Measuring Sticks

Article - January 25, 2011

Would you believe me if I told you that the most accurate measuring device in the shop is one that costs pennies and can be made out of scrap? Well you better, because its true and the concept is older than dirt!

Relative What Now?

If you’ve been a follower of this site for a while, you’ve probably heard me ramble on about “relative dimensioning”. That is, getting your measurements from pre-existing parts of the project usually without the aid of a tape measure. Click Here for more on Relative Dimensioning. Measuring sticks are one of the most useful tools in the arsenal of the relative dimensioner!

Here’s a scenario: you’re making a wall-hanging cabinet that features a fixed shelf (like the one we’re making in the Guild right now!) You dry assemble the case so you can take a measurement for the fixed shelf. What’s your strategy? One option would be to measure the distance between the sides and then add the depths of your two dados. Or you can simply rely on the plans, which will tell you what the distance SHOULD BE. But what if the dados aren’t exactly 3/8″ deep? What if the distance between the case sides isn’t quite what the plan called for? This is exactly why I favor relative dimensioning. It allows me to be “imperfect”, and imperfection happens to be one of my specialties!

How to Make Them

Before reviewing their use, let me show you how to make them. Take two relatively thin and narrow strips of scrap (I like mine to be between 1/8″ and 1/4″ thick and 3/4″ wide. Length depends on the measurement you need to take. The pieces should be at least half the desired measurement, plus 6″ of overlap. So if you are working on a case that is 24″ wide, you’ll want each piece to be at least 18″. Cut a partial 45 degree angle on the ends leaving a small square corner at the tip of each piece.

How to Use Them

Measuring sticks are as easy to use as they are to make! Simply lay one piece on top of the other with the angled ends facing outward. Be sure that the angled ends are facing opposite sides (this will become clearer in a moment). Slide the two pieces apart from one another until they span the distance you want to measure. In the example, you want to measure the distances between the dados. Its a good idea to have some blue tape at the ready while you do this, since you’ll need to apply pressure with one hand, while wrapping a piece of tape around the sticks with the other. The blue tape will lock them in place. Although I only used one piece in the example, its not a bad idea to use two or three.

Once the sticks are secure, double check that there is no side to side play. If there is, remove the tape and start over. When you are sure the sticks are spanning the gap perfectly, remove them by rotating in the direction that provides the least resistance. This is why we cut the 45 degree angle on the ends and orient them in opposite directions. If we kept the ends square, there would be no way to remove the sticks without messing up the measurement.

Now its time to transfer the measurement. Simply line up one end of the measuring stick up with one end of the board, and mark the other end with a pencil. Want to squeeze even more accuracy out of this method? Use a marking knife instead of a pencil. Cut to your line and you should be good to go.

Now you can certainly make a much better and more permanent version of these measuring sticks if you like. I have seen some cool versions using wing nuts and all kinds of nifty gadgets to make life easier. But I tend to make them as needed on a per project basis. It takes all of 30 seconds and typically I can make them from the scrap of the projects I’m currently working on. Seems almost poetic!

Do you use similar “neanderthal” measuring devices? If so, I’d love to hear about them!


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