The Best Tape Measure

After dropping, extending, and scrubbing the blades of 17 different tape measures with 60-grit sandpaper, we found that the best one is the classic 25-foot Stanley PowerLock Tape Measure. It’s our pick after 45 hours of research and three annual updates to this guide, including another 15 hours of work this year testing against new tools. That’s because the PowerLock delivers the best basic combination of durability, ease of use, and accuracy—and all for a very low price. In fact, the PowerLock is one of the least expensive tape measures that we’ve looked at.

Last Updated: October 14, 2015
In 2015, the PowerLock remains our pick after an additional 15 hours of research and the testing of one new tape (our new step-up pick, the Milwaukee 25 ft. General Contractor Tape Measure). We’re also looking at the $13 Komelon 4925, and once we finish testing that one, we’ll update with our results.
Expand Most Recent Updates
March 16, 2015: We're currently testing Milwaukee's 25-foot General Contractor Tape Measure ($18) and so far it's proving to be a strong challenger to our step-up pick, the Stanley FatMax. It will take time to fully assess the tape, but so far there is a lot to like about it, such as the wide base, the wire belt hook, and comfortable thumb lever. Also, according to Milwaukee, their tape blade should last 10 times longer than the competition (watch them sandblast their tape measure here). We'll update the guide as soon as we've come to our conclusions.
25-foot Stanley PowerLock Tape Measure
The PowerLock is easy to use, durable, affordable, accurate, and capable of doing its job without additional features that aren’t necessary for around-the-house work.

The weakest part of any tape measure is the blade, and the PowerLock’s is more durable than nearly all the others’ we tested. The thumb-operated blade lock is smooth, strong, and easy to operate with one hand, unlike some other more cumbersome models. Its blade is a quarter-inch slimmer than most contractor’s tools, so it’s easy to lay flat for marking measurements, yet still stiff enough to stand out unsupported for nearly 8 feet, which is plenty. It’s a basic tool whose pared-down simplicity makes it light, tough, accurate, easy to handle, and affordable. Taking all this into consideration to name the tool that gives you the best value, the other tapes—which often cost more—all fell short compared to this one.

Also Great
Milwaukee 25 ft. General Contractor Tape Measure
For a more durable tape with better features, the Milwaukee is the way to go—but at nearly twice the price of our pick, it’s only worth it if you use a tape measure frequently.

The PowerLock is adequate for regular around-the-house use, but the Milwaukee 25 ft. General Contractor Tape Measure (about $18) offers pro-grade durability. This tool is superior all around: It had the toughest blade of any tool we tested, its locking mechanism and belt clip are easier to use, and it combines a stable, wide base with a blade that’s a quarter of an inch slimmer (and therefore flatter and more convenient) than your typical 1¼-inch contractor’s tape. This is a new upgrade pick for 2015; it has better features all around than our previous upgrade pick, the 25-foot Stanley FatMax (about $20), with one exception—the FatMax blade can stand out unsupported for about 11 feet, while the Milwaukee can only reach 9 feet (which is still adequate). That said, compared to our pick the PowerLock, the Milwaukee is nearly twice as expensive. We think the Milwaukee offers more than you need for an around-the-house tool, which is why we chose the less-expensive (and almost as good) PowerLock for most people.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

A tape measure is the single most-used tool on a jobsite, and I’ve been using one on a daily basis for about 15 years. I spent 10 years in construction as a carpenter, foreman, and supervisor, and I’ve been writing about tools since 2007, with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, Popular Mechanics, This Old House, The Journal of Light Construction, Popular Science, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor. I also recently completed a 3½-year full gut and remodel of my 100-year-old farmhouse, during which I had about ten tape measures stashed all over the property (kitchen drawer, dresser drawer, mechanical room, laundry room, one in the truck, and half a dozen in my workshop).

I’ve also written specifically about tape measures. For a Popular Mechanics article, I threw tape measures off a garage roof onto an asphalt driveway to test for durability. Yes, it’s as fun as it sounds.

For this guide, we read what few reliable articles we could find online (there aren’t many) and talked to two other tool experts: Clint DeBoer, editor of Pro Tool Reviews and the writer of a very thorough 12 tape measure showdown, and Mark Clement, licensed contractor and co-host of the MyFixitUpLife radio show.

How we picked

After reading what we could, talking to our experts, and taking years of experience using tape measures into account, we found that the most important features of a tape measure are blade durability, case durability, tang (the metal hook at the end of the tape) size, stand-out, and ease of locking lever. Accuracy is important too, but all of the tapes we looked at fell within an acceptable margin of error. Both Clement and DeBoer warned against tapes loaded with additional features like pencil sharpeners. Clement summed things up: “Go simple. Keep it clean.”

