Top 5 Common Tools to Measure Distance - Ultimate Guide

By Bruce RiversLast update: 2024-07-23

When you are a beginner, everything about construction seems daunting and puzzling. Even if you know the theoretical side of construction like the back of your hand, the practical side might still overwhelm you.

In such scenarios, it always helps if you have knowledge of the basic things that drive the whole complex process forward.

And, the distance measuring tools are the most basic and important components of construction.

Below are the top 5 popular tools to measure distance in construction, as well as advantages and disadvantages of each tool.

1. Ruler/Straight Edge Rule

Commonly called, ruler, it is termed as a straight edge rule by engineers and builders.

It derives straight edge name from its design that has an edge free from curves, or slant. The edge of this measurement ruler is calibrated with markings to create a standardized scale.

Woodpeckers SERXL-24 Straight Edge Rule, 24-Inch
Woodpeckers SERXL-24 Straight Edge Rule, 24-Inch
  • Cheap
  • Readily Available
  • Plenty of options in terms of material, size and markings
  • Serves dual purpose – measurement and checking straightness
  • Can’t be used for measuring long distances
  • Not very precise. Not better than 1.5 mm or 1/16-inch


The length of straight edge rulers can vary from 12 inches/30 cm to a maximum of 96-inch/240 cm

When to Use?

The straight edge rule is usually used to check straight line, symmetry and measurement over small distances.

You need to ensure that your ruler is as long as what you are measuring. If you have to move ruler along, the measurements can easily get inaccurate.

This measurement tool is classified in accordance with the type of material used to manufacture it and the measurement unit marked on the edge.

Metal rulers are the most preferred by professionals

In terms of materials, there are three common types of rulers – plastic, wood and metal. Out of these three, metal rulers are most preferred by experienced professionals because:

  • It is more precise, which is mostly down to the manufacturing methods used.
  • It is also more durable. You don’t have to worry about someone snapping it into two.
Empire Level 4003 Aluminum Straight Edge, 36-Inch
Empire Level 4003 Aluminum Straight Edge, 36-Inch

Metric or inch? The measuring unit that matters

The other method of classification is the unit of measurement used. There are two main categories in this classification, one uses metric system for calibration whereas the other uses inches.

Plus, there is a matter of accuracy in classification. Clearly, using an inch-calibrated ruler would be unsuitable when you need accuracy down to the millimeters.

Linear marking or Zero marking?

Apart from the rulers with linear marking, there are rulers with zero marking put in the middle and numbers on both sides. Such rulers are called center finding rulers. This helps in finding the center point of any flat object.

Place it in such a manner that the measurement on either side of zero is identical and you have the center at the zero.

INCRA CENTER12 Centering Rule 12-Inch
INCRA CENTER12 Centering Rule 12-Inch

2. Tape Measure

The tape measure is another widely used construction measuring tool. To the bare basics, it is a metal ruler that rolls out and can be carried along, clipped to your belt.

This measuring device has a plastic body and metal rule which becomes rigid on extension, making it possible to push along a surface or walls to make measurements.

You should go for wider tape measures as they are most stable when extended and makes it easier to measure over long distances.

Stanley 33-425 Powerlock 25-Foot by 1-Inch Measuring Tape
Stanley 33-425 Powerlock 25-Foot by 1-Inch Measuring Tape
  • Single person can use for measuring
  • Remains compact while measuring room scale distances
  • Can be easily carried around
  • It could bend to measure curved edges and space
  • Not perfect for accurate measurement
  • Require an assistant to hold the end of the tape when measuring long distance


The shortest tape measure can measure distance up to 6-ft while the longest one can measure distance up to 33-ft

How Does It Work?

The tape measure has a bent tab at the end which could be hooked around one surface to secure the tape and get accurate markings and measurement.

Also, the end hook tab has a small slot in the middle. You can secure this slot over a screw or nail and eliminate the need of someone holding the other side down to get accurate measurements.

Plus, the end tab of the tape is serrated, which means you can use it as a marking tool.

3. Measuring Tape Reel/Long Tape

The old-fashioned measuring tape reel is a must-have for every professional builder or contractor. Basically, it is a long tape measuring more than 100 feet encased or wound in a plastic body.

Johnson Level and Tool 1808-0300 300-Foot JobSite Open Reel Fiberglass Tape
Johnson Level and Tool 1808-0300 300-Foot JobSite Open Reel Fiberglass Tape
  • Double measurement label
  • Easy to carry around
  • Easy to retract
  • Suitable for big measurements
  • Sturdy and Durable
  • Bulky
  • Not precise for small measurements

When To Use?

While this tape doesn’t offer the compactness guaranteed by a metal tape measure, it is handy when you want to measure long distances. Now, you might argue that measuring wheel is better for long distances.

But, what if the terrain is too rocky or uneven? Then the tape reel can be a better choice.

