No matter what DIY project you’re tackling, a tape measure is likely going to be your most used tool. It’s important to know how to correctly read a tape measure to ensure you can transfer measurements from plans and get accurate measurements throughout your project.
Since accurate measuring is such a key skill, let’s talk about how to read a tape measure. Being based in the US, we’ll focus today on reading a measuring tape in inches.
- How to Read a Tape Measure in Inches
- Tape Measure Examples
- Special Markings on a Tape Measure
- General Measuring Tips
- Tips for Measuring Between Items
How to Read a Tape Measure in Inches
Most tape measures will have marks that go down to a 1/16 of an inch, but there are some measuring tapes that will even measure down to the 1/32. You’ll know which one you have because your measuring tape will either have 15 small lines between each large number or it will have 31.
Since 1/16” is most common, we’ll start there.
The large numbers, and the longest lines refer to an inch. 1 = 1”, 2 = 2”, and so on.
The next longest line refers to ½”. The slightly shorter lines refer to ¼” increments. The first one will be ¼” and the one on the right side of the ½” mark will be ¾”.
The lines that are between the shortest and the ¼” markers designate ⅛”. And the shortest lines mark 1/16”.
When reading a tape measure left to right, here’s what the marks refer to in order:
If you don’t want to keep switching between different denominations, you can simply count how many lines over your mark is (example = 10 marks over) and you’ll know that it’s 10/16” You can then simplify the fraction by dividing it by the highest common factor, in this case 2, to get ⅝”. Who knew understanding fractions would actually come in handy!
If you’re not into the idea of math or want something a little quicker to read, you can grab an easy read measuring tape that actually lists out what the line means.
Some of the measuring tapes will actually list out what every single line means, but most will just label every ⅛”.
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Below are links to the different 4 tape measures we’ll show in the tape measure examples below.
- Lufkin Tape Measure – this is definitely the most sturdy of the options, but no labels.
- WorkPro Tape Measure – includes easy read labels and goes down to 1/32″ accuracy on one side
- Stanley Tape Measure
- FastCap Easy Read Tape Measure – this one labels every mark and has labels on both sides of the tape measure
Tape Measure Examples
Now that we know what the lines on the tape measure mean, let’s put our skills to the test.
What is 5/16” on a tape measure?
5/16” is going to be the 5th mark after a whole number.
Where is ⅝” on a tape measure?
⅝” on the other hand is going to be the 10th mark after the whole number. Or you can count 5 lines that aren’t the shortest lines.
Where is 3/32” on a tape measure?
This one is a bit trickier because you’ll only have a dedicated mark for 3/32” if you have a tape measure that has marks for every 1/32”. This is much less common than a standard measuring tape that has marks every 1/16”.
If you have a measuring tape that measures down to the 32nds, you will simply count three lines after the whole number.
If you have a measuring tape that measures to the 16ths, you will find 1/16th and 2/16ths on your tape measure. 2/32” will be right in between those two marks.
Fractions to Decimals
Sometimes project plans will give you measurements in decimals rather than fractions. To convert those measurements to something you can read on measuring tape, refer to the chart below.
Special Markings on a Tape Measure
If you’re wondering what the red numbers or black diamonds mean on a tape measure, you’re about to find out. Chances are, they aren’t something you’ll need to use often (or maybe ever), especially if you are focusing on DIY woodworking projects.
Red Numbers on Tape Measure
You might notice that you 16, 32, 48, and every number that’s a multiple of 16 on your tape measure is red. Well depending on your tape measure, they might not be red, but they will look different than the rest.
This is the common spacing for studs and roof joists. Instead of needing to do a lot of calculations and measuring between these common framing tasks, the tape measure acts as a guide of where things should go.
Black Diamonds on Tape Measure
You might see a black diamond at 19.2” on your tape measure, and then every 19.2” after that. This is common spacing for engineered joists. If you aren’t actively working on a jobsite, you’ll probably never need this one.
General Measuring Tips
Now that you know the basics about how to read a tape measure, it’s just as important that you know a few key skills to make sure you are getting accurate measurements. Knowing how to read a tape measure means nothing if you use your measuring tape inaccurately!
