How to use a level

How to use a level and choose the right level for the job

How to use a level and choose the right level for the job

The most important tip in how to use a level is that the more surface a level can rest on, the more accurate the reading will be.

Levels range in size from 2 inches to extension levels that are more than 8 feet long to allow you to pick the best level for the job.

A level that’s right for a project can mean the difference between a job that goes according to plan and time-consuming fixes. The most common levels are “spirit-bubble” levels, in which a bubble of air is captured inside a clear tube filled with tinted solvent or fine oil. When the bubble centers itself in the middle of the vial, the surface is level (on horizontal surfaces), or plumb (on vertical surfaces).

“The key to a good level is in the durability of how it’s constructed,” says Steve Betzler, vice president of sales for Empire Level. “We paid a lot of attention to the design of our True Blue series levels so they would be accurate and durable over time. We developed patented banded vials to improve visibility and molded end-caps to increase durability.”

Levels have been used in construction a long time, but some of the more recent developments make modern levels easier to use, more accurate, more durable and lighter in weight.

selecting a level

The more surface a level can rest on, the more accurate the reading, and levels range in size from 2 inches to extension levels that are more than 8 feet long.

Types and styles

  • Torpedo levels are 6 to 9 inches long with tapered ends. They work well for smaller projects and in tight working areas, but are not recommended for longer surfaces or when more accurate readings are required.
  • I-Beam levels have wide, flat surfaces to provide stability and balance, and a spirit bubble that can read a 45-degree angle. Some can be read from above, which is handy for framing and spot- checking floors.
  • Box levels have flat surface sides and features such as custom hand grips and additional spirit bubbles. Box levels are easier to clean and maintain, making them a popular choice for brick and mortar construction.
  • Combination squares are short levels attached to a 12-inch sliding metal ruler and are designed for quick spot checks of surfaces. The combination straight-edge, ruler and level make them a welcome addition to any toolkit.

The more surface a level can rest on, the more accurate the reading, and levels range in size from 2 inches to extension levels that are more than 8 feet long. “The rule of thumb is to use the longest level you can for the application,” says Betzler. “The most accurate reading you can get from a level is when you span the length of the surface from end to end.”

Level improvements

Manufacturers of levels continue to improve their products to make work on the job site easier and help protect the level. Some of the newer features include:

Padding. Shock absorbing pads help to protect the tool from breakage. Some manufacturers guarantee the accuracy of their levels after a 10-foot drop onto solid concrete.

Color. Although most level vials are filled with a yellow-tinted solution, Empire Level has created the True Blue vial, which uses a blue solution and darker reading bands around the vial. According to the company, the changes make the level easier to read.

Ergonomic design. Many levels have form-fitting handholds, durable rubber grips and wide openings to make using the level easier and more comfortable. – Extra-wide viewing areas. Larger viewing areas make it easier to check the spirit bubble from more angles, increasing accuracy.

Magnets. Rare-earth magnets allow hands-free leveling, are stronger and more durable than regular magnets, and when attached to a level, can offer up to 50 pounds of grip strength.

Whatever the job, selecting the right level can improve the quality of your work.

Common name LengthCommon UsesAdvantages Disadvantages
Torpedo level 6”-12”Small areas
Spot checks
Lightweight
Easy to carry
Easy to use in tight spaces
Less accurate for large projects or longer surfaces
Carpenter level 24”Plumbing
Electrical projects
Gutters
Easy to carry
Easy to use in tight spaces
Not appropriate for framing
Framing level48”Framing
Drywall
Cabinets
Exterior decks
Easy to use
Accurate for most needs
Care must be taken in storing and transport
Door jam level 72” and largerDoor jams
Large windows Floors
Extremely accurate for longer surfacesToo long for many applications

If you drop or damage a level, check to make sure the vials are still reading accurately. Even if you are confident you know how to use a level, be sure to check for accuracy:

To check for accuracy

  • Put the level on a surface that is flat, but not necessarily level. The surface must be free of ridges or imperfections so the level is flush.
  • Mark the position of the level on the surface with a pencil.
  • Position your eyes directly in front of the bubble and note the position of the bubble.
  • Leaving it on the same surface, spin the level 180 degrees, and put it exactly in the same position with your pencil marks.
  • Note the position of the bubble. If the level is true, the bubble should read exactly the same in both positions. If the reading is different, the level is no longer reading accurately.

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