Nostalgia – Is It Really Just Wistful Yearning for Times Past?

I think not…

P1010612A year just past. It holds real value in undergirding tomorrow and a new year yet to unfold relies on it. You know where this is going, but I hope you will understand why I write it down here. There is a generation yet to be born and they may just need it. That’s why I write to a fast-paced fast-changing world.

When I was young, from early birth to my early 20’s, I was trained to measure using imperial feet and inches and yards. Metric didn’t figure at all into my education and imperial seemed simple and straight forward. At work I worked to 1/64”, which was tight tolerance enough for all initial joinery and comes close for instrument thicknessing too. I made marks and then cross-referenced my marks for confirmation with my rule. Back then no woodworkers used tapes, or certainly none that I knew. I learned to visualise fractions of feet and fractions of inches and then fractions of one eighth inch increments too about that 1/64”. DSC_0158My Rabone Chesterman, three-foot, four-fold boxwood rule meant a lot to me and I used it minute by minute throughout my days of work full-time for two decades plus. Now I’ve used the same boxwood rule since my 16th birthday but for the past couple of decades I’ve used a short 10’ plastic-cased lightweight tape that slips into my pocket. I like it because it gives me metric and imperial side by side in one tape and I like working in both. I’ve noticed that Europeans, that includes most Brits now, grimace a little if I say I like the accuracy imperial gives me. Then, when I’m with Americans, perhaps in the USA, if I say I like using metric and find it equal in accuracy to imperial, they too grimace a little. P1010576My point is that because I worked with an imperial system for 22 years, then changed to a metric one for 22 years, I was equally exposed and equally conversant so as to work interchangeably with no loss. I found equal accuracy levels in both. I switch between both today and have no preference, that is, until I pick up my Rabone Chesterman three-foot foor-fold rule and other beautiful items like the square here. The thing is I like nostalgia for its positive worth – the value it has today and has had throughout my worklife as a full-time craftsman. I like its intrinsic value and the inherency of values that prove as valid today as ever in times past.  That’s why working with hand tools means much more to me than machines and machine work ever, ever could. You see, both have value, they work well side by side or independently of one another, but hand tools do more, much more for my type of work.

… I now know that the old has a very valid place in our life todayP1010442

I look at hand tools old and new differently than say many if not most machinists might because I use them every day and therefore because I understand their worth in a different value system. What I like is the independence they give me from machines and then the skill they demand that elevates my game, my sense of well-being in my health and my sense of self-worth in knowing most of what I do and make cannot be paralleled by machine methods. When I look at the numbers slightly misaligned vertically or horizontally, or spacings marginally different, I see the work of a man ten decades past that had perfect rhythm and synchrony.



It is and I say to myself and others, “So what?” It’s not negative at all. I think it reflects textured life, individuality, independence and freedom, clarity and vision. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a hand made wooden wheel on the helm of a sailing yacht or a 300-year old Stradivarius violin — something no machine can as yet match the making of. I was raised in a generation that said things from the past were old-fashioned and non-progressive. I look at a hand made square and a machine square and value both, but the one I truly admire is the one made by a man’s hand.

27 comments on “Nostalgia – Is It Really Just Wistful Yearning for Times Past?

  1. Haven’t done any comparison of the accuracy between Imperial and Metric. Before I retired, occasionally I would lay out panels and cabinets for electronics. I found out long time ago that laying out using Metric measurements was much easier.

    How many thirty-seconds or sixty-fourths in say 9 inches. Now divide that by 7. You are doing this in your head aren’t you.

    If the above was in Metric, doing it in your head would be easy.

    While I am aware that one inch and 25 mm are about the same, a meter is about 40 inches. Visualizing most metric measurements still is not natural to me.

    In the USA using meters for baseball, basketball, golf and many sports would probably work OK. With American football, I’m not talking about soccer, going from 100 yards to 100 meters, or the yards records for this or that to now be expressed in meters… I can see big problems there. However, the sooner we almost completely drop Imperial and go with metric the better off we and the kids growing up will be when they get into engineering.

  2. So true. I wish they would just get rid of imperial all together. It causes so many problems and has even cost lives because of incorrect conversions. Not to mention the time wasted which would convert to huge amounts of money from industry right down to the small one man workshop like myself. I probably loose hours of production time each year just because of the imperial system still kicking on and causing problems from my cnc machine code through to the arbor size on my table saw and when sourcing hardware or tools.

    You can’t help but have a mix of both in the workshop. It’s just the way it is because the USA refuse to change. Its such a waste of time and money for everyone and is unavoidable no matter which system you try to stick with. The world would work better without imperial. This is fact. Get rid of it.

