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Essential Measuring Tools for the DIYer

Whether you are brand new to DIY or are eager to start bigger projects, adding more measuring tools to your toolbox will help you make accurate and unique measurements and cuts to your projects. From the humble tape measure to plumb bobs to t-bevels, follow along as we take you through the top measuring tools that are essential for any DIYer.

Types of Measuring Tools


With so many measuring tools, you may not know where to begin. Here are several different types and categories that are sure to get you off to a great start.

Angle Locators and Protractors

An angle finder will help you capture the correct angle you need and give you its measurement. They have levelers to make sure you are both level and plumb. Some types have a digital measurement display. A protractor can also be used to measure and transfer angles and set bevels. Protractors can be manual, magnetic, or electronic.


The caliper is a measuring tool with versatility. This tool comes in handy when measuring many different things including the diameter of a pipe or the depth of a hole when woodworking. Most have a basic ruler with jaws on both the top and bottom to take internal and external measurements such as diameter and thickness as well as depth.

A basic caliper has a ruler with a metric and imperial scale, a depth measuring blade, sliding jaws that measure the internal and external dimensions of an object, and a locking screw for the sliding jaws. The jaws fit either around an object or inside and the measurement is taken by where the jaws slide. There are three different types of calipers: Vernier, dial, and digital. The Vernier is your basic ruler caliper with manual jaws. Digital calipers have a digital measurement read while the dial has a dial measurement read. A fourth option is a spring joint caliper that doesn’t include a built-in ruler.

Plumb Bobs

Steel or solids brass, a plumb bob is a weight with a point on its end. It is tied to the end of a string to measure “plumb” or how straight something is vertically. Your string will be parallel to your vertical board and you measure the distance between the two down the length to ensure all points are equal distance for a straight board.

Pencil Compass

When you need to draw a perfect circle, the pencil compass will help you do just that. Similar in look to a spring joint caliper, the pencil compass has a point on one side to insert into a material and a pencil on the other. You'll then turn the compass on its point and the pencil will mark the diameter or radius of the circle.

Rulers and Tape Measures

While a ruler and maybe even a tape measure is something most kids learn about in school, they are essential in any tool belt.

  • Straight—Edge Ruler: Something everyone is familiar with, the ruler can help you find length and sometimes depth. Its straight edge is perfect for making straight cut marks. Don’t just use any kids’ ruler, however. A DIYer should have a heavy-duty ruler made from aluminum or some other sturdy material for all the wear and tear projects bring. Have trouble seeing the measurements? Look for one that has bold and easy-to-read numbers and tick marks. 
  • Folding Rule or Tape: A folding tape is usually made of wood, sometimes metal, and is a longer ruler that folds up. It was used in construction before the tape measure was invented and was the cheaper option for many years. It's not usually preferred as it is more cumbersome to carry, however it might be more useful when measuring a short depth of a hole as it’s longer than a ruler but sturdier than a tape measure.
  • Tape Measure: Of course, the tape measure is one of the most useful tools any DIYer needs. The retractable steel blade measures long distances and rolls up when not in use. The measurements are in feet, inches, and further divided into fractions of inches. The “dumb” end of the tape measure is the beginning of the tape and the “smart” end is where the reel is where you measure the length. Digital tape measures have an electronic read display. However, most people don’t realize there is more to this tool than meets the eye.
    • Why is the tape measure bent in the middle? The rolled tape is bent for a purpose. The arch shape supports the tape as it’s rolled out to make it sturdy enough for measuring long distances. The arch direction also makes it so the tape can be rolled up easily.
    • Why is the metal end loose? The metal end of the tape measure moves about a 16th of an inch to ensure your measurement is accurate depending on how you use the tape measure. When you are hooking your tape measure to something, the give in the metal end will help make up the difference in the measurements. However, if you don’t need to hook and pull the tape measure, the metal will be pushed in, so you don’t get a slightly longer measurement.
    • What's the hole for on the metal end? On the metal end, there is a hole to enable you to hook it onto a nail head to keep it stable. It also is designed to sit into the hole so the end of the tape where you start measuring in the middle of the nail or where the nail is set instead of the outer part of the nail head for a more accurate measurement.
    • Why are there diamonds or other symbols on my tape measure? Going back to framing layouts, normally the 16 inches increments are marked in red for stud placement. There are also diamond symbols at 19.2 inches and so on for 19.2 inches on-center. At eight feet on the tape measure, the two-foot, 16 inches, and 19.2 inch on-center layouts all meet up at eight feet or 98 inches which is usually marked in red. This is because sheet goods like subflooring are eight feet long.
  • Tape Measure Wheel: This is usually a fiberglass tape measure that is great for measuring long distances, usually outdoors. The tape is wrapped around a wheel. You'll often find spikes on the bottom the tape holder that you can insert into the ground so it stays put while you walk and measure.


There are several types of squares used in DIY and construction to give you perfect angles and lines every time.

  • Combination Square: Similar in concept to a caliper, a combination square has a ruler with a handle that slides down its length. This can measure 45- or 90-degree angles using the two different sides of the handle. Some also come with a level in the handle and a marking tool. Not only can you use this on your 2x4s, but you can also use it to help make sure all your power tools like your table saw are accurate for the perfect cut. It can also be used to measure depth which is handy when making notch cuts.
  • Framing Square: These are large “L”-shaped rulers that are great when building a structure or making stairs. The tongue is the shorter length of the framing square that measures 1 1/2 inches wide and 16 inches long. The blade on the longer part of the framing square is two inches wide and 24 inches long. The size of the framing square isn’t random:
    • 1 1/2 inches wide is the width of framing boards, so marking the width of the tongue will mark where your next 2x4 will need to be place when framing a structure. If you mark next to your 1 1/2 measurement with the two-inch width of the blade, you know your placement of your next 4x4.
    • 16 inches long on the blade side is a common way to layout studs in a wall. That is called 16 on-center. Same with 24 inches on the blade, that can be used for 24 on-center when marking a layout.
    • The different hash marks down the length will help you with division of measurements.
    • The sides of the square will help you measure treads and risers for stair stringers (the sides of a staircase). 
  • Speed Square: This triangle ruler is something that every DIYer needs in their tool belt. On every part of a speed square there are different measurements for different applications. It measures seven inches in length because a 2x4 piece of lumber is 3 1/2 inches wide and across two 2x4s is about seven inches, so marking for a stud layout is easy. This comes in handy when framing. With a speed square you can:
    • Find angle degrees with a pivot point
    • Make a line for rip cuts (the square goes flush with the board, so it works well with lumber that isn’t completely straight)
    • Make rafter cuts with common top cuts for pitches
    • Hip-val top cuts for hip rafters in a roof
    • Create seat cuts for rafters to sit on wall plates
    • Use it to help flush boards together
    • Make sure your power tools like a table saw blade are correct
  • T-Bevel: A t-bevel is a moveable blade that helps you to imitate any angle. It does not measure the angle but is useful when cutting lumber such as when trying to match the angle on a piece of molding. Not considered a square, but another useful tool that works in a similar way is the contour gauge. It has thin fingers or pins that will duplicate the shape of a cut you need.

While we certainly can keep talking about measuring tools, these tools are just some of the essentials for any DIYer ready to jump into more projects. If you have more questions on different types of measuring tools and how to use them, drop by your local McCoy’s where our friendly team members are all ears.