How to Use a Tape Measure: Practical Tips

By: Fix-It Club & Austin Henderson  | 
Builder's tape measure extended three inches
A measuring tape takes up a lot less space than a yardstick. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

If you're wondering how to use a tape measure, we've got you covered. It is an inexpensive and handy device that has many uses when building, maintaining, and repairing a home or auto. At least one tape measure should be in the toolbox of every homeowner or renter.

A tape measure is a flexible ruler used to size up spaces and objects with precision. Whether it's a compact 12-foot (3.66-meter) tape for smaller scale interior projects or a robust 100-foot cloth tape for outdoor use, these handy tools come in various lengths and styles to suit your measuring needs.


They feature both imperial measurements (inches and feet) for U.S. standard dimensioning and metric measurements (millimeters and centimeters) for global compatibility.

What Does a Tape Measure Do?

At its core, a tape measure is a versatile and portable tool, essential for various measuring tasks. Whether it's about determining the length of a new sofa or figuring out the distance between two walls, a tape measure is your go-to gadget.

But it's more than just a length of marked tape; it's a precision tool that caters to both the imperial measurement system and the metric system. With a tape measure, you're equipped to handle measurements in inches, feet, millimeters and centimeters, ensuring you're ready for any project, anywhere.


The beauty of a tape measure lies in its detailed markings. From the bold inch mark to the subtle half-inch mark and even smaller quarter- and eighth-inch markings, each line on a tape measure has a purpose.

These precise increments allow for accurate measurement, whether you're eyeing the halfway point on a DIY project or needing the exact measurement for professional work.

And for those who prefer metric, the millimeter line and centimeter markings are equally detailed, offering the smallest metric measurement for fine-tuned accuracy.


How to Safely Use a Tape Measure

Using a tape measure might seem straightforward, but there's an art to getting those accurate measurements every time. First things first: Let's talk about extending the tape.

Gently pull the tape from its case, guiding it from your starting point to the desired length. Most tape measures come equipped with a sturdy metal hook at the end, designed to latch onto objects for stability. This feature is particularly handy when you're measuring a distance solo.


Next, let's talk about control. Many modern measuring tapes have tension-control brakes. These nifty additions allow you to lock the blade in place, giving you the freedom to take an accurate reading without the tape snapping back.

This feature is a lifesaver when working on projects that require precise measurements, like fitting shelves or measuring cabinets.

For those handling longer measuring tapes, often used in outdoor settings, you'll usually find a crank on the side of the case. This crank is used to retract the tape smoothly, avoiding any kinks or tangles.

Retracting Your Tape Measure

While tape measures are generally safe tools, caution is key, especially when retracting the tape. Slow and steady wins the race here.

If you're using a steel blade tape, gently guide it back into the case, keeping your fingers clear of the edges to prevent any nicks or cuts. This method helps maintain the integrity of the tape and ensures you won't be surprised by a sudden snap of the metal blade.

Remember, whether you're extending the tape to its full length or just a 1/4 inch, maintaining control and safety is paramount. This way, you can focus on getting those accurate measurements for your project, be it hanging artwork in a straight line or determining the inside measurements of a space.


Choosing the Right Tape Measure for Your Needs

Tape measures come in an array of lengths and styles, each suited for different tasks. The standard tape measure, typically 12 feet (3.66 meters) in length, is perfect for everyday home use, comfortably fitting in a tool belt clip and handy for smaller scale interior projects.

For more extensive work, such as measuring the inside width of a room or the distance between wall studs, a 25-foot (7.62-foot) tape measure, often referred to as a builder's tape, is ideal. A builder's tape is marked in feet and includes 1/16-inch increments, aligning with standard construction measurements.


Then there are the larger measuring tapes, like the 100-foot (30.48-meter) cloth tape, perfect for outdoor measurements, such as property boundaries or landscaping projects. These longer tapes usually come with a coiled tape design, making them easy to handle and retract.

How to Maintain a Tape Measure

While tape measures are robust and designed for longevity, a little care can go a long way in extending their lifespan. Fortunately, maintaining a tape measure is as straightforward as using one. The key to a long-lasting tape measure is keeping the blade clean.

After use, especially if you've been measuring in dusty or dirty environments, give the blade a quick wipe down. This simple step prevents debris from getting inside the case and potentially damaging the mechanism.


When it comes to retracting the tape, a gentle approach is best. Avoid the temptation to let the tape snap back into the case at full speed. This might seem like a quick and efficient way to pack up, but it can damage both the blade and the internal recoil mechanism over time.

Instead, guide the tape back slowly, ensuring it retracts smoothly and without kinks. This not only protects the tape measure but also keeps your fingers safe from getting caught in the tape.

Preserving the Accuracy of Measurements

An often-overlooked aspect of tape measure maintenance is ensuring its accuracy. Over time, the end hook, which is crucial for accurate measurements, can become loose. Periodically check to see if the hook is securely attached.

This is especially important for tasks requiring precise measurements, like measuring cabinets or the inside width of a space. If you find any looseness, a simple adjustment with a screwdriver can often fix it.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.