Over the past few years, tool manufacturers have been busy reinventing the common steel tape rule. Now brimming with innovations in case design, tape readability and special-purpose features, this once-stagnant segment of the tool market is finding a new life.
Of course, any tape rule that’s worthy of your consideration must have a clear and legible scale, be the right size for the job (not too big, not too small), fit comfortably in your hand and be able to withstand normal wear and tear. But what’s new and exciting is the inventive way that manufacturers have rethought these basic design principles.
A good read
Aside from the normal inch scale, you can expect almost any tape you buy to include 16- and 24-in. center marks as well as the black indicators spaced every 19.2 in. for laying out engineered trusses. Short tapes often have 1/32nd marks. But those unlabelled fine marks that divide inches into fractions are also the source of countless ruined cuts and frustration for almost everyone who’s ever used a tape.
Now several companies, including Olympia, Lufkin, Starrett and Stanley, make tapes with fractional readouts. All of these tapes make reading fractions foolproof, but the Lufkin Quickread provides more and better information. In addition to the fraction scale, the tape has a decimal scale — as well as inch numbers that are printed vertically — that makes reading them easy from either side of the tape. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best improvement to tape rules since they were invented.
If finding the center of stock has your head swimming in numbers, the Centerpoint tape offers a simple, elegant solution: One edge of its blade is marked with a half-scale. You need only find the scale number that corresponds to the total measurement and make your mark.
The right size
Most of the tapes used by do-it-yourselfers and tradesmen are in the 10- to 30-ft. range. (The usefulness of longer and shorter tapes is generally limited by their length or size.) But even within the normal range, one size doesn’t fit all. Building tradesmen such as carpenters typically use long (25 ft. or longer), wide tapes while shop workers such as cabinetmakers use shorter (10, 12 and 16 ft.), narrower tapes. A short, skinny tape is too wimpy to lay out a stud wall, but it’s perfect for measuring in tight quarters such as cabinet cases — largely because the blade bends easily. On the other hand, a big tape that’s perfect for home construction seems a lot like an SUV negotiating a go-cart track when you attempt to use it for shop work. It’s much too big and stiff to measure in confined spaces.
On job sites, many construction tradesmen prefer a stiff tape with a lot of “standout” to allow measuring across areas where it’s impractical to hook the end. To pass muster, a tape should be rigid enough to extend horizontally at least 7 ft. without crumpling into a useless heap. Most 1-in. x 25-ft. tapes can reach out about 8 ft., but the Stanley FatMax holds the current title with a claimed 11-ft. standout (give or take a little). Stanley achieved this by designing the FatMax with a thicker, wider (1-1/4 in.) and deeply cupped blade.
Although there are still any number of tapes made with square cases, the trend has been toward rounder cases that fit more comfortably in your hand. To provide some cushion and a better grip, almost all of the manufacturers make tapes with rubber or textured surfaces. And to keep you from losing sight of your tape, most cases are now available in high-visibility colors. Bright yellow is the most popular.
It’s worth paying attention to the depth of the case. Figuring an inside measurement where you’ll need to add the case depth to get a final number can be a real pain if it’s some odd dimension — say, 3-7/16 in. Whole inches are best; increments less than 1/4 in. will make your life difficult.
Durability is always an important consideration when buying a tape — particularly when it comes to larger tapes that often are subjected to rough service in the field. (Shop life for a tape is easy by comparison: I have 12- and 16-ft. tapes in my shop that are several years old.) Most tape cases are made of impact-resistant plastic (typically ABS) so they won’t break if you drop them. Blades are also coated to prevent wear. For instance, Stanley coats its blades with Mylar (polyester), and U.S. Tape’s Ultralife is jacketed with nylon.
To prevent debris from entering the case, U.S. Tape and Olympia offer some models with a rubber sweep that wipes the blade as it retracts, a great feature if you’re working in a gritty environment.
The Olympia E-Z Read Pro and Starrett ControLok tapes have lock buttons that work just the opposite of most tapes. You depress the lock button to release the blade and lock the blade by releasing the button. This is particularly useful if you’re measuring where there’s no place for the hook to catch. The E-Z Read Pro also has a pencil slot molded into the case so you can hold the pencil securely and scribe accurate lines.
If you’re hard on tape blades, a Craftsman’s E-Z Change tape may be what you need. Instead of replacing the entire tape, you simply install an inexpensive refill blade.
Hooks and rivets
There’s more to blade hooks than you might expect. The way a hook is made and attached to the blade is crucial to a tape’s accuracy and durability. Look closely and you’ll notice a slot in the middle of the hook and a groove on the bottom. The slot is for hooking a nail (also works as a trammel point) and the groove lets you rest the hook on a string line.
The rivets that fasten the hook to the blade must allow the hook to move freely back and forth (for accurate inside and outside measurements), but they must also prevent the hook from being ripped off if it’s retracted rapidly into the case.
Most manufacturers have made improvements to both the hooks and the rivets. The hook on Stanley’s FatMax has a pair of “ears” on the top so you can hook the tape on the top or bottom . For greater strength, the hooks on Lufkin’s longer tapes are fastened with four rivets rather than the normal three. Some of the tapes from Olympia, U.S. Tape, Starrett, Craftsman and Lufkin have a backing plate under the rivets for reinforcement.
Even if you habitually let the blade snap back at full force, your tape may still hold up well because it probably has a built-in bumper to cushion the shock. Your tape will last longer, however, if you slow down the blade as it retracts.
Aside from the obvious uses for large and small tapes, there are specialized tapes for a variety of trades and functions. Among them are engineer’s tapes, mason’s tapes, shrink tapes and metric tapes. An engineer’s tape, for instance, has a scale with 10th and 100th of a foot, while a mason’s tape has scales for laying out brick, tile, etc. A few new tapes are making their marks as well.
If you work with drywall, you’ll love the Score N’ Snap tape because you measure and cut in one step. A slot in the hook for a utility knife blade lets you score the drywall while you guide the case along an edge.
The Stud Marker tape automatically marks 16- or 24-in. centers with a built-in ink roller . To use it, you simply slide back the bottom cover to expose the marker; then depress a button on the side of the tape as you pull it over the lumber. If you’re not marking studs, it also works well as a conventional 25-ft. tape.
Electronic tapes aren’t for everyone — the chances are greater that you’ll get one as a gift than to buy one for yourself — but they do offer some interesting features. Starrett’s Digitape Plus can convert English to metric, and you can flop its display to read from either side. Stanley’s Intellitape has some similar features and the ability to figure a midpoint. If you tend to forget measurements before you get a chance to write them down, Zircon’s Repeater has a built-in voice recorder for transcribing them on the spot.
If you have a toolbox dedicated to a specific trade, throw in one of these tapes and make your life easier.