We get asked about woodworking measuring & marking tips and tricks all the time. If there is any single tool that anyone who works with their hands uses on a day-to-day basis, it is the venerable tape measure. At Pro Tool Reviews we believe in giving new apprentices, carpenters, woodworkers, or metalworkers the skills they need to get up and running in the trades. We put down our best woodworking measuring and marking tips and tricks to help you work just like a Pro.
Start with the Right Tape Measure
When choosing a tape measure, your preference may differ from ours. In any case, when you buy your first tape, use these as a guide for what to look for:
- 1-inch or wider blade
- 25-feet or longer length
- Coated blade so it will last longer
- Magnetic tip
- 3-inch wide case (exactly if possible)
- Heavy duty case that can take a fall
- Comfortable in the hand
- The locking mechanism that you find comfortable (either thumb lock or lever lock)
One of our favorite tape measures is the Stanley Fat Max. This rugged tape holds up well and you can get it in a 35-foot length. We also love the Starrett TX1-26ME for combining both imperial and metric on the same tape. This is perfect for metalworking where you are often using both measurement systems.
Woodworking Measuring Math Made Easy
This woodworking measuring & marking tip will make your life much easier by simplifying math problems. Let’s say you are a carpenter or woodworker and have a board that is 8-5/32” wide. You need to divide it into 3 equal widths. You could get out the calculator and do some math, but there is no need to.
Simply take your tape measure and put one edge on the board as normal, now angle the tape measure as shown in the photo below until you get the other edge to a number that is easy to divide in your head, like 9. In this case, 9 ÷ 3 = 3 so make your mark at the 3” increments (3” and the 6”) on the tape measure. It’s an easy measuring and marking tip but it works like magic. Well actually, it works like math. Just be sure and use the same edge of your tape measure and don’t use the top edge on one measurement and the bottom edge on the other.
Speaking of making your mark, this woodworking tip and trick is not just for tape measures but anytime you use a measuring device like a ruler, drywall square, etc. Instead of making a dot or a dash when you make your mark when measuring, the most accurate way is to make a “crow’s foot”. This is a V shape mark where the actual precise measured point is the intersection of the V.
Yes, It is Supposed to Do That!
Many people ask why the end of their tape measure, called the hook, moves back and forth. It is supposed to do this! It moves the exact thickness of the hook itself. This way, if you measure an inside measurement (like a windowsill) it moves so the end of the tape aligns with 0”. If you hook the tape measure on a board, it moves the exact thickness of the hook so the measurements all still align at 0”.
Add by 3-inches
This measuring tip and trick relies on historical consistency. Most tape measure cases measure exactly 3-inches in length. Let’s go back to our windowsill example and take an inside measurement by putting the tape measure in the windowsill as pictured and then look at the longest measurement the tape is reading and add 3-inches.
Even if your tape has a different width—knowing the width helps you make more difficult inside measurements more easily.
Tips and Tricks For Working Alone
For the next few tips and tricks, we are going to look at the hook of the tape measure. Notice there is a slot in the end. This allows you to drive a small nail in a wall and hook the tape measure on the nail. As long as you keep tension on the blade of the tape measure, you can measure a fairly long distance by yourself without the tape falling off.
One tip here is to use a tape with greater standout, which means a tape measure that can stick straight out in the air before falling over. Some Stanley Fat Max tapes can reach out 14-feet which is a big help when working alone.
Is that a Compass in Your Belt?
Using the same nail trick, we can also use it to draw circles. Drive your nail in the center of your circle. Extend your tape measure to the radius of the circle. Hook the end of the tape measure on the nail and you can put your pencil at the mark on your tape and use the housing to help hold it steady. If you prefer, you can subtract 3-inches and hold the pencil on the outside of the housing as pictured. Now draw your circle. With this woodworking tip and trick, you can draw a circle from a few inches in diameter up to 70 feet, depending on your tape measure.
We used this trick when making the circular ash table that lives in our office.
Measuring & Marking Tips and Trick with the Hook
Note: This tip applies to metalworking only if you are using bluing. You do not need to use a pencil or other marking tool to make a mark on most surfaces. The end of the tape measure can scratch a mark on the surface. This was extremely helpful when I would hang a painting in the museum I work for.
When measuring your layout on the wall for your nails or hangers, hold the measurement on the center-line with the tape measure extended out. Then use the hook to scratch your mark on both the left and right sides of the center-line.
Keep Your Hook Square
Every time you drop your tape measure, it is important to check the hook to make sure it didn’t bend. If it is not 90 degrees, bend it square again with needle-nose pliers. More sophisticated tools exist for checking tape measure accuracy, but pliers work for most trades and craftsmen.
Can’t Reach it? Use Your Tape Measure
While not really falling under woodworking measuring & marking tips and tricks, this still comes in handy. Many tape measures have magnets on the hooks. This lets you run your tape measure down into a wall or cavity to retrieve a lost item you dropped as long as the magnet is strong enough to pick it up.
Take a Note
Covering the label of your tape measure with white contact paper allows you to write notes such as measurements with dry-erase markers. Covering it with a piece of white plastic laminate used for countertops allows you to write notes with a pencil. The pencil will wipe off with your finger.
Make Your Tape Measure Last
Finally, to keep your tape measure in good condition, keep the blade clean. When retracting it, don’t let the blade slam back into the case. That will eventually break off the hook.
We hope you can use at least some of these measuring and marking tips and tricks. If you have your own tips for tape measures, please put them in the comments below.