Tape Rules or Tape Measures - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Tape Rules or Tape Measures

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Fat Max came into our office today. Now before you start giving me grief about a derogatory comment projected at a fellow worker, let me explain that Fat Max is a product category produced by Stanley (The Stanley Works, New Britain, CT) and the product that arrived was a 40′-tape rule.

I grew up in the home-building industry, so tape measures are something that I’ve worked with for a long time. I continue to use this tool in my workshop today , I do most of my rough cutting layout work (which does not require spot-on accuracy) with tape measures. There are more than a couple tape measures deposited around the shop.

The Fat Max 40′ tape measure, as the name implies, is fat. Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick scoffed at the idea of her using the tape due to its size. She could barely maneuver her thumb to the lock while keeping a grip on the case. Even in my medium-size hand, the tape measure is huge.

So, other than its size, what’s different about a 40′ Fat Max Tape Measure? According to Stanley, this tape is the world’s longest self-retracting tape rule, it’s 1-1/4″-wide and has a standout of 11′. Standout is the length of tape that is extended out of the case before the metal tape buckles under its own weight. (At 11′ you can nearly reach the cubicle across the isle for a game of tag , not that I tried that.)

This tape rule is divided into 1/16″ scale and has fine-line markings. In addition, Stanley suggests that you’ll gain twice the average tape rule life with a Fat Max due to a 3M Blade Armor bonded coating. The steel rule is covered with a layer of Mylar then a layer of Blade Armor, an industrial thermoplastic coating.

Here are some interesting facts about tape rules.

–    The play in the hook end of the rule is there for a reason. The slight movement is equal to the thickness of the hook to achieve accurate results whether you’re measuring with the hook pressed against the surface or you hook the end as is normal usage.
–    There are red squares, or numbers, printed in red, every 16″. This is a house-framing notion because studs in walls and many floor joists are set with that spacing.
–    (Here’s one I had to research.) There are black diamonds , sometimes referred to as black trusses , every 19.2″. This corresponds to layout for some engineered lumber where architects can save a buck or two by increasing the spacing for roof trusses or floor joists where building codes allow.

Interestingly, and not by coincidence, 16″ and 19.2″ intervals are divisible into 8′-0″ or 96″, which is the standard size for sheet goods used in home construction and most woodworking plywood.

So, there are five 19.2″ units in 8′. That ratio (8/5) equals 1.6 or very near the “golden ratio” which is 1.618.  Are we challenged to build properly designed furniture with tape rules? Not me. As I stated above, I use tape measures for roughing out lumber before it’s milled to thickness and width. But, any trimming to final working size is measured with a reliable, accurate steel rule.

Do you use a tape rule in the shop and if so, how?

, Glen D. Huey

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Showing 16 comments
  • John Cashman

    You guys measure stuff? Wow. Seriously, I try real hard not to measure anything — but at the same time, I have a bazillion tape measures, so I can always find at least one.

    If I’m making a table, I’ll measure the first leg, and accuracy of plus or minus a couple of sixteenths is fine by me. The other legs will be the same length, whatever that happened to be. The aprons will all be the same width, but if they are different than the plans or drawings by a little, that’s OK. As long as the two sets of opposites are the same, that’s all I need. When I make sure that similar pieces are the same length or width, I go by "feel," and that’s more accurate than any rule I’ve used.

    This is not to run down anyone who craves micrometer accuracy, but I’ve found little need for it.

    I like the Fat Max tapes, but haven’t seen the 40 foot MOAT (Mother of All Tapes) yet. I like the long standout for home repair stuff, but hate taking it to the lumber yard — it makes my pants fall down.

  • Jim K

    I use my tape measure for most wood measurements. Since I don’t make stuff that has to fit closely elsewhere for others, as long as I use one tape, I’m not too concerned if it’s accurate. As long as my 12" boards fits in between my 12" space I’m happy. I also have assorted micrometers, dial and vernier calipers as well. The other most used measuring device in a 6" steel ruler that sits in my pocket.

  • Bill

    I have become a big fan of zig-zag rulers, and use them for most measurements over a foot. However, I have learned to check them closely; I had one that was off by almost 1/4" over 6 feet. Considering that they’re all from flea markets and garage sales and I’ve never paid more than a dollar for any of them, I could afford to throw that one out. Longer distances, I use a Stanley 3/4" blade tape, I think it’s 25′ long but I can’t remember. And I always try to measure in order to get close, and then mark for the final cut (if it matters).

  • Tom

    Hey, Glen, some good stuff about tape measures.

    In my shop, I use a 12 footer – easy to slip in a pocket. I figure the odds of me building anything bigger than 12 feet is definitely going to be built in modules.

    That tape never leaves my side – I use it to measure diagonals to get square, etc.

    However, like you said, if I need precision, I turn to my combo square or a steel rule.

  • Yan G

    40′ is definately overkill. Put a good 6 inch rule and a 10′ tape measure in my pouch and I’m good to go.

