How to Read a Tape Measure: the Definitive Guide

Have you ever looked at a measuring tape and wondered what all the different lines and symbols are for? Here are some tips on how to read a tape measure correctly and finding the exact measurements! You’ve heard the saying “measure twice, cut once”!

When you are starting on a remodel project you’re going to need to know how to use a measuring tape to get the most accurate numbers.

A tape measure is not hard to read but there are lot’s of marks and symbols that you might not be familiar with. Even if you’re not that great at math, you’re going to find out that you don’t have to do too many calculations to get accurate measurements.

So I thought it would be helpful to show you how to read a tape measure and what all those handy marks mean.

What is a Tape Measure?

You remember learning to use a ruler when we were in school right?

Well a tape measure, or measuring tape, is just a flexible ruler.

It’s a lot longer than your standard ruler and much easier to use when you’re measuring a larger space or a piece of lumber.

Just like a ruler it has markings on it at different intervals for measurements.

Measuring tapes can be made from a variety of materials: fiberglass, plastic, cloth or metal.

As a general rule, what we consider a “tape measure” is a self-retracting style tape measure that rolls up. The “tape” part of the roll is usually metal and is stiff enough to be held straight but also pliable enough to roll up into its’ container for easy storage.

Did you know that a measuring tape is the most common tool in use today?

Do you think that’s because I have at least 7 of them floating around in different spots?

I’m guessing that I’m not the only one.

There are many different lengths of tape measure but the most common ones are going to be a 12 foot and a 25 foot. I’d highly recommend that you have each of these.

The 12 foot is a great size for projects or hanging artwork, and the 25 foot is going to be long enough to measure most rooms or bigger projects.

How to Read a Tape Measure

Most tape measures have a yellow coiled ruler with measurements printed on it. Sometimes the tape will be white, and a few of these may only denote inches and feet. Most of them will look like the photo below.

Standard tape measure markings

There are standard marks on a measuring tape that make it easy to read.

You will find 16 little lines in between the inch increments.

The lines are different sizes – the smaller the line, the smaller the measurement. For instance, the inch marks are the largest lines and the sixteenths of an inch are the smallest.

Inches are generally the easiest measurement to read on a tape measure. The number is usually big and bold at each inch and the line extends all the way across the tape.

After each inch, you’re just halving each incremental unit of measurement and the lines reflect that by their size.:

1/2″: There are 2 half inches in one inch. The half-inch mark is the next longest line between the inch marks. It literally divides each inch in half.

1/4″: There are 4 quarter inches in one inch. The quarter inch markings are just a bit shorter than the half inch mark. Two quarter inches equal one half inch. You’ll have 1/4″ or 3/4″.

1/8″: There are eight eighth inches in one inch. The eighth inch markings are the second shortest markings. Two eighth inches equal one quarter. You’ll have 1/8″, 3/8″, 5/8″, 7/8″.

1/16″: There are 16 sixteenth inches in one inch. This is the smallest line you’ll find on the tape measure. Two sixteenth markings equal one eighth. You’ll have 1/16″, 3/16″, 5/16″, 7/16″, 9/16″, 11/16″, 13/16″, 15/16″.

Foot: For every 12 inches, you’ll (often, but not always) see a black arrow that tells you that you’ve hit the one-foot mark, the two-foot mark, the three-foot mark, and so on down the length of the tape. These handy markers make it easier to add up all those individual inches.

The large Red Numbers on a tape measure indicate 16 inches, which is the standard space between studs in a wall.

The red number indicates 16-inch-on-center spacing. This is a common framing spacing for wall studs. This makes it easy (usually) to locate a stud if you already know where one is. You can simply measure from one to the next.

In house framing, 16-inches is a very common spacing for studs. This spacing allows installing 8-foot-long sheets of plywood without cutting them. So that’s the basis for the red numbers, but we like being able to find a stud quickly.

Wood is known to shift around a little bit as a house settles so you’ll still want to use a stud finder to get an exact location but the red number should get you very very close.

The first black diamond you’ll find is at 19 3/16” and these diamonds are for spacing I-beams. I’m going to say that that black diamond is important but also above my level of construction. We’re going to leave the I-beams to a contractor.

Parts of a Tape Measure

There are a few parts of the tape measure to identify and you probably already know these but let’s point them out anyway.


measuring tape

The tape is the yellow (or white) ruler that has all the measurements on it.

