Metric Hosers

Bob-and-Doug-RelaxingBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

When I decided I would change my engineering lab over to metric, I immediately and unknowingly encountered the limits imposed by the Invisible Metric Embargo. I was mantled in American ignorance about what I needed for tools. Finding them would become an odyssey. “Where could I get a decent “meter stick?” was my first question. Clearly Canada is a metric country. I will get online and purchase rulers from there I thought. I spent a lot of time and found only wooden meter sticks. They were all in centimeters, and within the confines of my blissful ignorance that seemed fine. At that point I was only disappointed with the poor quality of the rulers I obtained. I use a milling machine to create printed circuit boards (PCB) with millimeters and wanted a fairly large sized scale. I measured the board dimensions with the Canadian metric ruler in centimeters, shifted the decimal point in my head and then would check against my millimeter drawing.

About that time I wrote a pro-metric editorial for a local paper, and in response received emails from Pat Naughtin and Mike Joy, both from Australia. Pat congratulated me on the editorial; Mike wanted to provide help. When I described my current work, Mike offered to send me a millimeter only ruler. I did not want him to go to the expense, and I really could not see the need. Mike insisted. He told me that he had used centimeters, and they had caused mistakes. He assured me I would see the light after he sent me “real metric rulers.” When the 300 mm and 600 mm rulers arrived at my door, I was engaged with milling a PCB. I removed the rulers from the shipping container even as the mill was running. When I started to check dimensions, I was truly shocked by the amount of eliminated mental effort produced by this simple change. I immediately planned on banishing my centimeter “yardstick” from Canada to an uncomfortable place in my garage.

Sven counseled me about centimeters a fortnight or so before, and I really didn’t see why they were a problem. I began watching Naughtin’s videos, read his metric epistles and the light went on—centimeters really are a bad idea. I had already purchased a centimeter tape measure and now I really did not want to use it. Naughtin pointed out that Canadians, despite their official metric status, did not adopt metric in their housing construction. I went online and looked for millimeter only metric tape measures in Canada. I looked and looked but all the hardware stores offered mostly inches, centimeters, or combinations thereof.

Not long after this, Mike Joy visited the US and brought along a very nice Australian millimeter-only tape measure. I offered to purchase it from him, but he had a person in Vancouver Canada to whom it was promised. I was really jonesing for the tape measure. This was yet another confirmation that Canada was not the place to find millimeter-only metric tools and is part of the Invisible Metric Embargo.

I wanted to put together some type of metric cookbook, and I figured Canada might have some I could purchase. I contacted a number of persons in Canada who had Canadian cook books for sale. They informed me they all used Ye Olde English measures. One woman was clearly confused why someone from the US would want a cook book in metric. Peter Goodyear (another Australian) later offered useful links to some useful Australian cooking websites.

I have only spent about three hours in Canada, and most of those were in a restaurant. I had come to the conclusion that Canada was not nearly as metric as it would appear. I wondered about England, and based on my Canadian experience began to doubt how metric it might be. Derek Pollard of the UK Metric Association convinced me that the UK is about 80%-90% metric. England is not Canada, It is very close to being a completely metric country.

I began to see both Canada and the UK as inverse metric m&m’s. Canada has a thin outer metric coating and looks metric on first glance, but hidden inside its slim shell is an unappetizing center of Ye Olde English/Imperial usage. England’s m&m outer shell makes it look like an Imperial nation. Roadways have miles, pints are sold in pubs, metric martyrs are in the news, but when you get past the outer shell, the interior of the English m&m is all metric.


Courtesy of Peter Goodyear

In Early February of 2016 a small engineering company in Ohio contacted me. They found the Metric Maven website and wanted to know if there was any place, other than Australia, where they could purchase millimeter only tape measures. I told them that the Fastcap 32 was the only one I knew of available in the US, and it is not nearly as high a quality as my Australian ones. The Fastcap 32 was not good enough for this engineering company’s needs. I finally directed them to a number of Australian sites. They had the same concern I did when I first ordered some from Australia, that the tapes which arrived would be in centimeters and not millimeters. I had to tell them that I’d never found a millimeter only tape measure in Canada (not even an inch/mm tape) and there would be little hope other than Australia to purchase one.

