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The Metric System Sucks.


As I was assembling a generator at work today I was reminded just how much I dislike the metric system. I don’t like it, I didn’t like it thirty years ago when they tried to make us use it in grade school, and I won’t like it in the future, either. It works well for measuring distances, in particular when those distances are large and rounded to tens, but it is miserable for measuring in small increments, and it is miserable for measuring weight. It is God-awful for woodworking and carpentry, as much of the time the measurements become incremental. And while I’m on the subject, it kind of sucks for mechanical use as well.

So I will continue to use the Imperial system. It is a superior system for woodworking, carpentry, and every day, real-world usage. Nobody on Earth will convince me that the metric system does a better job. It doesn’t. So all of you astrophysicists and mechanical engineers out there can do what you will, but you’re all just going to have to get over the fact that the metric system doesn’t work in the small scale applications that most woodworkers deal with. Get over it! If you’re all that bored why don’t you measure the distance between Proxima Centauri and your asses.

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20 Comments

  1. Being a Canuck and all, the only time I do use the imperial system is when wood working or home renovations/repairs. No problems with this, makes sense.

    Ask me what the decimal equivelent of 3/8″ is, and I’ll tell you nasty things about your mother. I HATE decimal equivilents, and any fractions greater than 1/16th

    But professionally, I am a cook and a baker and if I ever encounter the inferior imperial system of weights or–god forbid imperial volume measurement, I convert it right away to metric weights.

    Look, you buy flour and sugar by weight, right? So why on earth would you convert that weight to a volume measurement? Every day I cost out recipies, first thing I have to do is figure out how much each ingredient costs, and the most practical way to do this is by weight. So every ingredient I use has a $/kg price on it, everything, Milk, booze, oil, everything by weight. All recipies use weight measurements, and I fire bakers who don’t do this. Batch of the recipie weighs “X”, total cost of the recipie is “Y” and it’s dead simple to figure out the price per kg or price per unit of the recipie. And I’d never even consider doing monthly inventory if I didn’t have each ingredient costed out in $/kg.

    But Canada is mono-buttocked when it comes to the metric system. We have 4×8 plywood sheets, 1/4”/20 all-thread rod, milk comes in 4 ltr jugs cold cuts and deli meats are sold by the 100 gram, yet fresh meat is sold by the pound, butter comes in 454 gr ( 1 lb) prints, oranges by count, potatoes by the kilo, and strawberries by the 1 pint basket.

    And the car dealers make me want to re-arrange their privates with a rusty vice-grip: Look guys, we haven’t had gasoline available in gallons (and that would be imperial gallons, not US gallons) since the early 80’s, all road signs are in kilometers–have been since the early 80’s. But the car dealers go and brag that this car or that car gets “X” miles to the gallon. Even the foreign models, foreign enough to have embraced the metric system well over 100 years ago do this, why are you going back-azzwards with mpg? We can’t compute this. WTF???

    Am I on a rant over the imperial system? Yeah, I guess so….

    • billlattpa says:

      In reality, I have nothing against the metric system 🙂 But I do feel that the imperial system works better for woodworking/carpentry for the simple fact that it works better on a tape measure or a ruler.
      I’m not a mathematics wizard, but I can calculate fractions to decimals in my head pretty quickly, not that it’s magic, but at my former job I ran a printing press where that was pretty much a requirement every day. Another thing, the press was made in America but the software that ran it was Italian, so all of the measurements were metric. Of course, our job sheets were all in Imperial, so we had to convert the measurements from metric to Imperial. That went on for about 7 years or so until somebody wised up and made everything uniform.
      I can use either system usually without an issue, I just prefer the Imperial system for woodworking.
      Thanks.
      Bill

      • Funny you should say that imperial “works better on a tape measure or a ruler”. I grew up in Canada, and spent many years working in home construction, so I am familiar with metric through schooling and imperial through work.

        For the past couple of months, I’ve been in England helping my brother with his house extension. Construction work has now converted to metric in England. Metric isn’t foreign to me – but in these past months I have found just how impractical it really is.

        My biggest complaints really come down to the metric measuring tapes themselves. There’s some kind of metric conceit that metric is somehow better, so no one puts any thought into how to make the already impractical base five/ten metric at least functionally usable.

