A note on inches and feet

When interpreting historical writings it is important to understand that not all measures are created equal. If a bench from 1790 is 10 feet long, is it really 10 feet long? Is a German 10 foot bench the same as an English 10 foot bench?

The ancients took measures of lengths from the limbs of the human body. For example Vitruvius (born 80-70BC), a Roman architect and engineer described the foot corresponds to one-sixth of the total height of a human. The British foot remained the same since the 14th century, i.e. 304.8mm. Prior to the influx of the Anglo-Saxons, the English used the Roman foot, 11.65 inches (296mm). The Roman foot consisted of 12 unciae (twelfths), and was either called a pes (foot) or an as. An as was originally a copper bar, measuring 1 foot in length and weighing 1 as (an as was also called a libra, from which we get lb for a pound). A unciae was then an inch. The actual length of the Roman foot is up for discussion. It is normally considered to be 296mm, or 11.65 inches, however it has been recorded anywhere from 290-300mm. R.D. Connor in The Weights and Measures of England measured nine Roman folding foot rules found in southern England, and obtained an average measure of 292.9mm (290-294.5mm).

Wherever the conquering Roman legions went, they took with them their systems of weights and measures. Since Roman conquests covered most regions in Europe and beyond, Roman units of measurement became almost universally used in the western world. During the Anglo-Saxon period it is likely that several differing lengths were being used, from the Roman foot, to the Rhineland foot at 314mm (eq. 12.3557 inches), to the North-German foot of 13.2 inches (335mm). The term unciae became ince, or ynce in Old English, which eventually evolved into inch.

A barleycorn inch

It was not the foot that became the standard measure, but rather the yard, with the foot a mere subdivision. The foot was defined in The Statute for the Measuring of Land, around the time of Edward I, AD 1305 – ‘It is ordained that three grains of barley, dry and round, make an inch; 12 inches make a foot; 3 feet make an ‘ulna’ (yard); 5½ ulne make a perch, and 40 perches in length, and 4 perches in breadth make an acre’. The length of a barleycorn likely didn’t change much over the millennium, at 8.47mm. An inch was legally defined as a fraction of a yard. The Scottish inch was different again. Scottish King David I (1084-1153) decreed that the Scottish inch was to be based on the average width of the thumbs of three men – a large, a medium and a small man. The Scottish inch was close, at 305.3mm.

The same could not be said of European inches. German Fuß, or feet, varied somewhat in size from place to place in the German speaking world. For instance at the time of writing “Ökonomische Encyklopädie”, its author Dr. Johann Georg Krünitz (1728-1796) suggested that the Rhineland foot was commonly used in Germany (12.3557 inches). He also suggests the use of other measures such as the French ‘royal’ or Parisian foot (measured by a permanent iron measure in Paris). The Parisian foot is divided into 12 inches, an inch into 12 lines, and a line into 12 parts, giving a total of 1440 parts. A Parisian foot is equivalent to 1.06575 modern feet or 324.84mm. The second measure he mentioned is the English or London foot. The Rhineland foot was smaller than the Parisian, and larger than the English (27 Parisian feet = 28 Rhineland feet, and 69 English feet make about 67 Rhineland ones).

The 120 parts of a Parisian inch

The book also provides a list of comparisons to the Parisian foot, base on its 1440 constituent parts. For example Berlin (1373), Brussels (1290), Denmark (1391), Palermo (1073), ancient Roman (1306), Switzerland (1330), Vienna (1420). Measures were converted from one region to another using this convention. Another source from 1830 [1] shows the variation of feet in the German speaking world. It ranged from 236mm (9.29”) in Wesel (Prussia), to 480mm (18.90”) in Cremona (Austria).

Further reading

  1. Johann Friedrich Krüger, “Vollständiges handbuch der münzen, masse und gewicht aller länder der erde” (1830)

What did we loose with machines?

“Machine-shop methods have never yet produced and will never produce craftsmen who are mechanically and artistically equal to those of the best periods of history. Of course this is an industrial age, and our material progress so far has depended largely on the harnessed power of steam, electricity, etc., but in a measure this has been at the expense of the individual. No system of education or progress can afford to miss the lessons of the great periods in craftsmanship, when the individual workers put their soul, feelings and emotions into the work of their hands in stone, metal and wood. We are far from equaling the buildings and masonry of the past, and our mechanics and common people scarcely realize what artistic excellence means in metal, stone and wood.”

