How to Read a Tape Measure: Complete Guide and Tips

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When taking on a project, getting the measurements right is crucial for the end result. Some might shrug it off, but I’ve noticed not everyone knows how to read a tape measure correctly.

Before risking a wrong cut, here’s a guide on how to use a tape measure, along with the other tricks I’ve picked up over the years.

What to Know About Tape Measures

A measuring tape is one of the most common measurement tools readily available in the market. You can find tape measures in various sizes, ranging from 6-inch to 40-inch or even longer, at local hardware stores.

Tape Measures

If you’re engaged with light activities like hanging artwork pieces or making cabinet measurements, going for measuring tapes that are a bit shorter should be okay. 

However, you should consider ones with longer tape measure markings (around 25-inch marks or up) when doing large tasks like decking and framing. 

Parts of a Tape Measure

Tape

The tape could come in yellow or white, with numeric measurements printed on its surface. When using a wide tape, you can extend it further without any buckling issues. It’s also better at holding up in the long run than narrow tape measures.

tape measure

It’s designed like a flexible ruler with a curved construction, so it wouldn’t get deformed when extended to its longest line. It would help if you kept the tape flat to ensure accurate measurements. 

Housing and Belt Clip

Every tape measure sold in the market is held together by durable housing. You can find ones made of plastic or metal, which prevents the measuring tapes from expanding during usage. 

tape measure housing

A belt clip should also be on the back of the tape’s exterior. This feature allows you to clip the measuring tool into your clothes for easier access.  

Hooked End Tab

If you look at the tape’s tip, you’ll find a metal hook. You can hook it into the material’s edge to prevent the tape from steering away from a straight line. 

tape measure hook end tab

On top of that, it also serves as a stopper to prevent the tape from going all the way into the housing once it recoils. 

Push Button Stops

After you extend these handy markers, you can recoil the tape by pushing the button on top of that tool. It will trigger the flat spring connected to the tool and lead the tape back to its housing.

Reading an Imperial Tape Measure

One of the easiest methods to read a tape measure is through imperial measurements, often called inches and feet. Looking at the tool closely, the markings for inches are the boldest lines in a typical metric system. 

imperial tape measure 1

You won’t have difficulty spotting these markings, as all the numeric measurements are visibly big and have the longest lines. You’ll spot two half-inch marks in every inch as they have lines slightly shorter than the one-inch marks. 

A one-inch mark also carries four-quarter inches. As you compare the lines, you’ll notice that these are noticeably smaller marks than one half-inch marking. If you combine two quarter-inch markings, that’s how you’ll get a half-inch mark. In short, two quarter-inches equal a single ½-inch. 

The second shortest lines in the tape are called the eighth-inch markings. When you read these measurements, remember that a quarter-inch marking equates to two-eighth inches, and a single inch is composed of eight-eighth inches. 

imperial tape measure 2

Last but not least, the smallest line in the tape measure is the sixteenth marking. If you followed the previous measuring pattern, you’d know that two sixteenth markings equal an eighth inch. You’ll also get 16 of these shortest markings in a single inch. 

If your tape measure only caters to inches, all you need to do is remember that a foot is equivalent to 12-inch [1]

Typically, you’ll see a black arrow above all those individual inches signifies imperial units for reaching the one-foot mark, two-foot mark, three-foot mark, and further down the entire tape’s length. 

Reading a Metric Tape Measure

Metric tape measures aren’t the easiest measurement tools to read for newbies. Although these options come in the same length, it’s composed of little lines where one centimeter is broken down to ten millimeters. 

Unlike the standard tapes, the entire length of a metric measuring tool does not carry incremental unit markings for an inch or foot. To count the measurement, you can refer to the red indicators after every 10th centimeter.  

metric tape measure

Each line with a shorter length is counted as one millimeter within the one-centimeter ruler markings. When you read the metric tapes, the 5th-millimeter marker will stand out as it has a line longer than others. 

This design allows users to spot the half measurement of one centimeter easily.  

Reading the Special Markings

What are the Red Numbers?

After every sixteen inches, most tape measures include bold and red markings specially designed for professional constructors. These indicators serve as standard markers for 16-inch stud placements.

16th inch stud

What do the Black Diamonds Signify?

If you see a black diamond above the numeric measurements, know that these indicators are for setting trusses. These markers are designed to help users set six trusses in an 8-foot length.

black diamond marking on a tape measure

Will the Hook Affect the Measurement?

Yes, it affects the measurement’s precision because the hook should slide and hold on to the material’s edge to set the mark accurately.

tape measure hook

How to Measure With a Tape Measure

  1. Put the tape measure’s hook at the material’s edge. It should align with the area you want to mark or measure.
  2. Extend the measuring tape. Pull it to the end of the material or at least up to the bottom of the area you want to mark. 
  3. Find the right length. Depending on the tape markings, you can add inch and foot metrics to get the measurement you need. Meanwhile, you’ll need to convert the measurements to millimeters and centimeters for metric tapes.

Measuring Test

Here are some easy measuring tests to practice your skills. Examine the red lines I’ve marked and tell me the measurements based on the reading methods discussed earlier.

1 1/4 inch

Answer: 1 ¼ inch

As you can see, the distance between 3-inch and 4-inch markers is equivalent to 1 inch. The red mark is placed past the 4-inch line and falls into the ¼” marking, so the answer is one and ¼. 

1/2 inch

Answer: 1/2”

Given that the red marks range around the middle of the one-centimeter mark with slightly longer lines than other millimeter markings, it’s easy to tell that the measurement is at ½”. 

Reading Tips

While measuring, don’t forget to keep the tape in a straight, single line. The accuracy of your readings would be compromised if the tape’s hook wanders over the material. Rather than marking a single line, I prefer a v-shaped marking on the material for greater precision.

Safety Tips

Avoid recoiling the tape measure at full speed. You may not know, but the hook can flail and lead to hurting your finger or, worse, flying right at your face. If you can, wear safety goggles and gloves while working on your project.   

Conclusion

Now that you’ve learned how to read a tape measure properly, I’m confident that getting the exact measurements won’t be as challenging as before. 

Always remember, marking the right spots is crucial to maintain accuracy, whether you’re drilling a small hole or making a cut on the material. 

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Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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