How to Use a Tape Measure

learn tips and tricks for using a tape measure

What is a Tape Measure

A tape measure is a roll of metal tape with evenly graduated markings used for measuring. Usually, the tape is 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.

Reading a Tape Measure

Tape measure markings represent the 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. e.g., if your five ticks past the number 4 tick, then the measurement is 4 516“.

Inch fraction markings on a tape measure

What are the Tape Measure Markings

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.
the largest markings on a tape measure represent one inch. There is usually a number next to each inch marking to indicate how many inches from the end of the tape measure.

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.
the second largest markings on a tape measure represent a 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.
the markings in the center of an inch marking and a half-inch marking are 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.
the second smallest markings on a tape measure are for an 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.
The smallest markings on a tape measure are one sixteenth of an inch apart

Tape Measure Inch Fractions

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.

Inch fractions 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

Using 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.

the hook on a tape measure 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.

Using 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.

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

Using the Sides of the Hook

Some tape measures 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.

some tape measures have large hooks for improved grip

Using 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 measures have a lock to prevent the tape from recoiling

Choosing a Tape Measure

There are many tape measures on the market, and many serve very different purposes. When choosing a tape measure, 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.