Would it be Wood?
By Tom Inglesby
The basic level hasn't changed much in generations, but the material that these instruments come in has evolved to maintain accuracy and durability. Still, many masons prefer wood. Here's why.
The level is a precision instrument that requires careful handling to ensure its continued accuracy. But masons often treat them more like a hammer than an instrument. They drop them, tap or sometimes even hit them with trowels, let them get covered with mortar and grout, leave them in the dirt and mud, step on them, and then toss them in the back of the pickup at the end of the day.
In the morning, they pick that same level up and go back to work, confident it will assist them in laying straight and true courses all day long. How can you be sure that they are accurate? And what type level has the best chance of remaining accurate for the longest time?
First, a little information on the mason's level marketplace. Darrell Hammond, National Sales Manager for Stabila, South Elgin, Ill., starts out by looking at the needs of a mason.
"If I'm a mason looking to purchase a level, I'm looking for something that's durable, rugged and accurate," says Hammond. "For example, we use a rib reinforced aircraft-grade quality aluminum body and, to maintain accuracy, our vial is a solid block of acrylic, so as the mason taps the level, it's not going to break the vial. That vial system is all epoxied into place so there's no movement of the vial itself."
Al Karraker, Director of Marketing for Empire Level Manufacturing in Mukwonago, Wis., goes on to explain, "Masons, historically, have used wood levels because nothing sticks to the wood. It can be washed off, and you're back in business. It's been that way for over 100 years.
"In the last 10-15 years," he continues, "a number of masons in this country have moved to a European-style aluminum box level. It is rectangular in shape versus the carpenter style I-beam level. In masonry, you're going to get things caught inside the I, which is not practical, whereas with a rectangular level there's no 'inside' to the level where things can get caught, and it can be hosed off at the end of the day."
Tom Scott, Product Manager for Irwin Industrial Tools, agrees that the box-style level works best. In fact, Irwin introduced a new box level this year, in its familiar blue and yellow color scheme.
"One advantage of the thick extrusions we use," Scott claims, "is that it ensures the level will never twist, bend or warp. The walls of the level are very thick so that a mason tapping it with a trowel is not going to damage it. It takes 50 foot pounds of torque to twist our four-foot level. In other words, if you grab the ends of it and try to twist it, it would take 50 foot pounds of torque to do it ? it's pretty much humanly impossible. I-beams, when they're dropped or if they're beaten around, they can twist and lose their accuracy. Ours is pretty much indestructible. We guarantee our frames against bending, twisting or warping, even after a two-story drop or 50 degrees of temperature change."
The challenge with box beam levels is putting the vials in them precisely so they retain their accuracy. The problem with the accuracy of box beam levels has little to do with the box beam itself, but in how the vials are inserted in the frame and held there. Scott brags, "We have a patent on how to mount the vials. They are suspended in the frame instead of using glue like most other companies do with box beam levels. So if ? or maybe I should say when ? it is dropped, since the vial is suspended in the frame, the vibration is not transferred directly to the vial, it's insulated from shock. We guarantee the accuracy for life, but if they ever do go out of calibration, ours can be recalibrated in the field."
When looking at the vials, how many is enough and when do they become too many? Hammond says, "Basically vertical/horizontal vials are enough. I'd say a mason might want two plum vials and one level vial. The reason most manufacturers put multiple vials into their levels is what I call the spare tire concept. Since they're glass or plastic, as the mason tends to tap the level or to hit brick or block with it, the vials tend to break, chip or become inaccurate. So a lot of times, when you're on the job site, you'll see the mason has an X through a particular vial; that's because it's become inaccurate or to indicate that you can use it one direction and not the other."
How about wood versus aluminum? Scott notes, "From all the research I've done, masons like wood because they can put oil on it and it's easy for them to clean. We've never made a wooden level but what I've heard and seen in the field indicates that wood, because it's a living material, it can warp, expand, etc."
Hammond continues the wood-aluminum discussion by saying, "In the U.S., there are an abundance of brass-bound mahogany levels. In Europe and Canada, you just don't see too many of the wood levels anymore. They've basically gone to the aluminum frames. I think that the American mason is somewhat afraid of the aluminum because when aluminum first came out they were flimsy and bendable and in some cases breakable. It's a generational thing."