  3. As an asian, we all use metric. My major is physics. I can communicate well with metric with americans about physics but maybe difficult about woodworking. I thought that americans do not want to change, but I bacome to know that you also want to change from the above replies. I heard that Austrailians changed their system from imperial to metric nore than 20 years ago. If you two countries change the system, the world become happy I think. I know that it will not be easy and will take time.

    • I think that everyone would like to go metric and it is surprising that any country would have two measuring systems when there is no purpose to it in today’s age really. The UK prepared for crossing over to metric in the late 60s and so most everyone here is metric now with a smattering of imperial still hanging on with those who didn’t use measurements for anything in their everyday life. It’s a simple enough thing to go metric, but one ingredient I have learned is critical for almost everything and that is wanting to change. Is it just stubbornness or is it that people get comfortable with what they know? The US is a big country to steer into a turn. I like imperial and metric equally but both for different reasons. I would never have stopped the change to metric in the 60s and I am glad to have had imperial as part of my culture because, well, I like it because it is part of my culture.

      • Imperial measurement was first – why did *anyone* change? Why was there a need for another system in the first place? Politics?

        It may be that the US refuses to change because of stubbornness, but it may also be that we simply don’t want to change because what we have works and works well. There are portions of the UK where body weight is still measured in stone. Is this anachronistic, or is it something that works well for the people who use it?

        It is similar to the concept of working wood rather than machining it. At work I use CNC machines to cut metal, but at home I use edged tools to slice and pare wood. In one place, high production and repeatability is the goal, in the other, high craftsmanship and individuality. One day I hope to leave the production behind as the anachronism in opposition to what the rest of the world has done.

        I have a phrase I like to tell the kids with all their new electronics and the way they chase shiny new plastic things: new and improved are two completely different things. Improved implies new, but new doesn’t mean that anything is improved in any way. I feel the same way when dealing with imperial versus metric dimensioning. I don’t see the need to change just because the rest of the world did; I keep what I have because what I have works and works well.

        • I can see this is quite the inflammable issue and no one is really saying the US should change. In fact, it’s noticeable that the metric world is really quite absent in the discussion. Perhaps they see the value in the original blog and accept that there is a good place for nostalgia and that the imperial measurement was a good standardisation transitioning from a non-measuring guesstimate standard to a more exact standard for a whole country like Britain. Personally I don’t see it as stubbornness at all, the US didn’t develop the measurement as far as I know, but it has held true to a working standard that really worked for the majority and still works fine today.

          • I can see the benifit of both but also see the time wasted in having to convert all the time for certain situations. If building your own project from scratch then it never really causes problems. I can’t help but think that if only the USA had gone fully metric in woodworking at least then it would have saved me hours of calculations over the years. I guess its a bit selfish of me to hope that an entire nation change just for us metric woodworkers trying to read blogs, magazines or watch videos. It’s one of the things I love about watching Pauls videos and other articles from the UK. They usually give both so you can make a choice which to use. I realise we will never be completely free from imperial but in the meantime it would be good to see more content from the USA where they give both instead of ignoring the metric system all together and acting like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Most of the ones I come across don’t seem to know anything about metric. Like it’s some foreign weird scientific way of thinking that they would rather not think about or acknowledge.
            By the way. I’m 6’2″ tall. Don’t ask me to give that in metric as I couldn’t tell you. It’s funny how we still stick with what we know for certain things. But if I had to write down my height on a form in Australia then it would probably have to be in centimetres. Then I would need to work out the conversion. More time wasted. I guess there’s no avoiding time wasting if there is always going to be two systems in use.

        • The reason why there was a need for a change is that every single country had its version of the inch… and they didn’t measure the same until 1959. An “industrial inch” was adopted by several countries in the 30s, but it only became the industrial standard in July 1959. By that time, a lot of countries had already switched to metric or were in the process.

          The old English/Imperial inch was slightly shorter than the international inch, the US inch was slightly longer, the Scottish inch was 1.6 thou longer than the old imperial, the French inch was a whole 16th longer at some point, the Dutch inch was an 11th of a Dutch foot (itself 8% shorter than the old imperial foot), the Danish inch was also different, I’m not totally sure about the old German inch (the Zoll). Don’t even get me started on Survey inches, which aren’t international inches.