        For starters, the tapes are *all* in centimetres, not millimetres. Oh sure, they’re etched down to millimetres, but the written numbers are centimetres, not millimetres. I actually have an old Sears Craftsman measuring tape (back in Canada) with millimetres and it is about, ahem, ten times easier to use than one graduated in centimetres. That extra ‘0’ on the other side of the centimetre line makes all the difference. You might be asking why mm and not cm anyway?

        Well that comes down to the next thing: cm are not, in and of themselves, a precise enough unit of measure, which means you have to have recourse to something finer, which means you end up saying something like “37point5 centimetres” rather than “375 millimetres” when your measuring tape is marked out with cm rather than mm. Now neither are inches, of course, but the difference is in how they subdivide. In carpentry, you generally need a level of precision of about 1/8″ or about 2-3 mm. Imperial tapes make this easy by using different lengths of etching for 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 etc. Metric tapes? They give one subdivision at the semi-useful 0.5 cm mark and make all the remaining eight 0.1 cm marks (and remember, while 0.1 cm = 1 mm, these *are* 0.1 cm marks, not 1 mm marks) the same length. A precision of 0.1 cm is too precise most of the time and those equal length etchings become visual clutter and hard on the eyes in the limited light conditions that often prevail on underway construction sites. A far saner way would be to make the multiples of 2 mm have longer etchings. Another option would have the 2&3 mm as well as 7&8 mm etchings made longer than the 1,4,6&9 mm etchings as this would allow for a more-easily imputed “quarter cm” measure (i.e. very close to 1/8″) between the longer etchings. Either would be preferable to the uniformity of current metric tapes. Our square happened to be marked out in 2 mm increments (no 1 mm increments at all) AND the units were in mm, not cm. This square was about the easiest metric measuring tool I had ever used. Unfortunately it was a square, so it didn’t get used for most measurements.

        Moreover, most materials are actually specified in mm, like plywood thickness, stud thickness, screw length, etc., so when you’re doing calculations using these numbers along with measurements you’ve taken on your cm-denominated measuring tape, you have to apply a factor of ten correction to one of them.

        If a centimetre were about 2 mm or 1/8″ in length, you’d just use whole “cm” most of the time, with a very rare “half cm”. But since a centimetre is what it is, the more convenient metric unit is actually the millimetre because it can be expressed in whole numbers without recourse to subdivisions, which, in the base ten metric system, are irritating anyway. The ideal metric tape (haha) would be counted off in tens of millimetres, with the etchings for multiples of 2 mm made longer than their odd counterparts, other than the multiples of 5 mm.

        A third annoyance is the names themselves: “centimetre” is a four-syllable word that then needs another syllable added – “point” in order to fully express a measurement (strangely enough, speaking is part of building when there’s more than one of you doing it). Compare that to monosyllabic “inch” and “foot/feet”. And you have to spell out the full word “centimetre” because there’s always some danger of confusion with millimetres in the hundreds range: 217 for instance is a plausible measure in both cm and mm on a building site and I once did confuse 3 mm for 3 cm because of a large delay between getting the measure and making use of it with a cm-graduated measuring tape. “Millimetres” are no better syllable-wise than centimetres, but they do offer a sort of imperfect contraction: “mil”, which people also use for millilitres. Go figure. No one uses “cem”, “cen” or the like for cm.

        One more thing that both my brother and I noticed was the extensive use of imperial-like sizes in building materials: 1.2×2.4 m sheets of drywall, 60 cm wide insulation, 40 mm studs, 12 mm pipe. They’re often close to old imperial sizes and often end up using simple base two or base three multiples, e.g. above we have 12, 24, 6, 4, 12 at some multiple of ten. Not 50 cm or 1.25 m. Only drain pipe came in at “clean metric” numbers, like 50, 75 and 100 mm, but these are obviously close to old imperial measures anyway.