2013 tape measure test group

The tape measures we tested in 2013.

“The blade of the tape measure almost always goes first.” —Mark Clement
For a tape to have a long, productive life, the most important factor is blade durability. As Clement said, “The blade of the tape measure almost always goes first.” That’s because over time, grit, dirt, and debris enter the tape through the mouth and grind against the blade as it gets extended and retracted over and over. DeBoer pointed out that the blade also rubs the point of entry every time it retracts. Most tapes have some sort of protective coating, but over time, it gets worn off. In an article in Tools of the Trade outlining the everyday carry tools for a professional framing crew, Tim Uhler explains, “When it’s wet (winter), [a Stanley FatMax] won’t last more than a month or so. Once enough mud and grit are pulled into the case, that’s it for the tape.” As a framer in the Pacific Northwest, he’s working in an extreme scenario, but the point is still taken.

Case durability is also important, but less so for a homeowner. Any quality tape can handle a normal 4-5-foot fall, and the heavy-duty construction ones, most outfitted with a rubbery padding, can go from four or five times that height. For my Popular Mechanics piece, I dropped a Stanley FatMax 25 feet onto asphalt and it only showed some scuff marks.1

Another thing to look for is the design of the tang (the metal hook at the end of the tape). The most basic and easiest to use is a simple right-angled foot. The tang is riveted to the blade—but, surprisingly, it shouldn’t be riveted tightly. Instead, the tang needs to have a smooth back-and-forth movement so the tape will be accurate both on pull measurements, where you hook the tang over something like the edge of a board, and on push measurements, where you press the tang against an inside surface. The amount of movement should equal the thickness of the tang to ensure accuracy for both styles of measurement.2

Every tape has a slightly different tang, and both Clement and DeBoer warned against large ones. Clement used the term “headache” and DeBoer called them “unwieldy.” What happens is the tangs are so large that they catch on everything except what you actually want them to hook on—particularly the ones with top hooks that extend above the tape. The purpose of these is so you can send the tape underneath something (like a closed door) and then hook it from below. They’re useful in construction settings but are unnecessary for your everyday tasks.

Tape measure tangs

(l-r) The tangs of the Milwaukee, PowerLock, and the Johnson Big J. The PowerLock’s is the smallest and easiest to maneuver. The Milwaukee’s has the ability to hook a board from underneath, but still maintains a manageable size. The Johnson tang is so large, it catches on things you don’t want it to.

Larger tangs can cause other problems as well. In Clement’s experience, “they tend to roll the tape over when you’re extending to hook something. It seems as though they literally catch the wind and the tape comes crashing down in a really thin heap of loud, flaccid steel.”

We also recommended avoiding magnetic tangs. Unless you’re working with steel studs or metallic electrical conduits, they’re a problem. First, the magnets are usually so powerful that they stick to everything, so don’t even try to take a measurement near your refrigerator. Secondly, they attract all manner of metal shavings, filings, and debris, making them difficult to keep clean. There is certainly a place for magnetic tapes, but the kitchen drawer is not it.

DeBoer and Clement agreed that a tape measure that can stand out unsupported for 7-8 feet is more than enough for at-home use.
The stand-out of a tape is the distance that the blade can extend unsupported from the case and not collapse. In the industry it has become a bragging right to have the tape with the longest stand-out. The current champ appears to be the Stanley FatMax Xtreme which, according to Stanley, can be extended 13 feet. This mega distance can be helpful on a jobsite, but it’s really unnecessary for the home. Both DeBoer and Clement agreed that a tape measure that can stand out unsupported for 7-8 feet is more than enough for at-home use. While DeBoer doesn’t advocate always going for the longest stand-out, he also uses stand-out as a quality marker. “If your tape breaks downward at just 5-6 feet then it’s likely going to be a product that doesn’t last long in other areas as well.”

In our testing, we found that the 1-inch blades were the easiest to use overall, even if it meant sacrificing some stand-out.
A large factor in stand-out is the width of the blade (wider blade typically means longer stand-out). Tape width generally ranges from ¾ inch up to 1¼ inch. Anything less than an inch, though, is going to be flimsy, while the fatter blades (those above the 1-inch mark) make for a much bulkier tool. In our testing, we found that the 1-inch blades were the easiest to use overall, even if it meant sacrificing some stand-out.

Some tapes have markings on the underside side of the tape as well as the top, but Clement sees this as a “solution without a problem.” For myself, in a decade of construction work, I don’t think I ever used or felt I needed markings on the back side of the tape. While researching for this piece, I didn’t include or exclude any tapes based on this feature. If it was there, great. If not, it won’t be missed.

