Collector’s Guide to Rules:
Dan Cherry explains how to get started collecting wooden and ivory rules.
At what point does a series of acquisitions become a collection? Is it when one casually acquires the first item of interest? Or it is upon the procurement of a second or third item, which match the vein of the first, when a collection is truly conceived? Is it perhaps tied to the reasoning behind why these items were acquired? I believe it is fair to say that the origin and development of a collection varies widely from one person to the next. The intent of this article is to provide some background and guidance on the basics of collecting antique boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and ivory rules, in the hope that the reader will have some general knowledge when encountering these interesting tools.
Rule collectors make up an interesting subset of the overall antique tool collecting domain. Established collectors of items intended for linear measure are a notoriously picky bunch when it comes to the condition of their quarry. However, traditional folding boxwood and brass rules are still plentiful on this planet of ours, particularly in the UK and US, and with some effort and investment, it is not overly difficult to locate and obtain a small collection of rules for use or display, particularly if one is willing to overlook a few blemishes.
As indicated, boxwood is the most common variety of wood that was used in traditional carpenters’ rules. Boxwood is ideal for rule manufacture as it is tight-grained and typically has a light colour, both of which lend themselves to not obscuring the linear graduations added to a rule. There are three primary species of boxwood that were typically used: English boxwood, Turkey boxwood (from the eastern Mediterranean region), and Maracaibo boxwood (Gossypiospermum praecox; a slightly softer, South American variety, traditionally from around Venezuela and Colombia). Rules were often constructed with brass folding joints and other trim, such as end tips to protect them from wear, and also occasional edge binding to add to the durability and exclusivity of a rule. Other woods, such as maple (Acer spp.) or more exotic varieties, are occasionally encountered, but discussion of those will be held for future writings.
The other, less common, but widely offered material that was used on traditional rules of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ivory, primarily of the African elephant, as the tusks of that species are significantly greater in size than those of South Asian elephants. On most commercially produced rules, ivory has been conventionally paired with nickel silver trim (also called German silver) instead of brass, as the white metal was seen as a better visual match to the ivory, and was less prone to oxidation, as compared to brass, which may discolour the ivory. Unfortunately, while ivory originally commanded higher retail prices for rules, the material was not nearly as stable as boxwood for rule construction, as well as being more prone to discolouration, fracturing and wear. Today, intact and undamaged examples of ivory rules are scarce and typically expensive.
Ivory trade regulations
I would like to draw attention to the fact that buyers and sellers of items containing ivory, including antique rules, need to be cognizant of the numerous laws that have been adopted by the UK, the US and other countries in order to combat the illegal global ivory trade. Regulations that impede the import and export of items that contain ivory have become significantly more restrictive over the past several years, and often the sale of ivory antiquities across international or even interstate boundaries are prohibited. If a collector chooses to purchase antique tools or other items containing ivory, he should realise that there are risks associated with that investment, and it is best to familiarise himself with the laws related to the sale and purchase of antiques containing ivory.
In the UK, the major manufacturers of boxwood rules were those that persisted into the 20th century. While there are multitudes of makers that a collector may encounter, I think it is safe to say that the most common English makers that a beginning collector may stumble upon will be John Rabone & Sons, Edward
Preston & Sons and John & Daniel Smallwood, all historically from the Birmingham area, considered to be
the heart of rulemaking in the UK.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the epicentre of rule manufacturers in the US was New England, specifically Connecticut. At the top of this list of makers is the prolific Stanley Rule & Level Company of New Britain, CT, which was established in the mid-1850s. Other major US makers during the latter half of the 19th century include Hermon Chapin (& Son) from the New Hartford and Pine Meadow areas of Connecticut, Stephens & Company (of Riverton, CT), and the Upson Nut Company (of Unionville, CT). Chapin and Stephens eventually merged in 1901 to form the Chapin-Stephens Company, operating out of both Pine Meadow and Riverton, and continued to make very high quality rules until 1929. All of these companies were acquired, in some form or another, by the Stanley Rule & Level Company (or successor, Stanley Works) by the mid 1920s. In 1925 The Lufkin Rule Company, based out of Saginaw, Michigan, started to manufacture its own line of high quality boxwood rules.