Closed Case Tape vs Open Reel Tape

This measuring tool is subdivided into 2 categories:

  • Closed case tapes have measuring tape secured in a plastic body. Closed case tapes can measure distance up to 100 feet.
Starrett 530-100 3/8" x 100' Closed Reel
Starrett 530-100 3/8" x 100' Closed Reel
  • Open reel tapes are for longer distance up to 300 feet. The measuring tape isn’t completely covered with a plastic body. It has a handle at the top and a pointed stake at the bottom to secure it on ground for measurements.
Komelon 6633 Open Reel Fiberglass Tape Measure, 300-Feet
Komelon 6633 Open Reel Fiberglass 300-Feet

Other Features Of Tape Reel

The tape reel can be made of fiberglass or nylon material.

The good quality long tapes have measuring blade printed on both sides with fractional/decimal, metric/English formats for versatility.

The end hook has a small opening, which can be used to secure it when taking measurements.

4. Measuring Wheel

This construction measuring tool is also known as surveyor’s wheel or distance calculation wheels. This device has a calibrated wheel attached to the handle.

All you have to do is roll it from starting point to the end point and read the numbers on the counter to read the measurement of the distance traversed by the wheel.

Calculated Industries 6540 Wheel Master Pro 12 Measuring Wheel
Calculated Industries 6540 Wheel Master Pro 12 Measuring Wheel
  • Perfect for big measurements
  • Quick and easy to operate
  • No assistance needed
  • Different variations available
  • Not accurate to smallest units
  • If it slips in the middle of measurement, you won’t get a correct result.
  • Weather and terrain dependent
Rolatape RT312 12-inch Measuring Wheel
Rolatape RT312 12-inch Measuring Wheel


The measuring wheel can measure distance up to 10,000 feet.

When to Use?

The measuring wheel is perfect when you want to measure long distances. They are perfect for measuring building lot sizes, perimeter of the garden, fence estimation and pavement. And, usage is fairly straight forward.

It also is perfect when the distance to be measured is not linear. For example, to measure the perimeter of a lot with the tape measure you will have to get the length and breadth first.

And, if the plot is crooked, you will need four measures and then will have to add it up to get the answer. Plus, you will need someone’s assistance for that.

However, with the measuring wheel, all you have to do is roll along the perimeter by starting from one point and ending at the same point.

Which Types Of Measuring Wheel To Buy?

There isn’t a specific classification of this measuring tool as clear variants aren’t available. However, modifications are made to the base model to make it well suited for the particular job.

These modifications can range from size of the wheel to the counter units used.

  • The size of the wheel varies with the terrain you are measuring. The larger wheel for rougher terrain and smaller one for the smoother terrain.
  • Also, there is a case of manual and automatic counters used in measuring wheels. The mechanical counters are perfect for those who rely on only one type of measurement units.
  • Whereas, the electronic ones are well suited for those who work with multiple types of unit measurements (inches, feet, metric or yards).

5. Laser Tape Measure

Last but not least we have on our list is laser tape measure, which is the newest entrant in the distance measurement niche.

It is an accurate and precise alternative to the traditional measuring tapes. This measuring tool uses optics and laser physics to give accurate measurements.

It works on phase shift principle, in which the reflection of the outbound laser beam and the time it takes to register the reflected pulse is used to measure the distance laser beam has traversed.

Bosch GLM 40 Laser Measure, 135 Feet
Bosch GLM 40 Laser Measure, 135 Feet
  • Easy to use
  • Accurate
  • Portable
  • Rubber grip makes it suitable for damp conditions as well
  • Measures long distances
  • Don't need to worry about rewinding and gathering tape after measurement
  • Have to be slightly careful
  • The laser measure will not give an accurate measurement on glass or water, shiny metal or porous materials


Laser tape measure can measure length from 2 inches up to 300 feet (0.05 to 100 meters)

How To Use Laser Tape Measure?

The usage of laser tape measure is also fairly simple. You have to place the device at the starting point of the distance you want to measure and aim the laser beam at the object in the end. It can be wall, pole or anything.

In case, there isn’t anything present at the end point, you can place any object to hit laser beam on. Once you have placed the tool at the right point, just hit the button and the device will flash calculation on the screen.

Bosch GLM 80 Laser Distance Measurer
Bosch GLM 80 Laser Distance Measurer

Laser Tape Measure - A Versatile Laser Layout Tool

Depending on how much money you have paid, the laser measure can display measurement in single or multiple units.

Also, some laser tape measures allow you to measure multiple distances and it automatically adds them together to display final result.

This distance measurement tool is accurate from +/- 1/8 inch (3 mm) to +/- 1/16 inch (1.5 mm).

Also, it can save multiple measurements in the internal memory, so you don’t have to bother about writing it down.

When To Use?

Laser tape measures are perfect when you want to take indoor measurements. You can check ceiling height or breadth of the room within a minute.

And, the best part is you don’t have to rely on someone’s help or look out for places to secure the end of the tape.


As you have read in this article, there are various distance measuring tools available in the market. The suitability of these tools varies in accordance with your needs, conditions and personal preferences.

However, you need to make sure that you have the right tool for the right purpose. Buying a ruler to measure a room is hardly a wise decision. And, so is spending big bucks on laser measure to check straightness.

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