How to Read a Tape Measure

Even if math was not your strongest subject in school, you may be comforted to learn that this has little to do with mathematical calculations. Reading a tape measure combines basic fractions with understanding how marks work on today’s tape measures.

Tape Measure Marks

Marks on a tape measure are the straight lines that run perpendicular to the tape. Some marks are black, and some are red.

To read a tape measure, think about moving from long marks down to short marks. The longest mark indicates 1 inch. As the length of the marks progressively shortens, the measurements also shorten. Marks range from 1 inch down to 1/16 inch on most tape measures.

Hook End Movement

The flat metal hook attached to the tape at the end with rivets is meant to grab onto the end of an item so that you can extend the tape. This hook is meant to slide back and forth. This is so you can measure either by butting the tape against an object or hooking it on its edge. The sliding motion ensures that you get an accurate measurement in either direction.

Hook Accuracy

Unfortunately, the movement on the hook isn’t accurate on all tapes and can lose accuracy over time. If you really need an accurate measurement and believe the hook is not moving properly, you can do a simple technique called “burning an inch.” This means that you line up the end of the item you’re measuring with the 1-inch mark on the tape. When you take the measurement, subtract that extra inch that you added. This eliminates any inaccuracy from the hook.

Marks for Studs and Joists

Tape measures usually have a red mark every 16 inches. This makes it convenient to mark off wall studs or joists, typically 16 inches apart. You can ignore this marker unless you are dealing with wall studs or joists.

Tape Measure Safety

Tape measures can be more hazardous to the operator than they may seem initially. Do not let the tape roll back into place at full force, as you can badly cut your finger and damage the tape. Instead, reel it back slowly.

Tape Measure 1-Inch Mark

The whole inch, or 1-inch mark on a tape measure, is the longest and most accessible to see.

Foot markers are the longest lines on the tape measure and sometimes extend the entire tape width. Most tape measures tell you where each foot mark and the whole inch designation are located. This way, for example, you do not need to calculate 36 inches as equaling 3 feet.

The whole-inch mark is the easiest to read on the tape measure because the number is clearly stated on the tape. There is no guesswork. These numbers usually continue for the entire length of the tape measure.

Tape Measure 1/2-Inch and 1/4-Inch Marks

The tape measure’s 1/2-inch mark is the second-shortest, and the 1/4-inch mark is the
next-shortest. Once you pass the whole-inch marks, the numbers are usually not stated on
the tape.

In addition to its length, the 1/2-inch mark is relatively easy to locate because it is exactly halfway between any two whole-inch numerals. Every inch is divided into two halves.

The 1/4-inch mark is precisely halfway between any two 1/2-inch marks. Remember that every inch is divided into four quarters. Most people still find this a reasonably easy mark to read, as the line is relatively long.

Tape Measure 1/8-Inch and 1/16-Inch Marks

Up to this point, it has been easy to read the tape measure.

But now, the 1/8-inch mark and the 1/16-inch mark come along and make things a bit more confusing. For one thing, both are very short marks. For another thing, so many of these marks can get lost in the thicket of other marks.

The 1/8-inch mark is located between any two 1/4-inch marks. Most work tends to stop at this point, though in some cases, you will need to measure down to the 1/16-inch mark.

The 1/16-inch mark is the absolute shortest line on the tape measure. It is also the first line that you will encounter after or before a whole-inch mark.