Level, meaning perfectly horizontal. Plumb, meaning perfectly vertical. These are two words you hear a lot in construction, and they’re vital to a quality, finished product in everything from rough framing to fine finish work. A single tool – technically called a spirit level, better known simply as a level – is the workhorse in the industry for checking plumb and level, and a good spirit level belongs in every toolbox.
When shopping for a level, you’ll find several different styles, materials, lengths, features, and price ranges. Fortunately, levels are not terribly expensive and a good one will last you a lifetime with proper care. By the same token, a bad one will cause you no end of grief, so shop for quality.
When choosing a level, the design and the material are two of the most important things to look for. At the low end, you’ll find simple I-beam designs – they look like an “I” when viewed from the end – that are made of hard plastic. Better quality levels are made of machined aluminum or hardwood bound with brass, and have a more stable, box design that resists warping and twisting. Also, look for a level with a lifetime warranty on the vials.
DIFFERENT LEVELS, DIFFERENT USES
There are actually several types of spirit levels on the market. All perform the same basic function of checking plumb and level, but different designs have evolved over the years to meet the specific needs of various construction trades:
- Carpenter’s Level: Known by several different names, including framing level, box level, trim level and others, the carpenter’s level is the most universal of the level types, and is the first – and perhaps the only – one you’ll want to buy. Carpenter’s levels come in different lengths, from 16 inches to 96 inches, with prices for top-quality levels ranging from about $25 to $150. For most general construction uses, a 24-inch and a 48-inch will be plenty, and you can consider adding a 72-inch as the need arises.
- Torpedo Level: Torpedo levels are named for their design, which tapers in at each end. They are the shortest of the levels, ranging from 6 to 10 inches long, and range in price from $10 to $20.
- Masonry Levels: Similar in design and price to a standard carpenter’s level, masonry levels are designed to be a little more rugged for continual use around bricks, blocks, and mortar, and are also designed for repeated cleaning with a brush and water. Some types have a reinforced edge that can be tapped with a trowel or hammer while the level is lying on the bricks, which simplifies checking and adjusting the courses of masonry as the work proceeds.
- Door-Hanging Levels: These levels can be used for a number of general construction tasks, but they’re designed primarily for the installation of doorframes. Door-hanging levels are long enough to span the entire length of a standard jamb leg, and are sometimes sold in a set of two – one for the vertical side jamb and a shorter one for the horizontal head jamb. To hold the level in place while you’re shimming and securing the jamb, some types have built-in magnets that hold the level to the hinges, while others have an expandable end that wedges the level in place between the floor and top of the frame.
- Magnetic Levels: Similar to a standard carpenter’s level in size and price, but with built-in magnets for use with metal framing, pipe installation, and other applications where you are checking plumb and level on anything metallic.
- Tile-Installation Levels: This type of level has a different design that is specifically suited for installing ceramic tile, marble and other similar materials. The ends taper down to allow the level to fit under cabinet toekicks, behind fixtures, and in similar limited-clearance applications, and are sturdy enough to allow for repeated tapping with a hammer as the tiles are leveled into place. They are also designed for easy cleaning with a brush and water. Tile-installation levels range in size from 10 inches to 72 inches, and from around $25 to $75.
- Electronic Levels: Electronic levels combine standard spirit vials with a digital readout screen for increased accuracy. In addition to reading plumb and level, electronic levels will also give readouts in degrees of slope or percentage of slope, which is very useful for laying drain lines, checking roof pitch, or any other application that requires accurately reading a slope, as opposed to a horizontal or vertical plane.
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