware store, where Kurt Vonnegut likely worked as a boy.

    • I rarely have tool envy… but I do in this instance. I love Vonnegut. We saw some artifacts from the hardware store at the Vonnegut center in Indianapolis a few years ago.

      • Chris says:

        I have no idea what it’s cash value is, but one of my most prized tools is a folding ruler from Vonnegut Hardware. I’ve had it for years and long before Vonnegut died, I was tempted to send him a picture, as I can’t imagine a whole lot these things are out there. I thought it might bring back memories. But I never did, and then he fell and banged his head. Vonnegut’s my favorite writer, a humanist to the core. And he was handy with a tool. Pretty danged rare.

  15. We don’t have anything like this around here, metric or not. Strange. I did found a very nice beefy 1-meter ruler made from beech in a sewing supply store, using it ever since.

  16. ejcampbell says:

    I get mine free from my favorite fabric store.

  17. Mike Siemsen says:

    So she swallowed a tape measure
    but dying by inches was hard
    so she went out in the alleyway
    and there she died by the yard

  18. JOSEPH NATISHAN says:

    My favorite yard stick is actually 1″ x 1″ x 36″ instead of the thinner or flatter style. But they’re all good for certain purposes.

  19. Simon says:

    I am surprised both at Rowden not knowing what a yardstick was and while I am sure that the kilted woodworker might be right, from his name he is probably a Scot and while a part of the UK they have different word. I have never heard the term “garden stick” used to describe a ruler. Yardstick on the other had is pretty much a daily usage term for a standard of comparison. Its all in the name really, a yard being a measurement of 3 feet. Before metric came in with metres we had the 100yard dash, a sprint, the 400m was 440 yards. Pubs often had a yard of ale for drinking competitions which is a 3ft long blass with a bulb at one end. A yardstick would have been something most builders and carpenters had a century ago.

    • I made up about 95% of that post, brother. Unless I’m talking about how to use a tool or how I go about a certain woodworking technique, probably best to take anything I say with a large grain of salt. 😉

      (Some actual facts: The Normans invaded England in 1066. Well, they’d been hitting coastal villages and raiding for many years before that, but 1066 was the big one that had a dramatic impact on English art and architecture and politics By the 18th Century, the Normans were just called French. However, the Metric system WAS developed in the late 1700’s and finally accepted as the standard form of measurement in the United Kingdom by 1799.
      Ummm… oh, the British garden is definitely called a yard in the US. The bit about the sticks was all rubbish..
      But the metric system DOES give many Americans a headache, especially when trying to figure out which drill bit to use when a plan lists a bit size in mm.
      Oh, and while I have mostly English and Irish blood flowing through my veins, I actually live outside of St. Louis, MO.

      Cheers,

      The Kilted Woodworker

  20. pete says:

    Ah, you mean a metre ruler. (Or rule, if you are that kind of person. But it’s a ruler because that’s what most people call it.) We use the term yardstick figuratively, I’ve never heard anyone use it to refer to a physical thing though. Metrestick would be about as confusing, sticks fall off trees.

  21. Sylvain says:

    It is always worth looking at what is used in other trades. Look for “sewing measurement tools”
    Metre ruler/yard stick are typically used in fabric stores and by people making curtains, bed cover etc.
    My parents had a wooden meter ruler with a square section of about 20 X 20 mm.

  22. Steve Castner says:

    For the hard up, 36″ wooden yard sticks, no metrics, are in stock for 87 cents (that’s cents, the American metric currency) at Menards:

    Menards 36″ Yardstick at Menards https://www.menards.com/main/p-1509431386773.htm

    The other option, much preferred by me due to portability (fits apron pocket) and alternative to leave partially unfolded for frequent repetitive use, is the Swiss made, almost unbreakable, Milwaukee Tool version of the humble carpenter’s rule with lots of bells and whistles, $15.78 at Home Depot. Imperial only because those Swiss know their stuff.

    Ehttps://milwaukeetool.com/Products/Hand-Tools/Measuring/Folding-Rules/48-22-3801

  23. Sam Tinsley says:

    I remember as a boy that hardware & lumber stores gave you yard stick,nail aprons & pencils with their name & phone number on them. Today they sell them with their ad on them. Nothings free today. You will be lucky if you get a thank you.

  24. eahiggins121 says:

    Best blog post in a while. Thanks to Chris and all the others for the much-needed chuckles.

  25. Tom says:

    An electrician told me he traveled to New York state for work when he was an apprentice.
    The foreman asked him to go and bring him the “trailer”. He thought to himself, “What does he think I am, a mule?”

    Turns out “extension cords” are called “trailers” in some places.

  26. Matthew L says:

    Wooden metre rulers were a staple of the classroom when I was in primary school (1980s New Zealand).

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