Tools & Workshop

7 Essential Measuring Tools for Any Job

Besides “righty tighty, lefty loosey,” there's one DIY phrase that nearly anyone can recite: Measure twice, cut once.

One of the distinguishing factors between a quick fix and a properly executed home improvement project is how well the materials fit together. Are there gaps? Are the joints tight and clean?

While the standard tape measure will get you pretty far with most tasks, it doesn't help much in keeping things square or straight. But with the following seven tools in your arsenal, your future DIY projects will definitely measure up. (Groan… .)

Some essential measuring tools (clockwise from center) include tape measure, combination square, micro rule, speed square, framing/steel square and long straight edge.

1. Tape Measure
It's the essential measuring tool for a reason: though small in size, it's useful on darn near every project. I say buy them in bulk and keep one in every room of the house; you're likely to misplace them. Quick tip: when trying to achieve accurate measurements with a tape measure, hold the 2' line on the edge, take your measurement, and then subtract two. This gives you a much more accurate measure than taking it from the little jiggly metal thing at zero.

2. Combination Square
This is my number one measuring multitasker when doing any kind of woodworking, art, or design project. Use the head to set 90° and 45° angles and the adjustable ruler to scribe a line over a long distance. You can find less expensive plastic combination squares for around $20, but I recommend saving up for a high-quality model, $40-100, which will last longer and provide much better accuracy.

3. Micro Rule
This might not get you very far when adding a room to your home, but if you have one around, you'll find all kinds of uses for it. These small rulers measure in 32nds and 64ths, making them great tools for setting up bit and blade depths on power tools, not to mention an infinite number of little household repair jobs. I use mine all the time.

Speed square from Irwin Tools

4. Speed Square
The fastest way to get a 90° angle anywhere. This tool combines the best of combination square, framing square, and try square into one handy tool. This tool is essential for doing any roofing, decking, or stair building. When you buy one, it'll come with a little booklet that details the hundreds of ways to use one for quick, repeatable measurements. The speed square also makes a great temporary fence for making short 90° and 45° cuts in dimensional lumber; a circular saw's best friend.

5. Framing/Steel Square
A nice, big right angle that's perfect for stair and roof framing, this tool can also be used for laying out and marking lines on a larger scale. Like the speed square, the framing/steel square provides for quick, repeatable measurement and calculating, so long as you learn how to use its features to keep everything to code.

6. Long Straight Edge
Though not essential for construction work, a long straight edge is handy for marking, woodworking, and figuring out tile and hardwood flooring work. I suggest getting a clamp-able model, since it will always keep your straight edge square, enabling you to use the tool as a fence for accurate cuts with a circular or jigsaw. You can even build carriages that slide along top for use with a router or when you need tablesaw-like accuracy from portable power tools. Don't discount the humble wooden yardstick here; you'll get surprisingly good results.

Calipers from Zeta Manufacturing Company

7. Calipers
You can use this tool to get painstakingly accurate measurements on anything under 6', including square shapes, round shapes, holes and internal sizes of tubes and pipes. I like a dial model, available in both fractional and metric. I find a use for these on every project I take on. They're always one of my DIY best buys, and if you take care of them, they will last a lifetime, paying for themselves again and again. Worth seeking out.

For more on woodworking, consider:

How to: Make a Window Box
The Essential Toolbox
How to Cut Straight Lines with a Circular Saw