A tape measure is one of the most common tools in a handyman's kit. There are several varieties, some with special and very particular features, but none of that matters if you can't take an accurate measurement. Before gearing up for your next DIY project, take the time to familiarize yourself with the various functions of a tape measure. Learn the proper way to take accurate measurements and a few shortcuts to master those fractions without cheating.
To understand the basics of using tape measures, you first have to familiarize yourself with the tool's parts and how to use them. The housing of the tape measure, which usually comes in metal or plastic, is called a case. The measuring tape itself, called a blade or ribbon, retracts into the case thanks to a spring and stop mechanism. Keep the ribbon from retracting with the thumb lock button, or secure it to the edge of a surface with the hooked metal tab at the end.
The longest lines on most tape measures designate each inch on the blade. The second-longest line bisects each length into 1/2-inch sections. The third-longest lines indicate 1/4-inch measurements, and the second-shortest lines mark every 1/8th inch. The shortest lines count every 1/16th of an inch, but some tape measures include 1/32nd-inch measurements for improved accuracy. Knowing how line length corresponds to each fraction of measurement can help you finish your project more quickly and accurately.
Use the tab to latch onto the edge of the object you're measuring and pull the ribbon taut across the distance. If there is no edge to hook the tape onto, like in a window frame, press the metal tab firmly against the inside surface or have another person hold it in place. Extend the tape measure until you reach the desired distance, then record the largest inch value displayed to the left of the mark. Add the fractional value to the whole number for the total measurement. For example, if the item ends past 52, on the first third-longest mark between 52 and 53, it is 52 and 1/4" long.
You won't have to do much math if you can recall what each line on the ribbon represents. For example, if your value falls on the shortest line, you already know it represents the smallest fraction of measurement on your particular tape. If the length reaches the second-shortest division, the measurement will represent a 1/8th increment on most standard tape measures. Reducing fractions is not difficult, either. If your measurement falls on the line before the 1/2-inch mark, count it as 7/16ths, since the 1/2-inch mark represents 8/16ths of an inch. Two lines before the 1/2-inch mark is 6/16ths, or 3/8ths (divide both numbers by 2), of an inch.
The metal tab at the end of the blade shifts slightly, a smart feature that many DIYers take for granted. That's because the first inch on the ribbon of a tape measure is actually only 15/16ths of an inch thick. The hook is exactly 1/16th of an inch thick. If measuring a distance requires that the tab be latched onto the edge of an object, the hook pulls out slightly to accommodate the missing 1/16th-inch. If the measurement is on an inside surface, the tab pushes in to fill the 1/16-inch gap at the head of the tape. The feature allows you to reach true zero for an accurate measurement every time.
A closer look at the blade of your tape measure reveals color-coded numbers, arrows, and small black diamonds. These markings make identifying standard measurements more convenient. A black arrow marks each foot, and every 16th digit is highlighted in a red box. These red numbers help contractors space studs 16 inches apart on a standard 8-foot wall section. Small black diamonds on the ribbon mark rafter and floor joist placement in building construction, another handy tool for builders.
Two people can easily measure a long distance, but a notch at the end of the tab makes working solo just as efficient. Use a screw or nail to create an anchor, and maneuver the tab over the head of the nail so that it fits into the notch. This secures the tape in place so you can pull the ribbon taut for accuracy. The edge of the tab is also a scribe tool, convenient for marking your measurement without a pencil.
Most tape measures come with a set of numbers embossed on the side of the housing. These are a measurement of the length of the case, usually represented in inches and centimeters. Remember these numbers when measuring a confined space, such as the width of a deep cabinet shelf. Press the tab firmly against the wall to find true zero, then extend the case to the opposite end. Add the length printed on the case to your numbers on the blade to find your total length.
Take care not to let the blade on a spring retractable tape snap back into the case. Not only does the repeated impact damage the spring mechanism, but it can also loosen the tab, affecting true zero accuracy. Rust will also degrade the metal blade and spring, so always wipe the ribbon clean before storing it away. Order a new blade if yours is torn or bent to prevent injury and inaccurate measurements. A well-maintained measuring tape will keep working for decades.