What is a tape measure used for?

Updated July 19, 2017

A tape measure is an indispensable tool when working on projects in which precision measurements are necessary. Whether you are installing shelves, laying out a flower bed or hemming your jeans, a tape measure will help you get the job done. It is important to choose the right type of tape measure for the task at hand.


The first spring-loaded tape measure, resembling the models sold at hardware stores today, was patented by Alvin J. Fellows in 1868. At the time, foldable rulers made from wood were popular with carpenters. In fact, the folding ruler remained the dominant measuring tool in the construction industry until the 1940s, when Stanley Works began manufacturing their own line of steel measuring tapes.


A tape measure is one of the most commonly used tools by carpenters and do-it yourselfers. It is invaluable for taking interior and exterior dimensions and for measuring lumber, sheetrock or any material that needs to be cut. A carpenter's tape measure contains a somewhat flexible metal ribbon that can be held rigid or bent to measure around corners. A metal clip, known as a tang, hooks over one end of the object being measured, allowing for one-person measurement. When the ribbon is released, a spring inside the case pulls it back inside, readying it for the next measurement. Most tape measures used by carpenters can measure distances of up to 25 feet, however, extended length tape measures may be up to 100 feet long.


Tailors use tape measures to take readings of customers' body measurements and to measure sections on various garments. A sewing tape measure must be flexible so that it can wrap around a person's waist, chest or other body part. These tape measures were traditionally made of cloth, but today are made of more durable materials, such as fibreglass or plastic-coated polyester. A sewing tape measure is between 5 to 10 feet in length.


Surveyors use tape measures to determine the distance between points and to help determine property lines. A surveyor's tape measure is known as an open-reel tape. The tape is flexible, much like a tailor's tape, and can easily bend to measure around corners and curves. It can be manually wound back into its case with a hand crank. Most open-reel tapes measure lup to 300 feet. This type of tape measure may be used by landscapers, builders, cost estimators and anyone who needs to take outdoor measurements.


Over the last few years, a number of laser tape measures have hit the market. These instruments do not use tape, but rather utilise a laser beam to measure the distance between points. The measurement is then displayed on the instrument's LCD screen. Laser tape measures provide a quick readout and are accurate to about a quarter-inch at 100 feet, adequate for the majority of projects. For important measurements, however, it is hard to beat the traditional, spring-loaded retractable tape measure.

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About the Author

Stephen Maclin is a freelance writer, blogger and editor based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. His work, focusing on diet, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, has appeared in various print and online publications, including and Direct Health. Maclin holds a bachelor's degree in Business Administration from Kean University.