Cheat Sheet | Handy tips for picking the tape measure for you

Posted: June 15, 2007

Does your tape measure measure up? Here are some tips for choosing these versatile and retractable rulers.

Need to know. What will work best for you. For example, Woodbury remodeling contractor Jay Cipriani says his crew uses tape measures with blades that are at least an inch wide and can extend 12 or more feet without snapping or bending.

Extending without bending is called "standout," say Tracie Gildea and Jon Murray of the Stanley Works in New Britain, Conn. If you are a one-person do-it-yourself operation, a 25-foot tape measure with a standout of 12 feet is perfect for standing in the middle of a space and determining room dimensions and ceiling height. The wider the blade (they typically range from 1/2 to 11/4 inches), the longer the standout (up to 13 inches and climbing as technology improves).

Tale of the tape. The wider the blade, the easier it will be to read because the printing can be larger and there can be more numbers and gradations. The most popular tapes have a top scale in inches and a bottom scale in feet, Murray says. In addition, the bottom scale can offer stud marks in consecutive 16-inch increments.

Some tapes are two-sided, so they can be read from below. One kind of tape, used for measuring pipes, has a narrow blade with a scale in consecutive inches on one side and a diameter scale on the other side. Some tapes have additional information on the bottom that gives conversion data for screw and nail sizes, Murray says.

Singular or plural? How many tapes does the typical DIY-er need? Usually one, Murray says, with a 1/2- or 3/4-inch-wide blade, 10, 12, or 16 feet long, that can fit into a side pocket or a kitchen drawer. This is perfect for measuring furniture. If you're building a deck, 25-foot measures are more useful.

Back tracking. A tape measure's blade retracts into its case in one of two ways. A "lever lock" is a spring-loaded mechanism with an automatic brake on the underside of the case. When you squeeze it, the blade either extends or retracts. When you stop squeezing, the blade locks into place - "like an ABS system in your car," Murray says.

Other tapes simply retract completely when you depress a lever. "If you want the tape to retract more slowly, you let the underside of the blade run along your index finger," Murray says.

Cover story. The trend is to have a case with a rubber grip, so you can hang onto it if your hands are dirty or greasy. Plus, a rubber case is more durable if the tape measure is dropped.

Clip job. Most tape cases also come with belt clips. These can be part of the measuring system, with the number of inches represented by the bottom of the case typically marked on the side. And some tape measures have additional features, such as bubble levels or flashlights.

Material world. The base metal of most blades is steel, but "coatings lend durability to the blade," Gildea says. Stanley blades are coated with a mylar polyester film, but some have a thermoplastic coating for the first six feet to prevent breakage during uncontrolled retractions.

What will it cost? Seven dollars for a basic tape measure, $20 for a pro model, depending on blade and materials.


Want Alan J. Heavens' advice on a home-improvement project or purchase? E-mail him at aheavens@phillynews.com or write to him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.

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