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From the basic bubble model to high-tech laser gadgets, what you need to know to get your house straight and plumb

Leveling With Levels

Photo by Laura Johansen

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.


Photo by Laura Johansen

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 magnetic torpedo level; about $9;


Photo by Laura Johansen

For: Leveling an appliance or piece of furniture.

How it works: Level rests on piece; adjust legs or sides of piece until bubble is centered.

Shown: Sears Craftsman circular level; about $1.50;

2-Foot I-Beam

Photo by Laura Johansen

For: General-purpose leveling—hanging pictures and shelves, installing cabinets and rain gutters, or plumbing posts. Too short for decks, walls, trim, or concrete slabs.

How it works: Lightweight level butts against objects horizontally or vertically, with vials for level and plumb.

Shown: Stanley 24-inch FatMax level; about $22;


Photo by Laura Johansen

For: Precision carpentry across a long expanse, as when installing cabinets, trim, doors, or floors. Plastic models are suitable for rougher work on gutters, drains, concrete slabs, and masonry walls.

How it works: Lengthy tool can span long distances, unaffected by bumps and dips. Curved vials are more accurate, but only the bottom one in the pair indicates level at any given time.

Shown: Crick Tool Co. 48-inch wood level; about $120;

Plumb Bob

Photo by Laura Johansen

For: Finding a point vertically above or below another point, as when positioning columns, building stairs or decks, or aligning framing.

How it works: By gravity—once fixed to a spot, the sharp-pointed weight hangs perfectly plumb on the string. This one attaches to the wall with a built-in punch pin.

Shown: Tajima Plumb-Rite; about $40;

Post Level

Photo by Laura Johansen

For: Setting posts and columns plumb.

How it works: Sides wrap around corner of post and show level in two directions, denoting plumb; magnetic models are good for positioning plumbing waste lines.

Shown: Sears Craftsman post level; about $5;

Laser Chalk Line

Photo by Laura Johansen

For: Establishing a level reference line for trim, cabinets, tile, shelves, or pictures.

How it works: Held up to a wall or fixed in place, tool projects level or plumb laser lines (or both); some units are self-leveling, and some include a stud finder.

Shown: Black & Decker Crosshair laser level; about $58;

Rotating Laser Level

Photo by Laura Johansen

For: Large renovation projects that include laying out forms, installing floors or wainscoting, building walls plumb and square, or sloping walks, driveways, or gutters.

How it works: Self-leveling turret unit sits on floor or on tripod and shoots two rotating laser beams, one vertical and the other horizontal.

Shown: Porter-Cable rotational level from Robotoolz; about $600;

What Are The Outer Lines For?

Photo by Laura Johansen

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.