Buying good tools cheap – Tape measures

We seem almost besotted with giant tape measures in our western world of woodworking, but of course in construction they are now essential. How we managed before they were developed to what have today I don’t know. I grew up with a three-foot four-fold Rabone rule made from boxwood and I still use it at the bench in the UK. What on earth FatMax means to the Stanley name of woodworking I don’t pretend to know, but I would that someone would come up with a standard furniture maker’s tape measure of 12 feet max, a little thicker steel and exact measurements with both metric and imperial in one tape. I would like a tape to last thirty year and keep it’s markings but tapes do wear out inside and out. I prefer tapes I can keep in my trouser pocket most of the time without feeling like I am carrying half a ton of steel around with me and one I can lock open, which most today do. Last year I worked with someone who always picked oversized tapes 30feet long. His tape took two hands to carry let alone stretch out and though he seemed content with it, when he pulled it out to measure with it felt more like a sword than a tape measure and it always seemed slow.

In many ways the metric system was devised to unite people separated by language. Had all countries adopted it there would be ease of information transfer throughout the continents. The USA has stuck to imperial measurement for some strange and unknown reason, but I too was raised with imperial and switched when Britain denied its independence to unite with mainland Europe back in the mid to late 1960’s. I like feet and inches. There’s something really archaically solid about it even though I understand the theory that metric is sensibly divisible through logic. I also think that 12 inches in a foot is a wonderful thing. To further my resistance, I liked it when Britain had 20 shillings in a pound, sold things in guineas, had 12 pence to the shilling, bought things for ten bob and half pennies were 1″ in diameter made from copper and could be easily drilled out to make an odd sized washer I need on something I made. All in all, things then seemed to have a worth.

For bench work it’s a rare thing to make a piece more than a couple of metres or a few feet long and so we need a tape that measures around eight feet and seldom more. That makes for a lighter tape, smaller in size that more fits inside the palm of the hand rather than a mere hand clutch and the one I personally favour the most is the Stanley 3 metre/10-foot Powerlock. This has a chrome case that looks like metal but is plastic. I have seen them in both a die-cast alloy and plastic through the 45 years since they first came on sale and both work fine. These tapes are well made though perhaps scarcer in the smaller size of 3 metre/10 foot. I see the prices range around £6-10 with the same numbers in dollars if you can find that size in the US. Ebay seems the best locator with most prices including free shipping. Also to consider, depending on where you live, these tapes can be located in metric only, English (imperial) only or the hybrid English/metric. For me the English/metric combo in any tape is a must because of course I use both systems equally by necessity.

In closing, some of the best tapes are the cheapest imports in coloured plastic casings and I am always picking them up to test for whether I like them. In the UK, B&Q has a low-priced tape in many colour choices and they seem to last for years, are lightweight with no hard corners so they slide in and out of the pocket easily. On all the tape measures for my personal daily use I remove the belt clip because its a bad practice to clip tapes to the belt when you are a furniture maker. A tape on the belt can badly damage a finished piece of work on the bench when you lean over the bench to work it or carry a work piece to move it and so on.


  1. I for one am exceedingly glad the US has stayed with “English” measurements. I find it far easier to think in English fractions and multiples than in metric – and professionally I’m a programmer. Woodworking is (should not be) the same as programming. Computers like decimals, my brain prefers the precision and simplicity of fractions. My English mother was evacuated during the blitz to the home of a Berkshire cabinet maker whom I remember for his old Berkshire accent and his everlasting antipathy for metric. Of round-abouts I’ll never forget: “right the way round.”

  2. I really dislike the tapes with imperial and metric units. I like them to be separate tapes. The mixed unit measures seem to always have the graduations I need on the wrong side somehow every time I need to measure something.

    The one really good thing about the big tape measures though is that those of us that have already had to resort to reading glasses find the larger numbers helpful. Although when you can’t see the graduations, I guess it is moot.

  3. Paul,
    How do you deal with the slack of the end cap? Do you just disregard it by burning an inch usually, and use something more definitive such as a folding rule when setting machines? I caught some grief for using my tape to set machines recently, but I found it just as accurate if you are careful to know you are compressing that 1/16″. They were suggesting using FastCap tapes, which have the cap fixed definitively to the tape with no slack.

