How to Read a Tape Measure Quickly and Accurately

Learn what each of the marks and numbers on a tape measure indicate.

A tape measure is essential for everyone, from new homeowners hanging curtains in their houses to the framers who built them. Often called a measuring tape, tape measures provide a lengthy measuring device in a compact package.

While reading a tape measure is fairly straightforward, some tips and tricks can make your measuring quicker and more accurate. Plus, we’ll help you unlock tape measure features you didn’t even know existed. Read on to learn the ins and outs of tape measures.

What Is a Tape Measure?

A tape measure resembles a roll of tape. It is a compact, handheld tool with a retractable measuring device in a plastic or metal housing.

Parts of a Tape Measure

Tape measures vary in size and length, but all have the same general design. The critical components of a tape measure are:

  • Tape: The tape, often called the blade, is the portion of the tape measured with the printed measuring intervals. Many tapes are curved, which offers strength to keep the tape from buckling when extended.
  • Hook: The hook is a metal tab on the tape’s end. It’s used to grab material when measuring and keeps the tape from fully retracting into the housing.
  • Housing: The housing protects the tape and secures the components responsible for retracting the tape.
  • Lock: The locks on tape measures vary in design. Some slide down to lock the tape, while some auto-lock and retract the tape at the push of a button.
  • Belt Clip: The belt clip sits on the side of the tape measure, allowing you to clip the tape measure onto your belt or another surface.

Some tape measures have bonus features that can prove extremely helpful. Here are some less common tape measure parts:

  • Finger Stop: A slot in the housing allows you to rest your finger on the tape to hold it in place while protecting it from the swift retraction of the tape.
  • Magnetic Hook: You can grab onto metal studs and other metal objects quickly with the magnetic hook.
  • Extra-Wide Blade: The wider a tape measure’s blade, the stouter it is, and the easier it is to read.

How to Read a Tape Measure

Many lines and numbers are printed on a tape measure. The large, bold lines and numbers represent the most significant intervals, such as inches and feet. The smaller, fainter lines and numbers represent smaller divisions of the larger intervals.

These are the typical measurements you’ll find on a standard tape measure:

  • Inches: The inch lines are the largest, boldest numbers on a tape measure. These sit directly over or adjacent to a line running from the bottom to the top of the tape.
  • Feet: Every 12 inches equals 1 foot, indicated by a smaller bold number aligning with the corresponding 12-inch increment (12, 24, 36, 48). Often, the footmarks feature bold black arrows as well.
  • 1/2 Inches: The most considerable tick mark is centered between each inch line, representing 1/2-inch increments.
  • 1/4 Inches: The 1/2-inch tick marks are divided in two, with slightly shorter tick marks representing 1/4 inches.
  • 1/8 Inches: The 1/4-inch tick marks are further divided by slightly shorter tick marks representing 1/8 inches.
  • 1/16 Inches: Lastly, each 1/8-inch tick mark is divided in two, with the shortest tick mark representing 1/16 inches. The 1/16-inch marks aren’t on all tape measures.

Some tape measures have printed fractions above each tick mark (1/8, 1/4, 3/8, 1/2, 5/8, 3/4), which aid in quickly reading measurements that don’t align with an inch mark.

Other Marks on a Tape Measure

Beyond the numbers and tick marks, your tape measure might feature strange symbols and highlighted numbers you don’t understand at first glance.

  • Large Red Inch Numbers: When using your tape measure, you might notice that some numbers are red. These numbers, such as 16, 32, and 48, are highlighted for quickly laying out studs on 16-inch centers. These numbers can also help you locate studs behind drywall.
  • Black Diamonds: The black diamonds on tape measures don’t always line up with inches like the red numbers, but they have a similar purpose. These black diamonds are positioned explicitly for setting roof trusses.
  • Small Red Inch Numbers: Some tape measures feature smaller red inch numbers above each large black inch number, but these numbers differ. The smaller red inch numbers represent how many inches past the nearest foot mark you’ve gone, starting over at 1 every time you reach a whole foot.

Tips for Using a Tape Measure

Here are some tips and tricks that will guarantee the accuracy of your measurements when using a tape measure:

  • Note your tape measure housing’s length. Most tape measures have the housing length inscribed somewhere on the back, often beneath the belt clip. This tells you how much distance the housing adds to the length of the tape, which keeps you from having to bend the tape to measure the distance between two horizontal surfaces.
  • Learn how to use the hook. The hook of your tape measure is intentionally not locked in place. Grab it, and you’ll notice it slides back and forth slightly. This movement is equal to the thickness of the hook, which helps the measurements stay accurate whether you’re pushing against an object or pulling away from an object.