"A bad worker quarrels with his tools"

Posted: Sep 10, 2009
Updated: Nov 22, 1009 - Added note on removing clip boss

Review: Big Johnson Measuring Tape

Stupid name, but quite possibly the best measuring tape ever!

Big News on the Big Johnson

When you read this review, you'll see that I was a huge fan of these measuring tapes despite their incredibly stupid name. But then they disappeared from the market. After a lot of digging, I found the actual design was from a UK-based company called Fisco. The Big Johnson was a re-branding of their Big T model. The Big T was technically available from Sears and K-Mart, but they were rarely if ever in stock.

Well, lo and behold, the Fisco Big T has recently become available from several sellers on Amazon. You can get them in various lengths and widths, as well as standard, metric, and mixed markings.

Click here to see the full list of Fisco Big T Tape Measure models on Amazon

The Original review

(click any image to see a larger version)

Over the last 40 or so years, I've used a lot of different measuring tapes. Almost all of them have irritated me in one way or another. Others were pretty good, but nothing has ever pleased me the way the new Big Johnson tape has.

First of all, yes, it has a childish name. It's one of the few things that I don't like about it and almost made me not buy it.

But, oh, there are so many thing to love about this tape. I've lived with it for a couple weeks now, using it quite a bit every day. The first few days were a constant "oh, cool!" discovery of little features that aren't even listed on the packaging.

Let's start with the tape itself. It's 3/4" wide, which I find to be perfect. 1/2" and 3/8" tapes are just a tad too flimsy. 1" tapes are really stiff and have excellent standout, but the cases on them are too bulky to fit comfortably in a tool apron (especially the Fat Max line). The 3/4" tape on the Big Johnson has decent standout of 4-5' and feels substantial while keeping the case slim enough to nestle into a pocket.

While the case thickness (thinness, actually) is great, I wish it were just a touch smaller in width and height. Probably a 12' version would be perfect, but it appears that the 16' version is all they currently make (some sources reference 25' and 30' versions but don't sell them).

Another really nice touch is the tape finish. Instead of a shiny paint, they've used a matte finish which I've never seen before. I can't explain why, but it seems to make the tape easier to read.

The hook is also well built. First of all, it's a high-impact plastic instead of metal, which means it won't bend if dropped. A bent hook means a tape will give an incorrect measurment and a hook bent off to one side will give different results depending on which side of the blade you use. The hook on the Big Johnson tape would be impossible to bend and should withstand an impact that would mangle a metal hook. If it breaks, well, you'd know it, no problems caused by an unnoticed bent hook.

The hook also has a slightly soft, rubbery feel. Not spongy, that would throw off your readings. But just enough tack to "stick" in place and not slide off to the side. I never realized how helpful this is until I experienced it.

The connecting arm of the hook is clear plastic and narrower than the tape, both of which make the first 1.5 inches just as easy to read as the rest of the tape. The connection is substantial and looks like it will stand up to use better than the typical little rivets used on other tapes. The arm also slips in and out to adjust for inside and outside measurements.

Other than wishing it were slightly smaller, I love the case. It has a nice shape and feels good to hold. The lock is a little different than most tapes, it's a rocker lock. Instead of sliding a button back and forth, you push in the front end with your thumb to hold or lock and push the back end with the palm of your hand to release. Takes a little getting used to, but works well.

The case has a black, rubbery cover. It feels nice in the hand, but it has a really useful side effect. If you hook the tape and pull it out along the wood, the rubber has just enough friction (like the hook) to keep it from sliding if you set it down. No need to set the lock! This is incredibly nice and the spring tension keeps the hook seated on the edge.

Notice the front fangs? Well, that's what I call them. When you're measuring something with an edge, you can just put the bottom of the case against the edge and the fangs show you the correct measurement. Not super precise, but accurate within a 64th. You can do this with any tape, but it's never really clear exactly where the front edge of the case is on the tape. With the fangs, it's very obvious.

Also notice the dual marking system, where 35" is also marked as 2'-11". This has been far more useful that I thought it would be.

The fangs also work in conjuction with another cool feature. You've all seen the note on the bottom edge of cases that say something like "+3 inches". The idea here is that you can push the hook and the back of the case against the inside of an opening and read the tape, then add the case length. Problem is, it's tough to know if you have the right part of the case against the inside. On some tapes, it's the bottom edge. On others, it's the middle. On many, it's just not clear. On the Big Johnson, there's a tab that flips down out of the back to give you a clear, precise point. When you've got it in place, just read the fangs and add 4 inches!

One thing that many people seem to like is the belt clip. I tried it out and it does work very well, easy to remove the tape (you just push a tab with your thumb) yet it's firmly locked in place. However, I don't use it, I just keep the tape in my tool apron's front pocket. One thing I want to figure out is how to remove the side boss that locks into the clip, getting rid of it would make the tape even slimmer. UPDATE: There is no way to "remove" the boss, it's integral to the case. However, with some judicious work with a pair of pliers and a razor managed to break/trim it off.

As you can tell, I like the Big Johnson 16' Measuring Tape a lot, it's a definite Nerd's Choice. Yes, it's expensive as measuring tapes go, but on the other hand it was only $17. Highly recommended.

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