My eyesight is terrible, and so I’ve long relied on rules that have a satin black background with white etched letters.
For years I used one from Bridge City, but the markings were blurry. I suspect they were screen printed or not etched deep enough. After trying a few other brands, Peter Galbert gave me a flexible one made by SPI. It was a revelation. It’s not as good as a Starrett, but it’s close enough.
When we started Crucible Tool, one of the products we worked on for months was making a set of black rules, 6”, 12” and one that would fit in a Starrett combination square. In addition to the black background, we wanted to remove the 32nds and 64ths. The rules would have 8ths and 16ths printed on both faces.
I won’t detail all the ways we failed, but we couldn’t find a manufacturer that could do the job to our satisfaction.
This week, I finally closed the door on this project. We tried to get SPI to do a large run of rules with 8ths and 16ths on both faces. They politely declined.
If your eyesight is poor, I absolutely recommend the SPI rules. Just ignore the face with the 32nds and 64ths. When I work to those measurements for toolmaking, I’m going to use dial calipers or a micrometer.
The good news is that the SPI rules are an absolute bargain. Buy them from MSC Industrial Supply. Here are my three favorites:
6” rigid 4R rule. It’s $6.49.
12” rigid 4R rule. It’s $10.76
6” flexible 4R rule. It’s $5.73. This rule is ideal when marking out along a curved surface.
These rules are an incredible bargain. And your eyes will thank you.
I wish we had been able to make them more appropriate for woodworking, but maybe that day will come in the future.
— Christopher Schwarz
42 thoughts on “Satin Black Rules (I’ve Failed You)”
I realise that my suggestion doesn’t solve your need for black rules, but I have found that Japanese Shinwa rules are fantastic – much clearer than the normal black on satin chrome rules I use from Moore & Wright. They also make a version with a little ‘finger lift’ at one end to make them easier to pick up from the bench.
A supplier here in the UK is Workshop Heaven –
+1 on the Shinwa “pickup” rules. I have several sizes and they are a joy to use. The same page shows the stops that further increase the usefulness of these rules.
The same Workshop Heaven page also has Kinex rules that seem to be almost exactly what Chris is looking for: crisp white etchings on a black background using divisions appropriate for woodworking — except that they are marked in mm.
For Jane Mickelborough below, both of these rules are metric, marked in full mm (not the cluttered 1/2 mm).
I’ve look at the Kinex rules and the markings are lasered and not photoetched so the lines are much wider. The grads are also not infilled with white filler so the contrast between the rule and grads is not as much as a PEC or SPI.
Son of a gun, that’s a great tip. In the middle of a job I am always thinking, why the hell can’t I see these lines clearly on old rulers? Half the time they are too shiny, and the other half they are obscured by the slightest film of ancient rust. Working them with steel wool only helps marginally. This is the ticket. And indeed, it would have been nice to drop the 32nds and 64ths
Too bad. It was a good idea. Especially putting one of those in a Starrett square.
I LOVED the idea of putting one in a combo square. I’d buy four 12s, and a couple of 6 inchers.
I use steel rules daily for all kinds if work, but etched markings on stainless are difficult to see in some lights even with good eyesight. I purchased the 6” flexible, the 12” and also the 24” which I use more than any other length. Thanks for the description and source.
I need a metric version!
I like the rule from PEC (Products Engineering) http://www.productsengineering.com/rules/blackchromerules.html I have one that is mm and 0,5mm on one side and 32/64 ths of an inch on the other. I like it because the markings are sharp enough for my eyes (not nearly as good as they used to be…) I picked up my rules at a local store but I have also seen them available on Amazon and other places online.
Personal opinion here: The SPI rules’ markings are much sharper than the PEC’s. We bought dozens of chrome rules during our research.
Did you look at Benchmark Tools black chrome rules? They are made in the same factory as the SPI. See: https://taytools.com/pages/search-results-page?q=benchmark+black
I also have a MM, 0.5 MM, 32nd and 65th rule in hardened stainless steel made by Shinwa in Japan. A very fine rule.
I like Woodpecker products, but that’s definitely my biggest complaint; white on red is very hard to see. I only use my T-square if I am going to use the indexed pencil line holes.
It’s like Dark Mode for your rules.
I found this with a simple Google search. Its an architecture scale made from black anodized aluminum marks cut in: Zooming in looks pretty decent to me:
Good to know. I recently purchased a Lufkin Nite Eye tape measure at Lowes that has a black tape with neon green markings and it is so much easier to see in any light conditions. I’ll pick up some of these rulers before they are gone.
MSC shipping is really expensive.
I agree. I went to buy the 12″ for $10 and they wanted to charge me $12 to ship it.
This is why I don’t usually buy stuff from the “little guy”. I want to, am even willing to pay a little higher than Amazon to support people, but sadly the shipping and handling costs usually go against my principles and I cancel.
MSC is not “the little guy”. They’re a specialist industrial supply, and quite large at that. The fact that they charge the actual cost of shipping is a feature to most of their customers, not a bug. For one thing, it means they aren’t constantly screwing with prices to cover the cost of “free” shipping by burying in the price of some product.
I’ve largely quit shopping Amazon because (among other things) I’m OK with the basic honesty of admitting that it costs money to move things from point A to point B and charging fairly to do so.