James Liberty Tadd in his book New Methods in Education (1899)

The Vernier caliper – use

A Vernier calliper is simply a calliper which uses a vernier scale. The popular record suggests that the first Vernier calliper was invented by J.R. Brown, founder of Brown & Sharpe Mfg. Co. in 1851, with a resolution of 1/1000 inch. Below is an image of that calliper.

Fig.1: The original vernier caliper, by J.R. Brown.

A typical Vernier caliper has a movable jaw which slides linearly along the main scale. There are a few differing types of Vernier calliper. Here is an example with a Vernier calliper, “Tuna“, made by ABR Almkvist & Co, Eskilstuna, Sweden. This is quite a simple caliper, with both inner and outer measurements on the same scale. This caliper has both cm, and inches. The scale for the cm is 1/10 of 1/10, or 100ths, which is likely more than enough precision for most woodworking tasks (each mm is divided into tenths). The scale for inches is 1/8 of 1/16,or 1/128th inch. The “Tuna” also has a depth gauge, which is convenient.

Fig.2: Measuring the thickness of a piece of plywood.

The example in Fig.2 shows measuring the width of a piece of wood in both inches and cm, using the inside caliper. On the Tuna calliper, the reading for Fig.2 is 1.0cm+0.7cm+0.07cm=1.77cm. The reading in Fig.3 is cm is 3.0+0.8+0.0=3.8cm, or 1+8/16+0=1.5″.

Fig.3: A simple vernier calliper in both cm and inches

The classic caliper from Brown & Sharpe has a more complex vernier mechanism, with graduations for 1/1000th inch, and is likely more suited towards the machinist. It also has a much more precise measuring mechanism.

Fig.4: The classic Brown & Sharpe caliper

This vernier is the No.570, which takes both inside and outside measurements, graduated to read on one side for outside and the other for inside. The sliding jaw has two components: by locking the rightmost portion it is possible to finely adjust the main Vernier scale using the thumbscrew.

The main bar scale is divided into inches, and tenths of inches, while each tenth of an inch is divided into four parts. The smallest divisions are therefore 1/40th of an inch, or 0.025″.

Divisions of the main and Vernier scale

On the sliding jaw is the vernier line of division. This vernier is divided into 25 parts numbered 0, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and the whole length of these 25 parts is equal to 24 divisions (40ths of an inch) on the bar. Since the 25 parts of the vernier only cover 24 parts of the bar, one of these 25 parts would be 1/25 of 1/40 or 1/1000 inch shorter than each division on the bar. If the 0 of the vernier is placed next to 0 on the bar, the first line on the vernier would be 1/1000″ behind the first line on the bar, the 5th line on the vernier would be 5/1000″ behind the 5th line on the bar etc. Each line on the vernier when opposite a line on the bare therefore adds as many thousandths as the mark on that particular line of the vernier.

To read the vernier, look along the line until you find a line that is exactly opposite a line on the bar, then read the line on the vernier (not the bar). To read a vernier calliper with 1/1000 inch precision:

  1. Read the whole inches on the bar.
  2. Read the 10ths of inches.
  3. Read the thousands of inches to the 0 of the vernier.
  4. Add the reading of the vernier where it exactly matches a line of the bar.

For anyone interested in an extensive history of calipers, I direct you to The Origin and Evolution of Calipers.

Drawing – a lost art?

James Liberty Tadd in his book New Methods in Education (1899), insisted on the egalitarian worth of art education. He believed drawing to be the primary instrument in education.

“Drawing is an universal tongue. It compels observation, reflection, perception and conception. It opens the mental eye, the eye of the understanding, that looks all around, up and down. It enables one to understand the message that is printed in every natural, normal thing, that is stamped with everlasting lines on each side of every leaf and blade of grass, that is twisted into the architecture of every shell, and that shines in the hues of every crystal — a message of beauty, of proportion, of grace and of fitness. Drawing makes mind.”

