25 Handy Measuring Hacks All DIYers Should Know
There are a few essential skills that almost every DIY project requires at some point. One of the most foundational of these is accurate measuring. Even if you know your way around a tape measure, there’s sure to be some new tricks you haven’t seen in this list of 25 tips and tricks to take your mastery of this key skill to the next level.
A story pole is like Cliffs Notes for your project. Displaying the measurements for a given project in actual size rather than numbers, the story pole is a one-stop resource that saves time and eliminates headaches during layout and measuring. Commonly used by carpenters to mark the height of siding, windows and doors, a story pole can hold dimensions for all kinds of projects, from furniture building to masonry. A close relative of the story pole is the layout stick, frequently used when framing walls. They’re a great time saver and one of the best framing carpentry tips around.
The best tape measure is the one that you have on hand when you need it. But if you don’t have a tape measure, chances are you have a hand!
The next time you’re sitting around watching TV, break out a tape measure and learn the dimensions of your hands, fingers and arms. For some people, for example, two fingers together is 1 inch, while for others, it’s 1-1/4 inches. Measure the width and length of your hands, and the distance from fingertip to forearm for both right and left sides. Then the next time you need a ballpark measurements, simply use your own hands to compare lengths. In the meantime, here’s another handy measuring tip: an in-hand notepad right on your tape measure.
Synchronize Measuring Tapes
One time-saving job site trick is to keep a tape measure near your saw, and another near the installation area. Whether you’re making measurements and running the saw yourself, or cutting to call outs from an assistant, this is a great way to make the job go faster. However, it can also lead to trouble if the two tape measures are not exactly in sync.
Although the measuring marks on the vast majority of tapes are accurate, the hooks can get bent or warped over time. To verify accuracy, pull a line on a known straight edge with both tape measures and compare their marks. Ideally this should also be done at the start of every job, but at the very least, take a few seconds to verify that no serious damage has occurred if one of the tapes is dropped or otherwise abused. The good news is that this is just one of many ways to get the most out of your tape measures.
Measure to Mark Instead of Bending the Tape
Using a tape on tight spaces often involves bending the measuring tape and doing your best to get a reading. Eliminate tape entirely by dryfitting or holding the piece to cut up to the project. If you’re cutting from material too large to hold up to your project, make your own marking sticks! Simply take two sticks of scrap material, one end of each cut at a 45° angle. Place one on top of the other, with the angle ends point out. Spread the sticks out until the two angled sections touch the inside of the area being measured. Bind the two pieces together with painter’s tape, then rotate to remove (the angled sections will allow you to slide the sticks out easily). To make your cut, simply lay the taped pieces on your material and mark with a scribing knife or carpenter’s pencil. This technique is just one of the many shortcuts for trim carpenters on the familyhandyman.com!
If you need to measure the outside diameter of the cylinder or sphere, you want to use a flexible measuring tape. But if you don’t have one on hand, a cheap and simple solution can be achieved with a length of yarn, twine or similar material. Simply wrap one loop around the item being measured, mark it with your finger or a black marker, then lay out the yarn on top of a tape measure or ruler to get the precise measurements. Just be careful to exert the same amount of force on the yarn when you measure it as when you wrap it around the object. Keep a tape measure handy at all times by setting up this simple holder for any shop pegboard.
Don’t Trust Factory Edges
Here’s a hack that’s been known to pros for years, and more DIYers should practice in the field. Just because boards of lumber have factory-finished edges doesn’t mean they are always square. Before pulling a tape and marking a cut, check to make sure that it’s a reliable edge. This is easily done by throwing a speed square on the end of the lumber. If the edge looks off at all, just slide the speed square over and shave off a fraction of an inch to make it square. It’s a few seconds of work that can save hours of aggravation in the long run. This trick is only one of many clever uses for a speed square, a perennial favorite tool of craftsmen around the world.
Secrets of the Tape Measure Hook
Millions of people use tape measures every day, but very few of them are aware of all the different ways that they can be utilized. If you look at a quality tape measure, you’ll see that the hook at the end has a few unique qualities. One is that it should be slightly loose on its rivets. This allows it to slide in or out to allow for accuracy whether taking an inner or outer measure. This also means that the first inch on a tape measure is inaccurate by the amount of that movement (usually 1/16 inch). So if you need to take the measure of a small item, use a section further up the tape.
Another feature is the hole in the tape measure hook. Not all tape measures have this feature, but if yours does, you’ll notice that it’s exactly the right size to latch onto the head of a screw or nail. This allows DIYers to latch onto a fastener head and get on with measuring without worrying about the tape popping free. For more great tape measure tips, check out this video from Family Handyman editor Travis Larson.
Circle Layout Tool
If you want to make quick measurements and create accurate arcs and circles, then this tip is perfect for you! Being careful to center your holes, drill a 1/8-inch hole through every inch mark on a ruler or yardstick. Place a pin through the first hole (at the 1-inch mark) where you’d like the circle or arc to be centered. Add 1 inch to the radius you want to layout, and insert a pencil into that modified number. Then, using the pin as a pivot, rotate the pencil to mark the circle. Wooden rulers and yardsticks are available for cheap and sometimes for free from big box stores. Thanks to reader Edwin Constantino for this smart hack!
