How to Read a Tape Measure

If you are a DIYer, a woodworker, a seamstress, or any kind of home project extraordinaire, knowing how to read a tape measure is key to the success of most projects.

Cully used to laugh at my inability to accurately read a tape measure. My lack of patience (and oftentimes lack of attention to detail) were the main reasons why I didn’t take the time to actually understand what each notch on a tape measure represented. 

But there were only so many times I could use phrases like “two notches above half inch”, before I knew it was time to understand how to read a tape measure.

Since you’re dealing with a gal that struggled in this department, I will break down how to read a tape measure as simply and easily as possible.

How to Read a Tape Measure

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How to Read a Tape Measure Basics

Let’s start with the autonomy of a tape measure.  A basic tape measure typically has the following features:

  • Case that holds the tape measure inside
  • The measuring tape 
  • Hook at the end of a measuring tape
  • Hook slot 
  • Thumb lock to hold the tape measure in place once it’s extended
  • Handy dandy belt clip 

The hook comes in handy when you’re measuring things like a long piece of wood.  It will attach securely to the end of the piece of wood so you can extend out the tape measure as long as you need to while still getting an accurate measure.

The small slot in the end hook is there to grab the head of a nail or screw.

There are different variations of tape measures, including digital tape measures that may provide other features and benefits. More on these later.

Tape Measure Basics

How to Read Tape Measure Marks

So, what are the lines on a tape measure?  

Each line represents the precise measurement in whole inches, quarter inches, half inches and pretty much everything in-between.  

The brand, size, and style of your tape measure will determine how detailed of a measurement it will provide.  

The most common tape measures are generally 16 marks to the inch.  In other words, there are 16 tick marks in-between each full inch.  This means you can measure up to 1/16 of an inch. 

More detailed tape measures range from 32 to 64 marks to the inch, resulting in a more precise measurement. 


Tape Measure Reading

Reading a tape measure in inches is the easiest and most obvious measurement.

The next easiest measurements to read are typically the ½ inch, ¼ inch, and ¾  in.

Here are some general features of these measurements:

  • Full inch on a tape measure is numbered and in bold  
  • Half inch is the second longest tick mark 
  • Quarter inch and three quarter inch marks are the third longest tick marks

Lines on a Tape Measure

The more challenging measurements to read include….well, pretty much every other teeny tick mark on the tape measure.

Let’s dive into what each of those smaller marks represent and learn how you can easily read an accurate measurement

How to Read Fractions on a Tape Measure

As mentioned above, there are many variations of tape measures available today. 

Some go as detailed as 32 or even 64 marks in between each inch, which produces a more precise measurement. 

For purposes of demonstration, I’ll be using the most common tape measure, which includes 16 marks per inch. 

To break this down as simple as possible, let’s start with a full inch.

We know that when a full inch is cut in half, that equals 1/2 inch.

And we know that when we cut 1/2 inch and half, it results in a quarter inch.

All the tick marks we see on a tape measure essentially represent the next larger fraction (or mark), cut in half.

In a 16 mark per inch tape measure, each tick mark is numbered from 1-16, starting at the first tick mark after the full inch and counting up in consecutive order, until it reaches the next full inch.

It’s also important to note that every fraction will always have an odd numerator.  For example, rather than saying 2/4, it’s known as 1/2. Bet you didn’t think I’d take you back to learning fractions in third grade, huh? 

The example below demonstrates how it works: 

How to Read a Tape Measure

What is the Easiest way to Read a Tape Measure

If you are just starting out in woodworking or DIY projects that require precise measuring, I recommend you start out with a tape measure that is 16 marks to inch. 

Down the road, if you find you’re needing to use additional measurements and are comfortable with reading tape measures that have 16 marks to the inch, try the next step up at 32 marks to the inch.

For those who like visuals and want to see the exact measurement in front of you, it’s recommended that you choose a tape measure that has the fractions printed on the tape measure itself.

It’s important to note that the more marks per inch you need, the less likely each of those marks will be clearly printed with the exact fraction.  This is simply due to the fact that there’s not enough space to print out all of the fractions. 

At the end of this post, you will find recommended tape measures, depending on your project needs.

Tips to an Accurate Tape Measure Read 

To make sure you get a precise measurement each time, follow these tips:

  1. Keep your measuring tape straight and as level as possible. Any crooked angles or sagging can result in an inaccurate measurement
  2. When marking your measurements, don’t just draw one line, but draw a “V” to the point of the measurement you want. This will ensure an accurate cutting point. 
  3. If you have locked the tape measure into place using the thumb lock, don’t try to force the extended tape back in while it’s in the lock position. This can result in ruining the thumb locks function.
  4. It is always best to slowly real back in the tape measure, versus allowing it to quickly roll back into place.  In other words, control the reel of the tape measure.  


Tape Measure Test

Now that you know how to read a tape measure, let’s put your knowledge into practice with a quick test.

Guess the measurement of the red line on each picture.  Check the answer below the picture to see if you got it right!

Tape Measure Test

If you guessed 2 1/4, you got it right!

Tape Measure Test

A little more of a challenge, the correct answer here is  3 3/8

Tape Measure Test

What do you think?  If you thought 1 3/4, you are correct!

Tape Measure Test

Last but not least, the right answer here is  4 9/16

Best Tape Measures

As of writing this post, Cully and I have a collection of about 15 tape measures.


First off, we misplace them. All. the. time. Having more of them simply means they are easier to find when we misplace them.  Not the most responsible way to approach the subject, perhaps, but it works! 

We have tried several styles but keep coming back to the good ‘ol fashion Stanley brand tape measures.  They are relatively inexpensive and get the job done for the kind of projects we do. 

Below is a list of categories, based on the style of tape measure. 

Best Digital Tape Measure 

Digital tape measures offer a precise measure with less effort.  When buying a digital tape measure you want to make sure it has a clear, easy to read digital screen.

If you are doing room measurement, it’s helpful to find one that has a built- in laser. And, if you are doing multiple measurements, a storage feature will come in handy.

Shop the Best Digital Tape Measures 

Best Tape Measures with Fractions 

Want to skip the strain on your eyes trying to figure out which tick mark your measurement lands on? 

Try a tape measure that has the fractions printed on it. 

Shop the Best Tape Measure with Fractions 

Buy Tape Measure By Brand 

Some of the most popular tape measure Brands include Stanley, Milwaukee, and DeWalt. each offers a variety of features and benefits And your specific needs will determine which tape measure is best.

As mentioned above, our go-to is the Stanley brand tape measure. They are inexpensive and fairly durable.

That said, in our experience the highest quality tape measure is our DeWalt tape measure. 

My husband has had his Dewalt tape measure before we even met and it still is going strong 15+ years later.

While we don’t own a Milwaukee tape measure, we have friends in the DIY world that rave about them.

Below are some the top selling tape measures from these brands:

Stanley Tape Measures

Milwaukee Tape Measures

DeWalt Tape Measures

Oh how much better it feels to know that I can yell out a measurement to Cully and we both know exactly what the cut needs to be!  

It was well worth the short amount of time to sit down and learn what each mark on a tape measure meant.

I hope you enjoyed learning how to read a tape measure and please leave any questions or comments below.

Until next time,



Related Reading: DIY She Shed on a Budget

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