Workbenches in art (iv) – late Victorian

The older renditions of workbenches in art worked largely because staked workbenches were likely found in the first century AD. Art which appeared in the late 19th and into the 20th century is more problematic because many of them depict workbenches of the period. A case in point is the The Holy Family in the House of Nazareth (1889), a piece of artwork by Modesto Faustini (1839-1891). Faustini trained as a carpenter in the orphanage at Brescia, before becoming an artist, and it shows. The entire image is festooned with European tools of the period. It is a beautiful piece of art, making the workshop seem quite glamorous. The bench’s front vice sports an unusual handle, which seems more like one of the simple screw vices which first appeared in the late middle ages. Although the wooden screw seems too large for the vice itself. The remainder of the workbench is very simple, almost the older splayed-leg bench with stretchers, and tool storage beneath.

Faustini, The Holy Family in the House of Nazareth (1889)

On a side note, the plane that Joseph is using seems to be about half the length of the bench (which itself is ≈200-220cm long, and has a height of ≈80cm). Another painting is that of French artist Giacomo Grosso, Sacra Famiglia (1902). It portrays the carpenter shop in Nazareth, not only with Mary, Joseph and Jesus, but also with some neighbours in the doorway present. While much of the scene seems quite authentic, the workbench is not.

Giacomo Grosso, Sacra Famig (1902)

Collectors in a throwaway society

Buy one thing, and it is an artifact, buy a second and it’s a pair, buy a third, and it’s the beginning of a collection. Why do we collect things? Sometimes it’s because something takes our interest. Books, block planes, vintage Swiss Army knives, wooden biscuit springerle, copper pans, baking tins, vintage camera lenses, etc. Are we drawn to preserving some aspect of history that is meaningful to us? Collecting is sometimes the adventure of the find, the hunt – finding that unique items amongst many at a tool show, or an antique market. Of course collecting isn’t always easy. There is a point where finding rare or expensive items can become prohibitive. Or collections can be overwhelming. Sometimes there is little or no information about an item anywhere, it just exists. Not everything has an elaborate backstory. Some have a story but no physical entity, either because it is so rare, or because it never progressed beyond the design stage.

Many people likely find the concept of collecting strange, but were it not for collectors, we would not have any notion of our past histories. The world has become a throwaway society, where very little is valued beyond its present use. Many of the tangible things we create today aren’t worth collecting. Is there a purpose in collecting things like computers? They are inanimate, and don’t really tell a story (except the story of their development). My vintage Exakta camera from 1954 tells a story, and still works. Old vintage things still work, and there is an inherent beauty within them. Maybe we collect old things because they were made by craftspeople, in a slower time. Not always more precise, not always with a more advanced materials.

Collecting generally involves three sensations: instinct, opinion, and knowledge. Everyone is born with some level of instinct, and we can all develop opinions, and knowledge, well that develops over time as we explore and analyze the things we collect.

Recycled historic artwork

Sometimes the best way of determining how tools evolved is by investigating historic pieces of art, be it paintings, carvings, etchings, etc. One of the issues that sometimes arises is that historic images are sometimes recycled.

One good example is a 1568 book of woodcuts depicting various trades, Das Ständebuch (Book of Trades). The book was a collaboration between Swiss-German artist Jost Amman (1531-1591), and poet Hans Sachs (1494-1576). Amman, the primary author provided the woodcuts, and Sachs the verse for each trade. The book depicts more than just trades, but a wider cross-section of Renaissance society, as viewed from the German city of Nuremberg. Jost Amman was born in Zurich in 1539, the son of a scholar. By 1561 he had relocated to Nuremburg where he became one of northern Europe’s most prolific printmakers and book illustrators of the late sixteenth century. Das Ständebuch actually covered a wide spectrum of society, as viewed from Nuremburg.

In the book is a plate titled Der Schreiner which depicts two joiners working in their workshop, which is pilled with tools of the period, albeit some of the tools are a little out of proportion (e.g. the chisels high up on the wall).

Der Schreiner from Stände und Handwerker, 1884 facsimile of 1568 edition, Wellcome Library, London.

A second 1568 version of the image also appears in a Latin book titled “Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarum aut sedentariarum artium genera continens…”, written by Hartmann Schopper (1542-1595), illustrated by Amman, and published by Sigmund Feyerabend. But the images are subtlety different, an indication that the woodcuts might have been recycled.

