The Woodcrafter's Measure - Part 1

It is sometimes useful to be able to measure something in the woods, be it the height of a tree, the thickness of a stick of how far you've walked.
In this 1st section we're going to look at using the human body as a measuring tool, especially for crafting projects, and we're going to start with a few history lessons.

Da Vinci and the Vitruvian Man
Da Vinci's love of nature and his exploits in many areas marked him out as special. This drawing, one of the world's most recognisable images, is drawn to scale and show many of the relationships between various parts of the body in length. To help make sense of it there is an annotated version on Wikipedia.

The Measure of a Man
The picture is based on Vitruvius's writings. He is a 1st century AD Roman Engineer who stated that;
  • a palm is the width of four fingers
  • a foot is the width of four palms (i.e., 12 inches)
  • a cubit is the width of six palms
  • a pace is four cubits
  • a man's height is four cubits (and thus 24 palms)
  • the length of a man's outspread arms is equal to his height
  • the maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of a man's height
  • the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of a man's height
  • the distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of a man's height
  • the length of the hand is one-tenth of a man's height
  • the length of a man's foot is one-sixth of his height
In case you're wondering quite what a cubit is, it is the measurement from finger tip to elbow and was a much used measurement in the ancient and mediaeval world. A Polish king, Wladyslaw I was even given the sobriquet "the Elbow High" in a reference to his short stature.

Are They Any Use?
These measurements have several advantages. Firstly they are portable, you can't forget your body and you've no need to buy a new one just for measuring. Secondly they are consistent - they change little through your adult life (as an aside the stability of foot size is thought of as one reason why women love buying shoes so much). The problem is that my hand and yours are different sizes.
The positives of this outwieght the negatives for us - using a handle which is a palm long means it will fit in our hand regardless of size, a snowshoe with finger thick sticks should support our weight. If you watch any of Mors Kochanski's videos (especially "Sticks as Tools and Implements") you see your height, arm span, palm and finger width much in use as measurements. Fenlander even uses body measurements to great affect when teaching how to build a fire.

You're Always Prepared
Having said that these are measurments that you can't leave behind then it is no surprise that Baden Powell made use of them in "Scouting for Boys". The key measures he talked about were;
  • Breadth of thumb being 1 inch
  • Span from thumb to forefinger being 6.5 inches
  • Span of thumb to any over finger being 8.5 inches
  • Wrist to elbow being 10 inches
  • A cubit being 17 inches.
Of course you can check your own measurements in these categories before you head to the woods for a bit more accuracy.

More Information
These measurements are known as "anthropic units" and being based upon nature have a natural role in woodcraft. In the equestrian field a hand('s breadth) is still used as a measure while a handful and a pinch are ever present measures in the kitchen. Searching under "body based measurements" also brings up some more information.
I hope to have reminded you of this important part of your bushcraft toolkit - look forward to part 2 about the pace and longer distances and part 3 where we play with triangles. I should hopefully do a little ready reckoner card at the end of it all too.
Finally, remember what Plato said

"Man is the measure of all things."


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