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How to Read a Tape Measure and Everything You Want to Know About Tape Measure

An Introduction To The History And Usage Of The Tape Measure

The tape measure is one of the most convenient tools for measuring lengths and distances nowadays, yet reading a tape measure can be tricky! We will walk you through everything you need to know about tape measure reading, tape measure markings, and more.

First, let's review some background. Have you ever wondered what ways people used before the tape measure? Pre-historic records show that the earliest use of measuring systems occurred around 4000BC.

One reason why you’ll find the use of measurements in history, no matter how far back you look, is because early civilizations required a means of measuring for trade or agricultural purposes. Old methods of measurements were invented to be applied to a specific community, generally small, making its way to being a rather widespread tool.

Each measurement unit and method had a particular purpose; an example is a difference between the measurement of land and cloth.

Tape measure.

source: en.wikipedia.org

These systems, while practical, weren't as defined and the Romans first developed standardized methods. The Roman people began used strips of leather marked with lengths as a way of measuring but this served as a ruler rather than a tape measure.

In 1864, William H. Bangs came up with the Bang’s rule, and this was the United States’ first attempt at creating a retracting spring tape measure. The mechanism allowed the tape to be stopped at any point and then held while a button activated the spring, which returned the spring to the case.

Later on, in 1922, the creator of the concave-convex tape, Hiram A. Farrand received a patent for his invention which later on became the standard design for many of the tape measures we see today.

What Is A Tape Measure?

A tape measure is a retractable and somewhat flexible ruler that is for measuring long distances which may be sloped, horizontal or even vertical. The tape rule is usually made from fiberglass and has some measurement markings on it according to either the metric or imperial system.

These are used in some trades by professionals for measuring the length of materials, to measure distances, etc.

The Types Of Tape Measures

When you hear the word tape measure, an image of a compact container with a retractable tape comes to mind. However, the spring-return pocket tape measure isn't the only type that is in use. Some are easier for reading the tape measure than others.

Tape

The tape measure is the original method of measuring long distances and lengths and is still used until today. It comes in some different types which indicates that they're for different purposes.

Leather pocket tape measure.

source: garrettwade.com

Metal

The spring-return pocket tape measure is used by engineers, carpenters, and surveyors to measure lengths of up to 25 feet. They are present in a small case, and once the tape is pulled out, it's returned to the fact with the help of a spring mechanism.

Long tape measures, on the other hand, have tapes that can be around 500 feet in length. These are designed to be used by builders and industrial engineers. Metal measuring tapes are often used for home remodeling services. These kinds of tapes, instead of being returned to the case by spring, are recovered using a hand crank.

Tape measures have different applications. Based on what you will use them for, they come in different types of materials and will be suitable and last long as well. Similarly, they will have different lengths overall.

Tape measures that are used by construction workers and carpenters will feature a metallic blade tape that remains stiff even when extended to the maximum length. That allows for better measurement of materials like wood and pipes. They also have a curved hook on the end that helps the user accurately measure using one hand.

Plastic Or Fiber Glass

You may be familiar with sewing tape measures that are for tailoring purposes. These first came in strips of cloth that had measurements indicated on them, but later, they had flexible materials that wouldn't stretch.

The reason why tape measures have flexible materials rather than a rigid design is that it allows tailors and dressmakers to measure a person's waist. Now, these products come in flexible plastic or fiberglass that will enable users to work with it for more extended periods of time without letting it stretch.

Digital

A digital measuring tape is a combination of a regular measuring tape and certain digital aspects like a large display that shows readings. This hybrid invention is a result of the integrated circuit being mass produced. In this type of tape measure, there is a digital screen that allows users to read measurements in some different formats.

These operate in a way that’s similar to a regular tape measure and retract using a spring mechanism as well. But they do have other additions such as a memory chip that allows the device to store previously recorded measurements for future reference. As digital tape measures develop, they are beginning to incorporate advanced features.

For example, recent models have the function to add or subtract measurements and estimate while moving into a corner without the user having to bend the tape.

Laser Measures

The newest technology for measuring distances is the laser measure, which is fantastic, not to mention very convenient. These are more powerful than the traditional metal tape measure in some ways.

Bosch Compact Blaze Laser Distance Measure, 65-Feet GLM 20

source: boschtools.com

They can measure more significant distances and lengths of up to 650 feet. Since they incorporate the use of laser technology, they're considered to be more accurate; within 1/8th of an inch.

A couple of years ago, you might have believed that laser measures were only a thing that professional contractors, architects, and builders incorporated. And that is mainly because of the large-scale tasks that made up the profession.