Less than a week later an email arrived from a recently retired woodworker in Canada. He had been thinking about switching to metric in his work, and it came to him that a millimeter only measuring tape would be a very simple way to dimension his work all in integers. He stated that he had come to this conclusion independently and then did a web search to see if a mm only tape measure existed and where he could obtain one. The search directed him to this US based website, where he found images of millimeter only tape measures. The woodworker was quite surprised to find that an Invisible Metric Embargo exists in both the US and Canada. He could not find a mm only tape measure in Canada, nor in the US.

On 2016-03-05 a carpenter from Western Australia had an “ask me anything” thread on Reddit. Here was a bit of the exchange:

Mr Gupples: always wondered about stud placement in metric countries. maybe you guys dont use the metric system, i dont know. do you do 16 on center there? are plywood sheets 4 x 8?

Australian Carpenter:  Stud placement is typically 600 center to center. That’s basically 2 foot. It gets tighter in cyclone prone areas. 450 centers. That’s 1 and a half foot. All measurements in millimeters.

We still use feet and inches but not for anything precise. Some older blokes will still call a sheet of ply an 8 by 4 rather than a two four by twelve.

Samz0rpt1: weird. canada uses 16 oc and 4 by 8 sheets. so do you guys have metric tape measures or do you use metric imperial ones like what you would get in home depot (hardware store)

Australian Carpenter: Meteic [Metric] both sides.

The use of millimeters is seen by Samz0rpt1 as “weird.” He wants to know how on Earth millimeter tape measures can be obtained. I’m assuming he is probably Canadian and is as surprised as the retired Canadian woodworker about the Invisible Metric Embargo. I see this shock on the faces of US engineers every time I tell them about metric construction. Provincial, thy name is American.

I won’t chastise Canada too much for their non-metric ways in housing construction. They clearly know better, but they have the overwhelming negative influence of an ill-tempered Olde English bully to their south with which to contend. This antique non-metric country to Canada’s south still constructs all their houses in inches, with all other compliment of irrational Ye Olde English measures for plumbing and such. The best way to help make the US more metric might be if Canada would take the lead with metric construction, because I see no way the Frozen Republic in the US will ever mandate metric. Canadians, please try to muster up as much outrage as was found when the beaver was to be taken off the nickel, and implement millimeter metric construction in Canada. It only took the Australians about 18 months to complete. Perhaps this will help the backward neighbor to your south to finally see the advantages of metric they currently cannot even contemplate.

When John Shafroth was introducing metric legislation in the US at the end of the 19th century, Canada was on board. Here is an article from the December 30, 1900 issue of The Times of Washington:

Washington-Times-1900-12-30-Metric-CanadaCanada began its metrication 70 years later, but has stalled out with a metric system implementation that is but a veneer. It’s been 115 years, it’s time to ignore the US and complete your metrication. If you did, this American would thank you for it.


The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

6 thoughts on “Metric Hosers

  1. Would love to have a public listing of the best rulers and other measuring instruments available in Canada and the USA. (UK would also be helpful; I know lots of people who often cross the Atlantic, but few travelling to Australia.) At least it’s easy enough to get grams-only and millilitres-only instruments up here, and an increasing number of cookbooks use them (fortunately we realized quickly that centilitres and decilitres are a bad idea, but many Canadian measuring cups include them).

    • I’m a Finn, and Finland, while entirely metric, is a centimeter and deciliter country. I agree that centimeters in construction are a bad idea, but don’t think deciliters are necessarily a problem in home cooking. I grew up with them, and the measuring cups were and are all in dl, as are the recipes. I remember when milliliters started to appear on the packaging of imported foods in the 80s and early 90s, and it would look pretty odd to me that a small soda pop bottle would say 300 ml instead of 3 dl, but for some reason the conversion seems easier than with centimeters and millimeters. A recipe calling for 200 ml of flour would look pretty silly in the Finnish context, when everyone has always scooped flour with a 1 dl measuring cup (never mind that flour ought to be weighed). I guess with centimeters you’re frequently encountering lots of different numbers and decimals, whereas recipes and food packaging is mostly even numbers and the same ones over and over.

        • Thanks for the links, I did read them.

          It’s true that for weight measures, the Finnish-language recipes only use grams and kilograms, so there’s no reason why milliliters and liters shouldn’t be equally convenient.

