20 Different Types of Tape Measures

Not all tapes are created equal. Learn about the different types of tape measures set apart by features, handles, and materials.
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Types of tape measures.

The tape measure or measuring tape was invented in 1829 in Sheffield, England by James Chesterman. The tapes sold in the U.S. for $17 or $300 by today’s dollars, but it didn’t become a hit until the 1940s. Alvin J. Fellows of New Haven, Connecticut improved on the tape’s design in 1868.

Surveyor and tape-maker Justus Roe manufactured the steel tape measures in 1876. In 1956, Roe made the world’s longest tape measure which measures 180 meters (600 feet).

Type

Fabric

Blisstime tailor sewing fabric tape measures.

 

Source: Amazon

If you are going to be sewing and need to measure fabric then you will need to invest in a fabric measuring tape. This type of measuring tape does not come with the hard case that so many people think of when they picture a measuring tape but instead is a long and flexible piece of material that is designed for taking measurements of the body and of fabric. Normally these measuring tapes are just 60 inches long, although it is possible to buy specialty fabric measuring tapes that are up to 120 inches long, which are very useful if you are going to be measuring larger pieces of fabric for furniture, quilts, or curtains.

These measuring tapes generally include both imperial and metric measurements to make it easy to quickly measure your fabric; simply flip over to the other side of the tape if you need to switch between units. They generally come with hard pieces of metal on the ends to make it easy to place the tape at the exact location where you need to start measuring.

It’s important to realize that with these types of measuring tapes, unlike other, more durable types, you can easily stretch them out. This will result in inaccurate measurements. It’s best to either buy new ones on a regular basis to ensure correct measuring or to opt for a fiberglass fabric measuring tape that won’t stretch.

Pocket (Spring Return)

Stanley LeverLock pocket measuring tape with magnetic tip.

Source: Houzz

These types of measuring tapes are what most people picture when they think of a measuring tape. They have a hard case and the actual tape coils up inside of this case until you need it, at which point you can easily stretch it out for measuring. While different types of pocket measuring tapes have different features, most have a spring return as well as a locking mechanism.

Together these make it easy for a single person to measure items and distances by themselves and to return the measuring tape to its case without any problems. The tape itself is going to be fairly stiff yet flexible and curved a little on both sides. They come with a tang on the end of the tape that will hook onto the object being measured. This tang usually has a small hole in it so that a nail can be driven through the tank to hold it in place if desired.

While these come in a wide variety of sizes, smaller ones usually are from one to fifteen feet long, while larger ones can be up to 35 feet long. If you need to measure a distance that is longer than that then you will want to opt for a longer type of measuring tape known as a surveyor or long tape. These come in the following options for measuring: imperial only, metric only, imperial and metric together.

Surveyor (Long Tape)

Import open reel fiberglass surveyor tape.

Source: Amazon

If you are going to be measuring extensive distances on open land and need to be able to accurately tell how far away places or locations are then you need to have a surveyor measuring tape. These are incredibly long and are ideal for creating land maps, finding boundaries between neighbors, and even measuring the angle or distance between two points. They can come in incredibly long lengths, such as 500 feet, and are very flexible. It’s this flexibility that makes them so ideal for measuring land accurately, as this tape will follow the curves and corners of the land that you are measuring.

Instead of being returned with a spring the way that pocket measuring tapes are, surveyor measuring tapes have a hand crank that the user has to crank to wind up the tape.

Feature

Keyring

EIKIO 3-pack measuring tape with belt clip and key chain and locking.

Source: Amazon

If you’d like to take your tape measure with you no matter where you are going to go then you will want to buy one that is on a keyring. This is a great way to ensure that you can measure when you are away from your larger tape measure. While keyring tape measures are going to be just as accurate as other types, they are generally significantly smaller so that they don’t weigh down your keys or your purse. Because of this, they are not ideal for use when working on building projects, as it can be difficult to accurately measure long distances with them.

They really shine for interior design and when you need to be able to make a snap decision, while out shopping, about whether or not a certain item will work well in your home and in the space that you have for it. Being able to pull out a tape measure in the store can allow you to tell for certain if the piece of furniture or other items you’re considering buying will work in your space. Because these tape measures are so much smaller than others, they will also weigh significantly less. This makes them ideal for taking with you on the go as you won’t have to worry about the added weight of a larger tape measure.

Magnetic

Stanley 25-feet Fatmax magnetic tape.

Source: Houzz

This is not a feature that the average homeowner is going to need in their tape measure, but if you are an electrician and are going to be taking measurements from conduits or a builder and want to be able to attach your tape measure to a piece of metal and check distances then you will want to opt for a magnetic tape measure. The magnets used in magnetic tape measures are incredibly strong and able to support the weight of the tape measure when you use it. These tape measures can be opened and then the end of the tape will stick to metal surfaces when you touch them together. This is great because it will stay connected while you finish your measuring and then you can easily release it with a gentle tug.

