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January 21, 2005 8:00 AM CST

Levels: On the Straight and Narrow


Levels are very basic tools compared to the various intricate devises that are used in the masonry arts. We've seen it all, we've heard it all, and we've done it all when it comes to levels. Right? Well, here's a little insight into a few things that you may not know about this handy instrument.

Wooden Levels
Although the times are changing, wooden levels have always been the main instrument of choice for most masons. These levels can be formed out of most types of wood, with the majority being handcrafted out of select cuts of maple, walnut, mahogany and teak.

"The primary level of choice is generally the wood level for the brick or block mason because it's a very resilient type of material," says Sam Alford, President of Crick Tool in Athens, Texas. "If it's dropped, it doesn't bend."

"Our levels are probably the heaviest level, weight-wise, in the market," continues Alford. "Mother Nature has this thing about wood ? the more durable the wood, the denser the wood, the heavier the wood. Some brick and block masons like a heavy level; others do not. So a lot of time it boils down to personal preference."

Personal preference seems to be the name of the game when it comes to wooden levels, as they can be easily tailored to any mason's taste. Masons can specify a particular type or shade of wood to distinguish themselves. Choosing finger grooves, rather than hand holes, will increase the weight of the level. In terms of utility, the vials used for measurement can be clear or a yellow/green color, which are a little easier to read in low-light conditions. Also, masons can request an exact length of their level.

"The industry standard, or at least what we're seeing, is that the most common sizes are the 24" and 48" levels," says Alford. "You can have a level made to whatever length a person wants, though. We have some people who want a level that will fit perfectly in their toolbox."

"The size of level that you need really depends on what you're working with at the time ? whether you're working with windows, doorways, a tight spot or a long course of block," says Kathy Reyce of Port Austin Level & Tool Mfg. Co. in Port Austin, Mich. "We have levels that go all the way up to 120 inches."

There are certain things, aside from personal preference, that masons should look for in a good, wood level. Is the level the same size from one end to the other? Are the vials reading accurately? And how are the vials seated in the level: with a stone setting that will securely hold the vials in place or in plastic that can be damaged due to temperature or being dropped?

"One of the things that you run into as you're working with a level is it won't reverse. Meaning, if you're reading the level on one side and turn it to the other side, you don't get the same reading," says Alford. "So it's important that all of the vials on a level read consistently. A lot of masons, unfortunately, will have to mark their levels, where they say, 'I think this side reads good and this side doesn't,' and they'll put an 'X' on that side. Or one vial doesn't read accurately."

"Craftsmanship. That's the biggest thing," says Reyce. "If you don't have that, nothing else on that level is going to be worth looking into. If it looks like they haven't taken the care of the outside of the level, the inside will probably be off too."

Once you've found the perfect wooden level, how do you maintain it for lifelong use? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Don't strike the level with a trowel ? it can cause the vials to become inaccurate or break.
  • Wipe down with a clean cloth every day after use.
  • Use tongue oil, lemon oil or raw linseed oil to keep the wood from drying out and to help repel water and mortar.
  • Don't use muriatic acid for cleaning.
  • Try to avoid extended exposure to moisture.
  • Store the level in a toolbox or hang it from the nail hole.

"We have had levels in use out in the field for fifteen years or longer," says Alford. "Some of them look like they're less than a year old because the mason will wipe it down daily with raw linseed oil. If a mason takes care of their wooden level, it will outlast four or five, even six or seven, levels that haven't been cared for. We see that the life expectancy of a level is three months; ours, depending on the care given, can last a year to 15 years. It all depends on the care the mason gives."

Wooden levels can range in price from $50 - $325, depending on size and additional features.

Metal Levels
Metal levels can consist solely of a heavy-duty, high-grade aluminum frame or the same aluminum frame with a wood face overlay. These levels are very similar to their wooden counterparts, with a few exceptions.

First, unlike the wooden level, end-to-end custom tailored metal levels are a rarity. Although their ability to withstand high temperatures is debated in the industry, metal levels are not affected by water or moisture and they can be wiped down with acidic cleansers. And the only maintenance needed on a metal level is to be wiped down after use.

