No matter how much you rely on laser levels to guide you on your jobsites, there will always be a need to reach for a spirit level and look a bubble in the eye. From plumbing walls to leveling door headers, there's no quicker, easier, or reassuring way to measure. But what should you do when it's time to replace your old mahogany 4-footer or trusty aluminum I-beam level? Shop around. You've never had more materials, features, and designs to choose from, like swing-out hooks, adjustable angle finders, magnetized edges, and shock protection. Here's a look at the newest choices.
Wood. These days, hardwood bodies are made from engineered lumber or other hardwoods instead of solid rainforest mahogany. Johnson's levels are made with 16 plies of hardwood, which the company says makes them more stable and accurate than the traditional solid bodies. Stanley makes theirs from solid Spanish cedar, which is more renewable than mahogany and just as stable, according to the company.
Many masons and concrete contractors still gravitate toward hardwood levels with "old fashioned" vials. Johnson claims its glass-covered vials remain clearer longer than the new acrylic types when exposed to cement and mortar cleanup. Stanley's wood levels have impact-resistant, glass-covered vials, as well. Aluminum level companies claim that their acrylic vials will withstand cement and mortar, too.
Aluminum box beams. The biggest revolution to hit spirit levels in a long time is the development of aluminum box beam bodies in screaming neon colors with solid acrylic vials. Until recently, Stabila, Master-Level, and Levelution formed the core of the U.S. aluminum box beam market. Johnson joins this group with new products that soon will be available nationwide.
Vials. Box beam levels are tough. The bodies' "beam" construction contributes strength and stability, but the acrylic vials make all the difference. Each vial is machined from a single piece of solid acrylic block instead of the glass or injection-molded plastic used on traditional models. The vials' barrel shape makes them read accurately no matter how you hold the level. The acrylic is close to unbreakable and survives falls, drops, and careless workers without affecting accuracy. But be careful, manufacturers claim these tools are tough, but not idiot-proof.
Acrylic vials come in adjustable and fixed formats. Stabila and Johnson swear by fixed vials. Levelution and Master-Level stand firm on adjustable vials. If you manage to break an adjustable vial, you can replace it and you're not forced to replace the entire level. Considering the tools' cost, that's attractive.
Adjustable-vial companies also maintain that fixed-vial systems directly contact the aluminum in their level bodies, which they say moves four times more than the acrylic during temperature-induced expansion and contraction. The difference, they say, can affect the tools' accuracy. Because adjustable vials "float" independently of the level body, they aren't subject to this pressure, these companies claim. Master-Level says "floating" vials provide even more protection if the tool is dropped.
Stabila and Johnson say there's no temperature problem affecting fixed vials' accuracy, and that the vials are plenty tough. They also say it's difficult to accurately adjust vials, and that moving them around will affect your readings. If you break one of your fixed vials, it'll cost you a new level. It's a wormdrive vs. sidewinder kind of debate.
Levels for the Trades
Framers. Box-beam manufacturers are rolling out a variety of trade-specific designs. Extending levels that help framers plumb tall walls are especially notable. Master-Level and Levelution use special components to make longer levels for plumbing 8-foot doors or 12-foot walls. Master-Level uses a one-foot long combiner accessory; Levelution joins its components at the ends to form a long, rigid level that doesn't require extra pieces. No matter how long you extend it, the tool easily breaks down into a 4-foot length to store in your truck. Another cool feature is Levelution's keyed insert. Use it to convert your level from a measuring device into a straight edge for marking or use as a saw guide.
Stabila introduced two great new extending framers' levels called Plate Levels that extend a 6-foot body out to 10 feet, and a 7-foot body out to 12 feet. These levels have metal stand-offs, and are marked with scales on the extension rails for quick adjustments. They also come with a lifetime warranty that helps balance the higher initial cost.
Door hangers. Stabila makes a set of levels for door hangers that includes a 78-inch level that magnetically grabs door hinges, and a 32-inch header level. Master-Level's model employs springs that wedge the level between the floor and head jamb on the hinge side, which allows you to move the jamb without moving the level. Johnson has a 78-inch jam level. Levelution's System Level incorporates a T-square accessory so you can plumb the jam and level the header in one move. Another cool thing is that you can insert "tacks" into keyed inserts that'll stick your level to a wooden jam.
Masons. Stabila has introduced a new aluminum level especially for masons that's designed to be hit with a trowel. Dead-blow bumpers on the top of the level absorb trowel hits through the level to the work surface-without affecting the vials. The company claims its tough acrylic vials won't leak or fog when it's time for clean-up. Wood manufacturers will argue though, that lime contained in cement corrodes exposed aluminum on box beam and I-beam levels.
Six New Levels
The 10-inch Stealth torpedo level from Johnson Level features the PlumbScope top-reading plumb vial and V-grooved rare earth magnets that are five times stronger than strip magnets. The unit is crafted with a high-strength, glass-filled polymer frame and SurroundView vials with white surrounds for easier viewing. The tool, which comes in bright orange, sells for $24. For more information, contact Johnson Level, 262-242-1161; www.johnsonlevel.com
Stanley's FatMax Brassbound Hardwood level features a hardwood body bound in brass with brass-reinforced rubber end caps. The level vials include thicker glass covers for more impact resistance and hermetically sealed bezels that repel moisture, says the firm. The 24-inch unit sells for $35 and the 48-inch unit, which includes a retractable steel hinged hook, sells for $50. For more information, contact Stanley, 800-782-6539; www.stanleyworks.com
New from Klein Tools, the Torpedo Level features a rare earth magnet base that is five times stronger than strip magnets. The level features a durable die-cast aluminum frame and ABS panels for a lighter weight and comfortable grip. The unit features three acrylic vials framed with a glow-in-the-dark material for easier viewing in dimly lit areas. The level sells for $19.49. For more information, contact Klein Tools, 800-553-4676; www.kleintools.com
Designed for fast and accurate wall installations with plumb leveling from plate to plate, Stabila's plate level includes a plumb vial permanently positioned 66-1/2 inches off the floor that won't slide out of view and a high visibility scale on both sides of the extension rail. Metal stand-offs are 1/4-inch thick and won't break off in cold weather. The 6-to-10-foot model sells for $288; the 7-to-12-foot unit sells for $327. For more information, contact Stabila, 800-869-7460; www.stabila.com
The Levelution PC1 comes in nine lengths: 12, 16, 24, 32, 36, 48, 72, 78, and 96 inches. Keyed inserts allow accessories to be added easily, including a T-square and rafter hook. The unit is crafted with heavy-duty aircraft-grade aluminum with super-duty end caps. The levels range in price from $30 to $153. For more information, contact Levelution, 888-475-3835; www.levelution.com
Designed to be hit with a trowel, Stabila's type 187K mason's level features the Dead Blow Shield that protects the unit's frame and transfers the impact energy through the level to the work surface, the maker says. The tool includes an epoxy-locked vial system that never needs adjusting and a top-reading unbridged horizontal vial for lower course work. The unit is available in six lengths ranging in price from $37 to $97. For more information, contact Stabila, 800-869-7460; www.stabila.com
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