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How to Read a Tape Measure

Understanding how to read a tape measure is essential to nearly every home project, from hanging a picture frame to installing new flooring. Fortunately, it is a skill that is easy to learn once you understand the fundamentals and what each of the markings on the tape measures mean.

Skill Level: Beginner
  1. Step 1 Get to Know Your Tape Measure

    Milwaukee tape measure.

    Before you can understand how to read a tape measure, you must first get to know the tape measure and how it works. These little pieces of tape measure terminology will help you on further steps.

    • Case: Tape measures are wound within a durably constructed case that are typically contoured to fit comfortably in the hand as you work. The case is marked with the brand and the maximum length the tape measure can accommodate.
    • Hook Slot: There’s a small hole at the end of the tape measure that allows for it to be attached to a nail or screw as an anchor point for your measurement.
    • Measuring Tape: The measuring tape itself is the retractable piece that pulls out from the case and features markings like a ruler. They are typically white or yellow in hue to make them visible against any product and can be made of fabric, plastic, or metal according to the individual design.
    • Thumb Lock: The measuring tape case will have a thumb lock located on the top that slides up and down, in the up position it allows for the measuring tape to pull out and retract with ease. Press the thumb lock down and it locks the tape in place precisely where it is so you can take your measurements without the tape retracting.
    • Belt Clip: Most measuring tapes feature a clip attached to the back of the case that allows you to clip the measuring tape to your belt, keeping it within easy reach as you work on a project.
  2. Step 2 Types of Measuring Tapes

    Person measuring tile.

    There are two main types of measuring tapes available, those that measure in metric units and those that measure in imperial units. They are also available in various lengths, so make sure you select one long enough to accommodate your needs. If you are going to be doing work that involves knowing stud marks and truss distances, choose a specialty measuring tape with these measurements clearly marked to help take some of the math out of the equation.

  3. Step 3 How to Read a Measuring Tape in Feet and Inches

    Close up of tape measure.

    Imperial tape measures provide easy-to-read measurements in inches and feet. Learning how to read a measuring tape in inches and feet is easy when you understand the markings. As you pull out the measuring tape, you’re going to notice four types of markings.

    • Feet: Every 12 inches there’s a large marking that indicates both the foot and the total inches for that place on the measuring tape.
    • Inches: There’s a bold number and a long line for every inch on the measuring tape.
    • Half Inches: In between the bold numbers, there’s also a long line on the half-inch. This longer line is not accompanied by a number like they are on the 1-inch marks.
    • 1/8 Inches: In between all the long lines are shorter lines. These shorter lines mark every 1/8-inch.
  4. Step 4 How to Read a Measuring Tape in Metres and Millimetres

    Close up of tape measure.

    In many ways, metric tape measures can be even easier to read. The metric system relies on measurements that are divisible by 10, so there are 10 millimetres in a centimetre, 10 centimetres in a decimetre and 10 decimetres in a metre. Because they offer smaller measurements, they can be more accurate than an imperial tape measure.

    • Decimetre: Every 10 centimetres is a decimetre. The decimetre is indicated by a bold red number, as opposed to the black numbers that appear every centimetre.
    • Centimetre: Every centimetre along a metric tape measure features a longer line and a bold number.
    • Half Centimetre: Between every centimetre is a long half-centimetre mark. These marks are as long as the centimetre marks, but they don’t have a number above them.
    • Millimetre: Between each centimetre are a series of smaller marks. Each of these small marks indicate a millimetre.
  5. Step 5 Using Your Tape Measure

    Person measuring wood.

    Now that you understand how to read your tape measure, it’s important to understand the proper way to take measurements.

    • Straight Measurements: If you are measuring something flat, take the metal end cap of the tape measure and line it up against the edge of the material, laying the tape flat along the surface. This will provide the most accurate measurement. If you are measuring the total length of an object, find the nearest inch to the end of the item and then count the 1/8-inch marks up or down from that nearest inch mark.
    • Marking a Perfect Circle: If you need to draw a perfect circle. Use a nail to anchor the end of the tape measure. Place a pencil along the desired radius measurement and slowly spin the tape measure and pencil along the surface, creating a perfect circle.
    • Retract the Tape Carefully: Once you’ve completed your measurements, retract the tape measure slowly and carefully. Allowing it to retract too quickly can make it easy to cut your finger or hand if you don’t move it out of the way fast enough.

    Once you’ve discovered how to read a tape measure easily and accurately, you’ll be able to complete any home improvement project with more accuracy and precision. If you are purchasing a tape measure for the first time, choose a longer tape measure, it will be more likely to meet all your needs.

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