Skip to Content

How To Read A Tape Measure [Inches, Feet, Cm And Meters]

You'll learn a lot of skills when undertaking home DIY projects. One of the first skills you should master is how to read a tape measure. These devices are used in most, if not all, home projects. To get the correct measurements, you'll need to know what each marking on the tool means. If you're unsure how to read these items, you're in the right place. We've done the research and can tell you precisely what to do!

Disclosure: We may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Standard tape measures will indicate inches with large numbers and a long marking from the end towards the center. Sometimes this line will go all the way across. Half inches are the second-longest marking and is also labeled.

Many tape measures also show measurements for metric units. These show centimeters with longer lines and larger numbers. Millimeters are shown with smaller markings. Typically, you'll need to convert your measurement from centimeters to meters.

Tape measures showing metric and Imperial units make it easier to switch between the styles without converting. When using these, it's important to stick with one measurement style. Keep reading to learn more about reading a tape measure in both metric and Imperial units, what some typical markings mean, and more!

A safe distance for safety is 6 feet or 2 meters toavoid the corona virus, How To Read A Tape Measure [Inches, Feet, Cm And Meters]

Using a Tape Measure

Identify the type of tape measure you have. Imperial tape measures can have a lot of little markings to measure even smaller increments. However, metric tape measures are based on tens. So, there is less variety in these designs.

Reading Imperial/SAE Tape Measures

Black Numbers of Measuring Tape

Extend the tape measure out to your desired length. Then, look for the largest number. This is how many inches long the object is. Many tape measures will indicate important locations to make measuring easier. For example, the 12-inch point may be a different color or otherwise be different.

Next, take a look at the smaller markings. The second longest line indicates half-inches. The following markings will be smaller and can vary slightly in design. For example, some manufacturers will make the eighth-inch and quarter-inch markings the same, while others will make one smaller.

You can usually find tape measures that show as small as 1/16 of an inch. However, some only show 1/8 or 1/32 of an inch.

You'll always find numbers identifying inches. However, numbers aren't always present for the smaller markings. You'll have to count each one to determine the exact length.

To do this, you should count the individual markings past the last inch your item reached. So, if you have five markings past 72 inches, your item will measure 6 feet and 5/16th inches.

Some tape measures will have the measurement in inches on one side and feet and inches on the other. This can make reading easier for those who aren't comfortable working with the total length in inches.

Take a look at this Imperial unit tape measure on Amazon.

Watch this video to see an example of reading Imperial tape measures!

Reading Metric Tape Measures

Tape measures in a white background

For metric tape measures, the smaller markings indicate millimeters, and the long lines with numbers are the centimeters. This system of measurement is based on tens.

So, for every ten millimeters, you have a centimeter. After ten centimeters, you get one decimeter; finally, ten decimeters are one meter. Some tape measures will change the centimeter font from black to red to indicate that it's a decimeter. Some may also indicate if you've reached a meter.

You'll have to convert if your tape measure doesn't indicate these measurements. You can divide your length in centimeters by 100. For example, if you have an item that measures 61 centimeters, you'll divide that by 100 and get .61 meters.

Check out this SAE/Metric tape measure on Amazon.

Converting Imperial to Metric

If your tape measure doesn't have metric units, but you want to work with them, then you'll have to convert your measurements. For this, you should get the total length of your item in inches.

Once you have your total length, convert any fractional inches to a decimal number. If your item is 72 and 5/16 inches, you have 72.3125 inches. Next, convert this number to centimeters. You can do this by multiplying by 2.54. So, 72.312 inches becomes 183.67 centimeters or 1.83 meters.

You can also go directly from inches to meters. If you wish to do this, then divide your total length in inches by 39.37.

Does A Tape Measure Start At Zero or One?

You need to line up the end of the tape measure with the end of the item you're measuring. So, you start at zero and not one. An easy way to take accurate measurements is to utilize the metal hook at the end of this tool.

This part of the tape measure is a little bit loose. The metal piece will move slightly depending on if you're measuring the inner or outer edges of a surface. This intentional design feature can help you get the most accurate measurements.

How Do You Use A Tape Measure?

Tape Measure

Use the metal piece of the tape measure to hook onto the item you need to measure. Pull the rectangular piece back until you've reached the end of the thing you're measuring.

It's essential to keep the tape measure straight. If it's a large object, a friend can help you keep the tape from sagging. Keeping your device taut is what will get you accurate measurements. It's also the best way to utilize the design of the metal hook.

You should push the metal piece against the object and extend the tape for interior measurements. If the box part of the measure gets in your way, you can extend the tape more and then bend the tape part. This will allow you to get measurements in corners or other problematic areas.

If you'd rather not bend your tape measure, you should check for markings that indicate the length of the box. When the size is provided, you can add this to the measurement shown on the tape. This will also give you an accurate reading for inside corners!

Watch this video to see how it's done!

What Are The Markings on A Tape Measure?

Many tape measures have other markings than just the length indicators. Some will have black diamonds spaced 19.2 inches apart. These diamonds are used to mark spacing for floor joists.

You may also see markings for studs. You'll see these every 16 inches, with is the US standard interval. These areas are usually identified with white numbers surrounded by a red block. 

Manufacturers can also include different markings to make measuring easier. Feet can be identified with an arrow surrounding the number.

How Accurate Are Tape Measures?

Carpenter Measuring a Wooden Plank using a tape measure

The quality of a tape measure will vary depending on the manufacturer and the overall quality of the reference tape measure used. The National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) guidelines state that tape measures must be accurate to 1/32 of an inch.

You can get the most accurate measurements by using a high-quality tape measure. You can find tape measures that have a NIST certification. This states that the calibration is traceable to their accuracy tests.

Another way to ensure accuracy is by occasionally checking the metal piece. Sometimes the hook can become loose or warped. Remember, this piece is necessary for providing accurate readings.

To check your tape's accuracy, you should compare it to a ruler. If you're not getting the same measure, you'll need to try and fix the metal hook. Use some pliers to gently move that piece into the correct position. Then, test for accuracy again.

Check out this highly precise tape measure by Starrett on Amazon.

In Conclusion

A safe distance for safety is 6 feet or 2 meters toavoid the corona virus

Tape measures are tools that help us build and fix things accurately. While you may not need them daily, knowing what the different numbers mean is important. Remember that SAE tape measures can show increments as small as 1/32 of an inch and will identify each inch with a number.

The smallest measurement on metric tape measures is the millimeters. Ten millimeters make a centimeter. It's the centimeters that will be identified with a number.

Are you looking to test out your new measuring skills? Check out one of the posts below!

How To Measure For Blinds [4 Things To Keep In Mind]

How To Fit A Carpet Yourself?