He adds, "We've gone after the vocational schools to put the rib reinforced aluminum levels into their hands so they can see that they don't get that bending or breakage like they used to."
If there is any place that a level can be expected to take a beating, it's in the schools where mason trainees are just starting to understand the care and feeding of the tools of the trade. As Karraker of Empire Levels notes, "When you tap the level with a trowel to set the block or brick, that tapping could take the accuracy off the level. However, that's not a concern if the level is well made. In the past, with a wood level where the vials were set in plaster and the vials themselves were glass, it was a little more delicate operation. Today the vials are acrylic, not glass, and they're set in silicon not plaster. Where plaster is fragile and can crack, silicon is not that kind of material. So it really is not an issue."
Which brings us back to the wood versus metal argument. While it will never be settled to the satisfaction of everyone, there is one company that can answer all the concerns raised by the metal level adherents: Crick Tools, Athens, Texas.
Sam Alford, President and CEO of Crick, points to their collection of wood levels with the pride of a craftsman. "We do everything that we can to hold 'machine standards' to wood products," he says. "Our specs and tolerances are very tight. Most wood manufacturing people can't hold the tolerances that we hold."
Alford continues, "We use various types of wood. Our standard is mansonia, a wood we import from Africa. We laminate that with red leaf maple from Michigan and Wisconsin. It's a three- or five-layer laminate. We also use cherry and teak, rose wood, beech, afromosa ? an African species of wood used in yachts. Since it's laminated, it tends not to move. Wood has a tendency to move, and the laminates keep it from moving. In addition, the rigidity from the stainless steel binding helps, but primarily it's the lamination."
Alford points out that wood is very resilient. "If it's dropped or beat on, it comes back. It's not affected by heat or cold, whereas aluminum or plastic tends to expand or contract with the cold, which affects the accuracy of the level."
What about the complaint that wood has a tendency to be environmentally unstable because of moisture content?
"That's not really true," Alford claims. "I'll put my level up against any aluminum level on the market for longevity. The oldest level that I've seen, that Crick Tools has made, is a 19-year-old level. It still reads accurately. The way we manufacture our levels, moisture does not affect them. There are some things we do that nobody else in the industry does. We guarantee that our level will read the same in every plane, 360 degrees. No one else in the industry produces a level that does that. Our levels will outlast most other levels based on quality and durability. So a mason makes a $100-$120 investment one time versus a $40 or $50 level seven to 10 times. So I would take exception to the people who say wood is not environmentally stable."
The truth is, accuracy and durability of all these levels is far greater than was possible a few decades ago. But to maintain the level, the mason needs to do a few things, too. For the wood level, Alford recommends, "The mason should wipe the level down at the end of the day with raw linseed oil ? not boiled but raw ? or use lemon oil or tung oil, but frankly they don't do it that frequently. That keeps the level from drying out, and it maintains the luster and beauty of the level. We have a lot of people who say they wouldn't use our level because it's too pretty to get out on the job site and get messed up!"
While aluminum levels don't need oiling, they should be washed off at the end of the day and, with minimal care, should last a long time. In fact, most companies will guarantee their metal levels, and the vials in them, for life. Typical of that policy, Scott of Irwin Tools explains, "If our level ever does come out of calibration, we will replace it. However, if the mason doesn't want to go to the trouble of going back to where they purchased it, they can recalibrate it themselves with a simple turn of a Hex key or Philips screwdriver."
He adds, smiling, "Our levels are meant to be dropped. Okay, we don't recommend it, but they will not go out of calibration from being dropped. We also have what we call a rafter hook, an accessory that attaches to a level and allows the level to be hung from a rafter or scaffold. That serves to help prevent the level from being dropped."
Or you could tie a thin bungee cord to it and not worry about it falling off the scaffold.
About the Author
Tom Inglesby is a San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. He is the winner of the Construction Writers Association's 2002 Boger Award for Special Reports.