Now, however, they are becoming increasingly prevalent among the regular homeowner as a handy device that can help give accurate measurements.

All in all, to meet the growing need for convenience, recent laser measures are compatible with apps on smartphones, a feature that lets users access their recorded measurements. They are also equipped with Bluetooth, to allow transfer of data to the user’s handheld device.

Then, a contractor or carpenter can learn, with the help of a useful app, how much of each material they require to get the job done.

The Applications Of Tape Measures

Since there are so many types of tape measures, it's apparent that they have some different uses. The reason why each tape measuring device has unique materials, is that it’s intended for a specific purpose. At the end of the day, it's all about accurately reading a tape measure and producing a correct distance. Let’s review the purposes:

Woodworking

Carpenters need to use the tape measure quite often for woodworking projects. That is because professional require precise measurements; precisely as to the dimensions of materials like sheetrock, lumber or anything else that needs cutting.

The tape measure used by carpenters has a hard yet flexible plastic that can be bent around corners, allowing accurate measurements. The tape stays rigid even when it is released, a feature that aids in measuring from one hand.

Surveying

Surveyors commonly use a tape measure because they need to measure the distance between two specific points and determine a property's lines. The tape measure that's used by surveyors is known as an open reel tape that is bent quickly to measure around a corner. 

Surveying tape measure.

source: hyphendesign.com

These are not packed into a case similar to a pocket tape measure and do not retract back with the help of a spring. Since these are much longer, the tape has to be wound back into the case manually by a hand crank.

Tailoring

A tape measure or ‘measuring tape' is used by every tailor or seamstress as a means of taking a customer's body measurements and measuring the parts of a garment. These tape measures are different; they're more flexible to easily wrap around the customer's chest, arm or waist.

With a length of 15 feet, these have a much lower range than the average pocket tape measure. Moreover, to keep them from stretching out and make them long-lasting, tailoring tape measures are now made from materials like plastic or fiberglass.

Construction

Tape measures weren't used in the construction industry until much later. That is because construction workers mostly used wood-based foldable rulers that were quite popular up until the mid-1900s. That’s when the company Stanley Works began to manufacture their very own line of steel blade tape measures.

Just like in carpentry, tape measures are used in construction to measure the dimensions of different materials that go into the process. Except construction workers estimate a large variety of items like pipes and steel bars.

Hobby

If you’re an occasional handyman or do-it-yourself home renovation enthusiast, then you’ve probably come across the need for a tape measure to get precise measurements as to how tall you’d like a shelf or how low, a table.

Even when planning for a home remodeling, most homeowners take measurements of their rooms to find out the ideal dimensions for new furniture like sofas and beds. Moreover, you may need to measure the area of walls that need a fresh coat of paint or the width of a doorway to get a custom-made door panel prepared.

Even when it comes to activities like gardening, you’ll need to measure the area of your yard that you’ll be using for different kinds of flowers or plants.

How To Read A Tape Measure And Its Marks?

Reading a tape measure isn’t exactly standardized throughout the world either, since each region follows a different system of units. There are two standard systems of units, the Imperial and Metric system. The US and a few other countries use the Imperial system of measurement while the remaining majority of nations implement the Metric system.

Reading a tape measure.

source: diyhousehelp.com

With the only difference being the system of units used, each tape measure is yellow in color and features black and red markings. These colors give the best contrast for readability and accuracy while successfully reducing chances of human error. You can learn more about the black diamond on measuring tape in our tape measure markings and test article.

The Metric System

According to the Metric system of units, a tape measure will have the units centimeters and meters marked on them. If you live in a country where the Metric system prevalent, it's possible that you'll need to measure dimensions in centimeters and meters.

There are 10 millimeters in each centimeter and 100 centimeters in each meter. The millimeters are smaller, more delicate lines that lie between each centimeter marking.

For increased readability, there is a definite difference between the how the millimeters are marked compared to how the centimeters are labeled.   Some tape measures indicate one meter using ‘1m,' but a majority will simply show a ‘100cm' mark.

The Imperial System

Countries like the United States and Burma that follow the Imperial system of units measure according to inches and feet.  You’ll find that you are more inclined to measuring anything according to this standard, which is why an imperial tape measure will be easier to read.

Every inch of the tape divides into more exceptional lines that allow users to measure up to 1/16 of an inch. For better readability, there are no markings, and only measurements in feet are visible with red lettering.

Despite there being two entirely different systems, you'll find that most tape measures nowadays feature both the units on either side for versatility. It’s also because there is no longer a fine line between the uses for the metric and imperial system.

How To Measure Using A Tape Measure?

