Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Language Barrier

This week I am excited to have John Waters from Melbourne, Australia in the shop making a chair with me. John is a fantastic furniture maker, you can see his work at

It wasn't a couple of hours before I realized that we'd have a special problem in communicating, with numbers that is. I remember being a schoolchild in the late seventies and listening to the hype around the switch to metric that was going to happen in the U.S.. Well, we all know how that went.

I did get a chance to work with the metric system while building a sculpture for a German artist (he was dead at the time, but that's another story). At first it seemed odd, mainly because I didn't have an inherent sense of the distances being shown in the drawings, but then it hit me, one number, it's all one number! There's no need to know conversions or even better fractions. Each number says it all, just look at the decimal place and get to work.

When I started to tell John that the ends of the spindles that we were shaving in green wood needed to be oversized to nine sixteenths of an inch because they would later shrink to just above one half, I laughed a bit. It must sound absurd, kind of like I feel when I hear someone refer to their weight in "stone".

Most woodworkers take a bit of pride in their ability to sight measurements (or is it just me?). It's like a musician, they know where to find the e string, well, I know what five eighths looks like. So to keep John in his comfort zone, I started using my vernier caliper (I won't allow dial calipers around any more, I break them like bread) to translate the numbers. It worked out fine.

I do like the way that imperial scales offer so many different length lines to read, I find this helps me locate the measurement quickly, but who's to say that in time I wouldn't be able to read the metric just as easily with some practice. But something tells me that it will be a while before we make "the switch" besides what would I do with the part of my brain hardwired to know what a heavy nine sixteenths looks like?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Could you please post a photo of the chair , Im also from Melbourne and make chairs as a hobby when time permits , I may run into this chap in the future , thanks.Great website , Id like to make to make a chair with you one day .