A water level is a time honored way to find equidistant height. Especially useful on irregular floors that would make straight measuring difficult, the water level is a sort of low-budget laser level. Made with water and clear plastic tubing, it uses the principle that water at two ends of the tube will equal out at the same height to help craftsman ensure that their marks are at the right level. There are many circumstances where this is helpful, including ensuring that multiple wall hangings are installed at the same height.
As a DIYer, you’ve no doubt realized that repetitive activities can create a headache. Eliminate multiple measurements and reduce the room for error, by substituting spacers for tape measures. A perfect example of this is installing tile, deck boards or any other material that require consistent gaps to allow for grout or expansion. While some people might simply throw down a tape measure between each tile or board to make sure spacing is accurate, a smarter DIYer knows that there’s no reason to expend so much time and effort. Use dedicated spacers, or even regular objects such as pennies, quarters, or 16d nails to eliminate measuring while still ensuring consistent spacing.
Use your Tape Measure as a Story Pole
We’ve already discussed how a story pole can save time on the job site. Now we’ve got a trick to explain how you can travel with one in your pocket. In the same way that measures and lengths are marked on a story pole, mark the length and sizes of your current project cuts directly onto your tape measure with permanent marker. Use an array of colors to keep the different items distinct. If you need to check a sizing, simply pull out the tape and look for the appropriate color. Once the project is over, just wipe down the tape with acetone to remove the marker and leave your tape fresh, clean, and ready for the next job. For a more detailed overview of this tip, see this Family Handyman article.
Library Tape Measure in a Box Store
There’s nothing worse than that moment when you’re picking out material in a big box store like Lowe’s or The Home Depot, and realize that you’ve forgotten to bring your tape measure. Don’t waste time by running back to the job site, just borrow a tape measure from the tool dept. Almost all tape measures are displayed with the tape easily accessible, so that potential buyers can try out the spring action. That means there’s no need to remove it from the packaging. Just use it to make your measurements. But please make sure you return the tape to the tool corral, and don’t leave it lying around the stacks. Here are 13 more secrets that Home Depot employees won’t tell you.
Easy Math with Two Rulers
If you’ve ever struggled to add fractional measures while on the job, this tip is for you! Let’s say you have to add 5-3/8 plus 7-5/16. Normally this might be a head scratcher, but watch how easy it is with this hack. Simply pull out two tape measures or rulers. You know that the total will be less than a couple feet, so pull out that much on the first tape. Then find the 5-3/8 mark. Now, starting at that point, lay out 7-5/16 on the second tape, laying it side-by-side the first one. Look over from the second mark, and you’ll see that the first tape reads 12-11/16. That’s your answer—no math involved! This hack is just the tip of the tips and tricks available to woodworkers at Family Handyman.
Kerf-Width Pencil Lead
A kerf is simply a term that refers to the thickness of a saw blade. You need to know your kerf width to make accurate multiple cuts on any project. A common beginner mistake goes like this: A new DIYer needs six 1 foot lengths of material, so they buy a single 6-foot-long stick; but after the cuts are made, the DIYer is shocked to find that they’re almost all short! The reason is simple: Our beginner forgot to factor in the 1/8 inch thickness of the blade.
Luckily, eliminating this issue is even simpler: Trim your carpenter’s pencil to the width of your saw blade. When measuring, verify all cuts are to the inside edge of the mark, and you’ll even be able to take multiple pieces from the same board without having to worry about overcuts. Here are even more circular saw tips to help you quickly master this essential power tool.
Slant-Rule Board Divider
Here’s yet another tip for how to reduce the amount of math needed on the job site! If you need to divide material into equal parts, simply angle your tape measure across the face. When you do, adjust the tape so that it lands on a mark easily dividable by the number of pieces that you want. If you need to divide a piece of lumber into thirds, for example, pull the tape from the front corner to anywhere along the side where the tape sets at an even 9 inches. Then mark at inches 3 and 6. Note that these distances are not 3 inches! Once you angle the tape, you are no longer measuring distance but rather spacing. This is such a great time saver, it warranted its own write up here.
What’s in Your Wallet?
Just like knowing the measurements of your own body, it can be a great time-saver to know the measurements of the items commonly in your pockets. In the US for example, dollar bills are 6.14 inches long. Fold a bill in thirds and then in half, and you’ll have a ruler roughly 6 inches long, marked in increments just slightly longer than an inch.
This won’t be accurate enough for precision cuts, but very useful to check the size of fasteners or off-shaped objects. Similarly, coins and credit cards are standard sizes, and can be easily marked when measuring. For example, a U.S. quarter is just under one inch in diameter, a fact that’s especially useful when ballparking small sizes or shimming anything that might get wet.