There are some parts of a tape measure, other than the tape itself, that come in handy when measuring anything. Removing the tape from the case is simple; all you have to do is pull it from the hook until you’ve covered the desired length or width of a surface.

The Sliding Hook

The sliding hook is an essential component of a tape measure, and it's a small gap between the tape and the hook.

The reason why some tape measures are designed to have a sliding hook is that it helps in reducing error that would otherwise be caused by the hook on end.

Not only is this feature useful for hooking on to a surface, but also when measuring towards the end, because the thickness of the hook can cause inaccuracy.

Tape measure nail grab.

source: diyhousehelp.com

The Nail Grip On The Hook

While most tape measures have a hook on end to aid in the measuring process, some of them have a nail grip, i.e., a small hole. This feature is incorporated so that, in case you measure a slippery surface, the tape measure can be hooked onto a screw or nail to keep it from sliding around.

Other tape measures have larger sides that can help users measure surfaces by getting the tape to grip the sides. If you use this feature, not only does this enhance the gripping ability of your tape but it also allows better readability since you won’t have to turn the tape around to get a reading.

The Tape Lock

Once you’ve extended the tape out of the case, it’s likely that you’ll need to set it down to take a reading. For this to go smoothly, you’ll need to keep the tape from recoiling back into its case. For this reason, tape measures come with a lock that ensures the tape is in place and allows steady readability and measurement.

Magnetic Ends

A large number of tool companies are now replacing the common metal end on their tape measures, with chrome-plated magnets. These help construction workers and architects get better measurements on surfaces that don’t allow hooks.

The powerful magnet can only be attached to the magnetic surface, giving users the convenience of a steady measurement.

Digital Tape Measure

Taking measurements from a digital tape measure works in the same way as a regular product. Before you begin making sizes, it's important to set the right unit system based on whether you're using the imperial or metric system. There will be a specific button located on the case to indicate this feature.

After setting the right unit, pull out the tape and hook it to a surface to prevent it from moving. After that, you should pull the tape until you've reached the exact length of the surface you’re measuring. You don’t, however, have to take readings on your own.

eTape16 ET16.75-db-RP Digital Tape Measure

source: etape16.com

The digital tape measure allows for automatic readings. So, if you want to note down the exact reading, take a look at the digital display.

If your digital tape measure has a memory feature, you can click on the button to save the reading for future reference.

Laser Measure

If you’ve invested in an advanced laser measure, then make note that the process is much more straightforward than you think. To get started, set up the laser measure at one end of the distance that you want to be measured. Then, turn on the laser beam and aim it at the other surface, i.e., the other endpoint of the distance.

In case there isn’t a hard surface such as a wall or a pole, you can place a target and have the laser beam point on it. Although it may not seem like it, the process is quite similar to using a tape measure, except the laser acts as the tape. Once the laser beam points at the right target, you can press the calculation button and get an accurate reading.

Tape Measures And Construction

When it comes to industries like construction, there are a few trends about measurements. In many countries such as the United States, some standards have to be followed by spacing and size, for which a specific tape measure becomes necessary.

Construction Tape Measures In The US

In the United States, tape measures meant for construction purposes have small markings that are like black diamonds. These are placed every 19.2 inches to indicate an equal space between joists.

Another marking that you'll find on such tape measures is placed at every 16-inch interval and indicates the standard spacing between studs.

Why Do Construction Tape Measures Use Metric Millimeters?

Aside from the United States, other countries like Australia, Kenya, and New Zealand use tape measures which only read Metric millimeters. In the United States, this custom is a rule in country’s metric building code.

Stanley and Milwaukee tape measures.

source: http://toolguyd.com

The reason why construction workers use tape measures with only metric millimeters, is that the readings will then produce whole numbers. It is a method known to reduce the chances of arithmetic and reading errors. The results produce precise and accurate measurements that help builders calculate the exact amount of material needed, therefore reducing wastage.

Conclusion

The invention of the tape measure was a much-needed innovation that helped society progress in some ways. Precise measurements are a crucial requirement for any large-scale project, and tape measures have helped in achieving this.

Even as this modest invention continues to advance and hold more features, the idea behind it will always be the same; to get accurate readings with ease.

If all this information about tape measures has got you intrigued, then maybe it’s about time that you get yourself one as well if you work in professions such as architecture or surveying. However, as we mentioned before, not all tape measures are built the same, even if they're for the same purposes.

That's why, if you're looking for ‘the best tape measure' that suits your field, you should understand the factors that need you need to take into consideration before making a selection. Now our article doesn't mention any of those critical details, but our buying guide surely does.

A look at our comprehensive buying guide will give you some insight into some great products and which tape measure will suit you best.