          Even inside a country, the value of the inch changed through time or from region to region. Basically it was a mess if you were regularly trading with other regions/countries or if you weren’t largely the only country on your continent. The original impetus for the metric system was to have uniform taxation in France after the revolution, and that required uniform, stable and simple measure units. The units were to be based on criteria that were universally valid,

          I have used metric all my life as my country switched to metric in 1816. However, I also use imperial and old Japanese units for woodworking. For fun, I am also now starting to use the old French measures for some projects… I made a “royal canna” stick to use the old units that were used to build the cathedrals…

          • “but it only became the industrial standard in July 1959” should read “but it only became the international standard in July 1959″… that should teach me to triple-read before hitting post 🙂

          • Well, there was one guy who did say that we should ditch it: “The world would work better without imperial. This is fact. Get rid of it.” That is a very harsh opinion; it is not fact. It could easily be reversed and the same condition would then be true. It was also the impetus behind my post.

            But as an American, I think it probably IS stubbornness that keeps us from changing! Perhaps Paul won’t go that far, but since I’m talking about my own neighborhood, I’ll definitely step out on it!

            Not so often at work (but not never!) I’ll get a print with metric sizes on it. The vast majority of our work is in Imperial, so that’s how the machines are set. When we write the programs, if we need to first draw in CAD (rather than to figure out tangent points offset for cutter radius manually, and for other reasons), if the print is in metric I’ll draw it in metric and then have the software spit out the CNC profiles in inches. It doesn’t really take any time beyond clicking a few buttons differently. If I’m doing it by hand, I’ll convert by hand – if I’m doing it that way there won’t be a lot of converstion required to begin with or I’d have had the CAD software do it. The time spent is really negligible especially when prototyping and doing the initial program development. Yes, it’s another place for errors to be introduced, but if I’m the one in front of the machine the first time that Cycle Start button is pressed, those numbers have been checked a half a dozen times anyway no matter WHAT system I used! We will also convert the metric tolerancing into imperial to work with our hand measuring tools.

            I don’t mean to say that the metric system is useless, nor do I really mean to be contentious about it at all. Most of the world uses it; I would gather precisely because of the July 1959 reason listed above, which I wasn’t aware of. That’s far, far too late in my opinion but I wasn’t around anyway. But if it had been standardized in the 16th or 17th centuries as would probably have been ideal, there wouldn’t have been any reason to adopt anything new in the first place, because the system itself does work. It would have made much more sense to standardize than to introduce an entirely new system requiring completely new terminology. Que ser a, I guess.

          • Also funny to know… in 1824 the imperial inch was standardized relative to perceived physical constants so it could be recreated identical if the standard was lost. In 1834, the standard yard (along with the standard pound) was destroyed when the UK House of Parliament burned down. It turned out that the physical constants used were not that constant and it wasn’t possible to recreate the standards based on those definitions. In 1855, the standards were recreated from the metric system (a yard as 36/39.370113 meters) in the UK. In 1866, the US defined the meter based on a rounded down conversion from the 1855 UK yard and made an iron meter standard. It turned out that the standard received from the Uk wasn’t stable and visibly shrank over the years. The office of weights and measures switched to metric and converted to the customary units. In 1893, the US redefined the customary units based on the metric system.

            Until 1824 the inch was defined as three “barleycorn”, the barleycorn being defined as the length of a sound, ripe and well dried corn of barley taken from the middle of the ear.

            In 1930 the BSI picked 2.54cm as the value for the inch and reworked all units based on that definition, in 1935 the ASA followed suit. The survey inch is still based on the old american definition of the inch (1/39.37 of a meter [1866 definition of the inch for the US]).

            The pre-1959 difference between imperial and US inches were based on the rounding of the yard relation to the meter. 🙂

  4. I don’t think Australians really wanted it at first either. Change is hard but once it’s done you can see the benefits. Most of the members at my local woodwork club still use imperial and can’t think in metric but anyone from the newer generation only thinks in metric. The money is much easier in dollars and cents than it was in pounds and shillings and pence etc. I think we all agree on that at least. Mainly because they were forced to change and had no choice but measuring for them will always be in inches because they were brought up that way. I’m 39 and am the youngest member. It takes time to change and thats why the Americans need to start asap or it will take them even longer to catch up. All they need to do is start teaching metric in schools and stop making tools and hardware in imperial. Eventually it will happen so the sooner they do then the better we all will be.

    Unfortunately it will continue to effect me for the rest of my life because I use a mix of old and new tools but at least with anything the new generations make it will all be metric providing the American market changes as well though. All our hardware, screws, bolts etc at our local suppliers is still in inches. If you can find a metric equivalent then its usually a galvanised coated bolt not zinc and it costs more or you have to order it in as it’s not standard. The American market is so big and that’s why they are catered for. It’s them that needed to change first but somehow they are the last and it effects us all. Who is to blame for this? Was it discussed by the UN at some stage and if so then why didn’t America take the lead and change first? Someone has alot to answer for. Stupid decision if you ask me.
    If metric wasn’t a better way to go then we would all still be using Imperial. They changed it for a reason.