As this map shows, the US is one of the only countries that doesn’t use the metric system. Still, we’re based in the US, so we only looked at tapes that use the standard imperial scale. A couple of the tapes, including the recommended PowerLock, are available with a dual metric scale, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you should be able to track one down easily enough.

We also didn’t spend much time looking at tapes with additional gizmos, gadgets, and added functions. There are tapes that will make a mark for you, tapes that have telescoping measuring rulers, and others with centering scales that show you the center point of any measurement.  But we agree with Clement’s opinion: “A tape measure is a beautifully simple machine … and should not be muddied up with stuff that other tools can do.” (We did, however, look at the FastCap tapes, which have pencil sharpeners and an erasable writing surface, due to their reputation in the construction industry. More thoughts on those in a bit.)

For length, we only looked at 25-foot tapes. Common lengths are 12, 16, 25, 30, and 35 feet. DeBoer said that he primarily uses a 16, but he feels safer knowing that he has a 25 close by. Clement said that a 25 is the way to go because there are times when it will come in handy. It’s not uncommon for a room in a house (or a hallway) to have a wall longer than 16 feet, and you might need to measure the square footage for painting or size up a potential hall runner. In short, it’s better to have the length and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Tapes below $8 or $10 aren’t worth the cheap plastic they’re made of, and no tape measure is worth more than $20.
For price, there really isn’t a huge range. My experience is that tapes below $8 or $10 aren’t worth the cheap plastic they’re made of, and no tape measure is worth more than $20. In DeBoer’s article, he looked at 12 different tapes with all but one between $8 and $20 (the $2.50 Pittsburgh Quikfind received a terrible review).

During our research, we checked all of the major manufacturers and retailers. We also looked at retail sites dedicated to specific trades. For testing, we used the criteria above to narrow things down and settled on the following tapes: Stanley PowerLock, Stanley FatMax, Stanley PowerLock with Blade Armor, Keson PG1825SS, Lufkin Control Series, Johnson Big J, Johnson Professional’s Choice, Johnson JobSite, Komelon SS Gripper, FastCap Old Standby, FastCap Lefty/Righty, Snap-on Professional, Tajima G-25, Tajima GP-25, DeWalt, and Starrett Exact Plus.

In 2015, we also tested the Milwaukee 25 ft. General Contractor Tape Measure, which became our new upgrade pick, and we are in the process of getting our hands on the Komelon 4925.

How we tested

The largest portion of our tape measure testing consisted of using the tools as we completed a number of carpentry projects. From this general use, we got a sense of quality and handling—how easy the different tapes were to read, whether or not the tangs hooked on what we wanted them to, and how well the belt clips worked.

To check the durability of the blade itself and to simulate the destructive grinding that takes place once dirt and grit make their way into the case, we extended the tapes and dragged a piece of 60-grit sand paper, weighed down with 5 pounds of pressure, down the blade for a distance of 1 foot. We performed this three times with each tape. On some tapes the coating and printing came right off, but others held up admirably to the abrasion test.

We also tested the strength of the locking mechanism by locking each tape at 24 inches, dangling it from the tang, and bouncing it. When the lock is engaged, it should be strong enough to withstand that level of pulling and tugging. A lame blade lock can be intensely frustrating. If you’re hanging the tape in order to mark shelf heights or you have the blade locked at the right length to check a rug dimension in a few different rooms, you don’t want the lock to release and start retracting every time it gets bumped. Oftentimes, I’m taking a measurement on a horizontal surface like a tabletop and I lock the blade so I can work with both hands. In that situation, I want to be able to give the tape a tug to make sure it’s securely hooked.

Lixer tape measure calibrator

We used the Lixer Tape Measure Calibrator to check for accuracy. All of the tapes were within our margin of error (1/32 inch), but the PowerLock (shown) was dead-on. The calibrator has an engraved line at the 6-inch mark (for both the push and pull measurements) and the Stanley lines up perfectly.

Accuracy was a piece of the puzzle, but in reality just a very small piece. Taking a cue from DeBoer’s article in Pro Tool Reviews, we tested all of the tapes against a Lixer Tape Measure Calibrator, which checks the accuracy of both the pull and push measurements. Of the 16 tapes tested, only the FastCap Old Standby was off by as much as 1/32 inch. Ironically, that was also one of the only tapes that marked increments of 1/32. All of the other tapes were either perfect or off on one of the measurements by 1/64 inch or less—nothing most people would notice. Each one measured in standard 1/16-inch increments, so that wasn’t much of a distinction either.3

We also checked the stand-out of the tapes by extending each one to the breaking point four times and taking the average.