Rust-Resistant

Stanley PowerLock classic tape rule with rust-resistant.

Source: Houzz

If you are going to be using your tape measure in damp places or are worried about it being out in the rain during an outside job then you will want to opt for a tape measure that is rust resistant. While this doesn’t mean that your tape measure won’t ever be ruined if you leave it in the rain for weeks at a time, it does mean that it is much less likely that there is going to be any damage to your tape measure if it does get exposed to water.

By limiting the amount of metal that is in these tape measures, manufacturers can make sure that they are much less likely to rust. This means that your new tape measure will last for a longer period of time without you having to worry about replacing it due to rust damage.

Ergonomic

Fastcap Fastpad standard reverse measuring tape with a heavy-duty protective rubber boot.

Source: Houzz

Most companies and manufacturers now understand the importance of creating ergonomic items for their customers. This is important because of the very real risk of becoming injured after repetitive motions. If you use a tape measure all day every day then you will want to make sure that you choose one that is ergonomic in design, as this means that it is much less likely to cause problems with your hands. As anyone who works with their hands knows, any type of stiffness or soreness can make it really difficult to work each day.

While these tape measures won’t function any differently than other types and may not look very different, they have been professionally designed to ensure that they are easy to use, don’t cause physical pain or problems when they are in use, and that your hands won’t cramp when holding them, which makes them a great choice for any builder or other professional.

Engraved

A maple wood tape measure and can be customized to whatever you would like engraved on it.

Source: Etsy

While engraving your tape measure isn’t going to change the function of the tool, it is a great way to personalize a gift for someone that you love and to show them that you care. If you have a loved one who works with a tape measure each day then you can easily remind them how much you care about them by having an engraved tape measure made for them. When you have this work custom done by an expert you will be able to put any words or sentiments on the tape measure, as they can custom engrave it for you.

Make sure when choosing an engraved tape measure, that the actual tool is high enough quality to last through years of use. You don’t want to accidentally select a lower-quality tape measure that won’t be able to stand up to daily use when you give someone your gift.

Double Hook

Klein 25' magnetic double hook tape measure.

Source: Houzz

The double hook on a tape measure is often where the magnets are located if you are choosing a magnetic tape measure, but the second, smaller hook also has another benefit that you’re sure to enjoy. If you have ever contorted your body to see the measurement of your tape measure then you know that sometimes it is handy to be able to measure with the tape measure underneath something. This is especially true when you are working in tight spaces, such as an electrician under a house. When you have a tape measure with a double hook you can use the top tang for measuring. This will prevent you from having to twist and contort your body to see the distance marked on the tape.

Locking

Stanley 33-425 Powerlock 25-foot by 1-inch measuring tape.

Source: Amazon

Any time you are going to be working by yourself and need to make sure that you are taking accurate measurements then you need to invest in a tape measure that locks. This will allow you to extend the length of the tape out and then lock it so that it will not retract back into the case. Once you have locked the tape you will be able to lay it down where you need to measure so that you can easily mark and determine the length. This will free up your hands as you won’t have to continue to hold the measuring tape to provide enough pressure to prevent it from retracting.

Make sure that the locking mechanism is easy for you to operate with just one hand as you don’t want to have to fight with your measuring tape when you are in the middle of a project. This will also ensure that your tang doesn’t come loose from where you hooked it while you are trying to get the tape to lock or unlock.

Kids

The child-sized manual-wind tape measure for kids.

 

Source: Hayneedle

Kids love to help out with any project that adults are doing, but unfortunately, most tape measures are not safe for them to use. There are a lot of safety concerns that you need to be aware of when you give a child a tape measure that will retract, as the child can become injured if the tape whips them in the hand or in the face. Another major concern with giving a child a tape measure is that the material of the tape itself is often so hard and with sharp edges that the child can be cut on it.

Instead of risking your child being in danger when they want to help you measure, the best possible thing that you can do is give them a tape measure that was made specifically for children. Not only will these be appealing because of their color, fun design, and easy to read numbers, but they are going to be built with the safety of the child in mind. This means that the tape itself will be less rigid and unlikely to snap back on them, causing injury.

Retractable

Milwaukee 25-feet retractable magnetic tape measure.

Source: Houzz

Most small tape measures are going to be retractable which means that you won’t have to spend your time turning the handle to roll up the measuring tape. This will save you a lot of time when you are working and makes it really easy to remove your measuring tape from the item you were measuring. It’s important that you are careful when using a tape measure that has this feature, as they can sometimes snap the tape itself up into the air, and this could cause injury if it were to hit you in the face. Due to the sharp edges on most tape measures, you should never try to grab the tape to stop it when it is retracting, as you don’t want to risk cutting your fingers. If you do need to stop the tape measure while it is retracting then your best option is to engage the lock.

