How to Read a Tape Measure in Inches Like a Pro

A tape measure, also known as a measuring tape, is a flexible ruler used to measure size, length, or distance. It’s one of the most useful tools you’ll ever own.

Whether you’re doing some DIY around the house or working on your next big project, this handy tool comes in many shapes and sizes to suit your every need.


Reading a tape measure may not be as easy as it looks. In fact, it’s very common to fall into mistakes that may cause you to get the wrong dimensions.

That’s why we put together this A-Z guide on how to read a tape measure like a pro.

Let’s get measuring!

How to Read an Imperial Tape Measure

Fun fact! The USA, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only three countries in the world that are still using the imperial system.

Although it’s thought to be a little complex, we’re here to break it down for you in five easy steps!

Step One: Read 1 Inch

The first thing you see when you look at your measuring tape is the big numbers. These big numbers, which are typically the largest on the tape measure, represent inches.

Say you want to measure one inch. Simply read the space between one large number and the number that comes after it. This gap measures one inch or 1”.

For example, the space between the number 1 and 2 on your measuring scale measures one inch. The space between 1 and 3 measures two inches, and so on.

Step Two: Read Half an Inch

The multiple lines between inches represent fractions of an inch.

Let’s start with a half-inch measurement or ½”.

The second biggest line on your measuring tape represents half an inch. Remember that gap between one number and the next one? The half-inch mark runs right down the center of that gap, creating two halves.

For example, to measure half an inch, read half of the space between 1 and 2.

To measure an inch and a half, read the space between 1 and 2, then read half the space between 2 and 3.

Step Three: Read a Quarter-Inch

A quarter-inch mark is the third biggest marking on a standard measuring tape.

There are two quarter-inch markings in each half, creating four equal spaces in an inch. Each space represents a quarter.

Two quarters make up one half.

For example:

One quarter = ¼”

Two quarters = ½”

Three quarters = ¾”

Four quarters = 1”

Step Four: Read Eighths of an Inch

As we divide even more fractions, the line markings get shorter and shorter. This makes the eighth of an inch mark the fourth biggest line.

There are four equal markings, which split the inch into eight equal spaces. Each space represents one-eighth of an inch.

Two-eighths make up a quarter and four-eighths make up a half.

For Example:

One eighth = ⅛”

Two-eighths = ¼”

Four eighths = ½”

Six-eighths = ¾”

The last eighth = 1”

Step Five: Read 16ths of an Inch

The majority of US measuring tapes contain markings that go all the way down to 16ths of an inch. These markings are the smallest markings on a standard measuring tape.

One inch is divided into 16 equal parts. Each part represents one 16th of an inch. Two 16ths make up one eighth, four 16ths make up one quarter, and eight 16ths make up a half.

For Example:

One 16th = 1/16”

2/16” = ⅛”

4/16” = ¼”

8/16” = ½”

The last 16th = 1”

How to Read a Metric Tape Measure

The metric system is the most commonly used measurement system all around the world. It’s considered much easier to understand than the imperial system, mainly because it doesn’t contain any fractions.

Take a look at how to read a metric tape measure in these two easy steps!

Step One: Read 1 Centimeter

The largest marking on a metric measurement tape is the centimeter (CM) marking.

To measure a centimeter, all you have to do is read the space between one number and the one that follows it. This space measures one centimeter.

The line that goes down the middle of a centimeter is a half-centimeter marking.

For example, the space between 1 and 2 measures one centimeter. The length between 1 and 3 measures two centimeters, and so on.

Step Two: Read Millimeters

The smallest markings on a metric measuring tape represent millimeters (MM). This means that the gap between each line and the one after it measures one millimeter.

There are 10 millimeters in one centimeter.

If you’re measuring an object that exceeds the last whole centimeter, count the remaining number of millimeters. You’re then going to write down the number of centimeters, a decimal point, then the number of millimeters.

For example, if an object measures 8 centimeters and 5 millimeters, we say it measures 8.5 centimeters.

Measuring tape often has a hook that makes it easy to unroll. Image by PlumbingInstantFix. All rights reserved.

Why Are Some Markings Red on a tape measure?

When you pull your tape further out, you may notice some unfamiliar markings.

For example, there’s a red inch mark every 16 inches. This is because 16 inches is the standard distance between wall studs.

This makes it much easier to measure the distance between them.

What Does the Black Diamond Symbolize on a tape measure?

Another thing you may also notice is a black diamond or black triangle on your measuring tape. You’ll typically find a black diamond at every 19 and 3/16 inches.

These represent the central space between studs, which is useful for identifying or installing joists and trusses. However, you may also use these markings for other purposes.

Final Thoughts

Whether at home or on the job, knowing how to read a measuring tape is a great skill to have.

Surprisingly, not many people know how to read a measuring tape correctly. If you’re one of these people, you came to the right place!

We’ve put together this guide on how to read a tape measure like a pro, as well as some secret markings on your measuring tape you probably didn’t know about.