Growth Rulers

Basement, Blog, Home, Woodworking / Wednesday, December 26th, 2018

This project was about a year in the making. Last Christmas, Ellie and I had a niece and two nephews to buy for and there was another on the way and a fifth would come into the picture a little later. Daunted by the prospect of having to buy gifts for several kids, we came up with a plan. We would get the same gift for all the kids.

I stress out a lot around gift giving situations. I want my gifts to have the perfect reception I think they deserve but people don’t always see it from my point of view and I end up disappointed as the most thoughtful gift I can come up with is tossed aside. It’s heartbreaking year after year. I also tend to go overboard when it comes to gift giving. Ellie in particular is a source of endless inspiration for gift ideas and I end up getting her all of them because I just want her to have anything and everything. So each year, for Ellie, I’ll try to build something for her and it’s over the top. Then I throw store bought gifts into the mix as backups in case the homemade gift doesn’t go over well. Stress piles on.

So having a plan to get the five kids the same thing really, really simplified my life this year. No more asking, do you think a three-year-old boy would like this? Doesn’t she already have that?

The gift we got the kids was not received well by any of the kids this year, however, it never was really intended for the kids. It was meant for their parents. That is because we gave each kid a growth ruler. You know, the kind of thing you hang on the wall and track how tall the kid is at each age. A lot of times in TV and movies they mark it on the doorway and end up having to move and then they can’t take that history with them. With a growth ruler, moving isn’t an issue.

To make the rulers, I ended up taking the hard route and it wasn’t until it was much too late that I realized I could have simplified this project exponentially.

All I needed for the project was:

  • Wood
  • Paint
  • Polyurethane
  • Laser printer
  • Lacquer thinner
  • Saw
  • Router
  • Tape measure
  • Sander

For the wood, I determined I could get six 8 inch x 5 foot wide boards cut out of a sheet of 4 x 8 plywood. So I bought a maple veneer plywood and called it a day. Had I thought about it for more than a few minutes of math, I would have realized I could have bought five 1x8s and cut them to length. It would have saved a good deal of money, a lot of time cutting, and a lot of time cleaning up the uneven edges even though I used a straight edge to help with the cuts. But no, I took the hard route and powered through.

Once I had my boards cut to length and squared up, I set about with my Stanley 175 year anniversary tape measure (if you can get your hands on one of these bad boys, do it because something about it makes it the perfect tape measure and I cannot describe it). I used the tape measure to mark every inch along one of the edges of one of the boards. The inch marks were marked an inch deep on the board. For the half-foot marks, these were marked an inch and a half deep and the footmarks were marked two and a half inches deep. I made each end of the board begin at a half foot mark.

After the first board was marked, I lined up the next board with it and used my speed square to transfer the spacing to each of the other boards. These lines would be my guidelines for the router to follow. The plan was to use the router to route out each line a quarter inch deep.

Routing out the lines, once the jig was set and tuned, went by quickly enough. I started timing myself after the first board and found it took me ten minutes to route all sixty inch lines on a single board. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Growth rulers inch marks jig

Routing the lines out took a bit of configuring a repeatable process. One of the boards was both a test piece and a finished product. I apologize to the kid that got that, I think it was my nephew Deacon. What I ended up doing was using my Craftsman table saw I got for free on Craigslist as the base for the jig. I used the rip fence to keep things square. I used the miter gauge with a board attached to it as the straight edge for the router to follow and the board could slide under it. The miter gauge was held in place with some clamps and extra pieces of wood in the miter slot. Finally, I marked a line on the table top two and a half inches from the edge of the miter gauge to designate the center of my router bit. This line would match up to each inch line on the boards. It was my first jig, and I like how it turned out. If I have to batch these out again, I’ll make a template for my router to follow and clamp that down to the board.

After the first board was done, I excitedly ran it up to show Ellie. Admittedly, she was none too impressed. Trust me, I pouted, it will look good in the end but right now I am having trouble explaining my vision. And what I realized once I was done was that the vision would look like a blown up version of the old wooden school rulers we used to have. She didn’t see it because I couldn’t describe what was in my head.

Growth rulers inch marks painted detail

After all the boards were routed, I pulled out the random orbit sander and cleaned up all the jagged edges created by the router. A quick pass with 220 grit sandpaper was all it needed. Then, I went back with a paintbrush and some black acrylic paint to paint in each and every one of the inch lines I routed out. I’ve seen videos where people have spray painted in the things they’ve routed but I didn’t have spray paint or a place to spray in our Wisconsin winter. Instead, I painstakingly hand painted the lines. Fortunately, I knew I didn’t need to be precise and any mess I made while painting could be cleaned up with a sander again once it was dry (taking care not to sand through the thin veneer).

The last part of the process was a bit trickier and I would be using a method I hadn’t tried before. It was a faster riff on the photo transfer method I used for Ellie’s anniversary gift. The new process used the same laser printer method (mirrored) but to transfer it I used lacquer thinner instead of the matte gel. The lacquer thinner worked a lot faster (like 20 seconds instead of a few hours). I did a couple test transfers to get the process down and got to it.

For the most part, the lacquer transfer was successful, but there were a few spaces where the transfer was incomplete on both the numbers for the feet and the names for each of the kids. I used a Sharpie to fill in the voids with the steadiest hand I could muster. The touch up was passable.

All that was left was to throw a few coats of polyurethane on to each of the boards to protect the transfers and then slap a bow on each. In total, each ruler probably took me about an hour’s worth of work and I really could have cut that time down by both using lumber instead of plywood and by having a template instead of marking each inch mark and setting up a jig to cut it all.

Growth rulers polyurethane

As predicted, the kids didn’t really care about the rulers. I’m not even sure they knew they got them when we opened gifts. They were just there. My nephew was excited when he saw me putting them by the tree, but didn’t give them a second glance once he saw some new trucks. The best part, for me at least, was when my sister-in-law said she had been looking for something just like that earlier this year. That comment made my day. This time I knew the gift I gave was appreciated.

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