This might sound like basic advice, but it’s important. It’s easy when you’re quickly measuring to angle your tape measure or to slant it towards an item if measuring vertically.
The tape measure needs to remain straight to get an accurate measurement.
Mark Straight On
Another mistake I see people often make when measuring is not getting to eye level when marking their measurement and marking straight on.
When you are making your mark when viewing your tape measure at an angle, even a slight angle, you can easily get off by 1/16”, an ⅛” or more.
It might require taking another step or squatting down a bit, but make sure you’re looking straight on when making your mark.
Marking Your Measurement
Speaking of making your mark, there are a few other best practices when it comes to transferring a measurement from a tape measure to your wood (or anything that you’re measuring).
First, start with a sharp pencil. The finer the line that your pencil makes, the most accurate it will be. I know it seems silly, but if you’re lining a saw blade up with a pencil mark, the finer the mark the better. Then you aren’t left wondering which side of the thick pencil mark actually was in line with your measurement.
Once you know what measurement you want to mark, roll the tape measure down so that the lines are flat on your surface. As you roll it down, be sure that you aren’t bending or crunching the tape measure, or that will affect your measuring.
When marking the line, it can be helpful to use the carrot method, aka drawing a carrot that points to your measurements. This prevents potential errors that might occur if you were to accidentally not mark your line straight.
Let the Tab Move
No, your tape measure is not broken. The tab on the end of the tape measure is designed to move to allow for what’s referred to as “true zero” measuring.
You don’t need to worry too much about this, just let the tape measure do its thing. When you hook the measuring tape on the end of something, the tab will move out slightly.
When you measure inside something, you’ll push the tab in. The tab moves inward in this case because it’s now accounting for the 1/16” thickness of the tab itself.
Always Use the Same Measuring Tape
You can own as many measuring tapes you want to, but once you start a project, use the same measuring tape throughout the entire project.
Theoretically all measuring tapes should be the same, but over time the adjust tab can get off, causing the measuring tape to yield slightly different results than another measuring tape. It likely won’t be a big difference, potentially not even noticeable, but it’s a best practice just in case.
Tips for Measuring Between Items
Whether you’re measuring between two walls or trying to find the interior measurements on a box, measuring between items comes with its own set of rules.
Let me start by saying what not to do. Do not just bend your tape measure into the corner. There are three other methods that will give you more accurate results than this.
Method 1: Using the Tape Measure Box
You might notice a number on the side, back, or bottom of your tape measure box. It should be something around 3”. This refers to the actual measurement of the tape measure box itself.
You can use this when measuring between two items. Push the tab up against one side and then set the back of the box against the other. Look at the furthest measurement you can see and then add the measurement of the tape measure itself.
Method 2: Pick a Whole Number
In this method, you’ll pick a whole number that is less than the total width of your item. Measure to that whole number and mark it on your piece.
Now measure from the other side of the item and measure to the mark you just made. Add them together to get your measurement.
Method 3: Laser Measuring
Okay, this isn’t a method that utilizes an actual tape measure, but it’s my favorite method for measuring between two items. It’s especially useful for long distances like measuring full rooms or when you need super accurate measurements like measuring for drawers and doors.
Invest in a laser measuring tape. To measure, you put the back of the laser measurer up with one side and then let the laser hit the other side.
I love them because they are super quick and accurate. We use and love this one, but there are less expensive options as well.
Reading a Tape Measure Cheatsheet – Free Download
Want a handy cheatsheet to keep in your workshop? Download our free tape measure cheatsheet. It includes what the markings on a tape measure mean as well as a few tips for accurate measuring.
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If you’re just getting started with DIY, you’ll want to grab our Beginner’s Guide to DIY. It’s the guide created to shorten your DIY learning curve so you can build more impressive things with less frustration.
It’s everything we wish we knew when we were just getting started: from lumber to tools, to making projects look more professional, we’ve got you covered. You can grab your Beginner’s Guide to DIY HERE.
We also have a woodworking for beginners post. We share how to get started and 7 things we wish we would’ve known when starting out! No need to make the same mistakes we did.