Having the upper hand in the quantity of rules produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rabone and Stanley are the true heavyweights for a beginning rule collector to keep in mind. Furthermore, Stanley easily had the greatest variety in its catalogue of rules, which has resulted in numerous reference books, value guides and articles being written about its offerings. The availability of historic information about Stanley and its products seems to fuel the collecting interest in its tools. Rule manufacturers typically had an independent model number system (though attempts were made to standardise the US model numbers in the late 1800s), which is particularly appealing to the ‘one of each’ collectors. Model numbers changed with the length of the rule, width of the rule, type or shape of joints on folding rules, and variations of scales inscribed on the faces of the rule. This gives a collector a better chance of finding something new when browsing a favourite flea market, tool show, antique shop or online auction site.
Rules by trade and region
Other variations in measuring devices dramatically expand the universe of items available to a rule collector. It seems that nearly every trade in the late 1800s had a use for a specific measurement device. Carpenters and builders are the most commonly recognised users of folding boxwood rules, but necessity is the mother of invention, and specialised rules were created for a tremendous variety of users. These trades include, but are certainly not limited to, tailors, coopers, engineers, surveyors, farmers, hatters, ironmongers, architects, military, navigation and even the customs and excise branch of government. If there was a need for a simplification of a measurement or calculation task, it seems that an inventor would inevitably step forward with a rule to help make it easier for a tradesman. Many of these trades worked in measurement scales that were non-standardised, so rules with industry-specific scales would be developed.
Regional differences in standard units of length also resulted in variations in rule layout and graduations, particularly for rules that originated in Europe. It is not uncommon to find a rule graduated with a standard regional inch unit of Paris (pouce), Rhineland (zoll), Spain (castile), Denmark (tomme) or some other obscure localised standard unit of length, of which there were hundreds of variations. Even after the gradual formal adoption of the metric system across Europe in the mid-19th century, use of these regional scales still endured. Rule collectors may focus on acquiring these variants to build an assemblage of region-specific examples.
Starting a collection
As this article is intended to help guide a beginning collector, it would be negligent not to include a few suggested examples to consider appropriate for a starter collection. A typically recommended model for a folding boxwood rule, in particular for users, is the Stanley No. 62. This 2-foot long, four-section (also called a four-fold), brass-bound rule is common enough to be able to find a nice example without breaking the bank. The brass binding riveted to the edges of the rule make it durable and strong, while also improving its aesthetics. The Chapin-Stephens Company also manufactured a No. 62 in the identical format, as did Lufkin, which was numbered as a model 781. Any of these three are worthwhile additions to a new collection or workshop.
Another recommendation would be to seek out a small boxwood folding calliper rule, such as a 6in, two-fold No. 36 or a 12in, two-fold No. 36½, both commonly made by Stanley. Similar variations were produced by the other major manufacturers of the early 20th century. These rules include an integrated brass sliding calliper that allows the user to easily measure outside thickness. There are also numerous non-folding boxwood and brass calliper rules available on the used market, that can be had for a rather small investment, if one practises patience.
As mentioned early in this article, condition is important to most rule collectors. Boxwood, due to its light colour, is particularly prone to becoming stained by contact with water, dirt and other agents commonly spilled in the workshop, which obscure the graduations, making them difficult to read. Rules may be heavily worn by decades of use, removing the markings from their faces. I try to recommend that a new collector seek out a fairly clean example whenever possible, and then take care of it, even if using it. Stained, worn rules are commonly found, and while they may be a fascinating artifact, I find that a new collector will quickly replace them with an example in better condition. As is the case for nearly all collectables, buy the best condition you can find and afford, and the item will be more rewarding in the long term.
