Measuring has always been a vital part of construction and home improvement projects, and few measuring tools are used more than the humble tape measure. However, recent developments mean there’s more to these devices than meets the eye. Let’s take a look at the complete guide to tape measures and determine which of them is the best tape measure for your project.
What Is A Tape Measure?
If you’ve never used one of these before, a tape measure is a tool used to perform quick measurements on a variety of objects. Modern tape measures come in three main varieties.
The standard tape measure consists of a length of tape held inside a container. A small metal blade on one end can be held in place (or, in many cases, ‘attached’ to the end of something) while the main body of the tape is pulled away, allowing for quick and accurate measurements. Most tape measures of this type have a small slide that can be used to ‘lock’ the tape in place. Otherwise, the tape measure rolls back up of its own accord.
For larger projects, a laser tape measure can give an exact distance over a longer range than most physical tapes. These are often used for calculating the areas of rooms (for paint, carpet, etc.), though extra steps may be needed for calculating the area of irregularly-shaped areas.
Finally, a digital tape measure is much like the standard version but offers an electronic readout of the length. This isn’t necessary for using any tape that has markings labeled on it, but some digital measures use string instead of tape. This can be helpful if you need to measure the length around several complex shapes, such as a series of pipes you’d like to weave supports through.
The downside to laser and digital tape measures is, of course, their reliance on batteries. If you need a tape measure for your project, make sure you have a set of backup batteries on-hand.
Tape measures, in general, are highly accurate and carefully calibrated by manufacturers on a regular basis. It’s also possible to correct for common errors, though this isn’t necessary for most household uses.
Tape measures come with several different kinds of markings. The most important factor in determining how to read a tape measure is whether it uses Imperial or Metric measurements. Some tape measures include markings for both, and these are the best choice if you expect to be using multiple units of measurement in your projects.
Metric measurements are broadly identical, but Imperial tape measures use three different kinds of markings.
1/16″ tapes are used for most general purposes, including many home improvement projects.
1/32″ tapes are used for engineering purposes, which require a higher degree of precision than most projects. It’s worth noting that many 1/16″ tapes have 1/32″ measurements along their first inch, which allows you to measure twice and say things like “All right, that’s seven and… five thirty-seconds inches.” However, since placement of the blade can vary, this is less accurate than just using a 1/32″ tape to start with.
Finally, some tape measures use fractions for measurements, often in tenths of a foot. These are not the same as inches (1/10 vs. 1/12), and confusing the two can lead to parts that don’t fit properly.
Most tapes start their measurements immediately, with the first few units covered by the tape end. More rarely, the measurements may start a foot or so back, making it easier to place the ‘start’ somewhere without covering up the measurements.
Tape measures come in a variety of different lengths.
For Imperial measures, the most common household length for physical tape is 12 feet. This is more than enough for most household projects, and if you need to measure something longer, you can mark the ‘end’ spot and measure again from there. (It’s best to do this with two people.)
The next common length is 25 feet. This is sometimes referred to as a “Builder’s Tape,” and it usually has marks every 16 inches to go along with the normal measurements. These are used to easily find the locations of studs in a home (for hanging up heavy items and so on) since studs are almost always located every 16 inches. Some locations have 24 inches instead, in which case no special marks are necessary.
Finally, physical tapes are available in 100-foot lengths for major outdoor work, such as measuring property lines or the outsides of buildings.
The metric equivalents of these are 2-meter, 8-meter, and 30-meter tapes. Metric tapes may also be available in other lengths, usually capping out at 100 meters (330 feet) for the longest tools.
Laser measures, similarly, have maximum distances that they’re rated for. Most can measure accurately up to at least 100 feet, and some go up to 650 feet or more. Never attempt to measure beyond the specified distance – there is no guarantee of accuracy beyond that point.
Tape measures can be made from several different materials. The tape itself is also referred to as the “blade,” which should not be confused with the hook or ring installed on the end.
Steel is the most common option for measuring tapes and features a thin band of metal wrapped in a protective nylon or lacquer coating. Steel is durable and does not stretch, but it can be warped if it gets too warm. Also, steel blades can conduct electricity, making them a bad choice for projects with electrical hazards. Steel is the most expensive option, but the added durability means it remains a popular choice.
The other common choice is fiberglass, which is a little less durable than steel but also more resistant to rust. It’s always better to have more strands – fiberglass tapes can stretch if pulled too much, and more strands mean the tape is more likely to return to its original length once the pressure is taken off. Fiberglass tapes are in the middle of the price range.
Finally, some people keep cloth measuring tapes on hand. These rarely have a protective exterior like metal and nylon tapes – instead, they’re simply rolled up and stuffed into a pocket when not in use. Cloth isn’t very durable, and it stretches easier than the other options, making it a poor choice for most engineering projects.
That said, the low cost makes it an attractive choice for short-term use, or when people are expected to frequently keep the tape when they shouldn’t.
Most measuring tapes come with a single type of tape end – and the added utility of these means they’re worth considering when you go out to buy your measure.
The most common end is the hook end, a small piece of metal that turns 90 degrees so it can attach to various corners and edges. Hook ends typically have a notch in the middle, allowing them to be attached to nails. Most hook ends are fixed, but in rare cases, they can slide around.
Another common choice is the ring end. This is designed to be put around poles, nails, stakes, and other round items. Rings are also notably less likely to get caught on things, which is helpful if you’re working outdoors.
Special Types Of Measuring Tapes
While normal tapes are appropriate for most household uses, there are several specialty tapes available – and these may be better for your project.
Large Text measures, as the name suggests, have a particularly large and visible font size. These are designed to be clearly visible in photographs and help to establish scale in an image, especially for sensitive things like insurance, law enforcement, or showing the size of something to a client who lives far away.
Folding Tapes use a hard material and are designed to be laid flat on a surface. These are ideal for working in rough conditions – or when you need a portable measuring device that won’t want to roll up and move the way most tape measures do. Common materials here include fiberglass and wood, which are significantly lighter (and cheaper) than metal.
Depth Gauges are meant for measuring downwards, and they won’t stretch as long as the weight on the end isn’t too heavy. For example, if you regularly need to measure down into basements so you can build ladders, you’ll probably want to use a depth gauge. Normal measuring tapes are prone to bending if extended too far, making them more difficult to use for things like this.
Surveyors Rope isn’t quite as accurate as a measuring tape, but it does help to provide rough estimates over long distances. Many of them include a handle to pull the rope taut and provide a more accurate measurement.
Which Tape Measure Is Best For My Project?
As you saw above, factors like material, length, end, and measurements all affect the usefulness of your measuring tape. In most cases, you’ll be fine with a 25 ft/8m standard steel tape, 1/32″ and metric measurements, and a hook end. This sort of measuring tape will cover almost every need – anything else is effectively a specialty product and should only be purchased as-needed.