Novelty

Sheep shaped novelty tape measure comes in many colors.

Source: Etsy

Small tape measures make great novelty gifts or promotional items from companies or doctors. If you want your customers to remember you and to have a little trinket to remind them of you when ordering a bunch of novelty tape measures is a great idea. You can have these personalized to include information about you or your business, as well. Look for a novelty tape measure that is in the shape of something to do with your company, and pick bright colors as these are going to be much more likely to stand out when people are looking for their tape measure.

Handle Material

Rubber

ASSIST-tape measures 25 ft by 1 inch with metric markings included, magnetic feature and rubber case

Source: Amazon

Rubber grips on your tape measure make it really easy to hang onto it when you are working. It won’t matter if your hands are wet when trying to hold onto your tape measure when it has strategically placed rubber. This material can be formed into ridges and bumps that make it easy to grip the tape measure. While not all tools have this material as a part of their case, if you are going to be using your tape measure for extended periods of time and work outside in all types of weather then you will definitely want to find a tape measure that has rubber as you will be able to hold onto it more easily.

Plastic

Do It tape measure with plastic case with utility knife tool set included.

Source: Houzz

Plastic cases are very common for tape measures and allow for rubber to be added to make them easier to grip. Smaller tape measures will be made of only plastic and are usually of a lower-quality material, which means that they can more easily crack or break if you were to drop your tape measure. Professional tape measures, on the other hand, are also going to be made of plastic, but this is going to be a very heavy-duty material that has been designed to stand up to being dropped without being damaged. If you expose a measuring tape with a plastic case to extreme temperatures it can weaken the case itself and make it more easy to damage.

Metal

Vintage tape measure with metal case from 1940s.

Source: Etsy

Metal cases for your tape measure are not nearly as popular as they were in the past, although you can still find some tape measures in metal cases if you look hard enough. These cases are not going to do as great a job standing up to water damage or rust, although they are incredibly sturdy and very unlikely to break or even crack if you drop them. This explains why many of the metal tape measures that you can find to buy are going to be antiques, as they have been built to last. While these tape measures will have some of the features of modern day tape measures, they are unlikely to be ergonomic or to come with a locking feature.

Tape Material

Fiberglass

Great Neck 100' fiberglass reel tape.

Source: Houzz

Not only is fiberglass tape incredibly lightweight, making it a great option in surveyor tape measures as it will not create a very heavy tool, but it is also incredibly durable. This means that no matter the weather conditions or what kind of sharp rocks the tape has to extend across, it is unlikely that it will be damaged. If you are going to be buying a tape measure for outdoor use and know that you will be hard on the tape itself then opting for fiberglass is a smart choice as it is built to last.

Plastic

Singer 96-inch vinyl tape measure.

Source: Amazon

While tape measures that have plastic tapes are going to be fairly inexpensive, they are not going to be sturdy and durable enough to stand up to a lot of use without problems. The main issue that you will find with this type of measuring tape is that the plastic will stretch out over time, no matter how careful you are not to pull on it when you are measuring. This will lead to inaccurate measurements and can cause you to make major mistakes when working on a project.

Metal

Warner 16-feet metal tape measure with plastic case.

Source: Amazon

Metal is incredibly durable and built to last. You do have to be careful when using a tape measure that has a metal tape as you can become injured on it due to the sharply formed edges. These tapes do a great job at standing up on their own due to the strength of the material and are perfect for measuring long and flat distances as they will not curve.

Polyester Film-Coated

Stanley PowerLock polyester film coated professional tape measure.

Source: Houzz

 

To make sure that your tape lasts for as long as possible then you will likely want to opt for one that has been coated. While this does not affect the function of the tape measure in any way, it does protect the actual tape from damage. Compared with tape that has not been treated with a coating, these tapes will last for a lot longer without being damaged or wearing out.

Measuring Tape FAQ

1. When and who invented the tape measure?

The invention of the common tape measure was around 1868. Alvin Fellowes got his patent for a spring click tape measure. The invention originated in Sheffield, England, historic center of England’s steel industry.

2. What does a tape measure do? What are they good for measuring?

A tape measure is a cloth, plastic, fiberglass, or metal ribbon with linear-measurement markings. Tailors and carpenters use them along with numerous other professions. A tape measure can be carried in your pocket. A tape measure is also good for measuring around corners and/or curves. A measuring tape is useful for landscape design, construction, interior design, and many other things. Today, it is commonplace to see them in miniature form on a keychain or as another kind of novelty.

