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It's Our Turn: The importance of precise guesstimation

Way back in another life (about 20-some years ago), I used to be a carpenter and construction worker. Of course, I still am when something needs fixing or building around the house. You just can't get away from it, I guess.

In any case, when you spend your day measuring, cutting and trying to make things fit, it's inevitable that you come up with some interesting and strange ways of communicating lengths and amounts.

Some of these are humorous or just intended as practical jokes, such as the old "go get me a board stretcher" line that is used on construction newbies (there is no such thing). Or the one in the lumber store where the clerk asks how long you want the board, and you scratch your head and reply, "Oh, I suppose about 25 years." My personal favorite when I'm having trouble getting something to fit is still, "I've cut this three times now and it's still too short."

However, communicating precise lengths and widths to construction co-workers is where meaningful units of measurement became really important. Yet, for some reason, we never really went smaller than a sixteenth of an inch in measuring. Maybe it was because most tape measures don't go any finer than that, so it's easy to pretend smaller units don't exist. So, although you could say, "Cut another thirty-second of an inch off this board," it's a lot easier and quicker to just say, "Hey, it's just a smidgen too long. Take another hair off."

Now, I realize — for anyone who's used to dealing with fine measurements and micrometers — that a hair is probably a lot skinnier than a thirty-second of an inch. But that's not the point.

The point is that most of the time this system works pretty well, even though the measurements aren't precise. And the reason it works is not because everyone knows exactly how long a titch or a tad is, but because these words communicate that absolute precision is not really necessary. In other words, just make it a smidgen shorter and we'll make it fit — even if we have to use a big hammer. If it still doesn't fit, we can always take another hair off.

Obviously, this measurement system might not be the best for fine trim work where more precision is needed, but that doesn't mean you can't try. My personal favorite system is to measure to the nearest sixteenth of an inch and then add a plus or minus (which would be approximately equal to half a smidgen, two hairs, or one thirty-second of an inch).

I can see how measuring in pluses, smidgens, hairs and whiskers could be confusing for beginners. It's only natural to want to understand what people around you are talking about and to give them just what they want. So how do you figure out the precise meaning of these common terms? While there's no doubt that a bit is longer than a smidgen or a titch, other terms are more confusing. Which is longer, a hair or a whisker? And what is the difference between a bit and a tad? And why is it that some measurements, such as a bit or a titch, change depending on the material you are working with?

All I can say is that if you use these terms every day you get used to them and can soon easily tell one from another. When you know the difference between a bit, a titch, a tad, a smidgen, a hair and a whisker, then you'll never be at a loss to quickly communicate the appropriate small measurement in the quickest and coolest way possible.