  5. I can use both systems and it really doesn’t matter to me which one we use to build a project. If Paul says we are going to build a table and use only the metric system. I would say that’s fine by me. Paul’s real message is more about the beauty of the past and how things were done. Along with the admiration of the tools that were used and how hand tools are just as accurate if not more so the the power tools. Thank you Paul for this wonderful article you always make us think.

  6. Don’t know if you were in Texas t the time “The USA was going metric.” We had road signs in kilometers. Our money is metric.I have rulers that have metric on one side, and inches on the other. I automatically adjusted when living in Japan for two years and adjusted when I got back.

    We are adaptable. We adjust. Paul….yep you are being Nostalgic, and sharing the tactile connections in a computer age! I like hands on and hugging trees. I also like my digital calipers.

    If you were in your twenties and being nostalgic for the old days, that might be weird? LOL!

  7. Nostalgia certainly isn’t what it used to be. How many woodworkers does it take to change a lightbulb? A. 20
    One to change the bulb and 19 to stand around talking about how good the old bulb was. 🙂

  8. Noah built a boat in cubits, the Egyptians built the pyramids using who knows what, The kings of old took a distance from the end of their nose to the tip of the index finger and set the national standard of distance in England. If I get a plan in CM, i will use a metric ruler and not really care if the manufacture of my ruler is perfect or not.

    My uncle was a finish carpenter for over 40 years, and all of his cabinets “fit” the designed space, because he made them to fit. My father was a an airline mechanic and worked with a micrometer and slices of metal to ensure that gaps where to specifications made by the manufacturer.

    The bottom line: I have watched wood workers, including you Paul, build projects that have the esthetic feel of the Greeks; Functional, pleasing to the eye, and well made. I can never imagine a client picking up a table or a door or chair and saying “I can’t take that, it .73 centimeters too big.” or “I’m sorry, that is 3/64ths of an inch too small.” The measurement system shouldn’t be the goal, the finished quality of the project is what we strive for.

    Just my 2 cents, pence, drachmas, euros, pesos, yuan, a garote, or whatever money you happen to use. Happy New Year.

  9. I think it rather rude to insist that an entire nation give it’s own sovereignty in what it decides is it’s form of measurement. Paul you are quite popular in many regions of this planet. I would never ask of the UK to give up what it thinks best for its borders. I would never ask Japan to give up it’s style in language or their eye for fine detail. America has the largest economy in the world and I know that isn’t popular with other nations. My guess is that is why the hostility. America does have fantastic artisans and the best creative minds on earth. It also provides for a young Brit to move here and for twenty years inspire him and leave it’s mark on him in a great way. There are things you can choose and do in the US that are not possible elsewhere. Maybe we are doing something right. I know that the principles that we were founded on are the best in the world.

    • Well, Adam, if I offended any American friends here I apologise but just to make sure, I have never in any day said or done anything intended along those lines simply because of my love for my second home in the world. In point of fact, you will only see anything I have written of the USA and every country I have ever been to with warmth, affection and care. Often a response, and online especially, can seem harsh or judgemental and I think if you went to the original post this all refers to you will find it is indeed warmly admiring of the past reaching into the present and on into a future that includes imperial. I use imperial in my shop as does Phil and when John was here, though raised on metric, he used imperial too. I never insisted on it it was just easier for us to communicate in one measuring language. It is just a surprise to me that America continued with imperial for the majority of people but insisted on metric to communicate with the rest of the engineering world and that is all. It is much simpler to educate people to metric measuring and few would argue that; I don’t think anyone is expecting or asking it to change its policy and certainly no one knows better than I the quality of its artisans and that it is a great country rich in ideas.
      As a child I grew up with 20 shillings in a pound and 12 pennies in a shilling – 240 pennies to a pound. It was difficult to learn and difficult to relate to the rest of the world and so the whole country changed. No one asked the country members to agree to it and certainly not little me. I loved my pounds, shillings and pence and half crowns and crowns and pennies, halfpennies, threepenny bits, sixpenny pieces and farthings too. I also loved the copper and silver, the brass and other alloys, but having a hundred pennies and a one pound note broken down into a five pence, ten pence and fifty pence coin in all the same alloy is really fine. Especially is this so when visitors from other countries come and exchange their money to an understandable international system.