3. What is the black diamond on a measuring tape used for?

The black diamond on the measuring tape shows the center-to-center measurement between studs. The black diamonds are 19.2 inches apart. “If you divide a typical eight-foot space by five, you get 19.2 inches.” Then, you will see the black diamonds at 19.2 inches, 38.4 inches, 57.6 inches, etc. The reason for doing this is that one less stud is needed per each 8-foot section, compared to 18” studs. A benefit to the homeowner/remodeler is that if one knows the building was built according to these measurements, one could find the studs without a stud detector. He/she could simply measure off the distance between the studs.

4. What measurements are on a tape measure?

A tape measure usually has two different measurement systems on it. This is a mix of the inch system and the metric system. Most manufacturers have opted to use both systems, for whatever reason. Even though modern-day measurements are usually taken in inches, some do not, so the calibrations stay. The top half of a tape measure is usually in inches, broken into eighth and sixteenth of an inch increments. The bottom half of the tape is divided into centimeters and millimeters. The large numbers on the top represent inches, while the little marks between the numbers represent increments of an inch mentioned earlier. For example, a 16-foot tape measure has 16-1 foot markers across the top and 192-1 inch marks (12 per foot).

5. How long is a standard tape measure?

Most of the tape measures in circulation today are 12 foot, 25 foot, or 100 foot. Builders commonly use the 25-foot length, while the 12-foot length is the most common length used by consumers. The 100-foot length is usually made of cloth and is useful for survey and determining property boundaries.

6. How do you read millimeters on a tape measure

The metric system is more common in Europe as well as other parts of the world. Since the metric system of measurement is based upon tens, it is easier with which to work. More and more fields are switching to this system of measurement. A metric tape will use centimeters instead of inches. Each centimeter is divided into 10 equal parts called millimeters. When reading a tape in the metric system, read the centimeters and then the number of millimeters past the last whole centimeter (assuming the object measured does not end on a centimeter). If writing these figures down, write the number of centimeters and put a decimal point. Then write the number of millimeters.

7. Can a measuring tape measure angles?  If not, what should be used?

A tape measure is not adequate to measure angles. To measure angles, you will need a protractor (or some fancy math skills). Since most of us have access to a protractor, that is what we should probably use. The protractor has two different groups of numbers: one set is from 0° to 180° and the other set goes from 180° to 0°. The group of numbers that you read depends upon how you position the protractor. To measure angles with a protractor, put the midpoint on the vertex of the angle being measured. Next, line up one side of the angle with the zero marker on the protractor (the number 0). Then read the number of degrees where the other part of the angle intersects the number scale.

8. What is the smallest measurement on a tape measure?

Depending upon the tape measure used, the smallest unit of measure is usually 1/16 of an inch. However, depending on how it is used and in what industry it is used, the measurements can range from ½ inch to 1/100th inch.

9. How do you measure millimeters on a tape measure?

The metric system is more common in Europe as well as other parts of the world. Since the metric system of measurement is based upon tens, it is easier to work with. More and more fields are switching to this system of measurement. A metric tape will use centimeters instead of inches. Each centimeter is divided into 10 equal parts called millimeters. When reading a tape in the metric system, read the centimeters and then the number of millimeters past the last whole centimeter (assuming the object measured does not end on a centimeter). If writing these figures down, write the number of centimeters and then put a decimal point. Then write the number of millimeters.

10. What do the lines on a tape measure mean?

The lines on a tape measure are simple to read once one understands what they represent. The longest lines represent the number of inches from the beginning of whatever space is measured. This is usually a different color than the other numbers. The bigger marks between each inch mark represent one-half of an inch. The markings between each half-inch mark represent a quarter of an inch, while the markings between each quarter inch represents 1/8 of an inch. Between these 1/8 inch marks are 1/16 inch marks, with some tape measures breaking the inch down into 32nds and even 64ths.

11. How does a tape measure recoil?

A measuring tape recoils through a retraction system inside the unit. A retractable tape measure has a flat spring wrapped around a spindle near the middle of the tape. The blade is then attached to the spring. Problems frequently appear when the blade is split or otherwise broken. When the tape is pulled, the defect hooks on the case, stopping the tape from moving. The only solution is to replace the blade. If the flat metal clip on the end comes loose or gets bent — typically from dropping the tape — it results in inaccurate measurements.

12. How much does a good tape measure cost?

A quality tape measure can range from around $4 to more than $30, depending upon one’s needs. A surveyor’s tape measure can run upwards of $200 plus. These prices reflect various quality levels, individual needs of the user, and expected longevity. The inexpensive tapes are most often be found at a hardware store or big-box store while the more expensive ones are usually found in specialty shops, such as those shops specifically for surveyors, etc. If one does not want simply a throwaway tape measure, he/she needs to find a midpriced model that suits their needs while having the quality necessary to last in a variety of conditions.










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