      • billlattpa says:

        You’re much better versed at practical usage of metric than I, so you know all of its shortcomings. I was a field electrician for quite a while. Electrical calculations are all based on metric, from wire sizing, to box fill, to service calculations etc. In that sense, it works just fine, but when it comes to practical measurement, the imperial system is far superior in my opinion.
        As I said to other commenters, furniture making (and most practical carpentry) is based off of human anatomy measurements and ratios, and the Imperial system is based on ratios. To me that makes it a no brainer.
        As you said, I can’t see what necessarily makes metric so “superior” to Imperial. Both have their good points and bad points. One thing I have noticed, people who have grown up on metric seem to have more trouble grasping Imperial than the other way around when it comes to real world application, at least in my experience.

        Thanks.
        Bill

  2. Kees says:

    That’s funny. And typical American I guess.

    Try to divide a 23 7/16″ board in three equal parts. Use a calculator if you have to….
    Or try to grab the next larger spanner from the 1/2″ that doesn’t quite fit.
    And how about making an American recipe and finding that an imperial teaspoon is larger then all the tablespoons in my kitchendrawer. Makes for funny tasting cakes.

    The rest of the world learned ages ago that real world applications in a modern society needs a logical measuring system.

    I’ve decided to quit trying to be polite in American forums and will only use normal measurements in these discussions.

    😉

    • You make it sound like dividing 23 7/16″ into 3 is hard: that figure is close to 24″, indeed it’s 9/16″ shy. So a third of 23 7/16″ will be 3/16″ shy of a third of 24″ (i.e. 8″), so 7 13/16″. Certainly no calculator involved. Now try dividing, well, just about any metric measure in 3.

      The imperial system, at least feet and inches, encourages calculation by approximation and then zeroing in on the precise answer because there’s always going to be a convenient factoring number of 2 and/or 3 nearby. 5, by contrast, is a very inconvenient factor from a practical point of view. Its presence in our counting system is nothing more than finger counting.

      And that’s fundamentally what the metric system boils down to: glorified finger counting. No sane mathematician would actually go out and pick ten as a base for a counting system (we may well have the answer to why humanity has never been contacted by extraterrestrials – they saw that we count in tens). They might go for two or eight or twelve or sixteen, but never would they pick ten. For all its proponents’ claims of metric being logical, it isn’t because it’s based on an illogical counting system.

      I don’t actually like most of the Imperial system – there are too many odd ball units in the system based on multiples of five, seven (e.g. stones) and even eleven (the furlong is a real winner in the stupid units category – 2x2x5x11 yards, managing to get the worst of the metric system and the worst of the imperial all at once) for it to be a good system of measurement overall, but in the day-to-day world of practical measurement of short distances, the base twelve foot, its inches subdivided about six times by two and the larger base three yard work out reasonably well, especially in comparison to the horrible base five/ten metric system.

  3. billlattpa says:

    7 13/16! Done in my head in about 3 seconds 🙂 Actually, I may be the exception to the rule. I spent nearly 11 years converting fractions to decimals in my head so I became fairly adept.

    I hope you know that I was really just joking about the metric system. As I was saying to Edward, I used it for a long time at my former job and I have no issues with it, But I do feel that the Imperial system works well for woodworking and carpentry, and that it translates to a tape measure or ruler more easily than metric. As far as the spanner, that is why the English invented the adjustable wrench!! 🙂

    Actually, I agree with you, as a universal system the metric system does a better job, but as I learned long ago, there really is no such thing as universal system for anything, and some times there are certain things that are just more practical. For instance, when looking at a map, is it simpler to say or measure 9.5 miles or 14.7945 km? (Is that correct? Or am I off? At least I know I’m close 🙂

    Now of course, that number would probably be rounded to 14.8, but like we all know, when it comes to woodworking, rounding your numbers to the nearest tenth isn’t always such a good idea, is it?

    Thanks.
    Bill 🙂

  4. Kees says:

    Because I’ve been involved on internet forums (various subjects) I am fairly fluent in imperial by now. But I can’t help to shake my head from time to time.

    In woodworking I use mm and cm most often. A mm is most always plenty good enough, but when neccessary it is easy to add one decimal. Today I was making an interference fit for some metal couplings, and that’s when I get out the micro and measure to 1/100’s. But that ain’t too common.

    • billlattpa says:

      I usually only measure down to 32nd’s. I’m not sure what a 32nd translates to mm. Is it maybe .7? I get lost below 1 mm. At that, most people aren’t measuring below a mm that often as far as woodworking is concerned.

