How to Use a Tape Measure

When I first started Dunn DIY, I really didn’t know much about working with tools—I had a general sense of what to do, but I was never quite sure if I was using them to their full potential. In Tools 101, I’m sharing everything you need to know about tools so you can DIY with confidence. Today, we’re looking at one of the most basic tools every household should have: a tape measure.

When to use

As a DIYer, you’re probably going to be using a tape measure for things like measuring a board to cut, measuring a room in your house, or measuring an appliance or piece of furniture to see if it will fit somewhere. This should be pretty self-explanatory—essentially, you'll be using this tool for the majority of your measuring needs.

When not to use

  • When a straight edge is needed instead—marking long, straight lines or ripping boards/cutting plywood with a circular saw
  • When a ruler is better—measuring small, short spaces where the tab at the end of the tape measure will get in the way, like measuring the diameter of a small circle
  • When a flexible tape measure is needed, like in sewing or when measuring a round object
  • When you can use a physical object as more accurate measurement—like when you're cutting a board to the same length as an already cut board, or when you're installing moulding and you can use the wall itself as the measurement


Housing: What the tape retracts into
Tape: The actual measuring part of the tape measure
Numbers: 1) Standard/imperial tape measures are labeled in feet, inches, and fractions of an inch—they can be as precise as 1/32 of an inch. 2) Tape measures are often specially marked every 16”. This marking is useful for building houses because it’s standard practice to place the studs (or vertical framing members) in a house 16” apart on center. This mostly won’t apply to you as a DIYer, but if you’re hanging something on a wall and you’re looking for studs to secure it into, this is a great place to start.
Hooked tab: The hooked tab is loose for a reason. The measuring tape takes the thickness of the tab into account, so whether you’re hooking it onto something or butting up against a surface, your measurements will always be precise. Sometimes the tab is magnetic (which is useful when measuring kitchen appliances).
Lock: Holds the tape in place while it’s extended (instead of a lock, some tape measures lock automatically and have a release button)
Belt clip: Helps you keep your tape measure close at hand while you’re working

Best practices

  • Hold the tab while retracting the tape; this prevents the tab from bending on its way back into the housing, which can affect the accuracy of your measurements. 
  • If you’re unsure about whether or not the tab has been bent, or think the tape measure isn’t fully precise, use the “burn an inch” rule where you measure from the 1" mark. Just don't forget to subtract an inch off of the final measurement!
  • Make sure to measure twice and cut once—measuring multiple times as you go reduces the likelihood that you’ll make a mistake. Remember: you can measure as many times as you need, but once a cut is made, it’s permanent.

What to buy

Different types/functions

When buying a tape measure, choose the one that best suits your needs. Some tape measures have magnetic tabs, some include 1/8” marks, some have larger print, or show measurements on the top and underside of the tape, some are longer, and some are shorter. Go with the one that works best for you—it’s totally up to your personal preference.

Our recommendations

If you’re just getting started, I recommend the Milwaukee 16’. I like it because it’s not too big or heavy, it’s long enough for all my DIY projects, and it's labelled 1/8", 1/4", 3/8", etc. at each 1/8” mark (this makes it harder to accidentally mark at 1/4” instead of 3/4” and vice versa).

If you have already have a basic tape that you love, and you're looking to expand your toolkit, I would recommend going for a high quality, long tape measure (25 or 30 foot). This tape measure will be great for bigger backyard projects, like decks and fences.

Ultimately, a tape measure is a pretty simple tool—it doesn’t need any frills or accessories to be effective. As long as you have a reliable tape measure with clear marks, you’re good to measure… then measure again.

Be sure to check out our other Tool 101 posts on how to use a power drill, what type of drill to buy, and when to use a power drill.