  • Tom Volz

    I use a shorter (12 ft or 10ft)1 in wide tape measure for projects in my shop. I believe the most important thing is consistency in using the same tape throughout the project. I’ve used metal rules, both aluminum and steel, and they come in handy once in a while but I prefer a tape. I especially like the high visibility, bright colored cases, in that they’re easier to find when I’ve forgotten where I’ve put it…

  • Neil

    Hi Glen…. heck yeah!!!! I have this old 12′ Stanley, a thin model, love it, but with the eye’s starting to go, as Larry Williams says, " I need some magnification", I’m breaking in a new 12′ thicker model. I have them both calibrated to my folding rule. Use it from rough, to machine set-ups, to checking diagonals… all the way to fitting, then I go to my folding rule and less tape.

    Never thought about it until now, but I do like my old thin trusty over my newer wide-body tape.

    that’s a fun one…….Neil

  • Barry Johnson

    I use the same tape all throughout a project, I even mark what tape on using on notes for the project just to avoid confusion with the many tapes I have. The only ones I use in the shop are 16′ and 12′, never felt a need for anything longer. The ones I use on projects has been verified against a Starret 12" steel ruler and the hooks corrected for consistent measurement. More times than not measure errors are user error and have nothing to do with the tape.

    I wonder if the 40′ tape isn’t just a result of ever larger houses being built. With all the Mcmansions being built 40′ might be a good number to have around. It isn’t a tape you would carry in your pouch all day but I can see using one for layout on a large house.

    My 2c….

  • Chuck Bender

    Having worked in the "period" furniture business for around 30 years, I’ve had the discussion more than a few times about a tape measure versus a stick rule. When I was but an itty-bitty apprentice, I was first taught that a stick rule was the only accurate device for measuring in a cabinet shop. When I actually went to work in one, I was told they weren’t accurate enough. When I look at most stick rules, the graduation lines are so thick, I find it hard to keep consistent. Isn’t that what a rule is for, keeping us consistent?

    Now I know it’s blasphemy, but I use a tape (as Chris calls it) for everything in my shop. I use the hook end when I am rough measuring. When accuracy counts (and if you’ve seen my furniture you know how I feel about accuracy) I measure from the 1" mark. The graduation lines on a tape are sho much smaller than those on a stick rule (the folding kind as opposed to the 12" steel kind) that the quality of my work improved dramatically when I moved away from the threw away the stick.

    To be honest, I try not to use any tape measure or stick rule once I’ve made up a story pole. Measure once, double check for accuracy then throw the ruler of choice into the tool box until the project is finished. Not sure I’ll ever need a 40′ rule of any kind but if it works for you, Glen, I’ll consider giving it a try.

  • Chris Friesen

    I have one "crappy" tape that isn’t particularly accurate. It gets used for construction and rough layout.

    However, I also have a small 10′ tape and a larger 25′ center-finding tape that have both been verified against accurate steel rules (and get re-tested periodically). It took some trial-and-error to find ones that were dead-accurate, but I managed it eventually. I’ll use these for more delicate work.

  • rainvil

    I could use centering number vs the red numbers that indicate inches beyond the ft. numbers on a tape. I need to know the center more often than how many inches beyond the ft. measures. Same as the Centering Tape Measures from Lee Valley.

  • Graham Hughes

    I use a tape measure, but only for dealing with lumber at the yard. I find a folding rule to be a little more convenient for the typical dimensions I work with (generally under 6′) because it’s rigid, something the tapes are not really good at.

    I’m pretty sure I have no use for 11′ of standout, that’s for sure…

  • Keith Mealy

    I won’t comment on why a woodworker (not a carpenter) would need or want a 40′ rule with an 11′ standout, other than it may have something to do with…[remainder left to reader’s imagination].

    I use a tape in my shop apron and also have one in several toolboxes. I have a hard time imagining a need for more than 12′ and have a hard time finding a 3/4" rule at that length. I find the 1/2" x 12′ rules too flimsy.

    In the last couple of weeks I needed to replace a couple and started a search.

    I looked in vain for a Lufkin, the type that came recommended at ICDT. It seemed like every big box, woodworker’s store, and small hardware store had only two types, Stanley and house brands. I finally found Lufkin at Tractor Supply Co., only to have them out of stock on everything but the 20′. I finally found some (Fastcap) on the clearance table at the cabinet supply house. At $2.50, good enough.

    A few years ago, I also tried to find a metric rule (locally, I know that Lee Valley sells them now). It seems the only type I could find were the combo English-metric and whatever I’m measuring, it always seems to be either upside down or on the wrong edge.

  • Chris Schwarz

    Growing up in Arkansas, we called it "a tape."

    Not much to do down there; and no need to waste words, I suppose.


  • Wilbur Pan

    So, is the proper term tape measure or tape rule?

  • Rob Porcaro

    Hey Glen,

    Well that’s an impressive tape measure! If I unloaded that thing in my shop I’d be outside my shop doors before I had half the footage let out.

    I use my Ace Hardware 12′ x 3/4" tape measure which has fairly fine-lined gradations. I vetted its accuracy by hooking it over my Starret rule and seeing if the tape and the rule gradations match all along the length of the rule. (This task involves using venier visual acuity which is phenomonally accurate.)

    I only use one measuring device for a set of tasks. I don’t mix measuring tools and thus any innaccuracies cancel.

    Of course, I try to measure as little as possible. Transferred marks that relate one part to another are always preferable to an absolute measurement.

    Hey, I wonder what the coefficient of temperature expansion for steel does to that tape measure over a length of 40 feet? Just kidding.


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