  5. Jim says:

    Saying that metric doesn’t work for small things is like saying blue numbers don’t work for the same things red numbers do. They are both just arbitrary conventions, and what you’re saying is that you only understand one convention and can’t switch back and forth between them. That’s about you, not about the metric system. That said, base 12 conventions have some ease-of-use advantages (they are evenly divisible by more integers than base 10 systems, which is why circles have 360 degrees).

    • billlattpa says:

      Jim, I hope you realize that my post really isn’t meant to be taken all that seriously. I’ve used the metric system for many years in my line of work. The other day I was working on a generator that for whichever reason had both metric and imperial hardware and it was frustrating; that is where my post derived from.
      That being said, I do in fact believe that the imperial system is superior for woodworking. As you probably know, the Imperial system’s origins came in part from the human body. There are reasons why pieces of furniture have arbitrary measurements: two feet for counter tops, foot and half chair height, one foot deep bookcases, etc. You need only measure imperially your reach, seated length of floor to knee, and the length of the average persons shoed foot/wrist to elbow to understand where it comes from. Of course you could convert those measurements to metric, but 30.479 cm doesn’t really have the same ring to it as a saying one foot. Once again, you can round those numbers, or if you are a user of the metric system you would likely make your cabinet depth 30mm. As for me, I don’t let a system of mathematics define my furniture widths, and as a woodworker I certainly don’t “round” my numbers up or down because it’s easier.
      At that, without blowing my own horn, I can convert from metric to imperial and vice versa fairly well, in part from already knowing many of the common conversions by rote, and in part because I’m pretty quick at math. I have no issues in dividing a board into fractions, and dividing those fractions into fractions. Fractional measurement is far more practical in woodworking, as case work and such is often subdivided fractionally-thirds, quarters, halves. Once again, when you are cutting a board in half, that leaves little misunderstanding. Not too many human beings would ask for .5 of a board.
      Most people don’t like fractions, but they don’t bother me. Most people can count to ten because they have ten fingers. and that’s why they like the metric system. It’s easier to use than Imperial in many ways, in particular for engineers because it translates so well regardless of which language you speak. It works great for theoretical measurements and blueprints. But woodworking isn’t theoretical, and the practical measurements use in woodworking, among other places, are derived from thousands of years of study on the human body and it’s range of motion. Those motions are broken up fractionally at times because fractions are real, and numbers are theoretical-if that makes any sense. So that is why I use the Imperial system to woodwork with, and why I won’t change.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  6. Well, yes the imperial system is easier to use with woodworking, and again, I have no problem with that. Matter of fact, I can’t think of any lumber I buy in mm, I just can’t do it.

    But the imperial system is not a, how would you say? Homogenous system? 12 Inches to the foot, 3 feet to the yard, I dunno how many feet or yards to the mile, 16 oz to the pound, 2000 lbs to the ton, and water boils at 212 F. AFAIC it’s all hodge-podge. No common base unit.

    But the Americans would be surprised to find the metric system alive and well in daily use in the US–and has been for centuries now. I’m not talking about coke in 2 lt bottles at the Mall*Wart, or which car engine has a 3.6 ltr displacement. No, I’m talking about what’s in your wallet. 100 pennies to the dollar, 10 pennies to the dime, 10 dimes to the dollar, ten dollars to the $10 note, and so on. You can even get a hundred dollar note in pennies if you want to. If that isn’t metric, I don’t know what is. If you want a truly messed up system, look at the British pound before conversion.

    Where the metric system really shines is with weights. Dividing a base unit by 16 and then with fractions makes for many costly mistakes with bakers who refuse to use the metric system. I know, I’ve fired more than a few….

    Temperatures are pretty easy with metric as well. It’s all based on the most common element in the world: Water. In the metric system water freezes at o c and boils at 100 c. Folks, it don’t get any simpler than that.

    • billlattpa says:

      Don’t forget electrically. The metric system is used for all electric measurement and testing, which is probably the main reason I’m so familiar with it.

