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How To Read Vernier Calipers: A Step-By-Step Guide

The vernier caliper; a precision tool fundamental to the engineering and manufacturing industries. Renowned for its accuracy and reliability, offering the unique capability to measure internal, external and depth dimensions to minute degrees.

So, whether you're a professional mechanical engineer, or an engineering student eager to master the art of precision measurements, our following guide is crafted to equip you with in-depth knowledge and the practical skills needed to read a vernier caliper for measurement.


Let's dive into the world of precise measurement with vernier calipers, enhancing your skills and expanding your toolkit for precision engineering.

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Anatomy of Vernier Calipers

Understanding the anatomy of vernier calipers is the first step towards mastering its use. A vernier caliper comprises 7 parts, each designed to perform specific functions essential for accurate measurement. 

The Anatomy & Parts of Vernier Calipers.

Below, we delve into each key component and its function:

1. Main Scale

The main scale, typically etched onto the caliper's body, is your primary reference point for measurement. It typically features two sets of units: one in millimetres (mm) for metric measurements and another in inches for imperial measurements, ensuring versatility across different measurement standards with the same tool.

2. Vernier Scale

The vernier scale is a smaller, sliding scale that moves along the main scale. It provides the fine measurement increments needed for a precision reading. Using the vernier scale in conjunction with the main scale allows for accuracy down to fractions of a millimetre or thousandths of an inch.

3. Fixed Jaw

The fixed jaw is attached to the caliper's body and serves as the stationary reference point for both external and internal measurements. It's meticulously machined to ensure flatness and precision.

4. Sliding Jaw

The sliding jaw, attached to the vernier scale, works in tandem with the fixed jaw to provide the measuring area. It can clamp around an object's exterior for external measurements or expand into an object for internal measurements.

5. Depth Rod

Emerging from the end of the caliper is the depth rod. It is a thin, elongated piece designed for measuring the depths of holes or recesses. It is also part of the vernier scale and moves in tandem.

6. Locking Screw

The locking screw is a crucial feature that secures the sliding jaw in place once the desired measurement is taken. This ensures the measurement does not change due to accidental movement while reading or recording the measurement.

7. Thumb Wheel

Adjacent to the sliding jaw, some calipers also have a thumb wheel for fine adjustment of the jaw's position. This feature facilitates smooth and precise jaw sliding for accurate measurements in a far more ergonomic fashion also allowing for one-handed use.

Understanding this anatomy is crucial for taking accurate measures with calipers. With this foundation, we can move on to learning how to read a vernier caliper accurately.

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How to Read a Vernier Caliper

Accurately reading a vernier caliper requires a combination of understanding its parts and using a systematic approach. Here’s how you can obtain precise measurements:

1. Zero Calibration

Before measuring, ensure that the caliper is correctly calibrated. Close the jaws fully, and check if the zero marks on the main scale and vernier scale align. If not, you may need to recalibrate or adjust for zero error.

An Image Showing a Pair of Vernier Calipers Set to Zero.

2. Taking the Measurement

For external dimensions, place the object (such as a screw) between the fixed and sliding jaws. For internal dimensions, use the internal measuring jaws. If measuring depth, extend the depth rod into the hole or recess. Gently close the jaws or extend the rod until it snugly fits the dimension you are measuring.

Taking the Measurement of a Screws Threads With a Vernier Caliper.

3. Reading the Main Scale

Note the last visible mark on the main scale that lines up with the vernier scale's zero. This is your main scale reading. In this example, 3 as the zero point of the vernier scale has not yet passed the 4th indicator.

A Zoomed in Image of a Vernier Caliper Showing the Reading of the Main Scale.

4. Reading the Vernier Scale

Next, look for the line on the vernier scale that vertically aligns perfectly with a line on the main scale. There should only be one. This is your vernier scale reading. The divisions on the vernier scale will give you your measurement past the decimal point.

A simple scenario would be if the division indicator marked as 9 on the vernier scale lines up perfectly, that would be 0.9mm. In our scenario, the line that aligns perfectly is the 2nd after 9. Because each division denotes 0.02mm as indicated by the caliper, this would be 0.94mm.

A Zoomed in Image of a Vernier Caliper Showing the Reading of the Vernier Scale.

5. Add Your Main & Vernier Scale Together

Now that you’ve got your main and vernier scale reading, all that’s left to do is add them together to get your final reading.

So, (Main Scale) 3mm + (Vernier Scale) 0.94mm leaves us with a reading of 3.94mm.

