Measure Twice/Cut Once

Deep Roots contains short stories that inspire, encourage, and inform.
Deep Roots contains short stories that inspire, encourage, and inform.

We’re highlighting stories from our short story collection, Deep Roots.

Measure Twice, Cut Once


Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers

to make everything I have commanded you.

-Exodus 31:6


I’ve always loved watching an artist at work. To watch a skilled craftsman shape something with their hands—and heart—is a joy.

As the above verse in Exodus states, the work of a gifted craftsman is a gift from God. The fact that great artists have honed their skills with hundreds of hours of repetitious practice makes it no less a gift from God. In fact, it must please God greatly to see someone take a gifted skill and be a good steward in developing it.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers, sums this up, “It takes about 10,000 hours to become really great at anything.”

In my hometown of Dry Creek, two artisans are my close friends. They both operate under the wise motto of “measure twice, cut once.” It just happens that they’re married to each other.

Van is a carpenter. He is a tall sinewy man with a quick smile and strong hands.

He works hard and is known for doing good and dependable work. As a carpenter, he knows all about “measuring twice before cutting once.”

Waste is not a quality for a good carpenter. Carefully measuring to get it right the first time eliminates a lot of grief later on. You may not think of a carpenter as an artist, but they are. Webster’s defines an artist as “one who is adept at something.”

The second artist is Van’s wife, Cathy. She operates In Style Hair Salon in Dry Creek. On my monthly trip to get my bald-head clipped, I’m amazed as I watch her hands move quickly cutting , styling, and shaping the hair of the men and women of our community.

Cathy also operates by the “measure twice—cut once” principle. She told of a customer who made five trips in one day—each time wanting a “little bit more cut off.”

Knowing that “once it’s cut, it’s gone,” Cathy carefully trimmed a little bit more, knowing the customer was near the “I can’t believe I got that much cut off” line.

Measure twice, cut once.

It’s a good motto for anyone, not just a hair stylist or a carpenter.

Cathy was the first woman to cut my dad’s hair at the age of sixty-three. He told me, “I did something today I’d never done. I had a woman cut my hair.”

A few years ago after his death, Cathy said, “I still have a lock of your daddy’s hair. When he became sick with cancer, I kept a lock in honor and memory of him.

That meant the world to me.

#           #             #

            I’ve had unforgettable haircuts in two foreign countries—Vietnam and Ethiopia.

During my 2002 visit to Vietnam, I was amused at the barbershops in the capital city of Hanoi. In the parks, barbers would hang a mirror on a tree, pull up a chair, and cut hair with scissors and a straight razor.

I decided to get one these outdoor haircuts. The only problem was that my barber didn’t speak English and I didn’t know Vietnamese. I figured sign language would work just fine. Holding my thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart, I gestured, “Just a little. Not much.”

The barber smiled, popped his apron, and put me in the chair. He quickly went to work. Because we couldn’t talk, there was none of the “story breaks” I was used to in America.

The Viet barber had me turned away from his mirror. Even without looking, I knew he was cutting off too much. The amount of hair falling onto the apron and ground alarmed me.

When he pulled out the straight razor, I’d had enough. He looked to be about my age and had probably fought with the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army. There was no way he was going to put a razor on my neck.

Standing up, I looked into the mirror and saw that I’d been scalped.

I realized that my two-fingered gesture of “cut just a little” was interpreted as “leave just a little.”

\           I don’t recall how many Viet đồng my haircut cost, but I definitely got my money’s worth. When my American friends saw me, one said, “What in the world happened to you?”

“Oh, I just got a Hanoi haircut.”

Fortunately, there was a week before we left for home. By the time we re-crossed the Pacific and returned to America, my hair had mostly recovered from my Hanoi haircut.

You’d think I would have learned from my Vietnam experience, but in Ethiopia, I bravely entered a barbershop as DeDe asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?’.

The shop was full of men laughing and talking until the “furanji” (the derisive term for foreigners) entered. The young barber motioned me into his chair. His trembling hands were ample proof that he’d never cut a white man’s hair.

He took a deep breath, then poured alcohol on his clippers, struck a match, and placed it in front of my face. I probably should have run right then.

He was only showing me that he’d sterilized his clippers. Those clippers buzzed loudly around my ears as he went to work. I noticed that everyone in the shop stopped talking and the other barbers quit cutting. They were intent on watching my haircut. I felt sorry for the barber. He was under the gun. As I watched the mirror, I would smile and approvingly shake my head in encouragement.

He finished and the entire room, including DeDe, seemed to exhale together. I paid my money, left him a good tip, and waved goodbye to the audience who’d watched my Ethiopian haircut.

The young barber walked us to the door, shaking my hand and talking in Amharic. I’ll always wonder what he was saying.

As I put my ball cap on and we strolled away, he looked up and down the street as if looking for the next furanji who might invade his barbershop.

I wonder how you translate “Measure Twice-Cut Once” into Ethiopian Amharic?





  1. “Measure twice, cut once” is one of the things my Dad has said more than many times; it’s something I’ve said to my son, my daughter, and even my wife. So, when I saw that title on FB, I had to read the story … of course, anything I’ve read that you’ve written has been well worth the time and this was no exception.

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