Tape Measure Tricks & Tips

Measuring Up

A Tape Measure

seems like a simplistic basic tool at first glance, but it’s capable of doing a whole lot more than you might have thought.

The Tape Measure

Everyone has at least one. We use them to figure out if that new flat screen TV will fit on that wall or what size rug we need for that room, but a tape measure has a multitude of functions that most people probably aren’t even aware of. We’re going to cover the basics, and then some nifty tricks and tips, and maybe we’ll even answer some of the questions that you’ve always wanted to know along the way. 

How To Read a Tape

What do all the hash mark lines on a tape mean? It’s really simple if you remember that the longer the line, the bigger the increment, and they go like this:

The big numbers in black are inches. Every 12 inches equals 1 foot and the tape will tell you that 24 inches is 2 feet, 36 inches is 3 feet, etc. The smaller numbers in red correspond to feet plus inches, so 18 inches (in black) is the same as 1 foot 6 inches, and so on.

From there we break down an inch into fractions of an inch.

1/2″There are 2 half inches in one inch. The half-inch hash marks are the next longest line between the full inch marks.

1/4” – There are 4 quarters in one inch. The quarter inch marks are a little shorter than the half inch marks. Two quarters equal one half.

1/8” – There are 8 eighths in one inch. The eighth inch hash marks are the second shortest marks. Two eighths equal one quarter.

1/16” – There are 16 sixteenths in one inch. These are the smallest lines. Two sixteenths equal one eighth.

Some tapes print out the fractions down to eighths which make it easier for those who are math challenged.


How To Read A Tape

This is the more common printing found on most tapes without the fractions.


16" On Center

You’ll notice that the inch numbers are printed in red for 16, 32, 48, 64, 80, and on up. This corresponds to the most popular layout for studs in a framed wall and joists in a floor, which are called 16” on center. This layout gives you 6 supports per every 8 feet with one landing at the halfway (or 4 foot) point which works really well with plywood that is sized to 4’ by 8’ panels.


The Mysterious Black Diamond

The tape measure marking that is the most mysterious are the black diamonds. You’ll see the first one at just a fuzz more than 19-3/16”. It’s actually a common layout for I-Joist spacing. If you take an 8-foot section and divide it by 5, you’ll get a spacing of 19.2 inches. So we have a black diamond at 19.2, 38.4, 76.8, and 96, and on up. A 19.2” on center layout will use 1 less framing member per 8 feet than 16” oc.   


The Hook

The hook at the end of your tape is supposed to be a little loose in its rivets. That way when you take an inside measurement (wall to wall for example), the hook slides in the exact amount of the thickness of the hook. When you then hook the tape on the end of your workpiece, the hook will slide out the same amount so your measurement will be perfect.


The Hook

Ever wonder what the notch that all tape measures have in the middle of their hook is for? It just happens to be the perfect size to catch on the head of a nail or screw. It’s sort of like having an extra set of hands, even when you are all by yourself.


Odd Width Dividing

You want to divide a board perfectly in half, thirds, or any other equal fractions. What is 7-7/8” divided by 3? Who knows. Who cares? This simple trick eliminates any complicated math.


Odd Width Measuring

If you want thirds, simply angle your tape across the board until you arrive at a number that is easily divided by 3. With the tape reading 9”, make a mark at 3”.


Odd Width Marking

And add another mark at 6. Measure at a 90-degree angle from one side to each mark to get the real numbers to transfer them wherever you need them. And just like that, you’ve divided the board into thirds without doing any math whatsoever, let alone having to divide fractions. Works great for any other equal division like fourths too.


Scribe A Line

A fast and easy way to draw a line that is parallel with an edge. Hold the tape measure against the edge of the material with your index finger in between the tape case and the material. Pinch a pencil next to the hook end and as you move across the material, the pencil will draw a straight line.


Score A Line

When working with a material like drywall, you can use the same technic as above, except substitute a utility knife for the pencil to score a cut line without even taking the time to draw it.


Know The Width Of Your Base

Tape measure bases always have their width printed on the back. This can make it much easier to take an inside measurement.


Don't Guess Into A Corner

Instead of bending the tape into an inside corner and guessing at the measurement…


Use The Base

Set the base flat and push it all the way to the corner. Then just add the width of the base to the reading on the tape and it’ll be perfect every time.


Burn An Inch

Sometimes we need to measure off of a line instead of the end of a board and it’s difficult to set the hook up accurately on the line. To “burn an inch” means to line up the one-inch mark on the line and then just mark your location an extra inch long at the other end.


A Note About Safety

Safety is important. I can’t say it any better than my all-time favorite woodworker/ TV host, Norm Abram, so I’ll just leave you with his famous quote:

“Be sure to read, understand, and follow all the safety rules that come with your power tools. Knowing how to use your power tools properly will greatly reduce the risk of personal injury. And remember this: there is no more important safety rule than to wear these (Norm points to his glasses) — safety glasses.” 

-Norm Abram, New Yankee Workshop


Steve Wright

Steve Wright is a general contractor who over the last 30 plus years has built hundreds of new homes, ranging from first time affordable homes to multi-million dollar custom homes and everything in between.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Penelope Smith

    This is some really good information about how to measure with a measuring tape. I liked that you explained that the marks on a measuring tape between the numbers go as small as 1/16th. I am terrible at measuring so it would be nice if I could have a tool that told me the exact number.


    This was such an informative article on a Tape measure, these are important tips especially to Instrument Engineer like me. I would use a tape measure especially when am measuring vessel heights to enable me specify the right Level instrument. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Diane

    Love the tip about 1/3’s and going on an angle!

  4. Stan Dupp

    I’ve always wondered what those little black diamonds were for.

  5. Otto B

    The angled tape for easy division trick is brilliant!

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