The other option is to keep an eye on your other tool/hardware needs and buy several things at once. Adding a few things often doesn’t increase the shipping cost much if any. I do this all the time when shopping at places like highland hardware or tools for working wood.
You can find a local supplier for them at: https://www.swissprec.com/find-dealer.html That’s really helping out “the little guy” and/or keeping it local.
This was a nice try. I would have bought some, for sure. I really love the combo square idea.
Up until the late 1950s, all the big tool makers made combination squares intended for carpenters, not machinists. Some had 1/8 and 1/16 on both sides, and a couple of others had 1/8 and 1/16 on one side, and 1/16 and 1/32 on the other. No need for 64ths at all.
I really like having 8ths and 16ths on both sides. One of these days, I plan on taking a combo rule, using gun bluing or some such, then infilling the lines with white or yellow. Something along that idea. It’s in my list of stuff I’d like to try some day.
I have an old Union tools combi square that came with a factory blued rule. I really like the rule but the body is cheesy. I should infill the markings on it to see how that looks.
Please don’t give up on making a high contrast rule. I use a Starrette with the 32nds and 64ths and they drive me nuts. I spend more time turning the rule to 8ths and 16th than actually measuring.
Again, please don’t give up. Put me on the preorder list!
My wish would be to have all my measuring tools graduated by 1/10 and 1/20 inch on both sides.
Keep them on the wish list! But please include a metric one (1 mm, not halves!). And, since we’re asking – an set of graduations on the end (the “short” side).
Shipping cost is more than the cost of the 12 inch rule.
Great idea especially with the goal of fitting a combo square. Hope you can someday get the numbers to work out so it becomes profitable to produce.
(And I gotta say this post is kind of like showing a kid a picture of the toy he almost got at Christmas. 🙂)
It wasn’t a matter of making the numbers work. It was finding someone who could do the job. Making rules is a specialized operation – not something a typical machine shop can do. Add in the black chrome and it became, well, impossible.
Finding a good “job shop” is the biggest challenge we face with making both books and tools.
Why not approach Lee Valley? They already make a bunch of Veritas measuring tools with a black anodized finish, so maybe they would be interested?
I have a feeling this may wind up on the Anarchist’s Gift Guide ; )
For a moment, I read the title as Satan Black Rules, and thought you had started a band ….
Tangentially off topic, I’m reminded of a lyric from a Michigan punk rock band: “They wrote ‘Satin rules’ on the side of my school…”
Once ambiguous, now I understand its true meaning
Being in my 56th year upon this Earth, having been purty darn nearsighted since early childhood, and for some years now getting to enjoy the oh-so-common double whammy of age-induced farsightedness (aka the “my-arms-are-getting-too-short-to-read-the-paper” syndrome), the problems of seeing the details, be it on a rule or on the work or whatever, are only too familiar to me.
A few years ago, after developing a pretty bad neck pain (it was a real pain in the neck, I can tell you!) from constantly leaning into my computer screen at work in order to be able to see what it said there, I set about getting an additional pair of prescription glasses for screen work. These are bifocals, but instead of being for distance and close view, they’re set up for close and closer. My pair provide a very nice, sharp, just-like-it-used-to-be-when-I-was-younger view at distances from about two up to six feet. Beyond that, the further away something is, the blurrier it gets. Not too blurry for comfort, but still. They’re fine to wear around the house, but I wouldn’t want to drive with them on, is what I’m trying to say.
Anyway, what has that got to do with the price of tea in China, and reading the fine print on a workshop rule? Well, it turns out they’re also dead-nuts perfect to wear in the workshop! With my regular glasses on, I must either take them off and get in so close that I lose all perspective, or look from so far away that the details disappear anyway. With the close-work bifocals on, I can behave normally, and look at everything from just the right distance. I can see my gauge line perfectly from three or four feet away; I can comfortable follow the try square down the length of the stuff when checking for square; I can read my rule without having to get in close and look over the top of the glasses.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t also want a rule with nice, crisp, easy-to-read markings and no glare, but a pair of bifocals for screen/close-up work is an additional boon that, now that I’ve discovered it, I would not want to have to do without! Worth looking (ha!) into!
At this price, I suppose you could try (carefully) gluing/riveting two rules back to back.
Got in my order today. Gotta say a little disappointed. The finishes on all the rulers have some kind of haze on them that makes it hard to read in sections. Some sections are awesome and I would love a ruler like that. Others sections the finish makes parts of the rulers shiny especially when held at certain angles. I tried washing the haze off but it almost seems like they have been buffed or rubbed too hard. Also on one of the three rulers there are incomplete or missing hash marks. I would return them but after paying so much in shipping to get them here do not want to basically pay for the rulers a third time.
It sounds like you have defective ones. Contact the seller and ask them to make it right. If you bought them from MSC, I think they will replace them.
Getting the white infill in the shallow engraved graduation marks and then getting everything wiped off with no residue it a real trick, especially with the finer 1/32 and 1/64 marks. I have sold thousands of rules over the years and have seen this smearing and smudging on the SPI and PEC rules, although it is very uncommon. It is a defect, and you should be able to return them and get a replacement.
We sell the matte black chrome rules under our Benchmark Tools brand. These are made in the same factory where the SPI ones are manufactured. It would be a simple thing to have them made with the 1/8 and 1/16 grads on both sides. Take at look at ours here: https://taytools.com/pages/search-results-page?q=benchmark+black
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