Does a seemingly simple tool like a tape measure feel incredibly frustrating? Learn how to read a tape measure accurately and discover the hidden clever features to help you get the most out of it.
If there is one crucial basic tool you need to make or build anything – it’s the tape measure! Measuring and marking accurate readings is extremely important to get the best results from your DIY projects, whether it involves mounting a picture frame, adding board and batten walls, or building a cabinet.
Tape measures come in both Imperial Units (inches and feet) and metric (centimeters and meters) and have unit breakdowns for further accuracy.
Reading a Tape Measure
At first glance, it might seem like a no-brainer, but all those marks, symbols, and fractions can make your head spin when you try to use a tape measure in a pinch.
I grew up in the metric system. Any measurement under a 1/4″ has me cross-eyed and counting lines – 2 ticks past the 1/8″ mark, anyone? But living in this country for the last 20 years and building furniture for the last nine years has made me more comfortable using the imperial system.
In this article, I will dive into everything you need to know about the tape measure and all the tips to get the best and most accurate reading.
Table of Contents
Parts of a Tape Measure
Every tape measure has a few basic parts. Depending on the model and manufacturer, they might differ in the look and how they operate, but their essential functions remain the same.
This is the heart of the tape measure and is a flexible ruler which is made of fiberglass or metal. It can be pulled out or retraced into the case. When pulled out, it is slightly curved, which gives it rigidity.
Specialized home improvement and woodworking versions are usually yellow and have special markings for stud intervals and truss locations. (more on this below)
The case is the housing for the measuring tape. It is made of plastic or metal. It can come in various sizes depending on the length of tape it needs to house.
The Metal Tab Hook
At the front of the tape is a metal tab. This has many uses. One of the main things you will notice is that the metal tab moves. You may think it is broken, but it is actually intentional and helps make getting accurate measurements easier. We will discuss that in detail below.
The Thumb Lock
The thumb lock helps hold and lock the tape in an extended state to help with measurements. Once the measurement is completed, you can release the thumb lock to retract the tape. Be careful, though. The tape can retract really fast and pinch your skin.
The Belt Clip
The belt clip on the back of the case can be hooked onto your apron or tool belt to help keep your tape measure close!
How to read a tape measure in inches
Reading an Imperial unit tape measure is all about dividing up the markings.
- Start by looking at the whole-inch markings. These are the longest lines on the tape measure and typically have large numbers to the left of them. As the fraction decreases, so do the length of the marks.
- The next largest mark halfway between the numbers is the half-inch mark.
- The quarter-inch marks are the next largest mark halfway between the 1/2″ marks.
- The marking halfway between 1/4″ marks is the eighth-inch mark.
- The marking halfway between 1/8″ is the sixteenth-inch mark.
- The marking halfway between the 1/16″ is 1/32″.
- Once you have identified the line you want to measure or mark, count the fraction to that line.
- That is your measurement.
Most tapes go down to 1/16″ and some will go down to 1/32″. The tape in the picture goes down to 1/16″.
It takes some practice to read the markings and figure out the fractions quickly, but with time, it definitely gets better.
How to get accurate readings with a tape measure
Getting accurate measurements doesn’t only involve reading the lines on the tape.
You should protect your tape measure like your child. Don’t let the tape twist or bend. This can damage the tape and lead to inaccurate readings.
Here are a few little details to pay close attention to so you get the most accurate readings –
- Keep the tape straight – When measuring, keep the tape completely straight – in all directions.
- Any sagging will make the measurements inaccurate.
- If the tape is at an angle, the measurement will be inaccurate.
- Burn an inch – If your tape measure is old and you aren’t confident about its accuracy, start measuring at 1″. Then subtract 1″ for the final measurement. This only works in the case of smaller objects.
Tape Measure safety
Yes, you read that right! There are safety measures to follow while using the seemingly harmless tape measure.
Very important – don’t let the tape reel back into the housing at warp speed.
The metal tape can be extremely sharp (think paper cut but with metal!). It can cause bruises if left to recoil uncontrollably. It can also flail around hitting others or surroundings.
Safely recoil the tape measure by gently hold the tape near the mouth of the case and use fingers to control the speed at which the tape goes back in.
Clever Tape Measure Features You Should Know
Do you know the little unassuming tape measure has plenty of hidden features to make life easier and make reading them more accurate.
1. Why is the tape measure end loose?
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard – “Is my tape measure broken? Why is this silver tab moving so much?”
No. The tape measure is NOT broken. That silver tab is meant to move.
In fact, it’s motion is what helps you get accurate readings. I think this is one of the most important and genius features on the tape measure.
Let’s dive deeper into it.
The distance the tab moves is the equal to the thickness of the tab.
When you are pulling to measure, the tab extends out so the zero starts on the inside edge of the tab.
When you push to measure – like inside a box, zero starts at the outside edge of the tab.
It is a simple feature but makes a HUGE difference in the accuracy of the tape.
2. Why is there a hole in the tab?
The hole in the tab can help with 2 things –
- Hook it – if you are measuring from the middle of a surface and your arms are not long enough to reach the other end, simply add a nail or thin screws to hook the tab and measure.
- With the tab hooked on the nail/screw, you can hold the pencil to the desired reading to draw a circle at any size.
3. What’s the number of the case?
I am glad you asked! It is an important feature that helps make life easier for you.
The number denotes the length of the case itself.
If you have to measure inside a box or window frame, you can simply rest the entire tape measure inside and get your measurements. Simply add the reading on the tape measure and the number of the case.
For example, my tape measure is 3-3/8″ wide. The above measurement will be 30-1/2″ + 3-3/8″ = 33-7/8″.
4. What is the black diamond on the tape measure?
The black diamond is the truss spacing.
Each black diamond is 19.2″ apart and appear at those multiple until 96″ or 8′.
Not just the black diamond, the typical stud spacing is 16″ and you will find many measuring tapes that mark the 16″ increments with red boxes.
Apart from that, every tape has the total length of the tape written at the very beginning.
5. Marking tool in a pinch
Raise your hand if you have ever lost a pencil in the workshop.
In a pinch, the sharp ends of the tab can also act as a temporary marking tool by scraping a mark in the wood-like-medium.
My Favorite Tape Measure
If you are still getting used to quickly reading the lines and fractions, the alternative is a tape measure that has the fractions already marked!
What’s even better is to have the decimal equivalents of each fraction marked on the tape measure.
This tape measure has everything. Now, it might not be as heavy-duty as some others below, but it is definitely life-changing.
What do you think?
Was this article helpful? Aren’t these little hidden features super-clever?!
More Beginner Woodworking articles –
- 5 Beginner woodworking tips no one tells you
- How to make accurate cuts with a miter saw
- How to use pocket holes like a pro
Anika's goal is to inspire and empower beginners with woodworking, DIY, home improvement, and home decor ideas.
She wants everyone to unlock their creative potential and experience the feeling that comes with making something. Nothing feels better better than seeing something and saying "I can make that!"