Welcome to Brighter Home Projects! In this series, we explore DIY home renovation, repair, and a variety of related projects by taking to heart this simple idea: you are capable of more than you realize. Each installment focuses on home improvement projects, information, and advice aimed growing both your skill set and your self-confidence.
If you’re a fan of this series, you’ve probably measured twice, cut once, and still gotten it wrong. Don’t worry! We all do it, and by we, I mean anyone but myself, of course (HAH!).
Seriously – few things are as infuriating as making a cut to an expensive piece of material, only to end up with some high quality scrap and another trip to the store. So let’s cut to the chase and discuss a five key DIY tips to help you get more accurate measurements (and fewer migraines!).
1) Switch to the Metric System
Imperial units are oddly and inconsistently divisible. For example, one mile is 5280 feet, one foot is 12 inches, and inches are divided by halves, quarters, eights, sixteenths, and thirty-seconds. This makes calculations unnecessarily complicated, which after a long day can lead to costly errors. You try dividing a one-foot board into five even pieces using your tape measure!
The Metric System, on the other hand, is cleanly divisible by 10’s, and a standard metric measuring device uses only centimeters and millimeters. This makes calculations, not to mention reading your tape measure, much faster and more accurate.
I know you’re now excited to make the switch to metric, but don’t ditch your Imperial tape measure just yet. Imperial tape measure have a number of useful features, including red boxes every 16 inches, which allows you to quickly identify the standard location of studs behind walls.
Finding metric-measuring tools (especially combination squares) at your local home improvement store can be a bit difficult, so your best bet is to look for specialty retailers online.
2) Use Your Tape Measure Correctly
Let’s dispel an old myth – the hook at the end of your tape measure moves for a reason, not because it is poorly made. In order to take accurate inside and outside measurements, the hook slides in order to accommodate for its thickness, which is 1/16 of an inch. This means there is no need to manipulate the hook when it is attached to or abutting a surface. If you’re taking a measurement on a flat surface with nowhere to place the hook (e.g. measuring the width of a font on a sign), extend the hook and measure from the back of the hook.
Getting a reliable measurement for the total length of a surface often results in extending a tape measure beyond the length of the surface, giving you nothing to rest the tape measure on (for example, when measuring the length of a kitchen table). Your solution? A good tape measure will have the length of its base written somewhere on the bottom of the casing, allowing you to rest the base of the tape measure with the end of what you are measuring. To get your measurement, simply add what’s exposed on the tape to the noted length of the tape measure case, and you have your total length.
3) Buy a Caliper
One tool I always keep close at hand is my digital caliper. While a ruler, combination square, and a tape measure can all give you reliable measurements, if you want to know the width of a small object (calipers are generally sold in the same size as rulers), especially one that isn’t flat, i will reach for my my digital caliper first thing. I can quickly determine the inside or outside measurement of an object to the 1/100 of a centimeter or an inch with digital precision.
4) Use a Mechanical Pencil
I commonly see folks using the old-school, flat, knife sharpened carpenters pencils for marking lines. While I do carry a carpenters pencil in my tool bag for making notes on materials, when I need to make accurate, reliable lines and measurement marks, I opt for a Papermate 1.3mm mechanical pencil.
Standard and carpenters pencils dull over time, leading to inconsistent line thickness, which can result in bad cuts. A mechanical pencil, especially one with thick lead for durability, tends to result in nice, clean, reliable lines that simply make accurate measurements (and life!) a whole lot easier. You can find these pencils at most office supply stores and online.
5) Know Your Kerf
For our purposes, a kerf is the slit made by a blade when cutting. Knowing your kerf is essential when measuring material you’ll cut into multiple pieces. For example, the kerf made by a hacksaw blade is commonly 1.27 mm (0.05”), but the kerf of the ultra-fine finish 10” blade on my table saw is 2.21 mm (0.87”).
Thus, when making successive cuts on a board you have to take into account that material loss of each cut when you make your calculations, because a 10-foot board cannot be cut into five equal lengths of exactly two feet (well, unless you can split wood at the molecular level). Also, unless you can accurately mark your kerf with a pencil (and chances are you can’t), measure for each individual cut. DO NOT measure ahead, or you will end up with more scrap wood than you intended.