The Tale of the Tape

Stanley PowerLock: An Icon Turns 50

Design By Photo by Carolyn Merey

Since 1963, we’ve enjoyed six generations of the Corvette and five versions of the Mustang. Nine different Presidents have called the White House home and we have listened to vinyl give way to tape, CDs and eventually the digital download. We’ve also had 50 years of the Stanley PowerLock tape measure, a product that has clearly stood the test of time and continues to enjoy its reign at the top. To celebrate its golden anniversary, which coincides with Stanley’s own 170th, a series of five collectible renditions will be released throughout the year for handymen with a display shelf to fill (or better yet build), each highlighting an important moment in the product’s everlasting life cycle.

Filed for The Stanley Works in 1963, Robert West’s original design drawing is instantly recognizable. The ergonomically shaped casing, the ridged thumb lock and elongated blade hook are all design cues found on each and every model of tape measure hanging from the pegboards of your local hardware — and for good reason. Stanley’s PowerLock was the first to employ the coilable spring return mechanism and unique single handed slide lock — a feature still in use today — making it the patent-protected form for modern-day mimicry. Fifty years on and the few small improvements that have found their ways within the chrome bodied best-seller are really only variations on the original theme.

A Tool Legacy


My first tape measure was a hand-me-down model of the 12-foot PowerLock. It had seen some rough days before being mounted on my tool belt, and I haven’t been any easier on it since. The tape has had run-ins with acoustical caulking (a.k.a. the “black death”), a couple 2-story drops and countless kicks across a workshop floor, but still locks, adjusts and recoils almost as flawlessly as when my Dad threw it over to me (and I subsequently fumbled it) years ago.

Continuously assembled in New Britain, Connecticut, the new PowerLock ($10) continues the tradition of tough-as-nails construction and incorporation of intuitive features. In the hands of your humble author, the “Life Guard Yellow” slide lock is effortless to set even with a gloved thumb, in the rain, on a muddy construction site, and employs Stanley’s original patented device to allow for easy fine tuning without binding the blade or needing to pop the lock and start over — a godsend when marking out layouts for wall construction. While all other makes and models all clamp down to stop unwanted recoil, their positive lock systems will inevitably put you in a bind when forced to re-adjust.

The one-inch tape blade is mildly curved and easy to read with bold indicators at every foot — and more importantly, every 16 inches — to make framing (or finding a stud to hang the family portrait from) a breeze. The PowerLock also boasts a 7-foot standout ability and “Tru-Zero” end hook, meaning you can accurately tackle most measure twice, cut once situations without the need of extra post-project beer-stealing hands. From the textured D-Shaped chrome casing (that can be opened to install a replacement cartridge) to the Mylar-coated tape itself, it’s easy to see why the PowerLock has remained relatively unchanged and largely adored.