Finally, everyone has different hands, so in order to test general ergonomics I gave the top contenders to my wife and some other friends to play around with and considered their feedback.

Our pick

25-foot Stanley PowerLock Tape Measure
The PowerLock is easy to use, durable, affordable, accurate, and capable of doing its job without additional features that aren’t necessary for around-the-house work.

The Stanley PowerLock is the best tape measure for a number of reasons. It has a durable blade, a functional tang, a solid stand-out, a strong locking lever, and a convenient belt hook. The PowerLock is a very basic tool and its pared-down simplicity makes it very light and easy to handle. It’s one of the most inexpensive tapes that we looked at, as well as one of the best, combining quality and value. The other tapes, which cost more, all had failings—a poorly protected blade, a gigantic tang, a lame stand-out, or an impossible belt clip.

Again, the most important characteristic of a superior tape measure is the durability of the blade. The Stanley blade is coated with a Mylar polyester film, which our testing proved to be superior to most of the other tapes. Remember, this is the key point in the durability and longevity of a tape measure. When we dragged the weighted sandpaper over the PowerLock, the coating showed some surface scratching, but the printing remained fully intact. On many of the other tapes, like the Johnsons and the FastCaps, the printing came off like we were erasing a pencil mark. The Stanley was in the small class of tapes that held up to this abuse.

We also found that the durability of the PowerLock’s blade extends beyond a resistance to grit and debris into kinking and general abuse as well. One of the projects we used the tapes on was measuring for 20 custom storm windows, a task consisting of seven measurements per window. For the diagonals, we planted the tang at the lower corner, extended the tapes, and then bent them over with a twist in order to read the upper corner. The PowerLock handled this repetitive bending and kinking with no problems, but we were surprised at how quickly this task worked over some of the tapes, like the Keson and the Tajimas, which quickly developed slight warps and wrinkles in the thin blades.

Tape measure abrasion testing

Top to bottom: FastCap Lefty/Righty, PowerLock, and Milwaukee. The FastCap held up poorly to the abrasion test. The PowerLock did considerably better, but there are still a couple scratches that made it to bare metal. The Milwaukee blade only shows surface marring.

The tang on the PowerLock is minimal, but very effective. It was dead-on accurate when we tested it with the Lixer Calibrator, meaning both the push and pull measurement are right where they’re supposed to be. This indicates the quality of the tang as well as its relationship with the tape blade. In the PTR round-up, DeBoer writes, “believe it or not, we found the Stanley PowerLock to be the epitome of how a tang should move—forward and backwards with almost no lateral movement. Maybe that’s why the tape has been around for 50 years.” As we said above, all of the tapes are within what we feel to be the margin of error for accuracy. Still, using the PowerLock for a carpentry project, we were comforted knowing that it is 100 percent dead-on accurate.

The PowerLock has a blade stand-out of 7 feet, 10 inches, which is on the upper side of the limit indicated by Clement and DeBoer. This length is attained with the PowerLock’s 1-inch-wide blade and was the third furthest stand-out of the 1-inch tapes (our step-up Milwaukee has 9 feet, 2 inches and the Starrett has a bizarro-long 10 feet, 5 inches).

The locking lever is strong and easy to use, with a nice texture that prevents the thumb from slipping. You can easily lock the blade with one hand. Once locked, the tape didn’t budge as we bounced it on its own weight.

The belt hook is a standard but functional design. It has a nice spring to it and the flare at the end makes it easy to blindly hook on a back pocket. (Note: If the PowerLock is hooked on to a pair of pants day in and day out for weeks and months at a time, the edges of the metal clip will start to shred the fabric of the pocket. Actually, all of the metal clips do this, but our step-up pick, the Milwaukee, has a different design to reduce the effect.)

Because of the 1-inch blade, the body of the PowerLock is a slim 1½ inches wide. It’s one of the taller tapes, with a classic “D” design, but it’s not unwieldy. In Clement’s review of it, he says, “No one will accuse me of having large hands and the PowerLock fits in my hand nicely.” He goes on, “The squatter, rounder topped tapes with wider (1¼ inch) blades feel too bulky. I can hold the [PowerLock] in my hand, pay out tape, and bend the tape—say for measuring across a floor or from floor to ceiling—in a fluid motion without having to readjust the tape in my hand.”

