Measuring tapes – choice for some

In the unlikely event of Donald Trump deciding to buy a measuring tape while he is in Britain, he will find a wide choice of a type that is popular in the US. Indeed, he may have difficulty finding any other. We look at availability.

Designers of measuring tapes assume the user will hold the tape in the right hand and read the top scale. For the past fifty years, most of the tapes available in the UK have been the hybrid US pattern, with the primary scale in inches and feet and the lower scale in metric showing centimetres. Its popularity with suppliers may be due to the potential market in the US and UK being six times that in the UK only, thereby reducing costs and increasing profits.

US pattern tapes

For a while, Homebase offered a hybrid UK pattern tape, with the primary scale in metric and the lower scale in inches and feet. It seems no longer to be stocked – perhaps the UK market is too small.

UK pattern tape

For those who were taught metric, now over half the UK population, who use it as their measurement system of choice and who prefer to read the top scale of the tape, the choice is limited. Few DIY stores stock metric tapes. The internet has a selection, if you are happy to pay postage and wait a few days. Alternatively, you can do as I do, and pop into a hardware store during your next continental holiday.

metric tapes

Continental tapes are normally marked in centimetres. However, when the UK construction industry changed from imperial measurements to metric over fifty years ago, it was decided to use mm instead of cm whenever possible. Dimensions on drawings or in conversation could be given without units – the context would make clear whether the measurement was in metres or millimetres. This has worked well, but the tape manufacturers have been slow to respond. Indeed, it was only when my son visited Australia a few years ago, that I acquired a metric tape that reflects the reality in construction.

Early in the 1970s, I was involved in the design of Centre Beaubourg, now Centre Pompidou, in Paris, working in the London office of a British firm of consulting engineers. The centimetre continued to rule in France, as the inch had done in Britain, and I remember asking visiting French engineers how they were coping with our use of millimetres and metres. “No problem,” they said, “it’s your Newtons that are giving us a headache.” Yes, the UK was one of the first countries to adopt SI, well ahead of France.

But that is another story.

12 thoughts on “Measuring tapes – choice for some”

  1. Not everyone who owns a measuring tape works in construction, and for measuring everyday objects, the centimeter is the unit most people in France are familiar with, (starting with their first 20 cm ruler “double décimètre”), e.g. an A4 sheet of paper is often refered to a “twenty-one-twenty-nine-seven” (21 × 29.7). The use of cm in measuring tapes will probably prevail for the foreseeable future for this reason and two other ones:
    -for construction workers, it doesn’t really matter as the conversion from cm to mm is trivial
    -displaying mm clutters the measuring tape with more digits


  2. Similar situation in the US. Lots of inch-only or dual tapes in brick and mortar stores. Metric-only means online-only. However, I bought 3 from Amazon (different lengths and brands) and reviewed them on Reddit (r/metric) about three years ago.

    All three are obviously different paint jobs on the same case and blank steel blade used for inch-based tape measures, but they are all fine.

    Since local stores refuse to stock them, I don’t feel the least bit bad about cutting them out of the loop.


  3. What is missing here is the size of the metric (SI) only market in the rest of the world.
    What really puzzles me is why the UK has so few (or maybe why wider Europe has so few) world standard products.
    Although a lot of this can be down to the size of the American import market demanding American standards and of China pandering to that market, the rest of the world maybe needs to wake up.
    Ebay is awash with metric only measuring tapes, that is the least of our problems, weighing scales are mostly electronic and unfortunately almost universally switchable, (unless you go for class III). Metric only mechanical scales are rare to non existent.
    The less popular, shall we say professional instruments, calibrated in SI only or SI primary scales are again rare to non existent.
    UK on its own can do little or nothing, will do little or nothing and is mostly interested in doing nothing to resolve the problem, which is not seen as a problem but even an advantage.


  4. When I was in México on business trips a number of times up to a few years back, México being a metric country uses the US pattern tape as shown in the picture above. I didn’t see anyone with a metric only tape. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist , it just means that those that I encountered didn’t have metric only tapes.

    The Méxicanos despite this did not use the inch side at all. Contrary to the claim that the design is to hold the tape in the right hand, so that the “preferred” scale is up as in the US case, this would be feet and inches, the Méxicanos on the other hand held the tape in their left hand and used their right hand to make markings on the material they were measuring. For right handed people it is very difficult to hold the tape in the right hand and use your left hand for writing or marking.

    Holding the tape in the left hand meant the numbers were upside down, but this was not a problem for them. Also, most tapes sold in the US are not dual but feet-inch only.

    Does anyone know, or is their a way to find out how many markets and which ones use the dual calibrated tapes? How is it decided whether a country is to be sold metric only tapes or dual? Also, the US dominated world is coming to an end and a huge divorce between China and the US is in progress. China is also developing Africa. China has the largest GDP in the world and soon will by-pass the US as the world’s largest economy. With these coming events where China becomes dominant, can we expect that China will end its catering to US whims when it comes to USC?


  5. It’s not just measuring tapes, there is also the problem of dual scale rulers: (Imperial inch and Metric centimetre/millimetre). To give just one example, in
    a fully metric country in the Southwest Pacific, there are Chinese made dual scale rulers in schools. I used to tell students to ignore the edge with inches.
    Another method was to neatly mask the edge with inches – using good white tape or neatly obscure the inch side with permanent black marker pen!
    Proper metric only rulers were too expensive and/or not easy to obtain.


  6. @Philip

    Yes indeed, the ubiquitous school ruler. More difficult to get a metric only school ruler than a metric only tape measure.
    This issue should be an easier one to tackle than trying to move the DfT on the roads. I am aware that ‘some’ schools actively discourage dual rulers but obviously not enough and not many. That needs to change, it can be changed I would have thought.
    An outright ban on dual in schools should not be that hard to achieve, but teachers that seem proud of prolonging the use of imperial units in schools are not going to help. Neither does a government that thinks the solution to all this dual confusion is to reintroduce the teaching of imperial.


  7. Malcolm,

    This particular Luddite is serious. Lucky for us though the majority of comments are against him and are very pro-metric. I wish Metric Views would have done a separate discussion topic on it, that is where the media seems to have taken it upon themselves to oppose the metric system.


  8. Phillip & Brian,

    Don’t you find it strange that the US doesn’t have dual tapes, just in/ft only? Yet, the metric world is forced to deal with dual tapes? I wonder who makes the decision as to why metric countries are being forced to purchase dual tapes with a scale they completely ignore?


  9. Daniel

    The descision as to which tapes are avialable in a country is determined by a number of factors:

    Firstly, the tapes must be suitable to make measurements in a manner dictated by law. In most countries, this means that metric is compulsory, imperial optional, though in a few countries (such as South Africa) the sale of imperial tapes was prohibited by law.

    Secondly, tapes that are produced locally will be produced to meet local market conditions, while those that are imported will be imported from the cheapest country.

    Thirdly, once the legal and commericial interests are satisfied, suppliers will supply what the customer really wants.


  10. @Daniel Jackson says: 2019-06-08 at 21:33 Phillip & Brian,

    It had never occurred to me that USA would have inch / foot tapes only!
    TBH I try not to think too much about life in the USA at all.

    That changes my outlook somewhat on that particular subject though, it in fact makes the very existence of dual tapes and rulers quite perplexing. I think I need to stop thinking about that one totally.


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