Q&A / 

Levels – Types and Use Tips

DEAR TIM: I want to purchase a few surprise gifts for my boyfriend who's a tool freak. I've snooped around his workshop and his levels are in bad shape, some of the vials are broken and fogged. I believe he'll enjoy new levels. What are my options, what levels will last, and what have you had the best luck with? Finally, are there levels you don't like and why? Jeanie F., Portland, ME

DEAR JEANIE: You're a sweetheart for thinking of tools as a gift. Many men truly appreciate them, as well as women! I can tell you that each time I get a new tool, my eyes light up like it's Christmas morning.

Here's a 2-foot level that's made from sustainable bamboo. It's light, durable and can last for generations if cared for. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

Here's a 2-foot level that's made from sustainable bamboo. It's light, durable and can last for generations if cared for. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

Carpenters levels are available in all sizes, types, colors, and materials. I've had just about every type of level you can imagine, and you bet I've got my tried and true favorites.

If you go to brick and mortar stores to see levels, you should get a pretty good cross section of what's available. But to really see what's out there, you need to go online. There you'll discover a few companies as you search online that not only specialize in carpenter levels, they practically own the franchise.

As you go on your treasure hunt, you'll discover carpenter levels are available in three common sizes: 2, 4 and 6-foot lengths. The most common being the 2 and 4-foot lengths. I do have a long 6-foot level, but I primarily use it as a straightedge to level really long countertops. It's my least-used level. By far, I use my 4-foot levels the most.

As you look at all the eye-candy levels, you'll soon discover they're made from plastic, aluminum, wood, and even bamboo. I've got every type of level that you can imagine, and I have to say I'm very partial to my wood levels and the solid aluminum box levels I have. I had an aluminum box level that had lots of cutouts in it to lighten it, but I discovered that when it was dropped a few times the level became unreliable.

My old wood carpenter levels are made from mahogany. It's a fine-grained lumber that is ideal for wood levels. The issue with wood levels is they need to be treated with care. Wood and water don't always play nicely together, so that means if your boyfriend is going to use the level all the time in a wet environment, you may want to consider solid aluminum levels.

The other option is to make sure he follows the directions with wood levels keeping them as dry as possible. It's very important to keep wood levels oiled if the finish wears off. Never store them in a truck cab or cabinet where the sun can heat up the space turning it into a sauna. Extreme heat and wet wood levels are a recipe for disaster.

That being said, many a time I've got my trusty wood level wet and never had a problem. I simply carried an old terry-clothed towel with me to dry it off. I'd then bring it home at the end of the day and allow it to dry inside my house at normal room temperature. Don't lean wood levels against a wall. Always hang them in the shade on a nail using the handy hole you'll discover at each end of the level.

I just started using an attractive bamboo level. I'm tempted to call it a wood level, but bamboo is not wood, it's technically a grass. This level is made from laminated strips of bamboo, and then machined to be perfectly flat. It's extremely handsome. The four long corner edges have inset aluminum so that it's extremely durable.

I love the solid acrylic level vials as it's nearly impossible to break them. The rubber end caps are also very nice in case you do drop the level and it hits either end.

You may want to look for levels that have replaceable level vials. Some great companies offer a lifetime free vial replacement policy. If you break a vial, you can get one for free and snap it in place. Your level works just like new as soon as you install the new vial.

One thing you should keep in mind as you shop is the price. You'll quickly discover there's a wide range of pricing. Believe me, the levels that are low priced are priced that way for a reason. Typically they have cheaper materials, are not as accurate and they'll probably deliver only short-term performance. If you want a great gift for your boyfriend, and one that keeps on giving for generations, please purchase a level that's at the top end of the price structure. You'll never regret it.

Years ago, I purchased a digital level. These are still available. At the time, it was a very savvy tool to have as it had an LCD display that gave you a readout in numbers, not a liquid-filled vial with a bubble. Not only did it tell you when something was level, it could also produce the degrees of tilt in case you wanted to know what the angle of slope was of a pipe, roof or ramp.

However, I soon stopped using the level on my jobs. The reason was that it was TOO accurate. I made the mistake one day of pulling it out in front of a customer that was a perfectionist. When this woman saw that the level read 0.01, she said, "It looks like you need to get it right before I pay you." I got the countertop level, but believe me, 0.01 is far closer to level that you getting a bubble in a vial centered between two lines!

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