The tape is curved so that it can stay straight even when we stretch it across long distances and it coils back around itself to be stored. Be sure that your tape measure doesn’t twist when its extended to get the most accurate measurement.

Button Stop

The push button stop keeps the tape from rolling back on itself when you’re measuring, just push the button down and it holds. Release the button and it retracts.

Be careful when releasing the button because the tape can rewind pretty fast and is sharp enough to cut you.

Or it can go fast and whip your drink off the bucket that it’s sitting on and make a giant mess.

I mean, that’s never happened to anyone else right?

Belt Clip

Back of Tape Measure

The back side of the tape measure includes a handy belt clip. I don’t typically hang my tape measure from my belt but it’s still handy to have.

And the outside of the tape measure is called the “housing”. I’ve also heard it called a case but I think the real technical term is housing so I’m sticking with that.

Also note that the end has a hook on it. The hooked end helps the tape hold onto whatever you’re measuring. It also keeps the tape from rolling all the way back up into the housing and disappearing on you!

The Hooked End

When you’re first looking at the hooked end of your tape measure you’ll notice that it has a little jiggle to it. It’s loose by intention.

When you hook your end on the outside of an object to measure it the tape pulls taught. This gives you an accurate measurement by compensating for the 1/16″ of the hooked end.

When you measure the inside of an object the hooked end presses into the tape removing the 1/16″ to give you an accurate measurement.

How To Really Use A Tape Measure

So now that you know how what all the different marks on your measuring tape mean, do you know how to actually use a tape measure?

Just pull out the tape from the end and extend it to the end of the object you need to measure. That’s all there is to it.

Now what number did you land on? That’s your measurement.

Take into account your tape measure’s case when measuring. 

If you’re measuring between the dimensions of your room, or the inside or a drawer or cabinet this is an easier way to get an accurate measurement.

You’ve got the metal hook pressed against one side and you have your tape measure’s case pressed against the other side.

back of tape measure

How do you factor in the width of your tape measure case in that measurement?

If you look at the back of your tape measure near the bottom, you’ll see some engraved lettering that says something like “+3 inches.” That’s how long the case of your tape measure is.

So all you have to do is look at your measurement and add 3 inches (or whatever measurement the housing of your tape measure is).

What’s the Best Tape Measure to Buy?

I particularly love this list of best tape measures from Garage Tool Advisor.

I prefer the Stanley Power Lock measuring tapes because I find them easy to use and comfortable too. Some of the fatter type tools are much harder for me to use. Admittedly, my hands are going to be smaller than most men’s so that’s the reason that those wider ones may feel awkward.

I would advise you to go to a hardware store and actually try out the measuring tapes to see which one you like. You’ll likely only need to purchase a couple of them in your lifetime so it’s worth the effort to pick ones that will hold up and that you can easily read.

A very lightweight tape measure is probably not going to hold up as long as a heavier one of the same length, just FYI.

A few extra notes:

The tape is the yellow coiled ruler with all the numeric measurements printed on it. A wider tape is generally going to be stronger and will hold up better than a smaller, more narrow tape. This is because a wide tape can extend further without getting a buckle or bend in it.

You might notice that the tape is curved. This is so that they can hold their structure when they’re extended. This is especially helpful when you’re measuring alone.

Be sure that your tape lays flat on the surface you are measuring to get the most accurate numbers. If it sags in the middle you’re not getting the best measurement.

Be careful when releasing the lock on your tape measure, the edges of the tape can give you a paper like cut and it’ll hurt. I mean that’s never happened to me but it might. (Also a good reason to wear gloves when doing projects)

When marking your measurement it can be helpful to use a “v” instead of a “l” so that you it’s easier to tell exactly where the mark it.

Never for the saying “Measure Twice, Cut Once”. Measuring is precise and you don’t want to guess.

There You Have It

Now you know how to read a tape measure like a pro. This is a great skill to have, especially for all those fun projects you’re planning.

Traci Signature | My Simpatico Life Blog

Be sure to follow me on Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest for more inspiration!

If you’re looking for some great DIY projects check these out:

Learn what all the different lines and symbols mean on a tape measure.

Similar Posts


  1. How can I get a booklet to study tape reading

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.