Version 1 (German), versus version 2 (Latin) of Der Schreiner

There is also a very similar picture which appears on both Peter Follansbee’s and the Lost Art Press websites. It first appeared on Peter Follansbee’s site in 2009, however he didn’t know the source and it appears it is only half the image. The whole image appears on Lost Art Press in 2014. People often attribute this woodcut to Amman, however there is no conclusive evidence. The work is entitled “Das Ehrbare Handwerk der Tischler”, or “The honourable craft of the carpenter”, and is from the latter half of the 16th century. It is subtitled “Contemplation of two pieces of daily carpentry work: the cradle and the coffin”, so requires both sides of the woodcut to interpret.

There are interesting differences between the two images. In some places there is a lot more detail in the der Tischler image, for example the joiners faces, the side panels of the box, and the addition of the glue pot in the foreground. In other aspects The Schreiner has more content, for example the clouds through the windows, and the shadows (crosshatching) of the objects. Both show an interesting and similar array of tools, but there are some disparities. In The Schreiner, some of the tools, like the pair of dividers on the workbench, seem overly-large, and the chisels on the wall seem way out of the reach of the joiners.

It is hard to know which work appeared first, but it is more likely that der Tischler was derived from Der Schreiner, due to the presence of Amman’s work (although Tischler does seem to be a better woodcut). The difference of course also has to do with the regional use of words: Schreiner versus Tischler. The term Tischler was more commonly used in northern and eastern Germany and Austria, whereas Schreiner is used in southern and southwestern Germany and Switzerland. Both Schopper and Amman used the term Schreiner, so to suddenly change to Tischler would be uncharacteristic. (German-English dictionaries circa 1800 show both words to mean joiner in English, differing from Zimmermann which means carpenter).

Workbenches in art (iii) – art in churches

The older renditions of workbenches in art worked largely because staked workbenches were likely found in the first century AD.

From a historical context, artwork often offers one of the few insights into objects of use. The problem of course is that art which itself depicts a historical event is never really that accurate from the perspective of the the objects contained within. This is largely because the artists themselves likely had little in the way of historical knowledge. This is especially true of religious art found in churches. They incorporated woodworking tools and workbenches of the time period the painting was created, and often borrowed ideas from paintings in existing churches.

Workbenches generally follow the same basic structure, a simple worktop with four splayed legs, and usually focused on the holy family in Joseph’s workshop. One early painting, circa 1517-1521, “St Joseph working in his workshop”, is an Italian painting which appears in the Sanctuary of St. Maria di Piazza, Busto Arsizio, Italy.

There are workbenches found in the artwork on the ceiling of two churches in the Haute-Savoie region of France. The first is a mural called “La Sainte-Familie”, in Eglise-Saint-Jean Baptiste (Church of St.John the Baptist) in Megéve. The interior paintings are by Italian painter Mucengo, ca. 1827.

The second, almost identical bench can be found in a mural is on the ceiling vaults of Saint Jacques Collegiate Church in Sallanches (built in 1847). The fact that these towns are only 11km apart may indicate that the painter here took inspiration from the church in Megéve.

The final workbench comes from St Martin’s Church (Sint Maartenskerk) in Kortrijk, Belgium. The scene is painted on plaster (J van der Plaetsen, 1885-87; completed by Edward Messeyen, 1889). It is a strange bench because it seems like the legs are constructed of logs, mortised at the top into which large half discs are fitted. Atop this a thick bench-top is placed. A very odd looking bench.

P.S. These are sketches because I couldn’t find any public domain images.

The lack of tactile experiences

The sense of touch is integral to the human experience. Tactile experiences give us a sense of depth and help make us aware of the extension to our environment. As babies, tactile experiences are the very first we encounter as we begin to navigate the world. There was a time when kids grew up with a more tactile experiences. Camping was a big thing, and was often associated with packing a knife or two, and maybe an axe. You learned to build fires, carve things, and dam creeks. It was just what you did. At home you may have built tree houses, or other things. Life was likely much simpler than it is now (mainly because there were no electronics). What one did learn was a respect for all things sharp. You got to know how to use a knife, either a pocket knife or a hunting knife to sharpen a stick, or cut through food. If you accidentally cut yourself, you learned the lesson and moved on. You learned that these things were extensions to your hands. They were tactile experiences. Even the task of making fire – you learned the danger of fire, and how it should be handled properly. There was never any issue with hurting yourself seriously because you respected the sharp and hot things. Sure we hurt ourselves, but that was part of growing up. A knife that accidentally got too close, usually because we weren’t using it properly.