The people we asked to handle the tapes had similar experiences. A couple of them commented on how light the PowerLock was compared to the others, especially the 1¼-inch tapes (the PowerLock is 13¼ ounces, tied with the Keson for the lightest tape tested). The solid feel of the tool and the smooth locking lever were also noted as high points. Because the PowerLock has been the standard tape measure for so long (and the one that everyone’s dad owned) it seems to have become what people are comfortable and familiar with. “Yeah, it’s a tape measure … it’s what you expect,” one person said. Everyone thought that the 1¼-inch tapes were bulky and heavy. The Tajimas and FastCaps got high marks for their compact size, but they each have their own flaws that we’ll get to in a bit.

A really nice additional feature of the PowerLock is that the tape case is marked for inside measurements. The body of the tape is exactly 3 inches long (which is printed right on the case), so if you’re measuring a room from wall to wall, you can extend the tape until the back of the case touches the wall and just add the 3 inches to what you read on the tape. About ⅔ of the tapes that we tested had this feature, but the Stanley was one of seven that kept this measurement to an easy-to-use 3 inches. Using the DeWalt, you have to add 3¼ inches and the Snap-on makes you add 3⅛ inches.

On the underside of the case, right where the tang sits, the PowerLock has a slightly loose piece of black plastic. This acts as a shock absorber when the tang comes slamming back into the case. A few of the other tools had something similar with varying degrees of success. The Johnson JobSite, Johnson Big J, and Keson tapes also had bumpers, but when they were pressed, they actually forced open the seam along the underside of the case. Better versions were found on the Starrett and Tajimas, but those tapes had other issues covered below. The Komelon, Lufkin, and Snap-on extend their ample rubber over-mold up to the nose of the tool so that it directly acts as a bumper. But again, those tools didn’t fare well in other categories.

Stuart Deutsch of ToolGuyd also reviewed the PowerLock and the only fault he had with it was that he felt the smooth design of the case and sweaty hands don’t mix too well. He ended by saying, “Overall, I highly recommend Stanley’s PowerLock tape measures, especially given that they’re cheap enough to replace if or when they’re dropped too many times.”

This last point he makes is worth emphasizing. At around $10, the Stanley PowerLock is one of the least expensive quality tapes on the market. DeBoer also picks up on the cost analysis in the PTR piece. His bottom line verdict: It’s “the affordable, no-frills standard.”

The PowerLock has a fairly typical warranty. It doesn’t cover any user wear and tear, but if there is something inherently wrong with the tool, they’ll give you a new one.

We need to note that Stanley sells another version of this tape measure that they refer to as the PowerLock with Blade Armor. We tested this model out too, and even though it sounds like it would be the superior tape, it pales in comparison to its more stable sibling. On the good side, the Blade Armor version has an “industrial thermo-plastic” coating over the first 3 inches of the tape, where the wear is the hardest. This is a nice touch, but we also found that it had one of the weaker blade locks of any tape we looked at. The tape started recoiling with even the slightest movement. While we liked the added blade durability, the loosey-goosey blade lock was too frustrating.

Last, with its long 50-year history, the PowerLock is also something of an icon. And while we’re interested in performance here and not historical status, the fact that the PowerLock was good enough to be packed on the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission means that it’s probably good enough for your kitchen drawer.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

For all of this goodness, the PowerLock still has a couple slight flaws. First, the belt hook is a simple metal clip. This is a standard design on tape measures, and when clipped and unclipped repeatedly on a pocket, it starts to fray the fabric. However, this is only a concern if the tape is being used on a very regular basis—and if you’re thinking of using a tape measure that often, we recommend our step-up pick which offers more durability and a better belt hook.

As stated earlier, the PowerLock has been around for 50 years and the one thing that has changed over time is the case. Somewhere along the way, most likely for cost reasons, Stanley stopped making them out of metal and started making them out of plastic. In our research, we found that many longtime users of the PowerLock wistfully long for the days of the metal case. The fact is that plastic cases are simply the norm these days, and they offer enough durability to get the job done. Of the tapes we tested, only the Johnson Big J had a significant amount of metal in the case and at no point did we get the sense of any significant added durability.

The upgrade

Also Great
Milwaukee 25 ft. General Contractor Tape Measure
For a more durable tape with better features, the Milwaukee is the way to go—but at nearly twice the price of our pick, it’s only worth it if you use a tape measure frequently.

