How to Read a Measuring Tape: A Complete Guide

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When it comes to craftsmanship and construction, taking accurate measurements is crucial. This is because these measurements can either provide an excellent finished product or a subpar one. However, with the correct approach, using a tape measure and gaining your desired measurements can be rapid and effortless.

That’s why knowing how to use and read a traditional ribbon-style and retractable tape measure can be an invaluable asset to anyone working with their hands. So, let’s break down how you can get the most accurate measurements from your tape measure!

Reading the Tape Using Imperial Units

Step One – Finding Inches

On a tape measure using imperial units, you can generally find that the most prominent marks are the one-inch ones. These one-inch marks are shown by the thin, long lines and large numbers.

When looking at this tape measure, every 12 inches is often accompanied by a foot marking. These are typically in different colors than the other markings. In most instances, red is used in contrast to the typical black markings.

After every foot marking, you can find that the digits next to each inch mark repeats either from one to 11 again. Otherwise, these marks continue counting. However, this is dependent on the tape measure you pick. It’s also vital to remember that the line next to the number is an indication of each inch and isn’t the number itself.

Step Two – Finding Half-Inches

The most visible markings found on a tape measure with imperial units are the one-inch marks. When looking at these markings you can find the half-inch mark centered between any of the two one-inch marks. In many instances, these half-inch markings have the second-longest mark (after the one-inch indicators).

It’s important to remember that not all lines might be labeled with numbers when showing a half-inch. In these cases, the half-inch markings between the three and four-inch marks indicate 3 ½ even though this isn’t labeled.   

Step Three – Finding Quarter-Inches

After you have successfully spotted half-inches, you can start looking at where quarter inches are on your tape measure. These are smaller markings than one and half-inch ones and are typically accompanied by thinner lines. However, you can easily spot these markings by the bigger and densely-pack lines accompanying such indicators.

When spotting these quarter-inch markings, it’s vital to note that these aren’t typically any different in size to those of eighth-inch marks. In such instances, you should keep in mind that two-eighths of one inch make up a quarter.

It’s best to count to the second eight-inch mark after this inch indicator to show the quarter-inch line. From here, the line in the same spot on the alternative side of the half-inch mark is where you can find the three-quarter-inch measurement.

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Step Four – Finding Eighth-Inches

The eighth-inch markings are smaller than the quarter-inch ones and are centered between the inch indicator and the quarter-inch line, and the quarter-inch mark and the half-inch one, and so on. You can find eight one-eighths of an inch (for each inch) on a measuring tape.

Step Five – Finding 16th of an Inch

The smallest and densely packed markings found on a tape measure typically represent the 16ths making up one inch. These 16ths of an inch are indicated by the shortest lines found on your measuring tape and there are 16 of these marks for each inch. Alternatively, there are four for every quarter-inch.

It’s crucial to understand that some measuring tape models are more precise and mark down to the 32nd of an inch and 64th of an inch. If your tape measure has these markings, you can easily use the same pattern to identify such measurements.

Step Six – Adding Inch Segments to Find the Total Length

Getting an accurate value when measuring a length entails seeing where the tape lines up. You can do this by marking the spot where the tape measure aligns with the edge of the item you want to measure.

From here, you should find the nearest inch before this point. After this, you need to identify the nearest half-inch before the point.

You can continue this to the nearest quarter-inch and so on. Once you’ve completed this, you can add up these fractions of an inch and complete inches until you’re presented with an accurate measurement.

Reading the Tape Using Metric Units

Step One – Finding Centimeters

On many metric tape measures, you can see that the most prominent markings are the ones labeling centimeters. These marks are typically labeled with large lines and a number next to each line. Similar to inches, these lines mark each centimeter and not the actual number itself.

It’s also important to remember that tape measures longer than 100 centimeters (or one meter) generally receive a special marking as well. This indicator is often in a different color to the others found on the tape measure. After each meter, the centimeter marking might start over again from zero. Otherwise, it can continue counting. However, this feature varies from each measuring tape.  

Step Two – Finding Half Centimeters

Not every tape measure has this feature, but some include medium-sized markings evenly spaced between every centimeter mark. These indicate half-centimeters and aren’t usually accompanied by a number.

The metric system is comprised of digits up to 10. This makes it easier to work with decimals as opposed to imperial measurements. That’s why it’s typically okay to refer to half-centimeter marks in decimal terms. For example, 1 ½ centimeter can also be referred to as 1.5 centimeters.

Step Three – Finding Millimeters

The small, narrow, and densely packed lines between the centimeter markings are the ones representing millimeters. Alternatively, these measurements can also be called one-tenth-centimeters.

When looking at one centimeter, there are ten millimeters making up this measurement. Hence, there are 1000 millimeters in one meter. However, not all metric tape measures have markings for half centimeters. In such instances, the fifth millimeter labeled on the measuring tape is 0.5 centimeters.

Step Four – Adding Centimeter Segments to Find the Total Length

You first need to locate the nearest centimeter when measuring with metric tape before you begin taking measurements. After this, you can find the nearest millimeter and use a 0.5 centimeter marking to help guide you if your tape has this. Following such a process is going to ensure you make the most accurate measurements possible.

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Once you’ve performed these measurements in centimeters, you can see that the decimal found in the tenths place indicates the millimeters. For example, a total length of 33.6 centimeters would show that the 0.6 is 6 millimeters.

In some instances, you might want these measurements in meters instead of centimeters. If this is the case, you can easily shift the decimal place to two spaces to the left. An example would be a measurement of 365.9 centimeters. To change this to meters, you move the decimal two places to the left and your answer would be 3.659 meters.

Wrapping It Up

When it comes to using a tape measure, you should never allow the hook and blade to uncontrollably return at full speed when rewinding. Although this might seem like a useful function, it’s often very dangerous. That’s why manufacturers often recommend that you wear safety goggles or glasses when taking any measurements.

Accurate measurements can either make or break a project. Now that you know the right way to read a tape measure and use it safely, you’re already halfway there to providing an excellent finished project!

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s written by Itamar Ben-Dor, who has 25 years of experience in renovations, carpentry, locks, creation, landscaping, painting, furniture construction, and furniture renovation, works with concrete, plumbing, door repair, and more.

Itamar Ben-Dor has been in the home improvement business for over 25 years. Itamar Ben-Dor is a jack of all trades. He's worked in the renovation field for years, doing everything from locksmithing to carpentry. He's a small repairs specialist. But his true passion lies in furniture construction and renovation - he loves seeing old pieces come back to life with some new woodwork or a fresh coat of paint.

He has taken courses on many topics in these fields at professional colleges in Israel. Over the years, Itamar has also become quite skilled in gardening, carpentry, and renovations. He's worked on projects of all sizes, from massive renovations to small repairs. No job is too big or too small for him!

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Itamar Ben Dor
Itamar Ben Dor

My father is a practical engineer, and as a hobby he was also involved in construction, renovations, carpentry and woodwork at home; So there was always tools, saws, drills and more at home. Already I was a little kid Dad and I would renovate the house. Once we built a shed for garden tools, once we did flooring for the garden, once we renovated the bathroom and that’s the way it is. Long before there was an internet, directories and plans. We would build things, kitchen cabinets, install electrical appliances, do flooring, pour concrete and more ... I in this blog want to pass on to you the experience I have gained over the last 20 plus-minus years since I was a child to this day and give you information about the best tools, project plans, guides and more.