Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ode to the story stick

There are days when I'm just about ready to throw my tape measure as far into the weeds as I can. Monday was one of those days.

I'm wrapping up a huge set of bookcases that wrap around a french door. When I took my original measurements, I used a tape measure. It's easier, right? Sunday night, I went in to double-check everything to make sure that the finished piece wasn't going to have any glitches before bringing it in to install. But this time I brought in a bar gauge story stick to take actual measurements, in addition to the tape measure I used last time.

A story stick is just a stick with tick marks drawn on it, to indicate the dimension involved. No numbers are required. The dimension is there. 

Tape measures are convenient for their size, which is the selling point. The measured dimension is defined as compared to inches and feet, or to metric or other units. But the inches are only serving as a middle-man. The inches make the dimension easier to transport, and reproduce in the shop. It's like data compression. But the point is not the number of inches: the actual length of the dimension being measured is what's important in the shop. As long as the measurement was accurately transcribed, and the tape measure is accurate, there shouldn't be any problems. But it's not the same thing as an actual measurement, and it's easy to make mistakes. Not to mention that the pages of notes are harder to read than a good story pole.

I define an actual measurement as taking a story stick and marking a tick mark on it, to indicate the actual distance, without numbers. Since I use a bar gauge for my story pole, if the measurement is longer than the stick, I slide the gauge out and mark across the pair to indicate just how long the measurement is, from one end of the pole to the other. There is no data of any kind that could be misconstrued or written down wrong; no numbers, no fractions. No units. There are also no 'smidges,' 'hairs,' 'scootches,' or any other bizarrely ambiguous terms that are used in an attempt to take a more accurate measurement. The distance is laid out plainly.

Using a story pole has an immediate practical advantage over a tape measure: the stick is much more rigid and easier to hold up accurately than a floppy tape measure. It makes the process a lot faster and easier.

Another advantage of the story stick method is that it's very easy to make sure that dimensions are consistent. I took my story pole last night and, just as a goof, checked the rest of the door frame to make sure that the top was either level, or at least the same height off of the floor. It wasn't. There's a 7/16" difference in height between the left side and the right side. As errors go, this one could have been a real pain, since the bookcase extends over the top of the door frame. Luckily enough, I have room to shim things out and compensate. Had I gone for a really snug fit, I'd have been in real trouble. There were other errors as well. I can correct for them, but it would have been a hell of a lot easier if I'd taken my measurements this way the first time.

Another big advantage: I can take notes directly on the stick:
'This is the length from the wall to the door frame.'
'Make sure to measure ________ when you get there.'
'This section of wall is not flat.'
'Don't forget to compensate for baseboard.'
If I have multiple jobs going, I can just use another stick.

It's a pretty ideal system, provided your project isn't so big that the gauge is too long to be practical. But an 8' sliding bar gauge will fit into the bed of my truck with the cover on, and it will measure a space that's up to 16' long. My day to day tape measure only handles 12'.

To be fair, knowing the desired measurements in terms of units of measurement is very helpful when I'm using shop jigs that are calibrated that way. But having the actual measurement on hand to measure from still makes me feel a whole lot better about the process.

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