On The Level: Keson and SOLA: Finding and Maintaining the Right Short Tape Measure for YOU

Words: Todd Fredrick

Here is what you need to know about the best short tape measures for masonry. 

This article is one of a series on measuring tapes (other topics will include long tape measures, and perhaps pocket tape measures and special tape measures, etc.). A tape measure is a length of material (usually thin flexible materials including plastic, fabric, and metal) marked at regular intervals for measuring. This differs from a measuring ruler, which is a smooth-edged strip (usually rigid materials including metal, plastic, wood, etc.)  that is marked at regular intervals (such as inches) and is used as a straightedge or for measuring. In general, “tape measure” usually refers to the entire device, and “measuring tape” refers to either the entire device or tape/blade that is contained in the device. In these articles we will call the devices “tape measures” and the tape with the markings “the blade.” 

At Keson, we often get asked, “what is the best tape measure for (insert trade here)?”. It’s a tricky question because different tape measures perform different tasks. Users usually have a variety of needs and specific applications. Our follow up questions include “what kind of tape measure are you using now? What do you like/dislike about it? What would you like it to do that it doesn’t?” The answers to these help us define the needs of the user and match them up with the correct product. We are going to tackle a large category of tapes today and help you understand the pros and cons of each type of tape in that category. 

Short Tapes are tapes measures that are 40 feet or less and are in closed cases, often with a belt clip. The Short Tape classification also includes many Pocket Tapes (short tapes with no belt clip that are carried in a pocket) and many specialty tape measures. Some estimates put the number of short tapes in the market at 10-20 times as many long tapes. With such a large market for products, there is much more opportunity for variety and specialization.

Long tapes by our definition are tapes longer than 40 feet. We draw the line here because most long tapes don’t have a housing that enables the tape to hang from a belt. 

There are a few elements that make short tapes different from each other. None of these features has any great impact on the performance and certainly not on the accuracy of the tape measure. Many of these are simply features that are different, rather than better, than competitive/various options. For example, some forks have 4 tines, some have 2, 3, or 5. We bet some mad genius has designed a 6-tined fork. We still believe all these forks will pick up our food with relatively equal ease. That same is true for short tapes. When selecting a tape measure for use, there is USUALLY a selection criterion that follows this path: 

  1. Unit of measure (UOM), 

You wouldn’t buy a book printed in a language you aren’t familiar with, the same is true for tapes. In the North American market, there are three primary printed units of measure: Imperial (aka ft. & in.), Metric, and Engineers’ (aka, ft. & 10ths). There are three secondary printed units of measure: these are combination blades printed with Imperial/Metric, Imperial/Engineers’, Metric Engineers’ on the same side of the blade.

There are some specially printed tapes on the market as well. For instance, imperial scale with fractions, decimals or both printed above the tape markings for easy reading, or diameter tapes printed with a primary scale multiplied by Pi so that when the tape encircles a pipe or tree trunk, the tape shows the diameter of the circular object rather than its circumference. 

  1. Tape Length, 

Once you have the units of measure, the next obvious choice is the length. 

  1. Imperial & Engineers: 6-, 10-, 12-, 16-, 25-, 30-, 33-, 35-, and 40-foot are the most common lengths, with 25-foot far and away from the most popular. 
  2. Metric: 3m, 5m, 8m, 10m, and 12m are the most common lengths, with 8m the most popular. 

Once you have the units you want and the length you need, it is time to look at a Short Tape’s features. You are going to be using this tape a lot, so it should be comfortable in your hands, and it should function as you expect until something bad happens to it.

Housing (grip, lock style, others)

Grips: the three most common types of short tapes are no grip (just the plastic molded housing), partial grip (rubber molded as part of the housing to make holding the tape more comfortable and more secure), and full grip (a rubber housing that the entire plastic tape housing fits into). No grip tapes are simple, usually cheaper, and easier to wipe off and keep clean. Rubber can be affected by oils and chemicals so one will typically see no grip tapes in environments where tapes come into contact with these (like machine and manufacturing shops). If your tape is going to be around chemicals, stick with as little rubber as possible. 

Lock style: The two most popular types of lock style are slide (where you engage it by pressing down on to the blade to engage) and toggle (where lever-action presses down onto the blade to engage). Neither is better than the other at engaging the blade. That is to say, slide locks and toggle locks on good tapes do the same good job at keeping the blade from retracting. 

One other point on lock options: positive locks are ones which the user engages the lock to stop tape return are 90% of the market. The other 10% are auto-lock tapes that will not retract as you slide the tape out. You have to press and hold the button to disengage the lock. 

Blades: the most important attribute for blades is the width and its shape (aka its camber, how “curved” it is). Wider blades and greater curves enable longer stand out. However, there is a tradeoff, because greater curves are a little trickier to use when you need to mark the lengths. Wide blades are heavier and stronger (more steel) but need more curve in the blade to help them stand out. We feel if a tape can hold more than seven feet in stand out before the weight overcomes the rigidity of the steel and its shape, it will be fine for most applications. 

The blade coating is also important, as that is the number one factor in how long the tape will survive in a work environment. A synthetic coating like Nylon and Mylar is the best at keeping blades and the printing from wearing away. 

Keeping Short Tapes Usable

Different trades (and different people) tend to use up short tapes at different rates. Masons, because of the severity of their work environments typically go through a few (or more) tapes a year. Because short tapes are relatively inexpensive, the most efficient and practical maintenance you can do is keeping them clean. We do not recommend opening a tape housing up to clean it. We do recommend you suggest this to a rookie on the job! The loaded spring that pulls the bladed back into the housing will likely uncoil. If your tape has gotten to the point where you think opening it up to clean is the only way, you should buy a new tape. 

For all these products, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for potential problems. When tapes are damaged, it’s best to have a backup on hand. The last thing you want is for a crew to be standing around waiting for someone to get back from the store. 

For more information on short tape measures, visit www.keson.com 

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