Works exhibited at the Philadelphia Bourse, 1897. The two desks were carved by grammar grade students. From New Methods in Education, p.270 (1901)

One of the problems with society today is that everything is considered dangerous – even pocket knives, or metal playground swings. We have succeeded in raising many children who have no clue how to manipulate a knife, or whittle a stick. Unimportant you say? Technology is more important! But here’s the thing, in a survival situation unprepared people just panic. They have no clue how to build a shelter, how to find food, how to chop wood. When the power goes out, we are essentially sent back to the dark ages, and electronics will not help you. It is tactile experiences that have paved the way for our thousands of years of success, but we can and should not merely brush them aside. Tactile crafts improve hand-eye coordination more than any video game ever will because they are real, and three-dimensional. Building a model airplane or ship, or even drawing will do way more for your tactile skills than any simulated experience. It will also teach patience, and how to undertake fine, intricate work.

Ultimately making things with your hands probably makes you smarter.

Aristotle said “The hand is the instrument of instruments, and the mind is the form of forms.” Surely we must give some real and fundamental training to the hand. Surely we must give some real and fundamental training to the hand. This hand skill is to be acquired by all, not because they are to work, but because they cannot afford to be without a training that makes brain co-ordinations form sense connections, and therefore aids or makes intelligence, reason, imagination and judgment in the shortest way. This hand skill is requisite, not necessarily to enable its possessors to become artists or artisans – though possessing art skill and capacity through esthetics is essential to complete culture, and this is the side usually to be considered – beauty acted.

J. Liberty Tadd, New Methods in Education, p.39 (1901)

❄︎ James Liberty Tadd ran the Public Industrial Art School of Philadelphia (which operated from 1880-1916). His book, New Methods in Education, is divided into a number of sections, each dedicated to some element of his teaching philosophy. The first portion deals with students learning manual-training drawing, original design, and creative drawing. He then transitions to modelling in clay and wax, and finally wood carving. In this way the hand becomes skilful, the eye trained to artistic excellence, and the mind taught to work with hand and eye.

Workbenches in art (ii) – Carracci

The painting of Millais bears some resemblance to other works, most notably The Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Shop by Italian painter Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). Also known as Le Raboteur (The Planer), the work likely dates from the late 16th century. Although Millais’s work is set indoors, and Carracci’s outdoors, the general composition is similar. Carracci’s work sets the tone for the period, although “carpenter’s shop” seems a little generous given that the workshop seems outside.

The image represents the Holy Family undertaking their daily work. St.Joseph is tracing a line on a board, assisted by a young Jesus. Mary is seen on the right sewing, nearby is a basket containing various objects for work. In front of the bench is a chest, against which stands a joiner’s plane which provides us with the title of the picture Le Raboteur .

Annibale Carracci, Le Raboteur (late 16th C.)

The workbench in Le Raboteur is similar to many of the staked benches found during the period, direct descendants of the Roman era staked benches. A good example is the staked workbench drawn by Martin Löffelholz in 1505. It turns out there were many renditions of Carracci’s work. An early print titled Conclave Triadis humanae appeared in 1670 by engraver Jean Pesne. A sketch from 1811 made by British artist Henry Bone and titled “Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Shop “.

Pesne, Conclave Triadis humanae (1670)
Bone, Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Shop (1811) National Portrait Gallery (NPG D17484)

Jacques Couché produced an engraved copy of Le Raboteur in Volume 1 of Galerie du Palais Royal, published in 1786. In 1831 a copy appeared in Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Volume XI (Museum of Painting and Sculpture) – No.763 Sainte Famille, dite Le Raboteur (The Holy Family, called, Le Raboteur). It’s hard to know why this particular piece of art was so popular.

Couché, Sainte Famille (etching, 1786)(The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Couché, Sainte Famille, dite Le Raboteur (1831)

Rembrandt had his own version of Joseph’s carpenter’s shop, circa 1645, “The Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Workshop”. Another painting with a similar title, “The Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Shop” is attributed to French painter Jean Tassel (1608-1667) – here the bench is thigh-height, with a substantial solid beam top (which is not squared), and splayed legs, each pair of which has a stretcher. This bench may actually be closest to resembling the staked Roman benches of the period.

Rembrandt, The Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Workshop (1645)
Tassel, The Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Shop (1600s)

Further reading:

  1. Albert Boime, “Sources for Sir John Everett Millais’s ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’