Had you asked me when I started building my own house if I thought I’d ever become such an anorak that I’d concern myself with tape measures and rules for DIY or building work, I would have told you to take a walk and get real.

Yet here I am. And today it feels important somehow. The straw that broke the camels back happened earlier today. I was standing two stories up on scaffolding, measuring something at the eaves of my new roof when yet another tape measure broke. The spring gave up on me and the tape measure spat its contents. I threw it off the scaffolding in disgust, leaving it lying in a tangled heap below.

I’ve lost count of how many tape measures I’ve had to throw away during the two years of working on this project.

In my work trouser leg pocket, I always carry a folding rule. I grabbed that instead and finished what I was doing.

What is a folding rule anyway?

This is a very valid question. Once when I was at a timber merchants, I needed to measure up some timbers. I took out my folding rule and as I was unfolding it the assistant asked in a slightly patronising and surprised tone: ‘Do you want me to get a proper tape measure for you?’ This is not an uncommon reaction to the folding rule in the UK. But as a half-Swede, who learnt some carpentry there when I was growing up, the folding rule is a basic, indispensible toolbox companion, often made with Birch.

To illustrate how much they’re used across Europe and Scandinavia; if you buy any craftman’s (or craftwomen’s) trousers from Scandinavian workwear brands like Blaklader, Snickers, Mascot, or Fristads Kansas, they all have folding rule pockets on the right leg. And that’s where the rule lives. Practical and convenient. And importanly, it doesn’t get snagged on anything as you’re moving, or climbing around on site.

Hultafors 2 meter Folding Rule

A folding rule is basically a very long ruler that folds up into a short length. They’re sold in the UK, but don’t seem to be particularly common. If you’re lucky you might find a basic handyman 1m rule at Screwfix or Toolstation, but not the 2m or 2.4m variety. You have to look elsewhere for those.

I bought a couple of cheap Birch 1 meter and 2 meter versions the last time I was in Sweden. These didn’t hold up very well and were a poor advert for longevity, mostly because they didn’t stand up to Sword duty for my 8 year old son. They measured fine mind you. As a replacement, I bought a new rule made by Hultafors. My son isn’t allowed anywhere near this one for sword practise. Unfortunately, this one’s made of plastic because I couldn’t find a stockist for the high quality Birch ones at the time. This is a 2m version and it has so far outlasted probably 8 normal tape measures on my building project. It’ll even take drops from roof height onto concrete in its stride.

The disadvantage with a folding rule is that it measures up to 2 or 2.4 meters, but on solid surfaces, that’s fine. Lay it on the surface, mark the end of the rule and then move it along. Mostly this works just fine and is more than accurate enough.

Folding rule layed out on a Batten.

The folding rule is useful for other stuff a tape measure isn’t great at. I’ve found it really useful for measuring the depth of foundation trenches when I need a quick gauge.

Measuring foundation trench depth for a small retaining wall.

You can also use it’s thickness as a very quick gauge. A single ‘blade’ on my folding rule is approximately 3mm thick, so depending on how many layers it’s folded you can shove it in a gap or simply hold it up to an edge you want to measure.

Measuring a small gap using a folding rule (12mm approx.)

And did I mention that my current folding rule has lasted me just over 2 years and has been used for everything from digging foundations to masonry work, to carpentry, to installing a traditional standing seam roof. I use it countless times every day and don’t know how I would cope without it any more.

You probably get the sense I like my folding rule.

But what about the trusty common garden tape measure?

A common garden tape measure.

The Common Tape Measure

The tape measure is, of course, an essential bit of kit for any building or DIY work. As I’ve said before, I’ve churned through numerous ones and there are lots of options in terms of length, metric, imperial, or a combination of both. They come in different materials and coatings too, many of which form part of the essentail marketing blurb.

A lot of tape measures come with only one side printed, which is okay. Some, like the Vice Versa from Advent is double sided. Even more handy. Advent also sells an inside/outside version so you can perform proper inside measurements using the back end of the tape measure case as the stop. The only problem with this is that you need to stay awake. The printing on the back side of the tape starts at about 8cm or so (to take into account the case) so you need to make sure you don’t use it for outside measurements – I’ve ended up with more than one stud or joist a little too short!

For the longer tape measures, say 5 to 8 meters long, there’s also an important charactistic called stand-out. This determines how far the tape can be extended before it buckles. Very important when you’re balancing on top of a roof, holding onto the rafters and you need to reach something a couple of meters away to confirm your measurements. On a good day when the wind isn’t blowing, the 8m variety I’ve been using from Advent, has a stand-out of almost 2.3 meters. Very handy indeed.

They also have some useful markings. For example, if you’re laying out joists, rafters, or studs, the imperial measures normally have the typical 16 inch markings (roughly equivalent to 400mm centres) so you can quickly mark things out. This is quite important because even though we’ve sort of moved to metric in the UK, many products are still sold equivalent to imperial (even if you can sometimes order them in pure metric). This means that you may have to lay out your floor joists at, for example 16 inch centres because that fits with a board that comes as an 8′ x 2′ or 8′ x 4′. The same goes for large OSB and Plywood sheets in many circumstances.

The advantage of a tape measure is that you can get them in lengths that are longer than the folding rule. It’s generally quicker to simply hook the end over what is to become a joist and walk along until you find the right length. However, the problem is that when you’re working alone and you don’t use a nail or clamp to hold the end, it invariable comes loose and you end up with a very sharp length of tape measure pinging back at you and goodness knows what kind of speed. Many a cut and sore hand have been the result.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve been insensed, swearing my head off, as it’s taken me 6 attempts to get a measurement in an awkward position somewhere in my house. For some reason it always seems to come loose at the most inconvenient moment.

There are two other disadvantages that I have found with long term regulay use while building a house.

The first is that once they get wet, they begin a rather inconvenient internal rust development programme. During the last winter, I was working outside in months of hideous weather. My tape measures didn’t like that at all.

The second disadvantage is the numbers tend to wear off because the tape coating flakes – as the images above will attest.

So in conclusion, they both have their advantages and disadvantages and are combined essential pieces of kit for your toolbox. As you may have gathered, I have grown more and more accustomed to using a folding rule the majority of time because I general prefer it to a tape measure.

I wonder what you will prefer?