Tools

Buying Guide: Levels

The act of “eyeballing” may work when hanging a single picture, but you’ll want a more accurate means of leveling for any other project that needs to be level.

Not only is a level is an invaluable tool to make sure the project you’re working on is flat, but a level can verify a needed pitch, too.

  • A window sill, garage floor, walkway, or any other place you don’t want a flat surface and standing water, needs a pitch 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.

That’s the generic overview. Now we’ll deal with the more specific questions of “which level to use… and where?”

Common Levels

A Torpedo, I-Beam and Box level have a multitude of uses and will be the most common go-to tool for leveling.

What to look for (homeowner): An economical level with horizontal and vertical (plumb) vials is fine for simple tasks: hanging a picture, leveling furniture or shelving. The better build quality and advanced features of premium levels will go unnoticed for light-duty projects. Although, I’m guilty of being drawn to the better engineering and quality of premium tools, even though they can be overkill for the intended use.

What to look for (contractor / tradesman): A contractor and tradesman needs their levels to withstand the abuses of a daily work environment – along with having level features specific to the trade for increased accuracy and efficiency. E.g., Stabila manufacturers top-quality levels with a focus on strong build quality, sustained accuracy, and offers a lifetime warranty on their vials.

Torpedo Levels

A Torpedo level – or named a toolbox level – is a convenient size (8-12″) level for the most popular projects, and may be the only level a homeowner needs.

Level: pictures, shelving, wall-mounted tv’s, appliances, thermostats, furniture, hardware, switch covers, air return grilles, and more.

What to look for:

  • Full Plastic Body – A plastic body is lightweight, won’t mar surfaces, and reduces the risk of damaging a floor, counter, etc., if it falls. Most plastic levels are based on economy, and that’s fine for light-duty homeowner use, but the inferior feel compared to metal levels can create dissatisfaction. Check out the Sola PH 22 and Sola PT 25 for premium full plastic levels.
  • Die Cast – A die cast aluminum level benefits from: the ability to create complex shapes with close tolerances, durability, dimensionally stability, corrosion resistance, and monolithic (the single structure of the body doesn’t rely on multiple pieces that need to be properly assembled, aligned, and sealed).
  • V-groove – A V-groove contours to pipes and also works as a handy slot when using with a steel rule for layout and measuring.
  • Better Readability – The vials can be enhanced for better visibility with an LED light, magnifying lens, and high-contrast vials.
  • Acrylic Block Vials – Solid Acrylic Block Vials are formed by machining a vial into a solid block of acrylic; creating a stronger vial than tube vials.
  • Adjustable Angle Vial – An adjustable angle vial has incremental angle markings and allows the vial to rotate. An invaluable feature when wanting a precise angle.
  • Magnetic – Rare earth magnets give maximum holding strength… opposed to levels with weaker strip magnets. Note: Torpedo levels can have the flat edge or the V-groove edge (if applicable) magnetized, but not both. Make sure the magnetized edge meets your needs.
  • Machined / Milled Edge – A premium feature for aluminum levels is a milled edge on one, or both sides, to eliminate any imperfections and creates a true flat edge. Note: This is only a positive attribute for levels used in building and construction; the raw milled edge can scratch finished surfaces.
  • Digital Readout – An advanced digital display helps with precision leveling and angles.
Brand Full Plastic Body Die-Cast Aluminum Billet Aluminum Adjustable Vial Digital Readout Product Page Purchase
Bahco - - -
CheckPoint - - -
Empire - - -
Irwin - -
Johnson - - -
Kapro -
Klein - - - -
Sands - - - -
Sola - - -
Stabila - - -
Stanley - -
Swanson - -

I-beam and Box Levels

Using an I-Beam and Box level starts where a Torpedo level ends. These levels range in fixed lengths of 12″ – 96″ to best span the project at hand.

There is no one-size-fits-all, but I find a 24″ level to be versatile for many projects; then add various lengths to your level collection if needed. E.g. a carpenter may want a 4-6′ level for framing walls and the longer sides of doors and windows to ensure more accurate leveling across a longer section, or a mason wants to check level and flatness across a longer span of concrete, brick or stone.

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 levels and the variances.