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Further Explaining The Vernier Scale

We know it gets a little more complex when you need to find smaller readings that land between the marked indicators. These division indicators give you readings to two decimal places depending on the accuracy (least count) of your caliper. This goes hand in hand with the number of unmarked division indicators between whole numbers.

For example, a least count of 0.02mm, usually written on the vernier scale, indicates that there is 0.02mm between each division marking on the vernier scale. This allows you to measure down to 0.02mm accuracy.

Visually, this will show as 4 markings between the numbered indicators. Essentially, each one of these markings lets you measure 0.02mm, 0.04mm, 0.06mm, 0.08mm values between the numbered indicator markings.

A least count of 0.05mm on the other hand would only give 1 unmarked division indicator between the numbered indications and allow you to only measure down to 0.05mm between whole numbers.

A Diagram Showing How Different Least Counts Can Influence the Number of Divisions on the Vernier Scale.

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The Formula for Reading the Vernier Caliper

While the above guide is a simple way to take a vernier caliper reading, there is logic behind the calculation which is valuable to understand.

The vernier caliper formula below combines the main scale and sequential vernier scale readings to achieve the final vernier caliper measurement by applying the least count. 

That formula is:

Total Measurement = Main Scale Reading + (Sequential Vernier Scale Marking × Least Count)

As we’ve mentioned, the main scale reading is quite straightforward and is simply the very last marking that the zero point of the vernier scale has passed.

For the vernier scale, in this formula, each individual division indicator marking would have its own sequential numerical value, starting from 0 counting upwards, 1, 2, 3 etc.. 

So the 1st unit mark along the scale after 0 would equal 1, 2nd marking 2, 3rd marking 3 and so on, irrelevant of the numbered indicator markings.

Find the marking on the vernier scale that aligns vertically with the main scale and count up to it, making a note of its numerical order value.

The last step is to multiply the sequential value of the marking by the least count of the vernier caliper scale. This will confirm your vernier scale reading. Then simply add the main and vernier scale reading together.

A Diagram Showing How Each Indicator on the Vernier Scale Can Have a Sequentially Numbered Value.Accu Article Highlighter Divider

What Is Least Count?

As we’ve slightly touched upon prior, the least count refers to the smallest measurement that can be obtained with the caliper, often known as its accuracy. It relates to the distance that each individual mark on the vernier scale measures. For simplicity, this number is usually etched or indicated on the vernier scale. 

It is calculated by dividing the value of the smallest measurable main scale unit by the total number of divisions on the vernier scale. That formula is:

Least Count = Value Of Smallest Main Scale Unit / Total Number Of Individual Marks On Vernier Scale

For example, if the units on the main scale are measured down to millimetres and there are 50 markings on the vernier scale, that would be 1mm divided by 50. So, the least count would be 0.02mm meaning each individual mark on the vernier scale measures 0.02mm.

In imperial units, you'll commonly find the main scale measured in 10 divisions of an inch, and with 25 units on the vernier scale would make, 0.025in divided by 25. So, the least count would be 0.001in or 1/1000th of an inch. Similarly, each mark on the vernier scale would measure 0.001in.

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How To Read A Vernier Caliper In MM

To better help understand the formula, let's go step by step through an example of how to read a vernier caliper in mm.

A Zoomed in Image of a Vernier Caliper Scale Set to 7.12mm.

In this example, the last visible mark on the main scale is 7mm, and the vernier scale line that aligns perfectly with a main scale line is the one just after the 1 numbered indicator marking.

Knowing that the least count of the caliper is 0.02mm (your caliper may vary) we can safely say that the 1 marking is 0.1mm plus the one additional marking past it which is the one that lines up vertically, so, 0.12mm.

We can also calculate the reading using the formula, as we know that the marking that lines us is the 6th sequentially and the least count is 0.02mm.

Total Measurement = 7mm + (6 × 0.02mm)

                                = 7mm + 0.12mm

                                = 7.12mm

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How To Read A Vernier Caliper In Inches

Next, let's delve into an example of how to read a vernier caliper in inches as the fractions can sometimes cause added difficulty.

In the same scenario, the last mark for the zero on the vernier scale to pass by is 0.275in. The line that perfectly aligns on the vernier scale to the main scale is 4th sequentially. With a least count of 0.001in the calculation would look like:

Total Measurement = 0.275in + (4 × 0.001in)

                                = 0.275in + 0.004in

                                = 0.279in

Mastering the art of reading a vernier caliper involves understanding the significance of both the main and vernier scale readings and applying the formula accurately. With practice, interpreting these measurements becomes second nature, allowing for precise and reliable dimensioning in various precision engineering tasks.

