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Rule Collectors Rule!

Updated: May 14, 2023

The first yearly antique tool auctions bring tool collectors out of their winter hibernation as surely as the vernal equinox marks the coming of Spring. One of the highlights of this “Rite of Spring” is Martin Donnelly’s “Live Free or Die” spring tool auction. This long-standing tradition rekindles friendships young and old, provides a chance to find some tools for one’s collection and is a great opportunity to see and examine the “best of the best” tools offered in the auction. At the May 2018 Donnelly auction a special “Rule Collector’s Showcase” took place at the Friday night “Gala Preview Sale”. Eleven rule collectors from across America were on hand exhibiting diverse and interesting measuring instruments from their personal collections. Scott Lynk coordinated this event and described how it became a reality. “At the fall Donnelly Tool Auction last year, a group of rule collectors got together as we have been doing for many years at past Donnelly auctions. We often bring new rules we’ve found to show and tell, and we share our research information. A discussion started about the possibility of having a rule exhibition at the next Spring Donnelly auction. I spoke to Martin about our idea and he responded enthusiastically. Over the winter I contacted people I thought might be interested in participating in the event and the response was overwhelming. Eleven people responded back. Tonight, as I look around the room and see the exhibits, I’m amazed at the beautiful rules and squares on display.” The exhibitors on hand for the showcase were very knowledgeable about the rules they displayed and could be seen interacting with the many people in attendance. One person in attendance commented, “There is much knowledge on display here tonight!”

The exhibitors included:

Scott Lynk's Rule Display

Figure 1. Scott Lynk's Rule Display at the Rule Collector's Showcase

Scott Lynk of Vergennes, Vermont is an avid rule collector and author of the book, Stanley “Special” & Custom Rules. Scott has researched, written and published many articles on his favorite subject, Stanley rules. Scott’s current interest and research interest is the “special” rules produced by Stanley Rule & Level Company. Scott displayed 25 rules including some of his recently acquired Stanley special rules. Scott commented, “My display shows Stanley Model Shop and special rules. Some of the rules were marked ‘SPECIAL’ by the company, while others have been determined to be special by observation in relationship to the general line of Stanley Rules. These rules are usually not observed in Stanley catalogs.”

Stanley Special Caliper Rule No. 136 1/2 Marked in Braille on Both Sides of the Rule

Figure 2. A Stanley "Special" Caliper Rule No. 136 1/2 Marked in Braille on Both Sides of the Rule

Tom Whalen, from Marshfield, Massachusetts is co-author of the book, "From Logs to Lumber", on log and caliper rule makers who worked in New England. Tom’s display included 40 examples of board and log rules representing New England log rule makers from 1831 to the late 1940’s. Tom was excited to see all his rules on exhibit. “I usually only have a few on display in my house at any one time because of space. My rules are huge compared to the other exhibitors’ and mine don’t fold up.”

Tom Whalen's Log Scale Display

Figure 3. Tom Whalen's Log Scale Display

One rule in his collection that got lots of attention was an R.B. Haselton ¼ scale replica of Haselton’s standard size cubic measuring log caliper. The rule, only 12½ inches long is stamped with over 3000 figures so small that Tom had a magnifying glass on hand so people could get a good look at the rule (See Figure 4). Tom commented that, “This rule represents the best of rulemaking. There are over 3000 blacked figures each ⅛ of an inch tall laid out and perfectly hand stamped around the perimeter of the board. The figures are barely recognizable to the naked eye. Haselton’s skill were certainly up to the task."

1/4 Scale Replica of Haselton's Log Measuring Caliper Rule

Figure 4. 1/4th Scale Replica of Haselton's Log Measuring Caliper Rule

Ted Ingraham who hails from Ferrisburg, Vermont, displayed a wonderful collection of early 17th and 18th century carpenter’s framing squares. Ted is an authority on framing squares and has done extensive research on the topic.