Several reference books that specifically relate to rule collecting have been published since the 1980s. Unfortunately, many of these have been out of print for quite some time, and finding copies on the used market requires some diligent hunting and investment, but they provide a wealth of information to the aspiring collector of these measuring devices. As previously mentioned, collecting Stanley rules has been at the forefront of this hobby, and interest was fuelled by the publication of two important resources, both in 1984: Stanley Folding Rules: A History and Descriptive Inventory, by Alvin Sellens, and Boxwood & Ivory: Stanley Traditional Rules, 1855–1975, by Philip E. Stanley. Both of these books developed a comprehensive overview of the standard rule offerings by the Stanley Rule & Level Company and subsequent Stanley Works. Nearly 20 years later, Philip E. Stanley wrote a second book, A Source Book for Rule Collectors (2003, Astragal Press), which typically included a small publication with it, under separate cover, called A Rule Concordance and Value Guide (2004). The Source Book is an excellent overview of articles published on the topic of rule collecting, coupled with a detailed summary of rule usage and esoterica. The Concordance is a comprehensive listing of the rules sold by most of the major American rule makers, and includes estimated value ranges. Jane and Mark Rees’ extensive body of research on rules, The Rule Book: Measuring for the Trades, was published in the USA (Astragal) 2010 and is available in the UK through Classic Hand Tools. This is the only book listed here that is still in print, and it is an outstanding resource for rules in general and includes excellent history of the known major British rule manufacturers. While the Rees’ tome does not provide a comprehensive listing of rule models made in England or Europe, the full-colour photographs and richly descriptive text are enough to turn anyone into a collector of these fascinating instruments.
Whether one’s interest in boxwood or ivory rules is simply a passing fancy or if it develops into a meaningful passion will vary from one collector to another. The attraction to rule collecting is owed in part to the aesthetics of the materials used, the inherent history of the rules and their manufacturers and the seemingly endless variety of measuring devices that have been invented and employed in nearly all trades over the past several centuries. Quality, entry-level rules are plentiful and fairly easy to acquire with a bit of effort. Reference materials describing their uses are available, and I have found the rule-collecting community is willing to share its collective knowledge with those dipping their toe into the hobby. Traditional rules are wonderful, tactile, utilitarian items from days gone by, made when handsome materials and fine craftsmanship were a distinct part of the tools themselves.
Rules from David Russell’s Antique Woodworking Tools:
John Adamson selects two ivory rules from this collection of antique tools.
Half bound in brass, this ivory rule is graduated in inches subdivided into 1/8s and 1/16s of an inch, and in centimetres subdivided into millimetres. The inch scale is engraved ‘LONDON’ and the metric scale ‘METRE’. The brass slide is also graduated in both scales and serves as a gauge.The maker’s name in a scrolling cartouche is engraved below the sliding tongue, while above it is engraved ‘METRE’. The number ‘3’ in the metric scale uses the old-fashioned flat-topped number while that in the inch scale the round-topped ‘3’. There were some significant changes in the styles of the numbers used after the mid-18th century, notably the number ‘1’ changed to the modern style rather than an upper-case ‘I’ and the number ‘3’ had a rounded top rather than the flat-topped ‘3’ of the earlier period.
Joseph Fenn, active in London between 1821 and 1873, belonged to the Fenn dynasty of tool-makers. Interestingly, this rule was made after the 1824 Weights and Measures Act, in which it was stipulated that rules should measure from left to right and before the metric system became the only legal form of measurement in France in January 1840.
Along the bevelled edges of this handsome architect’s rule are the standard drawing scales: 1/8 inch to 1 foot; 1/4 inch to 1 foot; 1/2 inch to 1 foot, and 1 inch to 1 foot. These scales were used for producing or reading off drawings. The bevelling is designed to ensure accuracy by having the divisions as close to the paper as possible. The rule is calibrated both in Swiss inches, divided into lignes or 1/12ths of an inch, and in English inches, divided into sixteenths. Interestingly 25 Swiss inches are the equivalent of 24 English inches. The rule is also calibrated in centimetres (up to 60), and along the edge in French pouces. The rule is half bound and hinged in German silver, an alloy of zinc, copper and nickel in common use on quality drawing instruments by 1850.