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Common Mistakes When Reading Calipers, Zero Error, Parallax Error & Misalignment

No one is perfect, however, ensuring accuracy in reading vernier calipers is paramount to avoiding incorrect measurements. Understanding these common mistakes can help to give you a leg up in accuracy as you'll already be aware of what mistakes to avoid.

While this isn't every mistake, we'll cover the most frequent errors encountered when reading calipers: zero error, parallax error and misalignment.

Zero Error

Zero error occurs when the vernier caliper does not read zero when its jaws are fully closed. This can happen due to dirt build-up, wear and tear or improper calibration.

A Zoomed in Image of a Vernier Caliper Scale Showing a Zero Error.

To identify if you have zero error:

  • Close the caliper jaws completely.

  • Observe the alignment of the zero mark on the main scale with the zero mark on the vernier scale.

  • If the marks do not align, there’s a zero error present.

  • Clean any debris from the jaws and re-measure.

If zero error is still present:

  • For a positive zero error, subtract the discrepancy from your measurements.

  • For a negative zero error, add the discrepancy to your measurements.

Alternatively, if the jaws of your caliper are very badly damaged, it might be time to consider investing in a new set.


Parallax Error

The parallax error arises when the scale is viewed from an angle rather than straight on. This can cause the marks on the vernier scale to appear misaligned with the main scale marks, leading to inaccurate readings.

An Image of a Vernier Caliper Scale Showing the Parallax Error.

Avoiding Parallax Error:

  • Ensure your line of sight is perpendicular to the scales when reading measurements.


Misalignment errors can occur when the caliper’s jaws are not correctly aligned with the faces of the object being measured.

An Image of a Vernier Calipers Jaws With an Object Misaligned.

Preventing Misalignment:

  • When measuring external dimensions, ensure the object is parallel to the caliper’s jaws.

  • For internal measurements, make sure the caliper’s jaws are fully inserted and squarely seated. Ensure the sharpened portions of the jaws are not beneath the desired measurement surface, for example, the tips of a thread.

  • For depth measurements, ensure the depth rod is perpendicular to the surface being measured, and not resting on a radius at the measuring surface.

Top Tip From Our Lead Engineer

“When measuring threads, pay special attention to make sure you’re measuring the crests and root of the pitch accurately. Having one jaw on the crest and another on the pitch like the example below can lead to inaccurate measurements.”

Patrick Faulkner

Lead Engineer

An Image of a Vernier Calipers Jaws With Screws Thread Being Incorrectly Measured.

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Reading Vernier Calipers - A Wrap Up

Having ventured through the intricacies of vernier calipers, you now possess a thorough understanding of this indispensable precision tool. From its anatomy and reading measurements to troubleshooting common errors and ensuring accuracy, this guide has equipped you with the knowledge to enhance your measurement techniques significantly.

Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding the Vernier Caliper: Grasping the anatomy of vernier calipers is fundamental.

  • Reading Measurements: Mastery in reading both the main scale and the vernier scale is crucial for achieving high precision in your measurements.

  • Mastering The Formula: Understanding the philosophy of how vernier caliper measurements are calculated.

  • Avoiding Common Mistakes: Awareness of zero error, parallax error and misalignment is essential for accurate readings.

For a deeper overview of metrology, why not have a read of our other related content:

  • "What Is Metrology?" - An overview of metrology as a subject and other related measuring tools.

And there we have it. With your newfound knowledge, the next step is to apply it. Engage with your projects using vernier calipers, experiment with measurements and explore how each of the different jaws of a vernier caliper can aid you in getting accurate measurements for various shapes.

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Q: How is a vernier caliper used to measure?

A: A vernier caliper measures by aligning its jaws with the object's faces and reading the combined values from the main and vernier scales. It can measure external, internal and depth dimensions with high precision.

Q: Can a vernier caliper measure distance?

A: Yes, a vernier caliper can measure short distances between two points with high precision, using its external jaws to span the points and reading the measurement from its scales. Most calipers are limited to between 150 and 300mm in length.

Q: Why use a vernier caliper instead of a ruler?

A: Vernier calipers are preferred over rulers for higher precision measurements, capable of reading to fractions of a millimetre or thousandth of an inch, and they can measure internal and depth dimensions, unlike rulers.

Q: How can you make a vernier caliper more precise?

A: While a vernier caliper will be calibrated precisely when new, as time goes on it can diminish leading to knowing how to make your caliper more precise again. You can do this through regular calibration, maintaining cleanliness, avoiding parallax error by reading the scale directly from above, applying gentle pressure and storing properly to avoid damage.

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