From time to time it’s just good to get back to the basics. And I can’t think of anything more basic than a tape measure. After all, this is probably the first tool I ever used…I was three, but that still counts. Tapes hold a certain fascination, even if they are rather utilitarian. We still hold “stand out contests” every time one of my friends gets a new tape. I think it’s the construction industry equivalent of sizing each other up. And honestly, you’ve got to have some respect for a tool that dates back to around the late 1860’s. Doing a tape measure comparison review just made sense. There’s so many to choose from these days including standard and magnetic tape measures.
So I ordered some tapes—a whole lot of them, actually—and from more than a few manufacturers. Once 12 of them finally showed up, I knew I had the makings of a good tape measure review…or tape measure shootout…or tape measure face-off. Call it what you will, this was going to be fun!
Tape Measures—The Long and Short of It
When looking at conventional tape measures, it’s hard to get a true apples-to-apples comparison. After all, they vary in size and length, but they also come with lots of different feature sets. In terms of the basic dimensions, you want to make sure you don’t oversize your tape. If you’re constantly making measurements under 16 feet, for example, there’s no need to carry around a 30′ tape that’s twice as big and weighs twice as much as a 16′ model. And while having a 10+ foot standout is neat, it may not be necessary to carry around the thicker tape that’s required to pull that off.
Aside from size, you can also give preference to particular mechanical features. Some tapes, like Johnson’s Auto-Lock series, lock the tape automatically for you once it’s pulled out. Pushing the button then allows the tape to retract. Some people love it, while others prefer the quick-pull, finger-stop method that we’ve all used for years.
Still, other features include extra-wide tangs, which grab onto material from the sides as well as the bottom or even the top. These are models like the aforementioned Johnson tape but also include the new DeWalt DWHT33372 and the Stanley Bostitch 33-000 whose tang, were it any larger, would…well it can’t really get any larger. What you want in a tang is a nice forward and back movement to allow for accurate measurements when pushing the tape up against your work material, or when pulling away from it. You don’t want side-to-side movement and absolutely no top-to-bottom tilt. Both of those conditions can affect tape accuracy. Believe it or not, we found the Stanley PowerLock to be the epitome of how a tang should move—forward and backward with almost no lateral or vertical movement. Maybe that’s why that tape’s been around for 50 years. Others, like both of the Tajima models, had tangs that tilted ever so slightly upwards—a factor that resulted in their being +1/32″ off when tested with the Lixer Master Tape Calibration Tool.
Tape Measure Comparison – Markings
On top of the physical and mechanical features of a tape, you have to consider if you would benefit from particular markings. Take the Klein 93116, for example. This tape gives you a unique scale on the opposing, or bottom, side that makes it particularly easy to read vertical measurements without having to turn your head sideways. A backside rule also means you can reverse hook the tape from below a fastened deck or board, for example, and still read it without having to twist it around and possibly lose your anchor.
The reverse side of the Johnson PlanReader tape has 1/8″ = 1′ and 1/4″ = 1′ conversion scales that extend a full 10 feet. I suppose if you’re working on a really really big project that might come in handy. My guess is they figured, “Why not?” In any case, this is the tape to have if you’re matching your plan to the build-out in the field. It’s quick and easy to use, and it eliminates the need to carry around a separate scale.
What’s in a Tape?
Unlike most of the tools we review, a tape measure is fairly simple on both the outside and the inside. They use metallic tape that doesn’t stretch with repeated use. And length markings are imprinted on either the top or both sides. While all of the tapes in our test use the SAE scale, a tape measure can indicate length in inches, centimeters or both. Within the housing (typically plastic) lies the coiled tape. The end of the coiled tape features a tang that slides forward and back to allow itself to be used as a catch for pull measurements or to press up against materials for a push measurement.
The reason the tape retracts automatically is due to an integrated spring coil which attaches from the rear of the tape to the center. Because this spring always wants to get back to its original shape, it provides the retraction force required to bring the tape all the way back into the casing. A sliding lever lock (present on all but auto-lock models) pushes down on a U-shaped wedge that locks the tape in place against this natural tension.
Klein’s 93116 features a couple of rare earth magnets affixed to the tang that are going to be a great feature for electricians looking to take quick measurements from fastened or suspended conduit. The magnets are quite strong, and the 16′ model can actually hold its own weight when the tape is locked. I doubt you’ll do this in actual practice, but it should let you know that you can touch the end of the tape to metal, and it will hold fast until you force it to let go. Of course, I discovered another practical use for this feature while working on a different project—the Klein tape moonlights as a quick magnetic pick-up tool!
Stanley’s super wide tang can grab from the left, right, top or bottom. This is really useful in the 25′ and 35′ models since that’s where you’re really pushing some distance and most of the time tend to lose a lot of your maneuverability. A 16′ gives you some ability to reposition from the back of the tape, especially given how wide these tapes are.