    1. Slack at the end cap is designed to accomodate the thickness of the end cap so that when it’s hooked onto the end of a piece of wood or board the distance from inside the cap measures an exact measurement to the marks on the tape. When you measure in between and therefore push the end cap into say a corner for instance, the moving part shunts up the exact thickness of that end cap and so the two measurements are the same and show an exact distance. I generally have not found these distances to be inaccurate at all.

  4. Paul, I love the smaller tape measures too. I didn’t feel this way in the past because I liked the wide tapes for viewing and the ability to push the across surfaces or span a gap. My Dad always carried a small tape and I never understood why when I was younger. Now that I’m older and have the physical souvenirs of farming, construction, football and firefighting I find it more efficient and less bothersome to have the tape in my pocket ALL the TIME, since I don’t wear my tool belt while I’m building projects. If I kneel down and realize that I need a tape, its there… just like the Stanley 10-049. (BTW, why are they marketing aprons and vest with multiple pockets for woodworking? I don’t want to carry all that weight, Isn’t that what the tool well is for? All that bulkiness too…) I don’t know if this is my paranoid problem concerning tape measures but I always pick through them to find tapes where the hook doesn’t wiggle. It just seems to me that a 1/16″ here and a 1/16″ there ads up to something coming up out of square.
    David, I know what you mean about looking at the small tapes, I’m thankful that my vision can be corrected every couple of years to make up for the fuzzies. LOL

    1. Wiggly ends don’t bother me at al as long as they are accurately calibrated for the exact thickness they are designed to adjust for, ie the wiggly bit itself. Generally they are accurate, even cheap ones. I must say I am a fanatice on accuracy on my furniture. Even when I eyeball my dovetails they are generally reversible. In other words I can flip them over and they fit without having measured anything. Angles and all!

      1. Thanks for the answer Paul. I was playing a youtube video of you cutting the miters for a picture frame at a woodworking show and my gal was in the room, I told her that was one of my goals, to be able to accurately eyeball angles. Hey, if I can nail 6oz portions of fish and 10 & 12 oz portions of prime rib at work I should, in theory, be able to get to this goal after a few thousand attempts. 😉
        When I worked construction we did as as one of the other posters stated, we’d take off the first inch if we wanted an accurate measurement. The times we’d do this were the times we were nervous, trim, stairs,… the rest of the work never bothered us but the areas that came closest to furniture grade always made us a bit more paranoid.

  5. Thanks for the insight Henry. It makes good sense for different trades to have thicker, wider, heavier tapes.

  6. Paul,
    If you like lightweight tape measures, check out BMImeter. It’s a German caseless tape measure with reversed tape arc. I got the 2 meter long version and it weights only 66 grams. Also, the reversed arc improves accuracy because it lies flat. The funny thing is that unlike normal tape measures, when you press the release button the tape extends!

  7. I once worked with an American fashion designer who had also worked a lot in Europe. He said European fashion designers had an edge because they worked in metric. According to his theory, going to the nearest millimeter gave subtly more beautiful curves and fit. American designers would think to the nearest 8th inch.

    I’m not a fashion designer so I can only tell this second hand and I’m not sure if there was more to his theory than that. But, I do much prefer working in metric, probably because of my age growing up with mostly metric in Britain. Tapes and rulers with both inches and metric drive me crazy. It’s complete madness in my opinion and makes the tool worse not better. Yes, separate metric and imperial tapes and rules for me. And really, why not just convert to metric so we don’t need this craziness.

  8. How about Stabila BM 30 W? Extremely legible, II class of precision (most tapes are class III), marks on both sides plus a third window gauge to show internal dimensions. This one’s metric but I’m sure they have a model marked in body parts, fractions, pints of honey etc.

    1. I don’t think they have moved with the times I’m afraid as they seem to be only available in metric. Perhaps one day they will understand that the those of us using both measuring systems like choices and they could cater to a massive market. Joking of course.

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