Buyer’s Guide: Tape Measures
Find the most accurate, durable, and easy-to-use all-purpose tape measure for your needs.
The “measure twice, cut once” adage is key to the success of all kinds of craft and construction projects. To follow it, you’ll often need to rely on a tape measure—a flexible cloth, metal, or fiberglass ribbon, of variable length, with measurement markings. While you no doubt already own one, tape measures have subtle design features to allow greater precision and ease, depending on the job at hand. You may, in fact, need more than one in your toolbox, but the one you can’t do without is a high-quality, general-purpose tape measure. Read on to learn what to expect from the best models, and check out our top-rated picks based on industry standards and consumer satisfaction.
The Four Types of Tape Measures
The right tool for the job applies to tape measures, so there are four basic varieties to choose from.
- Cased tape measures, the most popular and versatile design, house the blade—the metal or fiberglass measuring strip—in a rubber or metal holder that can be easily stowed in a pocket or clipped to a tool belt. A standard 25-foot tape measure can be used for a variety of building and craft purposes, such as installing shelving, hanging pictures, and wood-working.
- Long or open-reel tapes—used primarily by engineers, contractors, and builders—have a hand crank for retraction, and can be between 25 and 500 feet in length. They are typically made of coated fiberglass, have measurement markings in both feet and meters, and may have a bottom spike for increased stability when measuring ground distances.
- To measure columns and other circular objects, use a diameter tape (D-tape), which is similar to a cased tape but contains an ultra-flexible blade of cloth or metal that can easily wrap around pipes and poles. D-tapes provide an accurate measurement using pi to calculate circumference (the length around a circle) and diameter (a straight line passing from one side of a circle to the other). D-tapes come in a variety of lengths, from 12 inches to 50 feet.
- For sewing projects, a cloth or vinyl model is preferable, because they mold more easily to the body, for fashion design and alternations. Sewing tapes come in a range of lengths, from the standard 60 inches to the extra-long 120 inches. Sewing tapes may be a simple strip with metal ends (to prevent fraying, if made of cloth) or housed in a retractable case.
Regardless of your expertise and project-focus, a standard 25-foot tape measure is a toolbox staple. The following features should be present in a quality general-purpose tape measure:
- Standout blade. The tape itself—known as the blade—should stay straight and firm when extended. Cheap blades bend easily, denting and dipping in places. Quality blades, made of steel or fiberglass, should literally “stand out” for 10 feet or more. Metal blades coated with nylon are highly durable and versatile.
- Tang. The metal end-hook at the tip of the tape measure ensures an accurate reading, but too often the tang is the weakest part of a tape measure. When shopping, make sure the tang looks and feels solid without being static—there should be a slight in-and-out movement (called “floating”) when you tug it gently. You’ll notice that when the tang hits a wall or solid object, it retracts slightly. When you hook the tang around an edge, it pulls out slightly. The tang is designed to float to compensate for its own width, providing consistent and accurate measurement. Magnetic tangs act as an additional tool—picking up stray metal items like screws and assisting a solo measurer.
- Belt clip or holder. Cased tape measures are often equipped with a belt clip—a steel or nylon pincer that attaches to a tool belt or pocket. Some pros and do-it-yourselfers find the clip annoying because it adds bulkiness and may make the tape measure harder to hold or stow in a pocket. If you find this to be true, you can unscrew the clip or buy a clipless model.
- Auto-lock. A tape measure that automatically locks when pulled out is especially helpful when working alone or in tight spaces. For example, if you’re measuring the inside of a cabinet, the blade will lock into position by itself, ensuring an accurate reading. Simply press a button and the blade will shorten or fully retract, depending on when you release your finger.
- Markings. This refers to the information printed on the blade, which should be clear and easy to read. Most important are the measurements: The “imperial system” of feet, inches, and fractions of inches is used in the U.S., but if you think you may need to make conversions (for a rug or piece of furniture from abroad, for example), get a tape measure that also has metric markings. Stud marks—red bars noting 16-inch intervals—keep newly constructed walls in compliance with building codes (studs must be placed 16 inches apart). The black diamond shapes help you locate the center of studs (as long as the structure was built in compliance with standard codes). Stud marks make hanging pictures and installing shelves much easier, allowing you to anchor the nail solidly.
The Best Tape Measures for Average Joes
A tape measure is the single most-used tool on job sites, so it’s worth investing in a better model. Our picks focus on traditional 25-foot metal styles—the most popular and generally useful tape measures.
The classic Stanley Powerlock is a longtime special favorite of pros and homeowners alike. It has a sturdy belt clip, floating tang, and steel blade coated with Mylar to increase longevity. This model has been tested by market researchers for blade standout, tang strength, and case resilience, earning high marks across the board. Even so, it’s one of the most affordable tape measures out there. If you’re looking for a sturdy, no-frills, reliable choice, look no further.
A rugged, professional-quality tape measure, the Magnelex Solidrule stands out in large part because it gives measurements in both meters and inches—a handy feature. On top of that, the tool is exceptionally easy to handle, thanks to its nylon-coated steel blade, no-slip rubberized case, and wrist strap (rather than a belt clip). Though considered a top option for heavy-duty construction, amateurs nonetheless appreciate its lifetime warranty and money-back guarantee.
This tape measure earns raves from DIYers for its smooth action, fine control with auto-lock feature, and soft rubber grip. Experts give it the stamp of approval too for product quality and value, not to mention customer service. Favorite feature: a magnetic end hook that makes it much easier to measure long distances when working solo.