Measuring Sticks

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!

Category: Techniques


  1. I often will use a broom handle or extension cord to capture a measurement when I don’t have a tape handy.

    I’ve also used the shank of a screw driver in a similar fashion.

  2. I love these. I use several versions for drawers, cabinet cases….you name it. And they really are as easy as you say to make. I do however, use one pair with the fancy Veritas Bar Gauge Heads.

    I mean…a guy’s gotta splurge a little, right?

    • Rich January 25, 2011

      My father-in law is a retired carpenter and showed me this in the past. It a great little trick that comes in real handy.
      Thanks Marc for sharing it with others.

  3. Peter January 25, 2011

    I also use the Veritas Bar Gauge heads. Normally I use them when I want to square up a drawer or case.

  4. I use a folding ruler that has a sliding piece of brass on one end. It works quite well.

  5. I use a Lufkin folding rule with the brass slider, too. Although, this method is what I use when squaring.

  6. Instead of blue tape, I favor binder clips. Quicker than taping and can easily be removed and adjusted.

  7. Devin M January 25, 2011

    Not to sound like George Walker from Popular Woodworking, but a pair of Dividers work great for trasfering short Measurements.

  8. Dan Drabek (http://deleted) January 25, 2011

    Love the idea. I’m currently building a trapezoidal-form Arts & Crafts bookcase with 5 shelves each of a different length. I’ll put it to good use. Thanks!


  9. I use my Woodpeckers story stick. Similar method with the advantage of milled aluminum. The Woodpecker story stick has the advantage of marking on it. You can use the markings to find the center of a board which I recently found useful.

  10. I’ve done something similar before, but didn’t get the angled ends idea. That really eliminates having to slowly inch them out like I did before. I’ve also got a folding ruler but haven’t used it for relative dimensioning. This is definitely a tip to keep in mind.

  11. Ben January 25, 2011

    Hmm, will have to try this!

  12. Mark Williams January 25, 2011

    That is bloody awesome.

  13. For the big stuff, I like using the sticks. Sometimes I tape them, some times I spring clamp and other times I mark and label to quickly go back to a prior measurement. For meduim things, the folding rule is my go-to tool. I use the heck out of my vernier calipers for almost everything else. Transfering depth and inside/outside measurements is quick and easy. I rarely even read the calipers. I just take the tool from the project to the tablesaw, or router, or drill press, or whatever I need. I have also been using the Kreg Mulitmark a bit. It hasn’t replaced my other devises in my belt, but it is very handy on some jobs where a need a larger “foot-print” than what my calipers will give me. The calipers can rock back and forth on some projects, but the mulitmark is dead solid.

  14. Beechwood Chip January 26, 2011

    Hmmm, you might want to use a square to make sure that you aren’t measuring on a diagonal.

    My favorite “neanderthal” measurement method is creeping up on the cut. It eliminates an intermediary between the case and the shelf, and it also prevents the “measuring on a diagonal” problem. Takes a whole lot longer, though.

    • Tom Yost January 28, 2011

      Hmmm, you might want to use a square to make sure that you aren?t measuring on a diagonal.

      Rather than using all your hands up adding a square, swing the sticks back and forth a bit. They should only touch in one spot.

  15. Charlie January 26, 2011

    This is my favorite kind of tape measure, the no numbers kind.
    What better way to get the exact measurement.

  16. Lim January 26, 2011

    I use this technique all the time, but the only caution I would give is to make sure that your measuring sticks are fairly straight. Scraps that have been sitting around for a while tend to bow or twist. A bow or twist can give you an inaccurate measurement. I tend to use stock that is pretty stable or recently cut. Great tip! Makes all the difference in the world!

  17. Lou January 26, 2011

    Would routering out a channel on the sticks where the tape would go and attaching them together with a wingnut work? The sticks could then slide apart and you could make measurments on one of the sticks and always have an accurate guage for relative lengths.

  18. Theater Guy January 27, 2011

    I’m primarily a scenic carpenter, so I mostly build theatrical sets. I like to use spacers cut from scrap to keep a constant width between frame wall sections. I lay them on the floor and check for square with the front wall, then swing the back wall into position. Much easier than measuring and marking the floor. And in a theater scene shop, there’s never a shortage of 2×4 scrap that’s ALMOST 4 feet long!

  19. Yep, like many others, I use these to check the internal diagonals of a cabinet, drawer, frame, chest – you name it! ;-)

    When checking the diagonals, you can draw a line straight across both parts and then, by offering the sticks up to the other diagonal, you can visually see whether it’s square or not – if it’s out by 1/8in then, the two lines should be that distance apart.

  20. Emmrys February 2, 2011

    That is a neat idea. I haven’t used that one but I have use a story stick. I made mine with piece of purple painter’s tape attached to a metal yard stick. I can write on it, make it two sided, and peel the tape off when I’m finished and it’s ready for the next project. It also stays straight and doesn’t stretch.

  21. I use the dimensions of my hands and forearms for small simple measurements. I’ve memorized the lengths of my fingers, wrist to elbow, etcetera, and the distance between various ‘landmarks’ such as knuckle wrinkles.
    I just have to be careful about using the lengths of my fingernails for the same project over a few days!


      That’s actually a great idea! My step-dad taught me years go to memorize finger lengths and at least the span from the tip of my thumb to the tip of my pinky. Makes it really easy to make estimations on things when you’re in a store and there’s nothing to measure with.

    • Rick April 6, 2012

      Just out of high school, I worked the summer in HVAC installs. We learned to use hand span to quickly measure how much insulation was needed to wrap air duct. I’ve used that ever since for so many different situations!

  22. Craig July 5, 2012

    I recently needed to replace the floor of the cabinet underneath my leaky kitchen sink and had to make holes in precisely the right place for the drain pipe, hot and cold water pipes, plus another for drinking water. After trying several times unsuccessfully to get repeatable measurements with a tape measure, I used a piece of scrap wood , marking the front, back, left, and right on each side of each pipe using a bare hacksaw blade which I then enhanced and labeled with a pencil. Worked like a charm!

  23. Fred Freitag IV, IV April 23, 2013

    I think the best way to make a measuring stick or bar gauge is to use to “heavy duty” paper clips (the black spring clips). The reason is – that you can move the two sticks to make your measurement although the clips hold the wood gauges together. That when you have your measurement the paperclips are strong enough to keep the measuring sticks from moving.

    They work perfectly for strips of ripped 3/4″ wood strips.

    If you really want to get heavy duty – then use a paper clip along with a spring clamp to be sure your wooden measuring sticks don’t move. The paper clip is strong and tight enough to keep the wood strips together and not moving while you use the second clamp to make them solid to take the measurement from.

    I didn’t come up with the idea but took it from another woodworker.

    Using two spring clamps is difficult because you can’t slide the wood strips to take an accurate measurement – but the heavy duty paperclip is perfect.

  24. abc August 11, 2013

    I use an antennae (from a discarded radio) for inside measurements. There is enough tension in the antennae to assit when you measure the length. Just remember to place the zero end of the tape measure on the base of the antennae so as to not disturb or move the the other end when measuring.
    I have several different antennae lengths depending on the measurement.

    • John3347 January 6, 2014

      I use ABC’s antenna method with a couple of appropriately sized aluminum (or some other material) extension rods of various length to measure diagonal distance in door and window construction. In this use, you don’t care what the measurement is, you just want both diagonals to be the same. This antenna method works beautifully

  25. Kerry G June 11, 2014

    Just reading all this and thinking, seems like you could build this and then install a pin near one end and a pencil holder near the other end and have it double as a trammel for drawing circles and arcs.

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