How to Read a Tape Measure: Essential Tips for Accurate Measurements

Author profile picture Written by Craftcamp On May 31, 2024 • 9 min read

Planning to tackle a DIY project? Or maybe you're trying to make sure new furniture will fit in your living room? A tape measure is an essential tool to use to get accurate measurements. But how can you make sure you’re reading it right? Knowing how to read a tape measure ensures that you get the right measurements.

Incorrectly reading one can lead to all kinds of problems, whether you’re remodeling your home or purchasing new appliances or furniture. The following cheat sheet how to read a tape measure can help you get the correct measurements.

Types of Tape Measures

What kind do you plan on using? A few different types of tape measures and measuring units are available, including:

  • Standard tape measure
  • Fabric or cloth tape measure
  • 100-foot tape measure

Standard tape measures are often used for various projects around the house, such as DIY remodeling or repairs. The tape is usually made of metal or plastic, giving it a rigid feel.

Fabric or cloth tape measures are typically used to get body measurements for clothing or dimensions for textile projects. Also known as sewing tape, these are soft and highly flexible.

Long tape measures of 100 feet or more are usually for large-scale projects, such as landscaping a yard or doing construction.

Types of Measuring Units

When you use a tape measure, you’ll notice it’s marked with measuring units. Some tape measures have imperial or standard units, such as inches and feet. Others have metric units, like centimeters and millimeters.

You can also find some that have both kinds of units. These often have inches along the top and centimeters along the bottom.

Tape Measure Parts

Being familiar with the different components of these tools can be helpful when using them. Tape measures generally have these parts:

  • Belt clip: A clip or fastener for placing the tape measure on a pants or shirt pocket or tool belt
  • Case: The plastic or metal housing for the tape
  • Hook: The metal piece that goes over the edge of a surface or object, so you can extend the tape as much as you need to
  • Hook slot: A hole you can use to hold the tape measure in place after putting it on a nail or other object
  • Tape: The long yellow or white part that you use for taking measurements, with many being retractable
  • Thumb lock: A button you press to keep the tape at a certain length

Steps for Reading a Tape Measure

How do you accurately read this kind of tool? Let’s go over the steps involved in reading tape measures, whether you’re using imperial or metric units.

How to Read a Tape Measure in Inches

Tape measures with imperial units are marked in inches, fractions of inches, and feet. Inches are typically divided into 16 parts. For example, you might get measurements of 1/16 of an inch or 5/16 of an inch. This allows you to get highly exact measurements compared to only using larger fractions, such as a 1/2 inch or 1/4 inch.

To read a tape measure in inches — or fractions of an inch — do the following:

  • Look for the nearest whole inch first, such as the 2-inch mark or 5-inch mark
  • The inch markings are usually the biggest numbers and longest lines on the tape measure
  • Look at the lines between inch markings to see how exact of a measurement is available, such as 16th of an inch or 1/2 of an inch
  • More lines between inch markings mean you can get more precise measurements
  • For 1/2-inch, look for the second-longest line between inch markings
  • To read 1/4 inch, look for lines that are halfway between the 1/2-inch markings
  • For 1/8-inch, look for markings halfway between the 1/4-inch markings
  • To read 1/16-inch, look for lines between the 1/8-inch lines

Some tape measures label all markings, providing a more convenient and quick way to read measurements.

Reading a Tape Measure in Centimeters

Using a tape measure with metric units? These have markings for centimeters and millimeters. Keep in mind that one centimeter equals 10 millimeters. So, these tape measures have ten lines between centimeter markings.

To read a tape measure in centimeters or millimeters, follow these steps:

  • Look for the nearest centimeter marking, which is the longest line and biggest number on the tape measure
  • Count the lines after the centimeter marking to get the millimeter measurement, such as 5/10 or 8/10
  • Millimeter lines are shorter than centimeter markings, with the longer line halfway between centimeters being the half-centimeter marking
  • For a decimal measurement with metric units, count the millimeter lines and place this number after the centimeter number, such as 8.4 when you have four lines after the 8-centimeter marking

How to Use a Tape Measure for Exact Measurements

Knowing how to read a tape measure won’t do much good if you’re not using this tool correctly. To make sure you get accurate measurements, do the following:

  • Place the end tab at the edge of the object or surface you’re measuring
  • Hook the tape measure to the edge to hold it in place, then extend the tape to the other edge of the object or surface
  • Keep the tape measure held straight while extending it to ensure an exact measurement. If it bends at all, this will give you an imprecise measurement.
  • To get measurements that are as precise as possible, start measuring at the 1-inch line instead of the edge of the tape. Sometimes, the tab at the edge of the tape measure can make it hard to get a precise measurement. Subtract one inch when reading the tape measure if you use this method.

Being able to easily read a tape measure comes in handy in many instances. With this skill, you can get accurate measurements for all of your projects or other tasks around the house.