ManMade Essential Toolbox: Why You Definitely Need an Accurate Tape Measure... and Which One is the Best?
The trusty tape measure. Trusty as in "often relied on," not trusty as in: you can trust it for accurate measuring. Cause, while it's definitely the go-to inch finder for the vast majority of us, it's really a contractor's tool, and better suited to lumberyard than a fine woodworking project. But, still, it's the one you (read: I) reach for nearly every time, and there are loads of DIY projects and household tasks for which rough measurements will do just fine. The problem with a tape's accuracy is, of course, also its benefit: that little hook that allows for one-handed or far away operation. It has an intentional built-in play, which allows you to use the tool whether the hook is on the outside (pulled) or pressed against an object (pushed).
So, how do you know if you're measuring tape is accurate? Test it for both inside and outside measurements. While you're at the hardware store on in your shop, find a steel ruler, and place it next to the tape. Hook the tape on the end of the ruler, and check to see if the lines match up.
Then, push both against a solid object and check and see whether the gradations match up. If so, you're good to go.
If you do use a tape measure for accurate part layout on projects, you may know the old trick of avoiding the hook altogether and measuring from the 1" mark. I had, of course, and have, countless times, subsequently forgotten to add that inch back in, and cut too many parts too short, sometimes with pretty unfortunate and wasteful results. I'm still kicking myself over making that mistake on my custom desk organizer project. I did so on a key part, and the only way to make it work the way I intended was to buy a whole other set of materials and start over. So, I had to redesign, and I'm still living with my mistake.
So, if you working on actual parts layout, measure from the 10 or 12" mark. It's too big of a difference to forget to add (or subtract) it back in.
So, which one should you buy? Our opinion is: the simpler, the better. A basic 12' or 16' locking tape with a single button and no extra bells and whistles is the way to go. One, they're inexpensive (less than $15) so you can get 2-3 simple ones with reasonable lengths. Anyone who's built anything knows you regularly set these down in various places on a project, and you'll probably use at least two on longer builds. Nature of the beast. Thankfully, the best are usually the least expensive.
My personal favorite is the Starrett Exact TX34 16' tape. Starrett is a heritage brand know for making fine laboratory measuring equipment and highly accurate metal and woodworking tools. This is not one of those (it's made in China) but the brand's commitment to fine work carries over to this guy. My go-to. I wish I had three. (And at $6.78, I'm gonna get more.)
Stanley is certainly the stalwart of tape measures, and my favorite is their wider FatMax 16'. It has a very satisfying lock button, and I find easier to read than the classic Powerlock (especially outside in direct sunlight). It's wide hook works well when taking angled measurements, and it's dead-on accurate. However, its FatMax nature makes it very large and heavy, and too big to fit into a pants pocket or shop apron.
I still reach for the Starrett... when I know where it is.
- Starrett Exact TX34-16-N e Red Measuring Pocket Tape, English Graduation Style, 16' Length - $6.78
- Stanley 33-716 16-Foot-by-1-1/4-Inch FatMax Tape Rule with Blade Armor - $15.97