Stabila says that they also have a metal hybrid model that can resist impact. "One is constructed in a similar manner [as the standard level] with an added high impact strip," says Darrell Hammond, Sales Manager for Stabila, South Elgin, Ill. "This high impact strip allows the mason to tap on the top surface of the level with a trowel or hammer without distorting the accuracy of the level."

Metal levels range in price from $20 - $200, depending on size.

Laser Levels
Laser levels have been around for a while, but they are now becoming financially attainable to masons and other workers. Although more expensive than most wooden and metal levels, laser levels offer one advantage that these other types cannot even begin to achieve: measurements of long lengths, from 50 or 100 feet, up to a diameter range of 2,500 feet. For example, masons can set up a laser level and have a level, line and plumb reference for a long length of retaining wall.

"Lasers are very easy to use in establishing vertical or horizontal lines," says Hammond. "Prices have really become very competitive in the past few years. Features and functions have become more advanced, yet easier to use. Lasers are used for control lines, setting courses and measuring or laying out any openings. They do anything a standard level can do, only over longer distances."

"There are many types of laser levels that masonry professionals could choose from depending on the size of their project," says Lawrence Smith, Division Segment Manager of Trimble, Sunnyvale, Calif. "Portable handheld lasers that offer plumb up, plumb down, level and square capabilities would be very useful in saving time and money for a contractor doing a small residential or remodeling job.

"If a contractor is building a larger, multi-story building the use of a horizontal/vertical laser would be more appropriate. The key advantage of lasers is that they make it easier for the mason and save time; faster set-up, less re-work due to inaccuracies, and time savings on the job site equates to a cost savings for the contractor."

Much like the other types, durability and ease of use should be considered when purchasing a laser level. Also, if you are going to invest the money, a self-leveling laser is advised.

"Most contractors prefer self-leveling as vials have a tendency to lose accuracy in certain weather conditions and bubble vials can be inaccurate," says Smith.

Some other features that masons can choose from include: dual laser diodes for increased beam visibility; wall, floor and/or tripod mounts, brackets or clamps; bump sensors to alert the user if the laser has been moved after leveling; laser and bubble vial hybrid combinations; and optional receivers that will increase the laser's operating range. Masons using laser levels should also purchase laser enhancement goggles to aid in seeing the projected lines. There is also a laser level that is specifically made to be used in exterior applications and easier to see in sunlight.

Laser levels are relatively maintenance-free and a few offer the ability to "self-check." These levels, like others, should be cleaned off after use and stored in a safe, dry place. Most lasers include a hard, carrying case. It is recommended that once a year the level should be cleaned, checked and adjusted by a professional.

"Heat, cold and moisture could possibly impact a laser and optical level," adds Smith. "The degree to which these elements impact the products stability, accuracy and general performance will be dependent on the quality of the instrument itself. Higher quality instruments are typically designed with the job site condition in mind. The Spectra Precision Laser LP4 and HV601, for example, are designed and tested to endure shock, moisture and temperature changes while not impacting the overall performance of the instrument."

"All lasers have a difficult time operating at 110 degrees or higher," says Hammond. "They have a diode technology that reflects the sunlight back into the laser, causing very high internal temperatures. To combat this problem, use a damp cloth or an umbrella in extreme heat."

Laser levels can range in price from $80 - $2,000, depending on the product and options.

The Spectra Precision Laser HV601 and HV602 (left) are high-precision horizontal and vertical rotating lasers ideal for a variety of general construction and interior applications. Their numerous high-end features, including self-leveling, remote control, tilting plumb-up beam and PlaneLok, make them capable of meeting virtually any short- or long-range leveling, alignment or positioning requirements.

Offering the most versatility of the Spectra Precision Lasers LP series, the LP4 (right) is a four-beam pocket laser for plumb up/down, level and square applications. Projecting four beams up to 30 meters (100 feet), it can handle the widest range of applications including installation of fixtures, putting in walls and leveling foundations.

About the Author

Jennie Farnsworth is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor. She is a former editor of Masonry magazine.


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