  10. Metric is simpler to understand if have little mental arithmetic skills unlike the days when calculator never existed.
    A board size is 8’x4′ even if it state its 1200x 2400mm approx ?
    Windows size ans door sizes are imperial sizes metricated.
    Question? does it matter what measurement you use as long as it fits
    Next time you look at a castle or cathedral remember they use the floor, dividers, squares and string, they are still wonderful construction of craftsmans skill and knowledge still standing many hundreds of years later.
    Occasionally I drive past the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol UK the first one every made and I marvel that it has outlasted many build since and daily handle a load greater than it was intended to in addition its enhances the scene. How many modern equivalent match that vision. Its true we have lost the art of such things.
    Can we recover what is almost lost forever I hope so!

  11. Imperial divides more neatly than metric. A foot can be divided into 2, 3, 4 or 6 and still return a whole number of inches.

    The division of the inch into half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, thirtysecond, etc almost pressages the development of binary.

    In the UK when babies are born everybody reports their weight in pounds.

    Imperial measures are based on understandable human characteristics. When you don’t have a tape measure to hand you can get a workable approximation with not much trouble.

    Metric measures are based on some completely artificial arbitrary diktat – Napolean’s (a true loser if ever there was one) attempt to dominate the world.

    Metric is suited to scientific / engineering applications. Imperial fits in better with everyday life.

    The English language has so many phrases / idioms in which imperial measures are used it is hard to see our attachmnet to our system of measurements vanishing any day soon. Who in their right minds is going to talk about centimetering their way along? Is a miss really as good as 1.6 kilometers?

    • “Metric is suited to scientific / engineering applications. Imperial fits in better with everyday life.”

      This is exactly how I see it. Most measurement systems were not ‘created’ as such, but evolved organically based on people’s interaction with the world around them.. hence they are naturally convenient for describing things of everyday scale, and also are handily divisible to the extent that reasonable mental arithmetic will allow. I’m young enough that I’ve never been required to use anything but metric, but I can see the value in the imperial system, for sure.

      Metric, by contrast, is good at describing quantites at any scale which is why it’s so useful for science and engineering. I’m an engineer by profession and it boggles my mind when I see the units that my US counterparts have to contend with, although I think most science is done in metric there now??

      I guess it comes down to does the benefit of familarily and slight advantage of divisibility outweight the inconvenience of having to run two cocurrent systems and also of ‘speaking’ a different language to 99% of the rest of the world.

      one more thing..

      “In the UK when babies are born everybody reports their weight in pounds.”

      As someone who has recently had two children in the UK I can tell you that this is untrue. The weight is reported in kg (or grams depending on the context) and in fact the midwives would not even tell us the weight in pounds and ounces when requested – apparently there have been some mis-convesions and so they now tell people they must convert it themselves.

  12. I think Julian has hit the mark with his comments, although I myself am more comfortable now using metric measurements after so many years, even though the imperial measure is what I first learned and grew up with.

    Just as an aside though, with a bit of research you can find a ruler made in inches that does not measure the same as the English/American rule. Danish, I think it is.
    Also, my wife is a craftsperson in fabrics and yarns. We recently tried to buy accurate tape measures (plastic coated fabric variety) and found ourselves defeated by the Chinese import tidal wave. After buying four different ones which were all blurry and inaccurate, we have resorted to finding old ones on flea markets to satisfy her requirements. Deans are the best. The worst Chinese one had the thickness of the wobbly markings not accounted for in the measure, which resulted in it being over 1-3/4 inches long at 50 inches!

    There is more to this, than just nostalgia – keep up the good work Paul.

  13. When I worked wood mostly with machines and still when I do metal work I work entirely in metric, however as I have bought more and more old woodwork tools I find myself switching to imperial. Metric is easier unless your plough plane and chisels are imperial. It is a lot easier to add 1/2″ than 12.7mm

  14. I despise the metric system ! I was 7 years old when it came in as I was at school and had been taught imperial until then so I was totally, totally confused with all measurements until I was an apprentice electrician and I had to learn fast ! These days I tend to use which ever is closest to the marks I’m using. My father who was a tool maker always preferred imperial as he said it was more accurate as you can divide it more precisely than metric. Now to my utter frustration I’m getting confused again as almost all TV programmes measure speed and distance in Kilometers, I haven’t got a clue on that and I don’t think I want to !! So spare a thought for those who were in education when metric came in, its not been easy !!

  15. If you think of Metric v Imperial, only in the terms of common measurements such as length and weight, then you miss the point, and the elegance of SI. I think its only when you start looking at the wider context of engineering and physics that you see the full picture.
    Yes, in woodworking terms Imperial is quite elegant, but generally its cumbersome and a historical anachronism.
    Being a lone voice doesn’t always make you wrong, but in this case, the sooner America gets out of the dark ages, the better.

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