Measure Twice, Cut Once

By Max Maxfield |

Do you have any tales to tell of erroneous measurements that ended either in disaster or in an unexpected triumph?

There's an old proverb that you've almost certainly heard: "Measure twice, cut once." This is the English version; the equivalent in Russian is, "Measure seven times, cut once" (I'd be interested to hear if you are aware of any other varieties).

This expression originally referred to carpentry and needlework. The idea is that one should double-check one's measurements for accuracy before cutting a piece of wood (or fabric); otherwise it may be necessary to cut again, thereby wasting both material and time.


As an aside, you may also hear someone say this as a general warning to carefully plan and prepare for something before taking action; "Think before you act" or "Look before you leap," in other words. A somewhat related proverb is, "More haste, less speed," which means that you will make better progress with a task if you don't try to do it too quickly; alternatively, that if you do try to do things too quickly, it will take you longer in the end.

The reason I'm waffling on about this is that I just observed someone learning the meaning behind "measure twice, cut once" the hard way.

Let me cut a long story short (yes, I know that's not like me -- I usually go the other way -- but I'm up to my armpits in alligators fighting fires without a paddle, so I'm obliged to be brief).

This tortuous tale starts with us (my wife, my son, and yours truly) having two big water leaks at our house, resulting in all the furniture being taken to storage and most of the floors being pulled up and replaced. In turn, this means we've been living out of a hotel for the past three and a half weeks. The plan is to return home in just a couple of days as I pen these words.

The thing is that, since the house was going to be empty of furniture anyway, my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) said that we should have it repainted on the basis that nothing has changed on the paint front since we moved in 10+ years ago.

"Fair enough," I thought, "a bit of a spruce-up wouldn’t hurt." Next, Gina informed me that if we were to be repainting anyway, we really should use a new color palette, because the existing 10-year-old color scheme was now out of date. "No problemo," I thought, "it doesn’t cost any more to paint a different color." All of which goes to show just how little I know.

It turns out that the in-look today is based on different hues of grey. Don’t talk to me about "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- there are millions upon millions of them. I know because I've been "invited" to compare and contrast them day-in and day-out until my brains started to leak out of my ears.

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But wait, there's more, because -- to my horror -- I was informed that the existing countertops in the kitchen would not complement our new color scheme, so they would have to be replaced. Furthermore, if we were going to replace the countertops "anyway" (you can see where this is going, can’t you?), then this would be an ideal time to purchase the farmhouse sink we'd always talked about getting.

I must be getting old. My memory is fading. I don’t recall ever talking about getting a farmhouse sink, but the way Gina tells this tale, I'm starting to think that having a farmhouse sink must have been one of my lifetime ambitions.

During the days, I've been working out of my son's bedroom (which wasn't affected by the leak). The plan was for me to be able to handle any crises if and when they arose; in reality, I fear that all I've achieved is perfecting the ability to look dimwitted and to act ineffectually whenever the occasion demands.

The new countertops arrived this morning. These are great big hunks of stone. They look beautiful. I try not to think about how much they cost. We are never, ever going to move out of this house, is all I can say.

Two young lads (I'm guessing mid-20s) were doing all the work. I could hear their cheery chatter whenever there was a pause in the drills and saws they were using to bore holes for the faucets (taps in England) and cutouts for the sink and stovetop. Then a silence fell.

This wasn't a cheerful silence that announces the arrival of something interesting or wonderful to behold. It was the other sort. It was the type of silence that does everything but scream to be heard.
"Hmm," I thought, "is it just my imagination, or do I have feelings of grim forebodings?" It wasn't my imagination. I did indeed have feelings of grim forebodings.

When I ambled into the kitchen, it was to find the two lads staring despondently at the stovetop sitting in the middle of a hole that was 1.25" too big on either side. The error was so egregious that I took pictures to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me.

Left-hand side (Source: Max Maxfield)
Right-hand side (Source: Max Maxfield)

Well, on the bright side, my eyes still work (they weren't deceiving me). The three of us stood in a contemplative silence (which is much better than the other sort). First, we looked at the stovetop. Then we looked at each other. Then we returned our gaze to the counter. Finally, we looked at each other again.

You should have seen their faces. I think they were scared I was going to go ballistic. Happily, I'm blessed with an even disposition. I just told them not to worry, and that if this was the worst thing that happens for the rest of their lives, then they will be lucky. I also told them that when something of this nature happens to me, I say to myself, "In 100 years' time, no one will care." Hey, it works for me.

I left them to call their boss. From what I heard from this side of the conversation, his disposition is of a slightly more robust nature than mine. A few minutes later, he called me to say, "Don’t worry; we'll do whatever we have to do to make it right."

My first thought was to simply buy a larger cooktop. I vaguely thought an appliance store would be a bit like Wal Mart -- just point to what you want and say, "I'll take one of those, please." However, my contractor, Erik, informs me that you typically have to wait a couple of weeks, a fun factoid that would float in the air like a brick when I told Gina.

