The Lowdown on Levels
We learned years ago as young apprentice carpenters that a strong back, ambition and lots of energy were necessary ingredients to survive in this grueling trade and to go on to become general contractors. We also learned early on that our tools were of equal or greater importance. As is the case with any labor-intense industry, time is money and having the right tools – well maintained – makes a job easier, safer and more expedient.
Excepting tools for specialized tasks, our basic battery of tools has remained the same for the nearly thirty years that we have been in construction. Properly weighted framing and finish hammers, a circular saw, hand saws, a framing square, a combination square, nail sets, a plumb bob, a chalk line, a tape measure and a carpenter’s level – including several variations of many of these tools.
Although the contents of our toolbox haven’t changed much over the years, the tools don’t look much like the ones we began with. Today’s tools have evolved into highly engineered objects that act as extensions of one’s anatomy. They are lighter, more powerful and more ergonomically sensitive. This translates into better productivity, less operator wear and tear in the form of muscle and joint pain, and superior results. And that’s important whether you’re a pro or do-it-yourselfer!
If you use a hammer often, you know that it can be the source of muscle and joint pain in your hand, arm, elbow and/or shoulder. In an effort to reduce this condition, manufacturers are turning out a new generation of hammers that are lighter with a more comfortable grip. Some hammers even have a state-of-the-art anti-vibration feature that can help prevent user injury.
If you think hammers have come a long way, you’ll be amazed by the improvements in leveling tools. A level is among our most favorite tools. We like our work to be straight, plumb (true vertical) and level. We can think of a million uses for a level from building a fence to installing chair rail, wainscot or other trim to hanging pictures.
Levels have traditionally been available in a host of shapes and sizes depending upon the job. The most prevalent style is the “carpenter’s level.” It comes in various lengths and has two or more fluid filled vials that are used to establish plumb and level. It is often called a “bubble level” — when the bubble in the fluid-filled vial is situated between lines on the vial the object is plumb or level.
There are several variations of the carpenter’s level that are used according to the task. A “torpedo level” is a short level (about a foot long) that is small and easy to handle. It is typically used for jobs where space is tight and where a longer level isn’t required as with leveling a cabinet door or a small picture frame.
A “line level” is yet another means of determining level. It attaches to a string line that is held taught. It is small, convenient and easy to use. The line level is especially suited for fence building and other outdoor projects. However, be forewarned that it will become increasingly less accurate as the length of the string increases and begins to sag.
And let’s not forget the oldest of all levels – the water level. It consists of a clear plastic hose filled with water. This style of level is especially useful for establishing level between two distant points such as when setting forms for a foundation. It has all but been replaced by more sophisticated means of establishing level such as a transit or builder’s level.
As we mentioned earlier, a level isn’t just for leveling a surface. It is also used for establishing plumb – a straight vertical line. This is especially useful when installing a door, paneling, wallpaper or other finishes that require a plumb line.
Another means of establishing plumb is by using a nifty tool called a “plumb bob.” It consists simply of a weight with a point at one end that is attached to a string. The origin of the string can be high on a wall or from a point on the ceiling, while the point at the end of the weight dangles slightly above the surface of the floor. A plumb bob is an excellent means of transferring a point from a ceiling to the floor below and vice versa.
Another handy tool that we keep in our tool pouches that can also be used as a plumb bob is a “chalk line” or “snap line.” As its name implies, it is used primarily for transferring a straight line onto a surface with chalk as the medium. Here’s how is works – the chalk box consists of a plastic or metal container filled with pigmented chalk. String is wound on a reel completely enveloped by the chalk. When the string is extended and held taught from one point to another the line is lifted and “snaps” back against the surface leaving a straight line. This is useful in installing floor tile, wallpaper, and chair rail – anything that requires a straight line.
Now, thanks to technology, you can have the best of all worlds. A job that previously took two or more tools can now be performed with one tool that is a fraction of the size and significantly more accurate. For example, previously when installing wainscot, chair rail and/or wallpaper, it took a level, a plumb bob, and a chalk line. Now you can have all three in one with a laser level — also known as a laser line generator. This nifty tool can cast a continuous straight line on any surface without leaving a mark.
Laser technology has been around for a while, but in recent years has become more compact, affordable and with multiple functions. Some models have a specially designed laser that will skip over moldings and uneven surfaces. So, if you are installing wallpaper above an existing chair rail, just place laser line generator on the floor, use the bubble to establish plumb and watch the laser line jump right over the molding to cast a plumb line where you need it with no permanent marks.
Think you’ve seen it all? One manufacturer has come up with a laser line generator that has spring-loaded pushpins that will allow you to temporarily anchor the device to wallboard or plaster to align objects with a single hand. This tool is as close as it gets to using a television remote control when making home improvements.
Now you have no excuse for crooked pictures, out of plumb paneling or wavy wallpaper. Enjoy!