The retractable tape measure – curse of the new millenium

When I’m emperor of the world I’m banning retractable tape measures.

They’re the things you buy in hardware stores every week because the one you thought you had in the shed has mysteriously gone missing again.

By all the laws of logic there should be several dozen scattered around the house and garden, but you can never find one when you want one; or when you do find it, its innards have poured out and they won’t retract. Or its innards are coiled up exactly where they should be, but they won’t. . . tract?

My granddad was a cabinet maker and he, lucky man, died before the age of retractable tape measures.

He must have seen them coming.

He had a wooden ruler that folded down to nine inches and stuck out of his overalls pocket. It unfolded to one yard, which is just less than a metre, and if he wanted to measure something longer than that he moved it along. He built intricate furniture out of quality timbers and I can’t recall him ever getting a measurement wrong.

I have retractable tape measures that could girdle the earth and I don’t recall ever getting a measurement right. It’s a well known fact that retractable tape measures are always inaccurate by 10cms. Ask any builder. In the industry it’s known as the 10-centimetre rule.

But there are other reasons why they should be the first modern invention we jettison, even ahead of the internal combustion engine.

First, they’re the source of some serious psychological problems in people who use them. We’ve had road rage and computer rage, but there’s been no research done into the number of marriages that have fallen to bits, or heart attacks that have been triggered, by trying to measure an item that’s 7.5 metres long with a retractable tape measure that’s eight metres long. Theoretically this should be simple: you hook the little jiggly bit over the edge of the thing you’re measuring and you walk to the other end.

But in reality the bloody thing slips off just before you can make a note of the measurement. In extreme cases it retracts so fast it develops whiplash and severs your ear.

And it’s no good staying where you are and feeding the thing out a little at a time, because just before it reaches its target – it bends in the middle.

This is true no matter what the distance, unless it’s a distance you can measure with your arms stretched out. In those cases the tape will be stuck in its casing and nothing will budge it. They ought to have warnings on the packet: “Do not attempt to repair at home. Seek professional advice.”

Because if you do try to repair it at home, the entire roll of razor-sharp tape will strike like a taipan, putting out an eye, and possibly slicing through your carotid artery.

One other thing: if this happens to you it’s better to bleed to death quietly than to get your wife to help. It never works because your wife has an intimate knowledge of tape measures and the way they work and you will have been doing it all wrong. There are worse fates than dying.

Don’t exaggerate, I hear you say. And yes, all right then, maybe I do exaggerate, just a little. But even without these things – even without the risk of terminal injury – there is still the 10-centimetre rule.

I fell foul of it again yesterday, cutting the new carpet. I pride myself on accuracy, and you can’t trust the little jiggly bit on the end of the tape. Yes, I know it can only make a difference of a millimetre or two, but I pride myself on accuracy.

So – as always – I started my measurements at the 10-centimetre mark.

Seven metres.

Then I transferred it to the carpet.

“I’m glad we chose oatmeal,” said my wife, watching me.


“D’you think we’ll have enough left for the study?”


“I’m glad you’re cutting it. I’d never get it that straight. . .”

“Hmmmmm. . .”

“You remembered the 10-centimetre rule, didn’t you. . .?”