          I guess the problem with home cooking is that there’s usually a lot of leeway in the measurements, so the recipes get written as convenient whole measures. I.e. “2 cups of beans”, and it doesn’t much matter whether a cup is 240 or 250 ml. Finns, and I guess the rest of the Nordic people, are used to 1 dl as the convenient measure, which makes things like 125 ml look inconvenient in a recipe. How do you measure that in a kitchen? You have the 1 dl cup or larger, and it doesn’t have 25 ml gradations in it. It usually does have a 50 ml mark. Do you get a 15 ml measuring spoon (tablespoon) dirty, too, when cooking? And that still doesn’t get you 25 ml conveniently. More likely you just do 1 dl and then some, or the recipe will get converted to 150 ml, or as they would write it here, 1,5 dl (comma as in French). These days the Finnish-language recipes almost never have fractions in them, and almost never other decimals than “,5” for deciliters, so effectively the smallest unit is 50 ml.

          Things smaller than that are tablespoons and teaspoons, which is, indeed, madness. I have an IKEA set of kitchen measures with 100, 15, 5 and 1 ml, where the 5 ml one is supposedly a teaspoon and the 15 ml one a tablespoon. Looking recipes, you can tell that they frequently mean something quite different by tablespoons and teaspoons (e.g. 5 ml teaspoons of the spices would be way too much). Milliliters are not really used in recipes here at all. I would agree that if everything, spoons and deciliters, were to get magically converted to milliliters, it would be a great improvement in accuracy for the sub-50 ml measures. I guess free measuring spoons would need to get magically sent to every household. Have the Australians banned the spoons?

          It occurred to me that centiliters, too, actually are in use, kind of, in Finland and possibly the Scandinavian countries. They’re used to measure portions of alcoholic drinks in restaurants, and the capacity of tableware. I.e. one portion of hard liquor in a restaurant is 4 cl and one portion of wine 12 cl, etc. (Yes, the Nordic regulations on alcohol are insane.) I guess partly for this reason, drinkware is usually labeled in centiliters when you buy it. E.g. a tall glass might be 30 cl and a mug 25 cl. The centiliters are never used in recipes and almost never spoken about, save maybe for someone who’s trying to cut back on alcohol and counting his restaurant portions.

  2. I am proud to own two of Mike Joy’s gifts from metric Down Under: an 8 m metal tape measure and a gorgeous metal meter stick, both divided and scaled in millimeters, which is the only way to go. I dearly miss metrication’s and my friends Pat Naughtin and Mike Joy and am so glad we were able to exchange national visits before their untimely passing. May their legacy to America be the complete metrication they enjoyed in Australia.

  3. Most ‘metric’ countries are not nearly as metric as advertised. Besides the lumber-yard (and I have bought ‘Baltic Birch’ metric plywood at times here in the USA ) the hardware store is a very good measure of the reality of the amount of adoption.

    It is MUCH easier to find metric bolts and nuts in a US hardware store than in Latin-America. Being metric on paper is much different than the reality. I’ve seen the same mix in the Philippines – have been asked to resend Gerber files(for making PCBs) in inches by the so-called metric China. Not easy to find a metric wood screw in so-called “metric Asia”.

    My take is what the government does makes only a small difference – the market place is much more powerful – and should be. That being said – IMO the government should only specify and purchase in metric.

    In electronics we talk about positive and negative feed-back – if there is positive feedback – the output tends to not change. This is the same with unit standards.

    There is powerful positive feedback to not change – change takes work. Take the garden hose connector used around the world. :

    “garden hose thread” (GHT), is 3/4″ diameter straight (non-tapered) thread with a pitch of 11.5 TPI “male part has an outer diameter of 1 1⁄16 inches”

    Not only is it in inches – it is a really bad connector design – leaks often etc. Yet, the installed base of faucets makes it close to impossible to move to a metric device – or one that works well. I hate those connectors – have fiddled with adapters, yet I’m still stuck dealing with it. (I’ve thought that the new O-ring tube adapters would be a good direction to move to – not going to happen.)

    Yet, in a lot of places the market is moving to metric. At the pawn shop, you can find lots of old english sockets and wrenches – but they sell out of the metric ones that are used everyday.

    (I have a system with my sockets and wrenches using the resistor color code to mark them so with only a glance I know the last digit – what I might not see with my eye: Orange = 3 – thus I’m probably looking at a 13mm tool. Small allen-wrench with orange is going to be a 3mm etc etc. )

    The reality is the government – if it was really doing the right thing – would only push the change a bit – the reality of positive feedback in standards isn’t going to disappear if some government bureaucrat snaps his fingers. The change will come from new generations that are getting closer to using metric as the years go by.

Comments are closed.