What’s the best tape measure?
There is a bewildering array of options for tape measures. These are just some of the tapes found in the author’s shop, including offerings from Milwaukee, Stanley, FastCap, Hafele, and Blum.

The folks at Milwaukee Tool sent me a sample of their latest and greatest tape measure, and it got me to thinking about how much variation there is out there in tape measures and what features you really need in a measuring tool for the shop.

The new Milwaukee tape measure is dubbed the Stud and claims to be the most durable on the market. It touts features such as being able to survive an 80-foot drop and a special coated blade technology to make the blade more durable. It also claims to stand out straight for “up to 10 feet.” Based on those features and a few more it seems like key factors to consider in selecting a tape are length, width, measurement style, standout, locking methods, accuracy, durability, and some non-measuring accessories, such as the belt clip. Let’s take a look at all of those.

Length: The Milwaukee Stud comes with a 25-foot length, which is pretty standard for construction use, but there are also 30-foot tapes. While you might need the longer length for job site work, most shop-based woodworkers rarely need more than 15 feet. A smaller tape means a more compact, lighter, convenient tape for carrying.

Blade widths shown range from 1-1/8 inches wide to less than ½ inch wide and lengths from 10 to 30 feet. Generally, wider blades have longer standouts. Note the top flat blade from FastCap designed for no standout, which is handy for measuring sheets and panels.

Width and standout: The Milwaukee Stud is about an inch wide, but I have a Stanley FatMax that is about 1-1/8 inches wide and several FastCap and Hafele tapes that are about 7/8-inch wide. Wider tapes generally have longer standout. On the tapes I tested, standout ranged from about 8 feet on the smaller tapes to 10 feet on the Milwaukee and 12 feet on the Stanley. But sometimes you don’t want standout. I have a FastCap model that features a flat tape that is really handy for layout and measuring on sheet goods because it lies flat.

Measurement style: The Milwaukee and Stanley tapes are all inches all the time, but most of my FastCap and Hafele tapes are inches on top and metric on the bottom. I also have tapes that read right side up from either side of the tape, which can help to eliminate errors or if you are left-handed. FastCap also offers a story-stick-style tape with a blank area you can mark with a pencil and rub off to erase. Some tapes are yellow and some are white; that’s personal preference to me. The FastCap tapes have all the fractions marked to help eliminate reading errors.

The Milwaukee Stud tape measure features a recess at the bottom so you can safely use your finger to slow or stop the blade from retracting. Some other tapes have a button in this position.

Locking methods: A few tapes have an automatic spring lock that holds the tape out and must be released to retract it. I’ve found most of those don’t hold up to extended professional use. That might be why most tapes these days have a manual lock to press down to hold the tape out. Some have a button on the bottom to press to hold the tape out temporarily or to slow retraction. The Milwaukee has a cutout, so your finger can easily do that work.

Some tapes, such as this one from Hafele and those from FastCap, have flat white spaces designed to write on with pencil and wipe off to erase.

Accessories: My favorite accessory on the Hafele and FastCap tapes is a flat, blank white space on the side of the tape on which you can write measurements in pencil and then erase them. Those tapes also feature built-in pencil sharpeners. Almost all tape measures have belt clips, but the ones from FastCap have a lever to make it easier to clip to your belt one-handed. All of these tapes are designed to be used right-handed; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a true left-handed tape.

Accuracy: Tape measures have two danger points when it comes to accuracy, the tang and blade stretch. The loose tang is designed to facilitate accurate inside and outside measurements. (Don’t get me started on stories about nimrods who tried to “repair” the loose tang.) The amount of tang travel needs to be exactly the thickness of the tang. That can get sloppy over time, especially if the rivets loosen up or the holes enlarge. Additionally the tape itself can stretch with use. I once visited a shop where their policy was to replace all the tapes annually. When they ordered new tapes, they would order 10 at a time, and pull them all out to full length side by side. The five that agreed closest on full measurement they would keep; the other five would be sent back.

The lever on the belt clip of FastCap tape measures makes it much easier to clip the tape on your belt one-handed.

Durability: Some of the new tapes, including the Milwaukee, have special coatings designed to increase the longevity of the blade. Many tape cases are armored with rubber to help withstand inevitable drops from on high. What you can’t see is how well the mechanism inside will hold up to continual use and abuse. Always slow the retraction so the tape doesn’t slam into the case. That will definitely extend the life of the blade. Stepping on or kinking the blade won’t help either.

Alternatives to tape: We’ve previously reviewed a few laser measures, and they certainly have advantages over tapes in larger areas, but you have to use them carefully to guarantee accuracy. It should be noted that many of our friends in European shops disdain tapes altogether, preferring folding rules for convenience and accuracy. In North America, we mostly think of folding rules as obsolete, but try it; you might like it.

In the final analysis, personal preferences and the kinds of things you have to measure dictate your measuring choices. I gravitate to smaller, handier tapes with the write-on feature, but I keep a couple of the bigger tapes handy when nothing substitutes for their added length. I use folding rules or metal meter sticks in the shop to measure diagonals to check the square of boxes. And I like small metal rules for setting tools such as the depth of cut on hand routers and table saws. With all these choices, there is just no excuse for inaccurate measurements in the shop. Measure twice (however you like) and cut once!



Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user willsampson
About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.