How to Read a Measuring Tape

by WinTape

When it comes to construction and craftsmanship, taking accurate measurements can be the difference between a great finished product and a subpar one. Luckily, with the proper approach, using a tape measure can be a quick, easy way to get you the information you need about your project. Knowing how to use and read both a retractable measure and a traditional ribbon-style tape measure can be a major asset to anyone working with his or her hands, so learn today and start measuring!

How to use a tape measure

Use the big, numbered markings for inches. On a tape measure labeled with imperial units, the most prominent marks are usually the one-inch marks. These are typically marked by long, thin lines and fairly large numbers.

  • Every 12 inches, there will often (but not always) be a foot marking. This is usually in a different color than the other markings — often red in contrast to the normal black markings. After each foot marking, the numbers next to each inch mark will eitherrepeat from 1 – 11 again or keep counting. This can vary from tape measure to tape measure.

  • Note that the line next to the number marks each inch, not the number itself.

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Use the bigger marks between two inch markings for half-inches. A half-inch mark is always centered between any two one-inch marks. It almost always has the second-longest marking (after the one-inch marks). There will be one half-inch mark between each one-inch mark, but there are two half-inches per inch.

  • Note that, starting with half-inch marks, not all lines may be labeled with numbers. In this case, you need to use the markings on either side to guide you. For example, the half-inch mark between inches three and four stands for 3 1/2 inches, even though it’s not labeled.

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Use the smaller lines between half-inches for quarter-inches. After half-inches come quarter inches. These markings are smaller (and sometimes skinnier) than half-inches but usually bigger than the densely-packed marks around them. They are evenly spaced between each half-inch mark and one inch-mark. There are four quarter-inches in one inch.

  • Note that lines marking a quarter of an inch sometimes aren’t any different in size from eighth-inch marks. In this case, keep in mind that two eighths of an inch make a quarter. Count to the second eighth-inch marking after the inch marking — this is the quarter-inch (and the line in the same spot on the other side of the half-inch mark is the three-quarter inch.)

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Use the tiny, densely-packed marks for sixteenths of an inch. The shortest lines of all on most measuring tapes are the sixteenth-inch marks. There are 16 of these tiny marks per inch — four in each quarter-inch.

  • Note that some very precise measuring tapes will mark down to one-thirty-second of an inch or even one-sixty-fourth of an inch! Use the same pattern for recognizing these miniscule measurements.

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Add the inch segments to determine total length. When you are measuring a length, getting an accurate value just means seeing where the tape lines up. First, mark the spot where the measuring tape lines up with the edge of the thing you’re measuring. Find the nearest inch before this point. Then, find the nearest half-inch before this point. Then, the nearest quarter-inch, and so on. Add up your inches and fractions of inches until you have an accurate measurement. This is a lot easier than it sounds — see below for an example.

  • Let’s say that we’ve measured past the the one-inch mark, past one quarter-inch mark, and past one eighth-inch mark. To find our measurement, we need to add:

    • 1 (our inches) + 1/4 (our quarter-inches) + 1/8 (our eighth-inches).


  • Since there are two eighth-inches in a quarter-inch, we can rewrite this as:

    • 1 + 2/8 + 1/8 = 1 3/8 inches.


  • Adding fractions like 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, and so on can be tricky. If you need help, see our article on how to add fractions with unlike denominators.

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