Tips for Measuring Your Jobs Better

Even the average Stanford MBA student probably knows the carpentry saying that goes: “Measure twice, cut once.” It’s a way that journeymen in the trades try to ensure that the apprentices don’t rush the work – and that they avoid mistakes that can’t be corrected.

If you apply the same idea – care and extra attention when you measure existing conditions for your kitchen and bath remodeling work – it will pay off for you. A series of your dimensions put in a row will add up, your plans will make sense and the work will be buildable.

Equally important, you won’t get that phone call from the concrete subcontractor at the site: “Er…I don’t know how to tell you this, but the south wall at the dining room is 12 inches shorter than what you show on the demolition plan.”

Ah yes, the joys of the poorly dimensioned job.

You may not be able to get everything perfect when you first measure things, but there are procedures you can put in place, along with a few tools you can bring along, that will all help you to minimize problems.


Let’s start with the basics. Get a good quality tape measure – by all means, the kind with a built-in laser if you prefer – that will digitally figure out lengths. But the old type with feet and inches printed on the tape blade still works fairly well, too.

Actually, take along two tape measures. Yep, keep a spare in your car; tapes do break, and that’s the last thing you want to be without after you’ve made the trip out to the job site. Oh, and it’s good if your tapes are the 25- or 30-foot-long variety – long enough to measure big rooms, but still small enough to slip into your bag or your jacket pocket if needed.

And pen and paper, right? Well, yes and yes, but that’s not all you may want to have with you these days.

Maybe you’ve been putting off buying a smart phone or a tablet. Do yourself a favor, go out and get one. Today. If anything in your working week requires measuring (and then doing something with those dimensions), these devices can change your life.

Taking pictures of what you’re measuring is a huge help. Not only will it remind you of what your tape was doing, but more importantly, photographs can help to jog your memory as to where things are in relation to each other. That quad electrical outlet under the guest bedroom window may have four or more measurements around it on your sheet of notes. With a photo to help you when you’re drawing things up, it may be much easier to figure out what’s what.

Then there are “The Apps.” They are taking over the planet, aren’t they?

There are some very convenient measuring applications, some of which you can use to manually add dimensions right onto photographs. How cool is that?

Even if you don’t use this kind of app for your initial full measure, they can be invaluable for the odd corner, the electrical switch location or window height that you didn’t catch the first time around. With an iPad or similar tablet, you can just take a photo and enter multiple dimensions right into the photograph. Even better, you can send the shot to your stone people to remind them about the hood height off the countertop deck.

In a year or two, there may well be more software that will have built-in measurements embedded in the actual photo. For now you have to enter them by hand, but this kind of application is surely not far away!


There are lots of things to think about when you’re measuring, so write them down! Especially the weird stuff – a jog in a foundation, a masonry chase behind a cooktop that goes up into the bedroom upstairs. Measure and take a snapshot with your phone.

Watch out, too, for door and window locations, and their relationship to each other. Part of good design is where openings are, the size of them in proportion to the whole house, how they align to each other and how they relate to the room layout. Measure them all, so that when you’re back at your desk, you’ll know which ones need to change and which can stay.

Ceiling and soffit heights are a big deal, too, so it’s important that you have them measured correctly. If you’re relying on an old set of plans for your existing dimensions, it’s still good to go and spot check that things were indeed built the way they were called out.

Some design professionals use outside companies to produce ‘as-built’ sets of drawings. This can be a much less expensive way of getting a set of plans drawn up that represent what is actually there before your work starts, and many cities and counties require this information these days. So, consider doing this if your own company is based in or near a place where companies offer such services. These firms will probably produce a less expensive and more accurate set of drawings than you can.

If you’re comfortable taking your laptop along to the measure – especially if you draw electronically anyway – this can be a great way to document the measure, lay the job out and save time, as well.


Okay, in short order, and not necessarily in order of importance, here are some things that may help you measure more effectively that have worked for others:

Go measure in the morning, as you’re generally more alert then. Neighborhoods and job sites are often quieter then, too.

Wear the right clothes. Sites are sometimes freezing cold or boiling hot. The jacket that lives in the truck of your car can be a life saver.

Bring food and drink with you. Even if you don’t use it, it can come as a welcome break if the measure goes slowly, or if the weather turns hot or cold on you. You may want to keep bottled water and power bars in your car along with that spare jacket.

Don’t let people interrupt you. You’re on a mission. It’s critical that what you do is correctly measured and noted.

Measure on your own – alone, so you can concentrate – and no distracting clients allowed! Remember, the more focused you are, the more likely that your measurements will be accurate.

Steve Nicholls has been in the building business for over 30 years. In 1982 he founded Mueller Nicholls, now a 50-person company based in Oakland, CA. In addition to performing remodeling and construction work, his firm operates a large cabinet shop, building work for its own projects and for other contractors. Nicholls is a frequent speaker on building industry topics.