A sheet of standard printer paper in the US is exactly 8 1/2 inches wide by 11 inches tall. Because paper is cheap, it makes a great improvised ruler, and folding and bisecting it can help you zero on in on more precise measurements. Fold in a corner of the paper, for example, and you’ll have a diagonal line just under 14 inches long. Or fold it into thirds or quarters in either direction to get smaller lengths. These paper rulers are useful for measuring curved surfaces, and are part of the long DIYer tradition of improvising tools when in need.
Putting Your Foot in It
If you’re ever caught without a measuring tape and need to get a mid-sized distance, the easiest solution may be to pace it off. There’s often too much variation in a normal walking stride, so it’s more accurate to use the heel-to-toe method. Don’t depend on the length of your bare foot or shoe size, as that’s a measure of the inside of the shoe; a size 10 work boot is significantly longer than size 9 sneaker, for example. Know the outside dimension of your shoes, especially of shoes that you frequently wear on job sites.
Measuring yards and lots can be time-consuming, but depending on your project, you may not need an exact area. This is especially true when figuring material needs for jobs like fill dirt or grass seed. The easiest way to get a rough estimate for an open space is to make a mental comparison with a space you’re already familiar with. This might be another project you worked on previously, or any consistently sized space, such as a football field.
If you’re familiar with an American football field, you should be able to get a rough idea of the space you’re working in. A football field (without end zones) is just over one acre. Two fields (including end zones) is about a hectare. And of course this trick works with any sport that has a regulated field size. Baseball fields vary in size, but most major league parks are about 2 1/2 acres. This isn’t the method you’d use if you need the specificity of a real estate survey, but it works great when ballparking area for lawn repair.
Quick Cabinet Pull Measurements
Forget tedious measuring and remeasuring when installing cabinet drawer handles and pulls. Factory drawers are square, so tracing a pair of lines from corner to corner will give you an intersection at the dead center of the drawer face. If you’re installing pulls, you’re set to drill your hole. If you’re installing handles, use a combination square to capture the distance of the center to the edge, then drill holes to either side at a distance that matches your handle set. Check out this article for more tips on installing cabinet hardware..
A Pint’s a Pound
The old expression “A Pint’s a Pound, the World Around” isn’t exactly true, but it’s good enough for ballpark measures. A pint of water weighs about one pound, so a quart weighs two pounds, and a gallon weighs about eight pounds. Like most ballpark estimates, it gets farther afield the larger you go, but if you just need a quick calculation of water weight, it’s a great rule of thumb. Keep this tip in mind if you’re looking at installing a water feature, such as a pond or waterfall.
Know the Width of Your Tape Base
Most measuring tapes have the width of the tape shell printed on its base. You’ll notice that most tape measure bases are also flat. This is a feature, designed to make it easier to make inside measurements. If you’re measuring the width of a rough door opening, for instance, don’t bend the tape and guess at an exact measure. Instead, insert the whole tape measure into the opening, and take the measure from one side to the other, then add in the width of tape measure. Familiarize yourself with the tape’s width, and this will quickly become second nature. Dig into our archives for more reviews and tips about tape measures.
DIY Marking Gauge
If you need to scribe a line on your project material, a marking gauge will let you lay things out without the many steps involved in measuring off multiple marks and connecting them with a straightedge. But what if you don’t have a marking gauge? Luckily, there’s a DIY solution!
Take a combination square and drill a 1/8-inch hole at the 1-inch mark. Be careful to center it exactly on the 1-inch mark, and don’t go much over 1/8-inch diameter. Set the combination square to mark out 1 inch beyond your intended measurement, then place a pencil in your 1/8-inch hole. Now just slide your square along the edge of your material, and let the pencil mark a nice crisp line. If you thought that was fun, check out this other hack to turn a combination square into an instant, custom drawer handle jig.
Let’s return to that amazing hook at the end of your tape measure. Look closely and you’ll notice that the hook is strong metal, and many models have a hook with a serrated edge. This is no accident! It’s an intentional feature, allowing the hook to be used as a scribing tool.
The next time you can’t find your carpenter’s pencil, measure backwards from the edge of your work material. Pull the tape hook taut against its rivets, then push it into the wood or other material. The serrated edge will leave a mark in the wood fibers, allowing you to scribe for the perfect cut. No pencil required!
Improvised Marking Gauge
This hack takes the previous two items on our list and combines them to take it to the next level. Instead of just scribing a short mark, hold the tape measure against the open edge of material with your index finger, and press lightly down on the hook. As you move across the material, the hook will scribe a cut line. This provides the ease of a scribing tool and the accuracy of a marking gauge.
Even better, if you’re working with drywall or another material that’s knife-cuttable, simply use a utility knife pinched to the end of the tape hook, and guide the knife straight along the cut line. If you’ve ever been on a large drywall job, chances are you’ve seen pro hangers using this technique to completely eliminate the mark-and-cut step of the installation. Master this tip and you’ll be on your way to cutting and hanging drywall like a pro.