Measuring up as a welder

November 25, 2008
By: Marty Rice

Among the skills employers look for in their welders is the ability to read a tape measure correctly. Surprisingly, not everyone can do so. Welding instructor Marty Rice shares an anecdote from his welding career that illustrates how critical it is for welders to master this skill.

Image Measuring Tape

Knowing how to read a tape measure, or I should say not knowing how to read a tape measure, caused me a lot of aggravation one day. I was working on a power house out in the Texas Panhandle in the middle of winter and it was cold! Around 20 below with the wind chill and I was working 20 stories up in the air. The higher you go, the colder it gets.

I've heard people say they'd rather work in the cold than the heat because they can dress for the cold. Yeah, right. That's just like the people who tell me working up high doesn't bother them because they aren't afraid of heights. I usually heard that when they had their feet firmly on the ground, or their butt on a barstool. Being 20 floors up on a 3-in.-wide beam with about 30 lbs. of tools hanging off your belt is a different story. Everyone is scared of heights; the key is getting over that fear. Being scared is what keeps you from getting in the comfort zone. You get comfortable and you go in the hole (fall).

I never could dress right for the cold. If I put on long john underwear, I'd get too hot, and then sweaty, then anytime a break in work occurred I proceeded to freeze my tail off. I paid a bunch of money for some long johns that advertising said would make me "laugh at the cold" when I wore them. I never found out if they worked because I washed them, and when they came out of the dryer they had shrunk so bad a 6-year-old couldn't wear 'em.

I tried overalls with a jacket, coveralls with no jacket, a vest, you name it, to no avail. I'd work, get hot and sweaty, stop for a minute, and freeze. And there wasn't a glove made or a boot worn that would keep my fingers and toes warm! Dress for the cold? Hah! I did, however, get more used to the cold as winter progressed. Notice I said "more used" not "completely used" to it.

So anyways, I was up there freezing while waiting on an apprentice to come help me weld a brace out the side of the building. There was already a brace, which was a cantilevered beam welded in place, and we had to put one directly below it. (A cantilevered beam is supported on one side only, which hangs out without a support column under it. This beam stuck out about 10 feet horizontally.)

The existing beam had another beam only a few inches above it, so the only way to get a measurement was to climb out hanging upside down, a job I gladly was going to give to my new apprentice. But then I looked up and here he came, or actually I should say here he slowly came. When you took the elevator that hung on the outside of the building, it would stop at a platform about 7 ft. by 7 ft. Beams, some merely a couple of inches wide, extended from the platform.

I remember one guy got off the elevator, took a look around, got back on, and drug up (quit). Well, it took my apprentice forever, but to his credit he made it over to me. There he stood, smiling a big ol' smile and wearing brand-new jeans, gloves, and tools. He was green as any greenhorn I've ever seen. I realized I couldn't send this guy out upside down on a beam 20 floors up his first day on the job.

So I handed him the tape measure and started crawling upside down looking like a dadgummed possum. As soon as I moved a couple of feet, my shirt tail came out, and the ice cold wind cut right up my back. Even though I had a lanyard looped around the beam to keep me from falling, I was still freakin' out to the max. I made it all the way out to the end of the beam, held the tape, and asked Gary Greenhorn if he had the measurement. "Yeah!" he hollered, so I scooched my way back, very glad to stand upright on a stable beam.

I asked him how far the beam he measured was sticking out and he said, and I quote, "Nine feet, 7 inches, and some of those little dealies." Some of those dealies? Are you freaking kidding me? Some of those dealies? I politely asked what the heck "dealies" were and he showed me the fraction lines between the inches—16ths, 8ths, 4ths. And no, he didn't pay attention to how many of the dealies it was, so yes, I had to climb back out and measure again. This time I gave him the "dumb" end of the tape measure so I could see how many dealies he meant.

I couldn't hold it against him because no one had taught him to read a tape measure. I can't stand people who get mad at new guys for something they don't know. You gotta give them a chance; all of us are newbies at one time or other. It's different, though, if you've had training and/or been working at something awhile. I am utterly amazed at how many high school students who enter my classes not only cannot read a tape measure, but don't even know what fractions are.

If you've been in the trade awhile you shouldn't have to think when you look at a tape measurement. I can see measurements and fractions quickly just looking at the tape because I've done it so many times.

If you can't read a tape, you should get one and carry that sucker with you like it was your best friend. Taking a break at work? Get it out and look at it. Watching TV at home? Get it out and study it. Going out to eat with your spouse? Well, maybe leave it at home then, but the more you look at it, the more familiar you'll get.

Start with wholes, halfs, quarters, eighths, and then sixteenths. Learn 'em, work with 'em, and memorize 'em until you have them down to the max. A great site I found on the net to practice reading measurements is

Welding employers I talk to want a worker who shows up on time every day—someone who has a good work ethic; is honest; gets along well with others; and can solve problems, read prints, and measure.

By the way, my apprentice learned well on the job and excelled at apprentice school. He worked hard and made a danged good journeyman ironworker. I kept what happened between the two of us, but reminded him from time to time about the "dealies."

Marty Rice

Marty Rice

Contributing Writer
High School Career Center in Texas
Marty Rice is a welding instructor at a high school career center in Texas. He is an honorary member of the Ironworkers Local 263.


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