Tool Tutorial: Tape Measure

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Suitable for grades:
Tools & Materials
Material List
  • various found objects or rooms to measure
  • notebook or paper
Tool list
  • tape measure (imperial and/or metric)
  • pencil

    What’s a tape measure used for?

  1. Tape measures are used to measure (quantify) lengths. You might be making a project that tells you how long a piece of wood needs to be, then use the tape measure to make a mark of that length on a piece of lumber so you know where to make your cut. You might use a tape measure to make marks for where you want to drill holes or insert screws or nails.
  2. You can use a tape measure to figure out the length and width of a space, like a room, and then calculate the area (A = L x W) so you can order the proper amount of flooring, for example.
  3. You can use a tape measure to also measure the height of a space or object, and multiply to find the volume (V = L x W x H). For example, you might be welding up a water tank and need it to hold a specific volume of water.
  4. You may be looking at a scale drawing of a room with symbols that show which parts need to be installed, and then use your tape measure on the REAL room to figure out where on the wall a fixture like a light switch needs to be put in.
  5. You will find tape measures that have marks in METRIC (m, cm, mm), some have marks in IMPERIAL (feet, inches, and fractions of inches), and some have both. In Canada, imperial measurements are still often used to describe the sizes of wood and other building materials. The more you use your imperial tape measure and practice using feet, inches, and inch fractions, the easier it will become. There are many videos online that can help you get better at using your tape measure; search them out and be open to learning!
  6. Safety Considerations

  7. Tape measures have internal mechanisms to retract (pull back) the tape automatically. It can really speed up if you let it retract in an uncontrolled manner! Practice using the thumb lock; this is a brake to stop or slow the tape from retracting.
  8. Try not to drop the tape measure; the inside mechanisms can be easily broken, and a tape measure landing on your toe can hurt.
  9. Operating the tape measure

  10. Pull on the hook to extend the tape. Locate the thumb lock and press it down towards the tape to lock it in place.
  11. To measure a length, secure the hook over the end of the material you want to measure and pull the tape measure back. Keep tension pulling AWAY from the hook while you read your number.
  12. You may have noticed that the hook is a bit loose; this is to allow you to measure an INSIDE dimension as it takes into account the tiny length of the hook itself. To measure an inside dimension, extend the tape and push the hook into the material or wall. Keep pressure toward the hook so it stays pushed in while you read your number.
  13. Retract the tape slowly using the thumb lock to brake, or by pushing up with your finger on the bottom of the tape. You can also retract it by hand one armlength at a time and locking it as you reach for more tape.
  14. Practice using imperial measurements. Start by measuring objects and rounding to the nearest inch. Draw a sketch of what you are measuring and note the measurements (use they symbol ” to denote inches, eg, 6 inches can be written as 6”).
  15. When you are feeling ready, try rounding to the closest ½” (half inch). When you feel confident and want to try even more detailed and accurate measuring, you can learn how to read ¼”, 1/8”, and even 1/32” intervals on your tape. Try to have fun and remember: even experienced tradespeople make mistakes with measuring. Be proud of yourself for working hard to learn a new skill!
  16. Try measuring something bigger, like a room or a window. Use a tape measure with a longer tape if you have one. You might see measurements in “feet” on your tape: there are twelve inches in one foot. Use the ’ symbol to denote feet, eg, 5 feet can be written as 5’. You can describe a window width that is 29 inches as 29”. Because there are twelve inches in each foot (29” = 12” + 12” + 5”), you can also write 29” as 2’5”. Challenge yourself to learn this new skill, and don’t be afraid to make some mistakes along the way!
  17. Environmental Considerations

  18. Tape measures are often made of a metal tape and a plastic case, which need to be carefully taken apart and recycled when they are beyond repair. A good quality tape measure can be used for many, many years without having to be replaced, and you can often find them second hand. If the case breaks, you can make a wood one to place the inner mechanism into.
Extension Challenges
  1. Find something you are curious to measure and investigate using your tape measure. For example, it is a commonly told that the distance between someone’s fingertips when their arms are outstretched in a “T” is the same as their height. Is this true? Measure your friends and family and record your findings.
  2. Imagine you are making custom furniture for a friend: how tall would you make a chair for them? How tall would you make the tabletop?
  3. Imagine you are making a piggy bank that sorts coins by size into different compartments. What are the diameters of the different coins? What kind of mechanism can you imagine making that would sort the coins as they were inserted?
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