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How To Read A Tape Measure in Feet and Inches (WITH PICTURES)

How To Read A Tape Measure in Feet and Inches

The humble tape measure. The most basic and utilized tool you should have in your homeowners tool box. Even home improvement boss, Bob Vila, agrees that there isn’t one home improvement project that doesn’t require a tape measure.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t know how to properly read a tape measure, let alone know what all of the tape measure increments really mean.

The fact is, it’s not as hard to really learn how to really learn how to read a tape measure. As a matter of fact, i’m remodeling my house as we speak, and I’ve taken this chance to teach my 9 year old son how to read a tape measure as well.  And believe it or not, in just a few minutes, he had a grasp on how to read it.  And before too long, I was calling out numbers to him and he was doing the measuring and marking for me! (within reason, of course!)

And that’s a big part as to why I decided to put this post together. I thought if I can show my 9 year old son how to do it, then I can definitely teach you how to do the same thing.

So if you want to learn how to do it yourself and understand all the markings, then keep reading!

The Tape Measure: Why You Need One

If you don’t have any tools at home, and your going to buy one thing, be sure to buy a measuring tape. There are not many projects in, on or around the house where you are not required to use a tape measure.

At the very least, you will want to know how to clip one of these bad boys onto your hip while DIYing simply because of how cool it makes you look.  If you are in a pinch, and don’t have access to a tape measure, check out my post about free printable tape measures.  Its a good trick to get you through a project when your tape measure is out of commission.

What Size Tape Measure Should I Use?

For the majority of us that do basic home repairs, maintenance and DIY a 16 ft tape should suffice.  Of course, there may be times when you want to measure 122 feet from the front property line, but that’s when you borrow your neighbors gigantic 300’ tape measure.

For years I have used a Stanley 16’ Power-lock tape measure. It is easy to use, fits nicely into the palm of my hand and is lightweight, which means I don’t even notice when I have it clipped onto my hip. They take a beating, as noted in the pictures and just keep going.

In my experience, I have found that the 25’ or 30’ tape measures are too big and clunky for my liking.  Because of their weight, I don’t like the way they feel when I’m wearing them, and it’s rare when I actually need the additional distance.

The Parts of a Tape Measure

Before we dive into how to read  tape measure increments , let’s go over the lay of the land. On the outside of the tape measure, you will see a belt clip, a blade lock (or button) and the tip or hook, also known as the rivet, which is the end of the tape.

how to read a tape measure and tape measure increments
Belt Clip
The locking mechanism of a tape measure and tape measure increments how to easily read a tape measure and tape measure markings
Blade Lock
How to read a tape measure and know what parts of the tape measure are
Hook, tip or rivit

Why The Hook On A Tape Measure Is Loose

You will notice the hook is somewhat loose.  This is by design and serves a very important purpose.  It is designed to compensate for the 1/16 of an inch thickness of the tip/hook.  When you press the hook into the corner of a wall, it will move 1/16 of an inch up against the actual tape.  

When you hook it onto the end of a board and pull, it will move away from the end of the tape 1/16 of an inch, therefore compensating for the thickness of the hook.

I had the pleasure of knowing a guy who hammered down the two little rivets that allowed the hook to move, which prevented the hook from moving at all. This is not good!  His measurements were never correct, and now we know why!

Now grab the hook and pull the tape out a few inches and you can see the blade, or tape.  Let go, and it should return on its own into the housing. Extend the tape a few inches again, only this time press down on the lock. When you let go, the tape should remain extended.  

On the blade you see a cornucopia of numbers, letters, lines, colors and shapes. Don’t let this overwhelm you. Each one of these serves a purpose and can be very useful to you in your DIY, home repairs and remodeling projects. 


Now, assuming you only pulled the tape out a few inches or so…disengage the lock and let go.  A bit of caution here: These are spring loaded. So when you’ve extended the tape out 8 ft and decide to release the lock, it will come screaming back with complete disregard for what is in its path. If its your finger, it will get pinched, and it will hurt.  To prevent injury, I recommend guiding the blade of the tape back into the housing with your other hand, serving as a brake.  This allows you to control how fast the tape goes back in, thus preserving your finger…and preserving the life of your tape measure.    