Reading a Tape Made Easy
A couple of years ago I worked with a contractor who found out that two of his new laborers truly didn’t know how to read a tape. You have to remember, we’re talking about reducing fractions…common denominators…we tend to take this stuff for granted. But we all studied it for months in grade school. Not everyone grew up around fractions, and so reading a tape can occasionally be a daunting task to some in the construction trades.
This contractor’s solution was to go out immediately and buy his guys a couple tapes with 1/8-inch delineating marks. They were hard workers and this was the fastest way to solve the problem. Later, he went over the basics several times during lunches and breaks. They got to learn something new, and the work got completed. Of the 12 tapes we reviewed, five had this feature (see our chart) and we think it’s something that will come in handy for many.
I don’t tend to be too careful with my tapes. As a result, they often slam back into the housing which is uncomfortable and can even eventually bend the tang slightly. I’m seeing a lot of companies, like Klein, Stanley (FatMax), Bostitch, Johnson and Tajima add plastic “shock absorbers” that have a little bit of extra give where the tang hits the tape body on retract. It’s a subtle feature, but I like it.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, there are more tapes that I didn’t review than there are ones I was able to look at here. That means I can make recommendations, but my conclusions aren’t comprehensive by any means. If you want durability and stability in measurements, the Stanley FatMax is still a great tape, however, the Stanley Bostitch 33-000 does have a longer standout. If you’re after bragging rights, you are going to want to show up to the job site with this tape. You can get a 12′ 5″ standout with minimal effort, and there are ways to hold it, which allow you to eke out 13′ as they advertise…that leaves just 3 feet on the roll! The Bostitch is also marketed as the Stanley Fatmax Xtreme tape. There are minor cosmetic differences between the two, but other than that they are identical. The DeWalt is a great tape that’s a hair thinner and still runs with a 10′ standout. The tough-to-use lock, however, did turn me off.
If you’re an electrician or otherwise and think you may be working on your own, it’s hard to pass up Klein’s magnetic tape measure. It grabs on really well, and it can save you some time. Having the reverse rule is also something I’ve found handy in more than a few situations.
All of the tested tapes fastened onto my work belt just fine, but the Johnson tapes had the weakest clips. On occasion, when I bumped or rubbed up against something, the Auto-Lock tape would spin off the belt and hit the ground. The other Johnson’s have about the same tension on their clips.
If you’re not into gigantic tape measures you’ll want to really look at the Johnson Professional’s Choice tape. I just felt that was a simple, easy-to-use product that worked great with gloves. It also has a protective plastic stop, so the normal wear and tear that occurs when the blade rubs against the frame of the tape is reduced significantly. It also costs less than $10 and should last you a good while. For a similar feel, but with less protection for the shell and a more traditional look, you can go for the tried and true Stanley PowerLock. Aesthetically, I loved the Tajima GP16, and it wins the “gloveless-hand” award. You can survive a pretty fast retract due to how it sets your hand behind where the tang exits the tape.
And there you have it. The tape needs fit the man…and the job. Fortunately, we’re talking about products that cost less than $20, so it’s not a big deal if you plow through a couple until you find one you really like. Me? I use several, depending upon what I’m working on. Some stay clipped to my work bags while the ones I carry on me tend to be thicker with longer standouts…you know, in case I have to put someone in their place.
Tape Measures – Tool by Tool
Stanley PowerLock 16′ (33-116)
Stanley’s PowerLock tape is like the poster child for classic tape measures. Its metal-looking plastic shell and thin form factor make it a very traditional product. If you don’t need a huge standout or rugged exterior then this is a great tool. While the blade is sure to cut into the casing more quickly than some of the other tapes, the PowerLock has the smoothest edges of any of the tapes in our test. A fast retract may tear up the tape, but it isn’t likely to cut up your hands.
Verdict: The affordable, no-frills standard
Stanley FatMax 16′ (33-716)
For years this has been the gold standard among tapes. Stanley’s FatMax isn’t lithe and agile, but it can take a beating and has one of the longer standouts in the industry. This is the tape all your friends have and it’s likely they’ll be unimpressed by anything that doesn’t handle a drop or have a longer standout. Fortunately we’ve discovered a few promising contenders in this review.
Verdict: The rugged, ubiquitous tape to beat
Stanley Bostitch 16′ (33-000)
Fortunately, this tape is much more interesting than its bland model number. Bostitch’s new 16′ tape had the longest standout of any we tested—stretching a full 12′ 5″ to dethrone the king. If you’re tired of people bragging about how great their FatMax is, this one will humble them. Plus, it’s also branded as the FatMax Xtreme so that makes it…well, it’s one better, isn’t it? Careful, though, the retracting action of this tape is so strong, it might knock itself out of your hands.