If you want a tape measure that can withstand a true jobsite beat-down, we recommend the Milwaukee 25 ft. General Contractor Tape Measure (about $18). This is a new pick for 2015 that unseats the 25-foot Stanley FatMax, which has been a jobsite staple for at least a decade. Milwaukee is relatively new to tape measures, but our testing found that their tape exceeds the FatMax in every category except one. The Milwaukee has a more durable blade, the tang is a little easier to use, the locking switch is much smoother, and the belt hook is less likely to destroy a pants pocket. Ergonomically, it’s easier to hold and it has a nice wide base, so it’s less likely to tip over when placed on a board or joist. We also like that the body of the tape is exactly 3½ inches long, so if a measurement is taken from the back of the tool (like measuring the width of a room), it is easy to calculate the total length. (The FatMax is 3⅛ inches, which is trickier to figure out.) The one area where it falls short is stand-out, but that’s a small sacrifice for everything else this tape offers.

These features are all great for someone who is using a tape measure every day (or even every weekend). But for more intermittent use, the PowerLock is still the better option. It doesn’t provide the nearly effortless locking switch or the off-the-charts durability of the Milwaukee, but it’s easy to use and holds up nicely to average wear and tear—and it’s almost half the price of the Milwaukee.

Milwaukee tape measure

Even though it’s larger than the Stanley FatMax, the Milwaukee is much easier to hold due to the slight finger indentations at the base of the tool.

Where the Milwaukee really stands out (get it?) is the blade durability. The Milwaukee blade is coated in an extruded layer of nylon which is then lightly textured. This coating, according to Milwaukee, is eight times thicker than the layer of polyester that other companies use. Our own sandpaper test showed that the Milwaukee is indeed more durable than the rest. The sandpaper left scratches, but it was only light surface marring. Milwaukee, in order to prove the extreme durability of their blade coating, spent time sandblasting their blades along with those of two leading competitors. The video is here (the markings of the middle tape match the FatMax). We’ve seen this demo in person and the results are impressive. The coating on the other tapes is destroyed almost instantly while the Milwaukee holds firm for at least 30 seconds.

The Milwaukee has a top-hooking tang, and while this feature took many other tapes out of consideration, the upward hooks (there are two of them, one at each side) are so small that they didn’t get in the way when we didn’t want them to.

The locking switch of the Milwaukee is very smooth and was the easiest to use of all the tested tapes. A ridge runs horizontally across the switch, which gives the thumb an easy purchase. It takes very little pressure to get the switch in the locking position and once set, it stays firm. It’s a minor detail, but it’s a good example of the kind of improved performance you get for the extra investment over the PowerLock.

Tape measure pants damage

The destroyed back pocket of these Carhartt work pants is what happens after daily use with the sharp edges of the FatMax belt clip. The Milwaukee uses a wire clip instead to prevent this kind of wear.

The belt hook is another high point of the Milwaukee. Unlike the rest of the tapes, which have a metal fin for a clip, this one uses a thick formed wire. The rounded edges of the wire won’t grab and tear pocket fabric like the rest, so the wear and tear on clothing is significantly reduced.

The Milwaukee is not a small tape, but holding it is much more comfortable than holding the Fat Max due to the slight finger indentations at the bottom and rear of the body. These indentations also form a wide rear “foot” that stabilizes the tape measure when it’s stood up on a board or a deck joist.

Milwaukee tape measure

The wide and flat front and back feet of the Milwaukee give it added stability when standing up.

When compared to other construction-grade tapes, the Milwaukee is something of an anomaly because it only has a 1-inch wide blade. Most, like the FatMax, have the fatter 1¼-inch blades, which help with the longer stand-out. The thinner blades, like on the Milwaukee, are easier to use because they’re not as rigid and they don’t have as dramatic an arc on them. This makes them easier to press an edge flat while marking a measurement.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

With its wider blade, the one area where the FatMax beats out the Milwaukee is tape stand-out. In our tests, we consistently got the Milwaukee to about 9 feet, 2 inches, and the FatMax to 11 feet, 3 inches. While it doesn’t compare to the FatMax, the Milwaukee had the best standout among 1-inch tapes. It was more than a foot longer than the PowerLock, and well beyond the minimum stand-out length as indicated by DeBoer and Clement (which was in the 7-8-foot range).

Do I need an automatic locking tape?

For this guide, we only looked at tapes with traditional locking buttons. Some companies make tape measures with auto-locking features that automatically hold the tape in place once it is extended. A button, located where the normal toggle would be, retracts the tape. In the PTR piece, DeBoer explains them by saying, “people either love or hate auto-locking tapes.” As long as your tape has a smooth, easy-to-use locking switch, an automatic locking tape is really unnecessary. Also, if you use a standard tape and you’re looking for a quick hold on the blade, it is very easy to “auto-lock” it by shifting your forefinger forward until it rests against the bottom of the tape. It makes sense to just learn that little trick and then have the full range of tape motion if you need it.