Ted Ingraham's Framing Square Display

Figure 5. Ted Ingraham's Framing Square Display

His display (See Figure 5.) detailed the evolution of the framing square from the early 17th century thru the early 20th century including several examples from the Eagle Square Company of South Shaftsbury, Vermont. The Stanley Rule & Level Company acquired the Eagle Square Company in 1916. Most of the squares in Ted’s display were dated, with the earliest one is dated 1737 along with the maker's initials.

Early Framing Square with the Date 1737 and the Maker's Initials, "S T"

Figure 6. Early Framing Square with the Date 1737 and the Maker's Initials

He also displayed an early 17th century English framing square in which the full inches and half inches are laid out on the main body of the square with no markings on the tongue (the short arm of the framing square) of the square which was common on squares from that time period. This square is marked with "dog bones" which refers to the shape of the number "1" digits on the square (See Figure 7. ). The "1" has an arching serif on the top and bottom of the bar. This form of the digit fell out of use in the 1650's so Ted believes this helps date the square to the first half of the 17th century.

17th Century Framing Square with Dog Bone Figures Representing the Numeral "One"

Figure 7. 17th Century Framing Square with "Dog Bone" Figures Representing the Numeral "One"

John Harkness of Salem, Massachusetts has been a rule collector for over 35 years and is well known for his discernment in acquiring rules of only the best quality. When John’s rule collector friends find a rule in absolute mint condition, they refer to the rule as “Harkness quality”. John’s theme for his exhibit was “Lumber & Board Rules” and included 35 rules from different American makers including Stanley, Haselton, Belcher Brothers and Chapin-Stevens all in mint or near mint condition.

Satin Wood Board Scale with Built-In Tally

Figure 8. Satin Wood Board Scale with Built-In Tally

Johns favorite rule on display was a brass bound satin wood board scale with a built-in tally that is unique amongst board rules (See Figure 8.). The unsigned rule has brass nuts that move along the beam keeping a running tally of the board feet measured up to a total of 1000 board feet.

Mark Levanway's E.A. Stearns Rule Display

Figure 9. Mark Levanway's E.A. Stearns Rule Display

Mark Levanway of Athens, New York, a woodworker by trade, has had a keen interest in antique woodworking tools for over 25 years. Mark has a strong interest in E.A. Stearns rules that were made in Brattleboro, Vermont. Mark made a beautiful display case just for this event and it housed 25 E.A. Stearn’s rules represented the diversity of the Stearn’s rule making operations. Mark’s favorite is a Stearn’s No. 47 ivory and German silver 4-fold rule with arch joints.

Hook Bindings in an Early Massachusetts Folding Rule

Figure 10. Hook Bindings in an Early Massachusetts Folding Rule

Phil Cannon of Oak Lawn, Illinois is well known by rule collector through his website Phil’s website provides a comprehensive list of American rule makers and always has new and interesting information to share. It’s well worth your time to pay a visit to Phil’s website. Phil’s theme for the showcase was “Early Hook bound Rules from Massachusetts” (See Figure 10). Phil had several examples of early American rules with hook bindings made by Stanford & Rook, Anthony Gifford, William H. Rook, and Joseph Watts.

Early Massachusett's Rules With Hook Bindings

Figure 11. Early Massachusetts Rules With Hook Bindings

Phil explained that the hook binding’s purpose is to prevent the brass bindings from breaking away from the rule. A square hook is bent into the brass binding and set into the wood as a means of securing the brass binding to the body of the rule. This feature is seen only on rules produced in Massachusetts prior to 1850.

