What are tape measure markings for?

October 25, 2019 7 min read

What are tape measure markings for?

The practice of using measuring tapes dates as far back to the days of the Roman Empire.

Although during that era the tape measures as we know them were not invented yet, the Romans would use marked strips of leather to take (semi-)accurate measurements. These strips of leather would function the same way a ruler does. 

This system of measuring heavily borrowed from the Egyptian civilization - this is where the story of the measuring tape begins.

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What did ancient civilization use for measuring lengths?

For the longest time, architects and construction workers would use a tool called the folding ruler, which would help them measure long lengths. To do so they would unfold the ruler to measure, and then fold it back for storage. 

But, this method had its limitations and challenges. For instance, the folding ruler was often made from wood making it impossible to measure circumference and corners. Plus, it was too bulky. 

What is a tape measure? It is a flexible measuring ruler that is used to measure distance. By this definition, the ancient Romans were on the right track towards the invention of the tape measure and its markings. 

Egypt and the Egyptians are well documented in history for their construction exploits in building the ancient Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian dynasty existed before the coming of the Romans and certainly before the general adoption of Roman and Greek as well as the Byzantines units of measurements. 

As such, it is correct to assume that ancient Egyptians must have had some form of measuring units. They used body parts as measuring units and also used standardized ancient measuring such as rope, strands and cubit rods. 

This ancient measuring method was precise and effective even though in this century is appears very rudimentary. Take for instance a record of measuring the depth of the Nile during the reign of the early DynasticPharaoh Djer.

This was in the 5th dynasty and the choice of the measuring tool used was the Palermo stone. During that height measurement of the Nile, it was found to be 6 cubits and 1 palm. Today that translates to about 10ft and 6.7 inches or approximately 3.217m. 

From civilization to civilization tape measures have made life easier when measuring different things.

That is because of the markings on the tape measure that allow one to measure a piece of wood or board or any other thing with the precision of a millimeter. 

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Where did the tape measure markings come from?

As one can see, through history, some form of metric has been used to determine length when measuring distance. 

Among the earliest inventions of the tape measure is a steel tape measure invented by a flat wire maker known asJames Chesterman in the year 1829.

Flat wire in that era was a booming business as women had fallen head over heels with layered hoop skirts so it was used in both industry and in fashion.

In 1868, an American inventor known as Alvin. J came up with a spring-click tape measure that would hold the tape in place while measuring, and allow it to retract when the spring is moved.

What's interesting is that although the tape measure has experienced many changes in shape, style and utility, it seems to have remained constant in the tape markings. 

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Tape markings

The markings on a tape measure are in both metric meters and centimeters as well as imperial units which are feet and inches.

A tape measure is an indispensable tool to any profession that involves taking measurement ranging from fashion, architecture and construction workers to land surveyors.

Markings are further broken down into smaller units for accuracy. 

hand close up measuring with a tape measure

Not all tape measures are marked the same. Some come bearing imperial markings only while other come with the metric systems and other tape measures may have both readings. 

If the tape measure has imperial markings, that is feet and inches, reading it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Most people who aren’t conversant with this type of tape measure are still comfortable measuring lengths in feet, but they may not know how to read the inches accurately.

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How to read the imperial tape measure markings tape measure icon

Reading feet is quite easy as the tape measure clearly marks the various feet after every 12 inches. The number that shows feet is marked in red or designated in a box. 

Reading inches can be a bit tricky and may take some getting used to. Most people can get as far as reading an inch, but going further into fractions can throw you off. 

An inch on the tape measure is marked long thin lines and large numbers. The half inch mark sits in the middle of two inch marks. 

Going further into the smaller markings beyond half an inch, most tapes will have the marks of quarter inch marks as well of those of an eighth in the same size. To make this readings easier to remember one needs to note that 2 quarters form half an inch and 2 eighths form a quarter.

Easy to read tape measures will make things even easier as the quarters are labeled up to an eighth of an inch. 

For some, the metric system is easier to read as it has less numbers. The tape measure markings are usually in the form of meters, centimeters and decimeters.

That system is based on tens so that a meter will comprise of 10 decimeters. One decimeter comprises of 10 centimeters while 10 millimeters will make up one centimeter. 

The tape markings on the tape are fairly easy to read. The large numbers represent centimeters and where the large numbers appear in red, they denote the number of decimeters.

When taking measurements by this type of tape measure, if what is being measured is say 33 cm and three mm, the accurate reading will be 33.3 cm. 

How to use a tape measure

A good number ofpocket tape measures typically have a small hook where they begin. Using this hook to latch on to the beginning of the object you are measuring will allow you to pull the rest of the tape measure with you to span the length being measured. 

Note the reading and be sure that the tape measure is not sagging when you are taking the measurement. A sagging measuring tape will lead to an inaccurate measurement.

When measuring longer lengths, the tape measure can tend to twist, try to keep the blade of the tape measure flat and reasonably tight for an accurate reading. 

Taking lengthy measurements alone can be a drag. If you need accurate measurements such as for production or pattern design, it’s best to have the help of another person who can hold one end for you. 

A word of caution: the tape can have sharp edges that may cause injury when it retracts.

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Types of tape measures 

yellow tape measure

Depending on the application of the tape measure there are several options to choose from. Here are some types of tape measures used in everyday work.

1.Sewing tape

As the name suggests, this measuring tape is most popular with tailors and fashion designers in the fashion industry. The tape is not encased and therefore is easy to handle. It is usually made of plastic, very portable and is a vital tool for taking measurements of the waist, height, bust and so forth. 

The primary markings used by people using the sewing tape are the centimeter markings.

2.Retractable measuring tape

A measuring tape that is retractable is also commonly known as a spring return pocket tape measure. That is the type that everyone today has grown accustomed to. They can be bought in any ordinary hardware, and vary in length to suit various needs. 

The notable feature in this tape measure is the ability of the blade to stay in place while measuring. Once the user finishes using it then it can be made to automatically retract after taking measurements.  

3.Surveyors tape measure

This tape measure is ideal for those who work outdoors and need to measure large distances. This can be anything from buildings to plots of land. It's ideal for such tasks as it is very flexible but more importantly it has plenty of length. 

Understanding the complex tape measure markings

On top of the usual markings, there are some tape measures that feature the black diamond markings or gas tank arrow marking or the gas gauge markings.

The black diamond markings

These markings are also known as the joint or stud marks. The stud marks appear at every 16 inch interval while joint marks appear at every 19.2 inch intervals. 

Why? Because 19.2” divides perfectly (5 times) into 8ft - and many American building materials come in 8ft lengths. 

Gas gauge markings

These markings are used to get measurements in an oil rig. Double duty oil gauge tape measures can be used for measuring both dark and light liquids. These types of tapes are coated with lacquer and chrome and nickel to protect it.

Once it’s dipped in gasoline, fuel or crude petroleum or oil product it is protected.

For anyone looking to buy a tape measure the first question to consider is: what tape measure markings you’re comfortable reading? Once you’ve determined that, the next question should be what task it’s intended for.

Ultimately, this will mean a choice between an imperial tape measure and a metric tape measure. If one is comfortable with one reading and would like to become familiar with the other, then getting a tape measure with both readings is a great option.

Happy measuring! 

Still in need of a tape measure check out the Defiance Tool's Tape Measure and other nifty gadgets C Larboard has to offer!


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