Tape Measure Increments And What They Mean

For this post, we’ll be using my own tape measure, which is a Stanley 16 ft Power-Lock and uses Imperial Units (inches, feet) as opposed to the Metric system of measurements (centimeters, meters).

What Are The Black Numbers On A Tape Measure?

Notice the large black numbers.  These are the incremental markings that measure inches, starting from the end of the tape.  The numbers increase the farther down the tape measure you go.

How to read a tape measure and know what the black numbers on a tape measure mean

The Red Numbers On A Tape Measure

As you pass the 12 inch mark, you see that there are now red numbers above the black numbers which start over at 1.  The red numbers tell you how many inches you are past the previous foot mark (the 1F above the 12 inch number).  For example, you could either say the distance in this example is 17 inches or you could say it is 1 foot 5 inches.  

how to read a tape measure a know what the red numbers mean

As we continue to look further down the tape, we see that the 16 inch number that should be black is in fact red. Why is it not black like the others? Typically, in residential construction, framing is spaced 16 inches apart.

a house in the framing stage of construction how to easily read a tape measure and tape measure increments

This comes in very handy because every 16 inches the number is highlighted red, indicating stud placement.  For example, the 16, 32, 64 inch numbers are are all highlighted red. Need to find a stud to anchor that 30 lb piece of wall art you bought at the garage sale last weekend?  

Throw the end of the tape measure into the corner or hook it onto the end of the wall and extend the tape measure out as far as you need to.  The studs should be located at each of those red numbers.

Please note, there are exceptions to this, as framing is typically 16 inches on center, but not always.  Also, please note that some tape measures will use black arrows to represent the 16 inch spacing.

What Do The Black Diamonds On A Tape Measure Mean?

You may also see on your tape little black diamonds.  These are laid out on the tape every 19.2 inches, which historically was a spacing used in metric layouts.  The idea was, and still is, that for truss layout you can lay out 5 trusses per 8 foot sheet of material, therefore maximizing the material and eliminating waste.  This comes in handy if you ever need to lay out a spacing of exactly 19.2 inches!

Fun fact: There are typically only 5 diamonds on a tape measure.  The last one is exactly on the 8 foot mark.

How To Read Tape Measure In Feet and Inches

I know many of you are familiar with how to read the larger parts of the tape measure, as in 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch.  But when it comes to the smaller, more precise measurements. or tape measure increments, you might find yourself resorting to the old, “2-1/2 inches and 3 little black marks” method.  Or, we might resort to using our pencil to make a little mark wherever the measurement falls.

To really know how to read a tape measure correctly, it’s important to really understand how to read the smaller tape measure increments. Many of the home repair and DIY projects we work on require very specific measurements with very little room for error. 

Here is what I consider one of the easiest methods to learn how to read  tape measure increments.

Easiest Method To Read Tape Measure Increments

1. Besides whole inches, all measurements have a top number and a bottom number.

2. Each size mark has a name. This represents the bottom number of the measurement. From largest to smallest they are  /2,  /4,  /8,  /16 or  /32.  Whatever mark the measurement lands on, that will be your bottom number.

3. To figure out the top number, we count how many lines there are of that size line and larger between the large inch line and what you are measuring.

How to read a tape measure and tape measure increments half inch
How to read a tape measure and tape measure increments quarters
How to read a tape measure and tape measure increments eigths
How to read a tape measure and tape measure increments sixteenths
How to read a tape measure and tape measure increments thirty seconds

How To Read A Tape Measure: Example #1

In the example below, we are measuring to the arrow.  We know the bottom number will be /8 because of the size of the line (see photo above). For the top number we simply count how many lines there are of that same size and larger between the big 2 inch line and the arrow…1, 2, 3 lines.  Plug in the 3 on top and we now have 3/8. The inch number is 2, so our measurement is 2-⅜.

How to read a tape measure and tape measure increments eigths

How To Read A Tape Measure: Example #2

In this next example, we see the arrow is at the little /16 line. That is our bottom number.  Next, count how many lines, that size and larger there are between the 2 and the arrow.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  Now plug the 9 in as the top number.  We have 2-9/16.

How to read a tape measure and tape measure increments

Its that easy!

Now you can yell out with confidence those tape measure increments to whoever’s helping you!

If you have any questions about how to read a tape measure, or you would like me to clarify anything I’ve shared, please contact me.  I would be more than happy to help you out.

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