  7. I’m probably in the minority of Texans, but I like the metric system, base 10 math is easier. I did math models in college and learned everything from base 10 to base 60 numbering systems, and every one had its advantages and disadvantages. I do most of my own auto repairs/maintenance, its all metric and I’m pretty good and being able to guess the right size wrench. My problem and all Americans’ problem with metric is that We/I can’t see it in our mind’s eye. If I’m looking at a room I can guess pretty accurately that my office is about 12x14ft. Every single woodworking tool and supply sold on US soil is sold using imperial. I don’t know who decided that 16″ centers for studs was the way to go but it’s nice that a 4×8 sheet of Ply/sheetrock lays out on it. I’m not going to switch. With the fractions of woodworking the imperial system lends itself to that, and metric doesn’t.

    Besides when you get down to it every numbering system we have is just some arbitrary length/weight/volume that somebody assigned a name to. Its partly whatever you know, but it’s partly what works better for the application Imperial is fraction based and metric is decimal based. Fractions work better when building things.

  8. billlattpa says:

    I agree. There are many instances where metric is easier than the Imperial system. It works particularly well in abstract mathematics. Like you said, numbers are man/made to correspond with a set weight/length etc. The imperial system in particular has it’s roots in the ancient method of measuring using a human’s foot, arm, stride, reach, etc and basically assigning an “average” number to it to come up with a set of standards. I think it works particularly well for woodworking simply because much of the furniture we make is used by humans, and is designed to be ergonomic based from those “ancient” measurements.
    Secondly, like I said to another commenter, most people like the metric system because it generally avoids fractions. But the fact of the matter is that woodworking involves fractions, which are really just a form of ratios. You don’t subdivide cabinet shelves into .333333333333333, you divide it into thirds. Not too many woodworkers work without using ratios, yet they will claim to hate fractions, in particular those who live outside of the U.S. I have no issues with using fractions, dividing fractions, or subdividing them. Much woodworking is done down to 1/32. If you can use the metric system you should also be able to work with 32nds, at least in theory.
    I think we both agree that the Imperial system is probably a better system for woodworking/carpentry than the metric system. I honestly have nothing at all against the metric system and I don’t deny that it has it’s place; I’ve been using it nearly every work day since 1995. If we as a country switched to the metric system tomorrow I probably would have a quick transition, but nobody out there is going to tell me that it is far superior to Imperial, especially where woodworking is concerned.
    Thanks.
    Bill

  9. […] few weeks back I posted my feelings on the Metric System. Though I was mostly joking, I had some people agree, and some […]

    • Brad says:

      The metric system, causes problems for America. I personally think it is a stupid creation, created for stupid people that can’t do fractions. I have been a professional woodworker for almost 25 years, and all I have seen the metric system do is cause problems. This country became a world power using standard measurement, and now look what is happening, We can’t even produce our own products anymore. I blame the f’n metric system for confusing the American way!

      • billlattpa says:

        I think the metric system has its time and place, but that place isn’t in woodworking. Most woodworking involves ratios, and ratios are nothing more than fractions. Woodworkers think fractionally, and woodworking, as well as most building and design throughout history, is accomplished fractionally. The metric system works much better on a scientific level, such as measuring volume and temperature. And just as I would never use fractions to measure the temperature, why would I use decimals to define a ratio? Thanks. Bill

  10. Alex A. says:

    I use both systems (raised in Imperial but studied metric in engineering) and for general around the house and woodworking Imperial is easier to use for one simple reason, its based on the human body.

    A foot is about the length of my foot, an inch is the width of my thumb. Its not precise but its good enough for most work plus dividing imperial into fractions is way easier.

    I don’t measure for woodworking that needs to be super actuate, I use actual comparison, set a combination square, or a marking gauge.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’m the same way. All of my electrical classes were taught using the metric system, and I’ve used it nearly every day on the job for going on 20 years.

      I agree with you completely. Nearly all imperial measurements are based on the human body: reach, length of stride, length of foot, hand, etc..That is why it works so well for woodworking (and most crafts). Fractional measurements are simply ratios, which are another key component of woodworking. Ratios are not the metric system’s strong suit, at least in my opinion. Yet, most woodworkers use ratios in nearly all facets of design and construction, and ratios have been utilized since antiquity in all areas of design and engineering from furniture to the worlds most complex structure. But there are still some people who feel that the Imperial System is a dinosaur, and a system like Metric, which was conceived so everything could be divided by ten, is the future. Go figure.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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