Verdict: It’s big and bad, and the chrome finish will make your “regular” FatMax-toting friends drool
DeWalt 16′ (DWHT33372)
Not content with just the Stanley FatMax and the Stanley Bostitch “FatterMax”, DeWalt made its own fat tape that hits a 10′ standout. The case uses a different rubber overmold, and if you bleed yellow and black, it comes in your favorite color. Like the Johnson Auto-Lock, this tape also uses the 1/8-inch and 1/16-inch markings that are included along the entire scale. The only drawback to this tape is that it takes a real man to operate the stubborn sliding lock.
Verdict: FatMax quality and performance in a slightly thinner form factor
Pittsburgh 16′ QuickFind (69102)
You can pick up this tape from Harbor Freight for just $2.49. It’s hard to find fault with anything that inexpensive…but just give me a second, will ya? For starters, you can’t pull out the tape to use it without missing it the first couple of times. There’s simply too much overmold. Oddly enough, the tape was spot on in our measurements and the sliding lock works really well. Maybe it’s not a bad little tape. Maybe it’s just misunderstood.
Verdict: Too frustrating to use regularly. Pay a few more dollars and get something you won’t want to kick
Tajima HiLock 16′ (HL-16BW)
The edges on the impressive Tajima are fairly smooth and the red and black markings are very easy to read on the white tape. The tang has the ability to vertically “tilt”, however, meaning you can get up to nearly 1/16″ off in your measurements if you don’t seat it properly. The Tajima tapes also had a very easy-to-use lock that almost acted as a traditional brake. With no protective overmold, the HiLock may not be for people who climb ladders all day.
Verdict: A very nice, easy-to-read tape with a nice brake and an impressive standout, given its size
Tajima G-Plus 16′ (GP-16BW)
Considerably more protective (and cooler-looking) than its HiLock counterpart, Tajima’s G-Plus tape uses a well-designed rubber overmold that sits atop a metallic red and chrome finished housing. The tape is identical to the HL-Series and the tang had the same tendency to “tilt”. The rubber overmold has a unique lip at the front, which protects your index finger by keeping it behind the place where tape retracts.
Verdict: A futuristic-looking tape that’s really nice for glove-less hands
Lufkin Hi-Viz 16′ (L616)
I suppose if you want a tape that you can find easily if it gets dropped in sand, Lufkin’s florescent orange Hi-Viz models are something to consider. The L616 is oversized in circumference but still thin, so your palm wraps around it quite nicely. It’s both simple and comfortable. The company also has a new more ergonomic tape in this series that we weren’t able to get in time for this review which has the locking switch on top.
Verdict: You won’t lose this tape, but a tricky spring makes it hard to fully appreciate
Klein Tools Magnetic 16′ (93116)
Klein made a really nice tape that feels good and has some unusual features. For starters, they wrapped the overmold behind the tang, so when it snaps back into the housing it’s actually got a little cushion. They also added a pair of rare earth magnets to help you easily take measurements from conduit, ductwork or threaded rod as needed. The slide lock is very easy to use and the whole tape just feels ergonomic. A back-side scale also gives this tape more flexibility in use than most.
Verdict: Electricians are unlikely to find a better specialty tape for less
Johnson PlanReader Architect Series 16′ (1819-0016)
If you’re an architect, supervisor or otherwise engaged in reading plans on the job site, this tape is going to come in very handy. The PlanReader flips over to give you access to both 1/8″ = 1′ and 1/4″ = 1′ scales. And Johnson ran those scales out a full 10 feet just for good measure (Yes, pun intended.) Johnson has one of the strongest springs we’ve ever experienced in a tape, so we’ll just provide a word of caution for anyone not using gloves: This tape retracts like a rocket!
Verdict: A truly inexpensive and handy tape for plan readers, but be careful you don’t lose a finger!
Johnson Auto-Lock Series 16′ (1804-0016)
People either love or hate auto-locking tapes, and I don’t expect to change your mind here. I’ve personally gone back and forth. What I will say is that Johnson uses a rubberized coating on the auto-lock which gives the brake a really nice grab on the tape—and it does so without marring the surface. It’s auto-lock done right. This tape also has a great shape and I love the way your index finger sits in the special notch just behind the tang.
Verdict: An inexpensive auto-lock tape that’s built to last and perfect for beginners as well.
Johnson Professional’s Choice 16′ (1803-0016)
There’s just something I really like about this tape. It’s easy to handle, doesn’t weigh a ton and the locking switch has a really nice peak on it that will let you slap it on or off with your thumb. Ergonomically, they should all be shaped this way. If you’re a standout freak this isn’t the tape for you, as you’ll get around 5 feet 11 inches before it drops. There is also no rubber overmold, so it may take some damage if you drop it.
Verdict: A tape that’s made right and priced right, providing you don’t demand a long standout