From the Books: “Measure Twice, Cut Once”

I saw a news item the other day that carpenter Norm Abram is retiring from his decades-long job on the teevee show This Old House, which he has been on for over 40 years. I haven’t watched a lot of This Old House, but I have caught it now and then, and it’s always an enjoyable show from which I learn things when I do catch it.

Abram is also an author, and one of his books is a favorite of mine: Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter. This small, short book is just what the subtitle says: a series of practical lessons from a person who has been practicing their particular trade for many years. Abram doesn’t go in for a lot of preachy “what it all means” motivational stuff in this book (with a couple of exceptions); he just writes clearly and succinctly about tools and their use and how to approach jobs. This is not an “intro to carpentry” book, but rather the kind of thing you might want to read if you know your way around a toolbox but don’t feel like you know your way around a toolbox, know what I mean?

Toolboxes

Working with my father, I didn’t have a toolbox of my own at first. He had plenty of tools, and I borrowed what I needed. Leather toolbelts hadn’t yet come into fashion; when they did, I was an early convert. My dad never wore a toolbelt. He wore bibbed overalls with loops and pockets for various hand tools sewn on them. He wore them over his work clothes all year, even, to my astonishment, in the worst heat of summer. I wore a cloth nail apron and carried the tools I needed at the moment until I graduated to my own toolbox and leather toolbelt.

There are several kinds of toolboxes, each with advantages and disadvantages. Some carpenters carry triangular wood boxes with pole handles but no covers. These days, I often see carpenters lugging around five-gallon drywall compound buckets with drop-in dividers with slots for tools. They’re not very elegant, but every tool is visible and easily reached. There is almost no stacking, which leads to pawing through layers to uncover the desired tool.

My dad carried a metal carpenter’s box with square corners. Its hinged cover swung open to reveal a shallow removable tray sitting over a larger storage compartment. His toolbox was long enough that a 28-inch level could be stored on the underside of the vocer. A level is delicate and doesn’t benefit from being stacked with other tools inside the box. The level fit over two blocks of wood that were secured to the cover with screws; it was then held firmly in place with homemade metal clips. The tray had limited space for smaller items, such as nail sets, a chalk line, pencils and other marking tools, a plumb bob, and drill bits, which we put in an old metal bandage container.

Measure Twice, Cut Once, but Don’t Measure At All If You Can Avoid It

Never measure unless you have no choice. Instead, base your marking and cutting on the actual situation. For example, I would never measure an exterior wall for a piece of siding, then go off and measure a length, cut it, and bring it back to install. It doesn’t matter how long the siding needs to be: I hold up a length where I intend to install it and mark it in place for cutting. It’s the actual length that’s important, not the numerical symbols on my tape measure.

Tape measures vary. The longer they’re used, the more they stretch. The hook at the end gets gummer up or bent enough to cause slight variations in readings. I don’t assume that my own tape is perfect. If I’m working along, I know that all the measurements are taken from my own tape and therefore profide uniform variations from a true standard. But if I’m working with other carpenters and each of us uses his own tape, with a unique variation from true, the consequences take on real importance. I’ve often seen carpenters argue at a lumber pile about whether a piece was cut to the right length, only to find out that their tapes were not equal.

The Right Way

I saw a funny movie recently about a carpenter and his three sons. The father, who had just died, spoke some of his best lines form his coffin. For instance: “There’s only two ways to do things. There’s the right way and there’s my way. And they’re the same way!” The line reminded me of my somewhat autocratic grandfather. He was a supervisor in a woolen mill, but he knew carpentry and performed it well. In his generation, the family was large and close, but my grandfather was boss and no one dared disagree with him. My dad, on the other hand, never said or implied that his way was the right way. But since he hadn’t come from a tradition of open discussion, he and I didn’t talk about carpentry as much, looking back, as I wish we had.

In my generation, technology has changed many hand tools and introduced the power tools that have largely superseded some of them. Yet many aspects of carpentry are very much as they were in my father’s day or in my grandfather’s. Even if the tool has evolved, the method is the same. There are many situations in which nothing works as well as a hammer and a chisel. I can’t imagine technology reaching the point where there would be no need for the deceptively simple technique of scribing.

What has declined from my dad’s generation to mine is the prevailing standard of skill in carpentry. My father could do many things by hand that I’ve never practiced enough to do, such as ripping a long board by hand in an admirably straight line. Recently I helped renovate an old house in Salem, Massachusetts. A number of handsome frame houses in Salem’s historic district have overlapping clapboards on their sides and backs; the facades, however, are made of very long boards butted square against each other to make a flat surface. An overlapping clapboard can be less than perfectly straight, but there can’t be much divergence when the boards are butted. In Salem, many facades reveal an excellent fit everywhere in long boards sawn and planed two centuries ago–by hand.

Carpentry was once a classic trade in the sense that techniques were treated as secrets to be revealed only to the chosen few, handed down from one generation to the next. Much of my time during the past two decades has been spent demystifying the skills of carpentry and woodworking so that any interested person can acquire the tools, learn the techniques, and practice them to a desired level of skill. Hence this book. It will discuss the contents of the ideal toolbox of today, not the tools that sufficed for my father’s superior carpentry. But as I describe hand tools and offer tips on techniques I’ve adopted, I never forget that much of what I know and practice was handed down to me from my dad and others of his and earlier generations. I hope these lessons will give you the confidence to use more tools, to augment your toolbox and workshop, and to share your experience and wisdom with others.

I find that I tend to respond most positively to people who view knowledge as something to be shared widely and often. Carl Sagan, Norm Abram, Anthony Bourdain…these kinds of people are the guiding lights of my world.

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1 Response to From the Books: “Measure Twice, Cut Once”

  1. Roger says:

    Though I am LOUSY at carpentry, et al, I used to watch This OLd House regularly for about its 1st decade and a half, in large part because of Norm.

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