I-beam vs Box level
Sola I-Beam level (left) | Box level (right)

What to look for:

  • Full Plastic Body – A plastic body is lightweight, won’t mar surfaces, and reduces the risk of damaging a floor, counter, etc., if it falls.
  • Die Cast – A solid die cast aluminum level benefits from: the ability to create complex shapes with close tolerances, durability, dimensionally stability, corrosion resistance, and monolithic (the single structure of the body doesn’t rely on multiple pieces that need to be properly assembled, aligned, and sealed). Designed for masonry work.
  • Wood Level – Designed for masonry work. Smith and Crick are long standing and well known wood level manufacturers.
  • Handhold – A handhold can make carrying a level more convenient, but if it’s an unneeded detail that makes cleaning the level more difficult, buy a solid body level.
  • Measuring Scale – Levels with built-in rules are helpful for measuring and layout. You get two tools in one without the hassle of using a separate tape measure. Examples include: Sola Electric and Cordinat for a level with adjustable measuring scale markers.
  • Machined / Milled Edge – A premium feature for aluminum levels is a milled edge on one, or both sides, to eliminate any imperfections and creates a true flat edge. Note: This is only a positive attribute for levels used in building and construction; the raw milled edge can scratch finished surfaces.
  • Magnetic – Rare earth magnets give maximum holding strength… opposed to levels with weaker strip magnets.
  • Better Readability – The vials can be enhanced for better visibility with an LED light, magnifying lens, and high-contrast vials.
  • Acrylic Block Vials – Solid Acrylic Block Vials are formed by machining a vial into a solid block of acrylic; creating a stronger vial than tube vials.
  • Safety Bumpers and Endcaps – Rubber bumpers keep the body of the level from touching the surface (prevent marring) and endcaps protect levels when dropped.
  • Digital Readout – An advanced digital display helps with precision leveling and angles.
  • Extendable – Stabila has sophisticated extendable levels that eliminate the need for multiple lengths of levels. The Stabila Type 80T levels (25″ to 41″ or 36″ to 59″) are a worthwhile consideration for homeowner use.

Tip 1: The body of the level works great as a straight edge for marking and scoring.

Tip 2: Adding a simple bolt hanger to the end frames of a storage rack is a convenient way to store 1 or more levels.

Brand I-Beam Level Box Level Wood Level Die-Cast Aluminum Digital Readout Product Page Purchase
Bahco - -
Crick - - - -
Empire - -
Irwin -
Johnson -
Kapro -
Sands
Smith - - - -
Sola -
Stabila - -
Stanley - - -
Swanson - -

Specialty Levels

A specialty level has a more specific use and may not apply to the needs of the average homeowner, so we’ll only explain their basic functions in this article.

When a how-to project requires the assistance of these specialty levels, we’ll go into more detail on how to effectively use them.

Note: Stabila doesn’t have a labeled line of Screed levels, but amongst its many uses, the Type R300 R-Beam levels work for screeding.

Brand Pocket Level Post Level Line Level Screeding Level Product Page Purchase
Bahco - -
Empire -
Irwin -
Johnson -
Kapro
Sands
Sola
Stabila - -
Stanley - -
Swanson -

Mini / Pocket Levels

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

A contractor may prefer to carry essential tools on them at all times: a tape measure comes to mind, and a mini level may be one of those tools too.

Yes, a mini level is a handy size to level small objects (thermostat or switch cover), but ask yourself, “how often am I doing these types of projects – and couldn’t I use my Torpedo level”.

Stabila mini pocket level
Stabila Pocket Level PRO Magnetic

Post Levels

Post levels read plumb and level 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: A bungy cord can be used as a strap to wrap around the post and post level (clasping the end hooks together) for temporary attachment.

Line Levels

Line levels are small and lightweight levels that hook onto a taught string to find level on large projects: landscaping, concrete flooring, masonry, or leveling ground and footings for a deck.

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

Stanley Line Level 42-287
Stanley Line Level 42-287

Screeding Levels

A Screed is “A tool, usually a long strip of wood or other material, for producing a smooth, flat surface on, for example, a concrete floor or a plaster wall.”, and can be fitted with vials for leveling.

Sola Screeding Levels
Sola Screeding Levels
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