Bill Youart's Display of Stanley Doubles-Triples-Quads

Figure 12. Bill Youart's Display of Stanley "Doubles-Triples-Quads"

Bill Youart of Stephensport, Kentucky describes himself as an “avid” Stanley rule collector since 1988. Bill brought a fascinating display of Stanley rules he titled “Doubles, Triples, and Quads”. The title refers to rules produced by Stanley Rule & Level Company with two, three, and sometimes even four variations for the same Stanley catalog number. Bill explained that Stanley rules with specific catalog numbers changed over the years they were in the Stanley line of rules. These rules remained the same in terms of length, width, thickness and the numbers on the rule, but other changes were made to the rules over the years. Minor changes might consist of changes to the brass hinges to major changes such as the addition of brass slides and calipers. The Stanley No. 83 two-foot four-fold rule is a great example of what Bill calls a “quad”. When the No. 83 was first introduced it had a 6” brass slide and 1/10th of an inch graduations along the thin edge of the rule. By 1900 the rule was listed as catalog number 83¼ and had a square arch brass hinge, no graduations on the edge and a 6” brass caliper rather than a slide. Then Stanley introduced the No. 83½with a half round edge joint, architect’s scales on the legs and 1/10th of an inch graduations on the edge. In 1910, Stanley introduced the No. 83C with brass round arch joints, a brass caliper and no graduations along the thin edge. The Stanley No 83 rules were manufactured by Stanley from the 1870's up until 1920. Of his many favorites Bill particularly likes his Stanley No. 0 and No. 00 six-inch two-fold ivory carpenter’s rules.

Ted Hopkins Eagle Square Rule Display

Figure 13. Ted Hopkins Eagle Square Rule Display

As anyone who has ever visited Ted Hopkins tool museum in Manchester, Vermont can attest, Ted is a collector of all things Stanley and almost any other tools that catch his eye. Ted’s theme for the Rule Collector’s Showcase was a display of rules made by the Eagle Square Company in South Shaftsbury, Vermont. While well known for making framing squares, Eagle Square also made rules. Ted had a wonderful display of beautiful mint condition Eagle Squares rules including wooden zig-zag rules, maple rule blanks, and finished rules with yellow paint. His display also included some brass, stainless steel, and nickel plated metal rules in various widths called counter measures. Ted explained that these rules were used in drapery and millinery shops selling fabric and ribbon in yards and fractions of yards.

Eagle Square Counter Measure Rule

Figure 14. Eagle Square Counter Measure Rule

They were often fastened to a counter top or a board. he other possibility involves country stores that sold fabric. To make measuring the fabric easier, brass tacks were hammered into the rule at common intervals - a yard, half-yard and quarter-yard. One theory about the origin of the phrase, “let’s get down to brass tacks” referred to the shop owner using the brass tacks to quickly measure the cloth the customer requested. These rules were made prior to 1916 when Eagle Square was sold to Stanley.

Kerby & Bros. Display

Figure 15. Brian Lants' Kerby & Bros. Display

Brian Lants of Purcellville, Virginia began collecting rules after he purchased an old two-foot four-fold rule while on vacation. His collecting initially focused on collecting all types of rules by American makers. He soon discovered that serious rule collectors are interested int eh best examples of the rules they collect, so competition for high quality rules is fierce. So, Brian focused his collection on rules made by the Kerby & Bros. Rule Makers of New York City. Brian’s display included 22 cordage rules (cordage refers to the ropes used as rigging in ships, or rope in general) produced by Kirby but imprinted with the names of different cordage manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada. Brian explained that, “Kerby was a specialty rule maker. I do not believe they ever published a rule catalog like many of the traditional rule makers. Many of the rules made by Kerby were custom orders often with special advertising, markings and scales. Kerby & Bros Rule makers was established in 1847 and remained family owned for three generations.

Kerby & Bro. Shoe Measure Rule with an Ivory Inch Measure

Figure 16. Kerby & Bro. Shoe Measure Rule with an Ivory Inch Measure

The business finally ceased operation in 1953 after the death of Robert Kerby Jr. I’ve had multiple people tell me that when the shop closed, they put all of the contents out on the sidewalk in front of the shop for people to take. They produced rules for rope makers, printers, tailors, cobblers, glaziers, paper hangers, teachers pattern makers and many others. Every year when I think I’ve seen them all. I find something new that I’ve never seen before. Brian has well over 100 Kerby rules in his collection ranging from rope gauges to a six-foot long baggage measuring caliper that was used on the S.S. Roosevelt steam ship.

