How to Read and Use a Tape Measure

tape measure extended showing the markings on the tape

A tape measure is a roll of metal tape with evenly graduated markings used for measuring. The tape is often yellow and rolled in a plastic case.

Tape measures are commonly used in construction, architecture, building, home projects, crafts, and woodworking. They usually come in lengths from 6 feet to 35 feet long.

Tape measures may have measurements in imperial and metric, imperial-only, or metric-only.

How to Read a Tape Measure

Tape measure markings represent lengths in inches and fractions of an inch. Each large tick represents one inch (1″), and the ticks between represent the following fractions: 116“, 18“, 316“, 14“, 516“, 38“, 716“, 12“, 916“, 58“, 1116“, 34“, 1316“, 78“, and 1516“.

To read a tape measure, find the number next to the large tick, and then find how many small ticks past it the measurement is. Add the number next to the large tick with the fraction to get the measurement. For instance, if your five ticks past the number 4 tick, then the measurement is 4 516“.

Inch fraction markings on a tape measure

Reading a tape measure is just like reading a ruler.

What Do All the Markings Mean?

To read a tape measure, you need to understand what all the markings mean. The large ticks are 1″ apart, and the small ticks are fractions of an inch.
photo showing the largest markings on a tape measure representing one inch increments.

The ticks in the middle of the inch markings are half-inch markings, and there is 12” between each inch marking and half-inch marking.
photo showing the second largest markings on a tape measure representing one half-inch

The ticks between the inch markings and half-inch markings are quarter-inch markings. There is 14” between the one-inch marking and the quarter-inch marking. There is 14” between each quarter-inch marking and the half-inch marking.
photo showing the markings in the center of the inch marking and half-inch marking representing the quarter inch markings

The second smallest ticks are eighth-inch markings, and there is 18” between the eighth-inch markings and the quarter-inch markings and one-inch markings.
photo showing the second smallest markings on a tape measure representing one-eighth of an inch

The smallest ticks on a tape measure are sixteenth-inch markings. There is 116” between each marking on the tape measure.
photo showing the smallest markings on a tape measure representing one-sixteenth of an inch

Inch Fractions for Each Mark

See the decimal equivalents for all the fractions on a tape measure. You might also like our inch fraction calculator for converting between decimal and inch fractions and getting decimal equivalents.

Graphic showing each inch fraction down to 1/64"

Inch Fraction, Decimal and Millimeter Equivalents

Chart showing equivalent fraction, decimal, and millimeter measurements
Fraction Decimal Millimeters
116 0.0625 1.5875
18 0.125 3.175
316 0.1875 4.7625
14 0.25 6.35
516 0.3125 7.9375
38 0.375 9.525
716 0.4375 11.1125
12 0.5 12.7
916 0.5625 14.2875
58 0.625 15.875
1116 0.6875 17.4625
34 0.75 19.05
1316 0.8125 20.6375
78 0.875 22.225
1516 0.9375 23.8125
1″ 1 25.4

Tape Measure Tips and Tricks

Use our tips and tricks below to get the most out of your measuring tape.

Use the Sliding Hook

The hook on a tape measure usually slides just a bit. This is by design to account for the thickness of the hook on the end. This allows the tape measure to be accurate when hooking onto a surface and also when butting the end up to a surface.

Be mindful of tape measures that do not have a sliding hook as they will not be as accurate.

hook on a tape measure that slides to account for the thickness of the hook for equally accurate measurements when hooking on to a surface or butting the end up to a surface.

Use the Nail Grip on the Hook

The hook on a tape measure often has a small hole or groove in it. This is to allow hooking the hook on a nail or screw so it doesn’t slide off when making long measurements.

hook on a tape measure with a small slot or hole for hooking onto a nail  or screw to keep the hook from sliding off

Use the Sides of the Hook

Some tape measures, especially framing tapes, have large hooks that can be used to grip surfaces on the side of the hook. Using these can improve the hook’s gripping ability and improve the accuracy of measurements since the tape measure will not need to be twisted to read the markings.

tape measure with large hooks for improved grip

Use the Tape Lock

Almost all tape measures have a lock that will keep the tape measure from recoiling. This is useful if you need to take tension off of the tape measure or if you need to set the tape measure down while it is extended.

tape measure with a lock to prevent the tape from recoiling

Choosing the Right Tape Measure

There are many tape measures on the market, and many serve very different purposes. When choosing the one that’s right for you, consider what you’ll be using it for, how long you need it to be, and how much you’d prefer to spend.

See our review of the best tape measures to find which tape measure we found to be the best and for reviews on several leading tape measures on the market. Consider using a printable tape measure if you need one quickly or if you’re in a pinch.