The next plan was for the countertop company to cut a new slab, but that also would take a week or so, and we're supposed to be moving back home in a couple of days.

And then something happened that shows the sayings "Every cloud has a silver lining" and "it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good" are sometimes true. It turned out that Erik had immediately put the word around his contractor grapevine saying he needed a large cooktop in a hurry. Someone came back with a new one that's still in the box. Even better, it's a gas cooktop.

When we started out on this adventure, I told Gina that the one thing I would like would be a large gas cooktop. Sad to relate, as things started to add up, sacrifices had to be made, the first of which turned out to be my gas cooktop ("But at least I'll have that farmhouse sink I always secretly desired," I told myself, bravely).

It's a funny old world when you come to think about it. This new cooktop costs much more than I would have spent myself, but it's a lot cheaper than re-cutting a new slab of marble, so the marble company are picking up the tab and having it installed (the gas guys are connecting it up as we speak).

Gina knows nothing of this, by the way, because I've been keeping her away while all the work is being done. "Shhhhh!" Don’t say a word. I want this to be a pleasant surprise when she first sees the kitchen in a couple of days' time. (Hopefully it will offset the news that the new bathtub won’t be installed and the master bathroom won’t be finished until next week; once again, "Shhhhh!" is the order of the day.)

I'm sorry, I'm afraid I got a little distracted, what were we talking about? Oh yes, the concept of measuring twice and cutting only once. This is a good habit for everyone to adopt because problems arise when you get blasé about doing something like taking a simple measurement. I happen to know two lads who will be following the "measure twice, cut once" philosophy for many years to come.

How about you? Do you have any tales to tell of erroneous measurements that ended either in disaster or in an unexpected triumph?

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  • by  Elizabeth Simon
    I've got an assortment of lengths of coax (with the proper connectors) that I take with me to field day and other such events for the times when someone underestimates the distance between the antenna and the radio.

    I've also learned that it's generally easier to shorten wires (or rope) than it is to lengthen them so I prefer to cut longer pieces than I think I'll need.

    One of the problems with measuring twice is that you can still make the same measuring error both times. Exact circumstances where this happened recently have been erased from my short-term memory but I remember years ago watching my father carefully transferring dimensions to a flooring tile that was upside down....
  • by  Max Maxfield

    @Elizabeth: "One of the problems with measuring twice is that you can still make the same measuring error both times."

    That's very true. If you have the time, a good idea is to take the measurements and write them down. Then do something else and come back and do it again. Then compare.

    Having said this, and remembering that -- as electronic engineers and designers -- we may be measuring things other than physical lengths -- if you are working on a safety or mission critical system, then the best bet is to have multiple people take the measurements and then compare results.

  • by  Conrad Mannering

    I seem to remember oh so many years ago when the "97HP diesel engined London Omnibus" (Flanders and Swan). Started to get two way driver radios fitted that a Dialogue went like this over the then land line telephone.

    Fitter " Hey gov the radio reception on this new radio we are fitting is very bad".

    Governor "Well trim the aerial"

    Fitter "We done that governor but its no better"

    Governor "Well trim it again"

    Fitter "We done that governor but don't tell me to trim it again as we aint got no aerial left".

    I think this was an army joke as well.

  • by  Max Maxfield

    @Conrad: "I think this was an army joke as well."

    I'm just in the process of reading Spike Milligan's war memoirs -- I'm on volume 3 -- I can so imagine him as a young man cracking these jokes.

  • by  Jack Grubbs

    Several years ago my neighbor was adding two shelves in a closet and ask me if I would cut some plywood  for him.

    Before cutting I asked if he was sure of the dimensions he gave me. He said “yes I measured each of them twice”. He returned a few minutes later and said he had to go buy some more plywood. When measuring the length of the shelves he forgot to add the 3 inches for the width of the tape measure.

  • by  Max Maxfield

    @Jack: "...When measuring the length of the shelves he forgot to add the 3 inches for the width of the tape measure..."

    We can laugh, but it's so easy to do and we've all been there -- the trick is to only make a mistake one time -- if you make the same mistake a second time, that one is on you :-)

  • by  David Ashton
    Max I know you are over the hills and far away as I write, but I would be interested to hear Gina the Gorgeous' reactions when you get back.  The fact that you averted a crisis and also have a gas cooktop (I'm a big fan of gas cooktops  myself) I fear will be lost on GtG if an electric cooktop was her desire.....

    If it's any consolation, we recently changed from a gas stove (range in your neck of the woods I think?) and I got no say in the matter at all.  Being a husband is a tough gig sometimes.....

    It just occurred to me.  Maybe that's WHY you are over the hills and far away.....???

  • by  Max Maxfield

    @David: "...The fact that you averted a crisis and also have a gas cooktop (I'm a big fan of gas cooktops  myself) I fear will be lost on GtG if an electric cooktop was her desire..."

    Gina has never cooked on a gas cooktop, but she's heard great things about them from her friends, and the new cooktop looks way better than the original one, so I managed to ride this one out LOL

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