The 10 Best Levels
10. Stanley 42-324 I-Beam
- measuring scale printed on surface
- shock-absorbing rubber caps
- not suitable for professional use
|Rating||3.8 / 5.0|
9. Empire EM71.8 Professional
- useful magnetic edge
- reading windows on top
- magnets may fall off
|Rating||3.5 / 5.0|
8. DeWalt DWHT43003 Torpedo
- rotating vial for pitch measurements
- magnified center vial
- end caps fall off easily
|Rating||3.9 / 5.0|
7. Stabila Magnetic Pocket Pro V2
- fit in pocket or included holster
- weigh just a few ounces
- best for home diyers
|Rating||3.6 / 5.0|
6. Stanley FatMax 43-572
- doesn't flex under pressure
- center maxedge vial
- readings are not always consistent
|Rating||4.1 / 5.0|
5. Qooltek Multipurpose
- perfect for hanging cabinets
- handy 6 inch side ruler
- laser is difficult to see in sun
|Rating||4.4 / 5.0|
4. Black & Decker BDSL10
- gecko grip friction pads
- backed by a 2-year limited warranty
- doesn't have metric measurements
|Rating||3.8 / 5.0|
3. Irwin Tools 1000 I-beam
- bright blue finish
- includes a rotating dial
- slim lightweight design
|Rating||4.4 / 5.0|
2. Swanson SVT200 9-Inch Savage
- 0 and 90 degree vials
- neodymium v-grooved magnets
- good for demanding concrete work
|Rating||4.7 / 5.0|
1. Stabila 37816 Bx Beam Set
- top-mounted vials
- oversized rubber handholds
- spring steel hairline indicators
|Rating||4.6 / 5.0|
A Brief History Of The Level
Whether you're a carpenter, an interior decorator, or an installation artist, If you want to get things straight, you need to use a level. These humble, handy devices use the basic physical attributes of gravity and buoyancy to help you identify angles quickly and accurately. And as simple as the properties at play within a level may be, there's more than meets the eye with these time honored tools, both in terms of function and history.
Let's take a step back to a time before builders and DIY hobbyists alike could buy a cheap, reliable level any time they pleased.
Early leveling devices were used to help builders erect everything from the pyramids at Giza to the Parthenon to the Coliseum and beyond. A simple level can be devised using a weighted object suspended below a carefully measured tripod, with the tilt of the string checked to establish a 90 degree angle (or to observe a lack thereof). Even an act so simple as placing a sphere on a flat surface can help to check how level it may or may not be, and determine the direction of tilt should it exist.
The first known level approximating the modern design was not invented until sometime in the mid 17th Century, likely in the year 1661. That was the year in which the letters of French inventor, scientist, cartographer, and author Melchisédech Thévenot first make mention of his new device, an early but functional bubble level. It took several decades for use of Thévenot's invention to become widespread, but by the early 1700s, levels were in wide enough use that we still have many surviving examples of these early generations of the now ubiquitous tool.
The proper name of the device usually just called a level is in the fact spirit level. This name comes from the fact that the liquid within the level's vial (that's the little glass tube with the green liquid and the bubble, for the record) is usually an alcohol such as ethanol or some other similar spirit. A spirit has a wider temperature range as a liquid than does water, thus is less susceptible to the expansion issues potentially caused by water as it freezes into its sold form, aka ice. This helps to avoid broken vials even when the level is used in freezing temperatures.
Projects That Call For Level Usage
If you're trying to hang a single framed picture in your home, chances are that you can manage to get it looking ostensibly parallel to the ground without use of a level. However, if you're hanging multiple photos or paintings (or other pieces of media) in line with each other, then the eye will clearly be able to determine which are off level by contrasting the various frames. Hanging multiple pictures precisely, therefore, calls for a level.
As for work in the construction field, there is no option except for precision: safety and the longevity of a building or home absolutely depend on it. Most people in the professional builder's world will have at least the occasional need to use a level. While a plumber or an electrician may get away with only occasional level usage, their work being largely tucked away behind walls and in ceilings and floors, after all, other workers will use a level almost every hour of every day of the work week.
Masons and framers in particular will see plenty of demand for a level in their work, as each angle -- be it of a layer of brick or of the beams running the length of a roof -- must be precise. That's so because all subsequent work (the next layer of bricks, for example, or the lumber attached to the frame of the roof) depends on previous precision for its own accuracy.
If you have ever seen a crew working in the middle of a city street or standing in a construction site peering through a device perched atop a tripod, you have watched people using an advanced level for the purposes of surveying. In fact, this particular surveying technique is called leveling, and it involves using an optical viewing instrument paired with a level and a distant level staff, which is a rod held upright and marked with a numerical legend. The same basic level design devised in 17th Century France still informs the layout of the modern roadway or the foundation of a skyscraper.
Features To Look For In Your Level
For certain projects, you simply must treat yourself to a laser level. Projects like placing tile, planning a long wall of hanging pictures aligned on the same axis, or other such projects where the end results will spread out over a distance and will be highly visible are made much easier thanks to that reliably straight beam cast by your level.
Most levels feature two different vials that are set perpendicular to one another, and for most people these two vials are sufficient. One allows for easy establishment of properly upright positioning, while the other allows for proper alignment horizontal to the ground. However, if your work (or at least the project at hand) calls for precise angles that are anything other than 180 or 90 degrees in orientation, look for a level with vials set at angles to help you ensure your work remains precise. (Arguably, the next most important angle is the 45 degree. Some fine levels also feature vials set at 30 degrees.)
A level with a good built in magnet can help keep your hands free while you work, helping you get the job done even when you're working alone. Some levels also feature other mounting options, such as a an adjustable screw that can used to attach the level to a pipe, beam, or piece of framing lumber as you position and then lock the material permanently in place. These locking features are great for working with non magnetic materials.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are also times when you will want a level that is decidedly non magnetic. From the metal studs used to hold up sheets of drywall in certain types of construction to the area under a sink filled with pipes to a project where the object you are trying to position is itself made from a metal that attracts magnets, a magnetized level can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a boon.
Non magnetic levels can more deftly and accurately be placed near iron rich metals without pulling themselves out of alignment due to the force of attraction. And they can more easily be moved out of the way once it's time to start drilling, hammering, or sinking a screw.