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Which type of builder level to use?



Builder levels buying guide and the history of levels

A level is an invaluable tool to make sure the project you’re working on is flat, but a level can also verify a needed slant.

  • A window sill, garage floor, walkway, or any other place you don’t want a flat surface and standing water, needs a slight angle built in for water runoff.
  • Plumbing needs to have a continuous downward pitch from the fixture drain to the main exit.
  • Gutters need to have a continuous downward pitch from their capped ends to the drainage downspouts.

With so many types and brands of levels, you may wonder “which level should I be using”, and the answer will vary, depending on your property and the amount of projects.

This article will focus on the basic use for each type of level; combined with a comparison list of top level brands and their product line.

I-beam and Box Levels

The differences between an I-Beam (shape of an “I”) and Box level (shape of a box) may be irrelevant for homeowner projects, but we suggest reading articles by level manufacturers Johnson and Kapro for a further understanding of the variances.

Comparing I-beam and Box levels

I-Beam level (left) | Box level (right)

For basic homeowner do-it-yourself projects an economical polycast level with built-in rules is sufficient. You get two tools in one without the hassle of using a separate tape measure and level. The polycast material is lightweight and won’t mar.

On the other side of the equation, a rugged work environment will create abuse that an economical level isn’t designed for, and the extra money is well spent on a brand likeStabila, who builds durable levels with high accuracy and offers a lifetime warranty on their vials.

Features to consider and compare:

  • Milled edges on aluminum levels eliminates any imperfections and creates a true flat edge. Milled edges will scuff and mar (not recommended for leveling projects with finished surfaces).
  • Coated / painted edges are safer on delicate surfaces: tiles, walls, or glass. A level can have one edge milled and one side coated to use for different applications.
  • Built-in lighting for better visibility of vials.
  • Magnetic levels hold a level in place when working with metal material, or attaching to metal fastener heads (compare rare earth magnets to strip magnets for holding strength).
  • Rubber bumpers or extended end caps keep the body of the level from touching the surface – to prevent marring.
  • Electronic Levels have an advanced digital readout incorporated into a Box level for precision leveling and angles.

Tip: The body of the level works great as a straight edge to mark a line.

Torpedo Levels

A Torpedo level, also named toolbox level, is a small level used for light-duty projects.

If your home projects never consist of framing, building or equivalent, a Torpedo level may be the only level you need.

  • Great for hanging pictures, shelving, wall-mounted tv’s, etc., and small enough to store in a drawer or toolbox.
  • More advanced (and expensive) Torpedo levels can have adjustable vials to level at any angle, a v-groove that contours to pipes, and includes strong rare earth magnets…opposed to weaker strip magnets.

What to look for? Torpedo levels with a V-groove can have the flat edge or the V-groove edge magnetized, but not both. Make sure the magnetized edge meets your needs.

Empire em95.10 - 9” TRUE BLUE® UltraView™ LED Magnetic Torpedo Level

Empire em95.10 – 9” TRUE BLUE® UltraView™ LED Magnetic Torpedo Level

Line Levels

Line levels attach to a taught string to find level on large projects (landscaping, concrete flooring, masonary, or leveling ground and footings for a deck).

Johnson has a nice how-to section on the various ways to use a Line level.

Example use:

  1. Put two stakes in the ground
  2. Attach a string between the two stakes (wrap the string around the stakes and tie, or add a nail to the stakes and wrap the string around the nails.
  3. Hang the line level on the string.
  4. Adjust the string to be level, or offset (create water runoff).

Mini / Pocket Levels

A Pocket level is ultra-compact and offers the convenience of fitting in a belt holster (optional) or pocket. Great for tight spaces.

Stabila mini pocket level

Post Levels

Post levels read two sides for quicker and easier leveling of posts and poles.

Mounting includes (varies per manufacturer):

  • Adjustable straps
  • Built-in magnets
  • Nail through built-in nail holes
  • Clip-on
Kapro post levels

Kapro 350 Pipe Level Set (left) | Kapro 341 Mini Postrite Level (right)

Tip: If no strap or mount is included or available, a bungy cord can fully wrap around the post and post level (clasping the end hooks together) for temporary attachment.

Screeding Levels

Screeding levels are longer and larger body levels specifically designed for large doorways, landscaping projects, cement and stone work.

A screeding level can be dragged to smooth and level sand, soil, and concrete.

Sola Screeding Levels

Sola Screeding Levels

Level comparison and buying guide

The following comparison chart focuses on brands of levels with established names and have a major role in level manufacturing.

Note 1: Besides the variety of Stanley levels, the Stanley Black & Decker Company is parent to many tool manufacturers that may have a small choice of levels in their product line.

Note 2: Stabila doesn’t have a dedicated line of Screed levels, but amongst the many uses their Type R300 R-Beam levels can be used as a Screed.

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