How to Read a Tape Measure

tape measure extended showing the markings on the tape

A tape measure, sometimes also called a measuring tape, 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 an Imperial Tape Measure

On an imperial tape measure, the 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 measuring tape, you need to understand what all the markings mean. The large ticks are 1″ apart, and the small ticks are fractions of an inch. The numbers next to the large ticks indicate the distance from the end of the tape in inches.
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

How to Read a Metric Tape Measure

Metric tape measures have similar markings to imperial models, but the markings represent centimeters and millimeters. The larger markings on a metric tape with numbers are the centimeters and the smaller marks are millimeters.

Because there are 10 millimeters in a centimeter, there are 9 millimeter tick marks between each centimeter on the tape.

metric tape measure with centimeter and millimeter tick marks

On a metric tape measure there is 1 cm between each large numbered tick mark and there is 1 mm between each smaller tick that is not numbered.

How to Use a Tape Measure

Get the most out of your measuring tape with the following tips for using them.

How to 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

On this Stanley FatMax model, the slide lock is the large black button on the top. Sliding this down will lock the tape open to prevent recoil.

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How to Use the Sliding Hook

A signature feature of a tape measure is the hook on the end of the tape. This serves a dual purpose to prevent the tape from rolling into the case and allow hooking onto the end of items being measured.

You might notice that the end hook slides or moves just a bit. This is by design to account for the thickness of the hook, which 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.

end 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.

How to Use the Framing Stud Hints

Most tape measures have red markings at certain intervals: 16″, 32″, 48″, 64″, and so on. These numbers are significant in that they indicate the middle of a stud on for 16″ on center framing.

Some tape measures also feature a black diamond symbol intervals that are 19.2″ apart. These diamonds are also used to indicate framing intervals for a wider stud or joist spacing.

red numbering and black diamond framing intervals on a tape measure

How to Use the Nail Grab

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

This is especially useful for longer measurements, such as measuring across the length of a room or patio.

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

On the hook above, the oval cutout is used to hook onto a nail or screw.

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

How to Choose 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.

When choosing a tape measure, consider the following features to find a tape measure that’s right for you and your needs.

  • Size and ease of reading the markings
  • Imperial or metric markings
  • Length of the tape
  • Physical size of the tape
  • Standout length for measuring longer lengths
  • Locking features
  • Durability
  • Price

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. In a pinch, you can even print a tape measure to save a trip to the store.