Choosing and Using Levels
From the basic bubble model to high-tech laser gadgets, what you need to know to get your house straight and plumb.
Without a tool that shows you level and plumb you can't build a house that works well or looks good — not to mention hang kitchen cabinets or trim out a door. The most basic such tool is a spirit level, which indicates level and plumb with a bubble inside a liquid-filled vial. At the high-tech end are laser levels, which project perfectly level or plumb lines onto a surface. Laser tools are great for layout work, but their fleeting lines aren't much help when you have to physically check the positioning of an object. For that, you need a tool with a bubble vial, which can rest on your workpiece or butt up against it. Only then can you be sure your work is on the level.
What Are The Outer Lines For?
Many spirit-level vials have two sets of lines. When the bubble is centered between the inside pair, it indicates level. But when it touches one of the outer lines, it means the level is pitched at a 2-percent grade (about ¼ inch per foot of run), the slope required for waste lines, sidewalks, and rain gutters to drain properly.
Making Sure A Level Is Level
For a level to do its job, it must be well calibrated. To check a spirit level, simply set it on a flat surface and note where the bubble ends up. Then flip the level end over end. If the tool is accurate, the bubble should fall in exactly the same place. Levels with replaceable vials can be adjusted. Otherwise, throw away the bad level, or at least tape over the offending bubble.
For: Small jobs like hanging pictures and shelves, or working in tight spaces, as when doing plumbing installations.
How it works: Vials, visible from front or top, can show both level and plumb. Some models have magnets for sticking to metal pipes; this one has a built-in light to make reading the bubble easier.
Shown: Stanley lighted 9-inch torpedo level, $14
Where to Find It
FatMax Classic Hardwood 24-in level
Stanley Tools Product Group
New Britain, CT
Basic levels —
43-512 Lighted Magnetic Shockresistant Torpedo Level
Craftsman Circular Level #39891
Specialty Levels —
Tajima Tool Corporation (USA)
Craftsman Magnetic Post Nad pipe level #39633
Laser chalk line
Crosshair 90° Auto Leveling Laser #BDL400S
Black & Decker
Rotational laser #RT-7690-2
Mountain View, CA