What about really long tape measures?

If you need a longer tape measure, depending on your needs, it may be worth investing in a 100-foot tape measure like this Komelon (about $17). These are not spring-loaded auto-retracting tapes like their smaller cousins. Rather, they work on a spool system like a fishing rod. Any time you consistently need long measurements, one of these can save you a tremendous amount of time. If (say) you’re planning an addition and want to mark out the proposed dimensions in the grass, or you’re measuring the perimeter of your property for a fencing project, the added length makes these much easier to use than incrementally measuring with a 25-foot tape.

Are those laser distance measurers worth it?

Another category of measuring tools is the laser distance measurers. These tools, some as small as a pack of cards, shoot a laser point and give the distance on a little screen. There are very basic models like the Bosch DLR130K (about $80) that can do distance and calculate area and volume, but others, like the Stanley TLM330 (about $210, with a 330-foot range), can even figure out a distance through triangulation. If it can read the distance between you and the house and you and the second-story window (for example), it can tell you how high the window is off the ground. But as cool as they sound, they can only measure areas that have a positive edge (like a room). Because the laser needs to hit a surface in order to take a measurement, you can’t really use one to figure the length of a tabletop or a board. If you’re interested in more on these tools, Tools of the Trade has a nice round-up of the pro models, choosing the Bosch GLM 80 (about $175) as their overall favorite.

The competition

The Stanley FatMax (about $20), our previous upgrade pick, has been a jobsite standard for at least 15 years. It’s big and durable and it has a great stand-out (we got 11 feet, 3 inches). It’s the tape I used primarily during my construction career and I can vouch for its durability. But the Milwaukee, our new upgrade pick, is better than it in all areas except for standout.

Stanley also has a 25 ft. FatMax Auto Lock Tape Measure (about $30) with an auto-locking brake and a unique tang extension system. A detachable piece turns the standard FatMax tang into a much larger one. According to the press release, “[users] can connect the over-sized hook attachment for framing applications or remove it for standard applications.” The tape is projected to cost around $25. While the tool will likely have the FatMax’s durability, the added cost and the unusual tang put it out of the consideration here.

The Starrett Exact Plus (about $15) might have been our pick if not for its sheer bulk. With its ergonomic locking lever and durable blade coating, it was a contender, but the fact that it’s as tall as the PowerLock and as wide as the chunky FatMax made it difficult for smaller hands to grasp and use comfortably. At around $15, it was also on the pricy side for a 1-inch tape. A big-pawed carpenter on a jobsite, though, could find a lot to like about this one.

The Snap-on (about $16) and Keson (about $15) were nice compact units, but each had its failings. The Snap-on had the weakest blade lock that we looked at and, as mentioned earlier, when I pressed on the Keson’s tang bumper, the seam at the bottom of the case opened up a little. Snap-on also went a little extreme with their rubber over-mold, adding all kinds of nubs and ridges. We also noticed that the Klein 25-foot tape appears to be identical to the Snap-on.

Two out of the three Johnson tapes I looked at ($6 Professional’s Choice and $12 JobSite) had weak blade locks, while the third ($13 Johnson’s Big J) had a massive tang and a fairly stiff locking toggle. None of the Johnson tapes performed well in the abrasion test.

The Komelon (about $16) also had an over-engineered protective case and was the most futuristic-looking tape we found. The tang was very large and had a vertical piece that could hook from underneath. Both the knobby rubber over-mold and the huge end clip made this one tricky to use compared to simpler models.

We liked the Lufkin (about $14) for its blade durability and bright orange coloring (I can’t start to explain how many tape measures I’ve lost over the years), but the lanyard attachment made the tape a little too bulky for my liking, at least for around-the-house use. The Control Series moniker comes from a cutaway on the underside of the tape, right up at the mouth, that exposes the bottom of the tape as it moves in and out of the case. The theory is that you can easily press a finger against the tape to control how fast it retracts as well as brake it and hold it at a certain length. I’m neither here nor there on this one. It’s an interesting feature, but as mentioned earlier, most people familiar with tape measures unconsciously do this already just by sliding their index finger forward and braking the blade at the mouth of the case instead.

The FastCap tapes have a similar feature, but it’s a button at the bottom of the case rather than a cutaway. I actually found it more difficult to press the button and maintain pressure on it than to just slide my finger forward and stop the tape the way everyone else does. Along with the button-stop system, blade durability was a weak point for the FastCap, as was the thumb-operated belt clip (it works like a snack bag clip and is tedious to use). Also, one of the FastCaps was off 1/32 inch in the accuracy test, and the blades of both tapes barely made it across the 7-foot mark when I tested stand-out.

