Tuesday, June 23, 2009

measure then cut

One of the things you learn from experience is to drop unnecessary steps. Those steps are the ones that build inaccuracy into your work. The elimination of unnecessary steps is why more experienced craftsmen are able to work faster. Usually these refinements take place over time without becoming intellectualized. In fact, I began using this technique years ago, and only due to my interest in the relationship between the hands and brain, have I taken note of it at all.

In this case, I am cutting legs to length using a sled. When I was a beginner, I would make a pencil mark on the wood, then align the pencil mark with the saw blade, and then cut. You can see here where the blade consistently cuts into the sled. I first squared one end of the stock, then hooked one end of the tape measure onto the freshly squared end. Next, I slide the stock into place so that the desired measurement on the the tape measure aligns with the cut in the sled. Can you see the importance of this? I have dropped the pencil from my list of necessary tools for this operation. I have saved the time that would have been spent marking on wood. Then, in addition, pencil lines have width that varies during the course of the pencil's use introducing inaccuracy, depending on its state of being sharp or dull. Even if I were to make the mark very precise in alignment with the markings on the tape measure, I would have introduced one more opportunity to become less accurate in my work, introducing effects that will have be be resolved later in the process. The net effect is to waste time at both ends of the operation.

If using this technique, remember to lift the tape measure out of the way while making your cut. You won't want to trim it to a useless length. For making many short pieces, all the same length, use the tape measure to set the space between a stop block and the cut line in the sled.

The intelligence here, however, is not in my brain, but is built into the habits of hand, based on experimentation, practice and experience. Is this starting to make sense?


  1. yes, it does make sense, and one of the reasons taking classes is so awesome, as you learn little tricks like this from the seasoned pro's!

  2. Doug, here is a lesson that I learned from you at Arrowmont years ago: Forgo the ruler when you can.

    Making furniture piece by piece gives me the luxury as the maker to create a project-specific measuring device that dispenses with the possibility that I might make a calculation error, something which I am prone to do. So (as you showed me) I make a story stick with the height for the leg, the length of the rail, etc, all marked and documented, which gives me my cut lines for every piece without having to remember a list of numbers.

    I love this method not only for its accuracy, but also because it establishes for me the primacy of the piece and of my relationship to it in the process of creation.

    I always enjoy reading your words.

  3. Measuring is one of the more interesting subjects, and story sticks were what craftsmen used long before we had folding rules and tape measures. It is amazing when you look at things how uncritical exact numeric measurements are. In making a box, as long as the opposite sides are the same length you are in business.