John Kesterson With His Display of Unique Lufkin and Stanley Tape Measures

Figure 17. John Kesterson With His Display of Unique Lufkin and Stanley Tape Measures

If you’re a serious tool collector in America, there’s a good chance you’ve met John Kesterson of Barberton, Ohio. John and his wife Julie are familiar faces at tool events and auctions across the country. John’s theme for the rule collector’s showcase was “Tape Measures Unique and Rare.” John began collecting in 1975 and admits that tape measures are not his primary focus, but he finds their functions very interesting. John collects all kinds of measurement instruments by various makers both British and American. Their functions vary from logging to tailoring, to architectural and even horse measuring tools. His primary focus with rule collecting is Lufkin tape measures and mint condition rules in their original boxes. John recalled that two close friends were Lufkin tape measure collectors and in his travels, he would find them tape measures for their collections. John said, “I liked what I was finding for them and began my own collection. I’ve focused on rule measurement instruments for about 25 years, but I have thousands of tools in my collection.” John’s display featured twelve tape measures, all mint and in their original boxes. Each rule was identified with information pertaining to its rarity and uniqueness. John said, “The British horse measurement tool in my collection is my favorite one, it’s pretty cool!”

Figure 18. Geo. Curtis Improved Engineer's Rule Manufactured by E.A. Stearns, Brattleboro, Vermont

For the past four decades, George Gray of Nashua, New Hampshire has collected a wide variety of both American and English rules. His display featured examples of American and English engineer’s rules made of boxwood and brass with double slides. The earliest rule in his display was a Wood & Lort of Birmingham, England c. 1750 engineer’s rule names, “The New Improved Sliding Rule.” This rule has dual adjacent Gunther brass slides. George also had an A. James Nobel of Sheffield, England two-foot two-fold engineer’s rule, c. 1870 with duel brass Gunther slides, one with “English” graduations, and the other in “Metric”. American rule makers were represented by two Stanley Rule & Level Company two-foot two-fold engineer’s each with dual brass extension slides. An S.A. Jones, Hartford, CT two-foot four-fold rule and an H. Chapin two-foot four-fold rules were also in his display. Both of these rules had split two cycle brass extension slides. But George considers the Geo. Curtis Improved Engineer’s Rule manufactured by E.A. Stearns in Brattleboro, VT, to be the most interesting (See Figures 18 and 19). “There is documentation on how the rule is to be used. It describes the use of the “Plain Scale” and the “Diagonal Scales” on the rule. On the reserve side of the rule are dual Gunther slides made of boxwood, one on each leg.” Gorge continues to research the rules in his collection. He finds wantage and engineering rules very interesting because of the complexity of the scales and tables. His reward is in being able to decipher the rule maker’s intentions.

Geo. Curtis Improved engineer's Rule Manufactured by E.A. Stearns, Brattleboro, Vermont

Figure 19. Geo. Curtis Improved Engineer's Rule Manufactured by E.A. Stearns, Brattleboro, Vermont with Dual Slides

George Gray summed up everyone’s feelings about the Rule Collector’s Showcase when he said, “I was very impressed with the diversity and the quality of all the exhibits. I especially enjoy listening to the history and information about each one of the collections. These are the most knowledgeable curators of fine antique rules you’ll ever want to meet!”

Participants in the Rule Collector's Showcase

Figure 20. Participants in the Rule Collector's Showcase Ted Ingraham (seated). Front Left, Tom Whalen, John Harkness, Mark Levanway, Phil Canon, Scott Lynk. Rear Left, Bill Youart, John Kesterson, Ted Hopkins, Martin Donnelly, Brian Lants, George Gray

by Tom Whalen


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