The most successful feature of the FastCaps is the erasable writing surface that sits on the side of the tape. It’s nice to have the option to jot down some measurements, particularly for the carpenter. The onboard pencil sharpener is also a nice touch, again, for the carpenter—but probably not useful to the home user.

FastCap tapes are available with a variety of marking styles, from the standard 1/16 scale to the Lefty/Righty explained above. They also sell tapes that have no rigidity in the blade, so they lay flat on your workpiece. For the most part, these oddballs are geared to the trades.

Two other tapes tested, the DeWalt and the Johnson Big J, have locking switches that are so stiff they literally take two hands to operate. DeBoer had a similar experience with the DeWalt 16-foot version, but he didn’t test the Big J.

The two Tajima tapes, the G-25 (about $19) and the GP-25 (about $25) were nearly identical, despite the price difference. They were both comfortable to use, and our test group liked their size, but the blade durability was subpar, with both tapes showing wear and slight kinks after some standard use. One handling issue that we had with these tapes is that the over-mold extends down from the case and covers the sides of the tang. This means that you can’t pull the tang out by coming at it from the side. Instead, you need to pull it straight out. Of all the tapes tested, the GP-25 was the most expensive, but it only housed a 1-inch blade. From what we could tell, in most ways it’s identical to the G-25 (same blade, same size, same tang, almost the same locking switch), so it appears that the additional cost is because of the spaced-out over-mold aesthetic.

A lot of the other wide-blade tapes were taken out of the running because of their massive tangs. The Stanley Bostitch (about $35), nearly all of the Kobalts, and many others all had this issue.

We didn’t consider any Craftsman tape measures because, well, they’re no longer made. For some reason, the company gave them up. But they seem to have been replaced on the shelves by Stanleys.

(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)


1. But at the same time, no tape is indestructible. I’ve also seen the locking switch on a FatMax break after an 8-foot fall. There is really no tape that will last forever under all circumstances. Jump back.

2. Most tangs also have a ¼-inch slot along the front face that allows you to hang the tool off a nail or easily mark a circle with the tape. To do this, pound a nail in at your center point until the head is just barely above the surface and hook the slot into the nail head. Then, take your pencil and hold it at the 10-inch mark and spin it around. Now you’ve got a circle with approximately a 20-inch diameter. Some tapes, like the Lufkin Hi-Vis Control Series Tape, have angled nail slots on each side of the tang so you don’t need to twist the tape as you’re making the arc or hanging the tape. On the whole, it’s a neat trick, but really not important to the average user. Jump back.

3. Each inch of the length of the tape is divided into 16 equal parts. Three of the tapes (Keson, Lufkin, and the FastCap Old Standby), added 1/32 inch for the first foot and then went straight 16ths for the remainder. On the DeWalt tape, which has 1/16ths, the ⅛-inch increments are labeled as fractions along one edge of the tape. The FastCap Righty/Lefty has 1/16-inch increments, and each one is labeled as a fraction. The tape is also divided down the middle the long way with a mirror image of the printing on each side so that the numbers will be facing you regardless of which hand you’re using to extend the tape. If you’re truly so uncomfortable with reading a tape measure and doing the basic math that it takes to know where you’re at in any given inch, these two fractionalized models are probably worth a second look. As Clement said, “If the tape labels the inch gradations as fractions and that makes you happy, so be it. You will get laughed off a construction site, but not out of your own living room.” Jump back.

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  1. Clint DeBoer, Review: Going the Distance—A Survey of Tape Measures, Pro Tool Reviews, June 14, 2013
    "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."
  2. Doug Mahoney, Tale of the Tape (Measures): Abusive Lab Test, Popular Mechanics
    "Stanley's FatMax has been the reigning champ of job-site tape measures. But I-Mark's new 16-footer with an inked tip can mark a measurement without a pencil, and Johnson's Stud-Squared has two sliding gauges to assist layout tasks. Can either measure up to the Stanley standard?"
  3. Mark, Tool Review: Stanley PowerLock 25 Foot Tape Measure, My Fix It Up Life, December 24, 2011
    "...for my work and the way I roll on a jobsite, the PowerLock does more—better and faster—than other tapes."
  4. Stuart, Stanley Powerlock Tape Measure Review, Tool Guyd, December 26, 2008
    "It can be quite tough to find a good tape measure these days - unless you have access to a Stanley Powerlock, that is. Powerlocks have a classic no-frills look and feel which make them easily recognized amongst hobbyists and pros alike."

Originally published: October 16, 2015

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