How to Use Levels for Woodworking

Have you ever used a level in woodworking? A level or a spirit level is a small vial of colored liquid used to indicate how level or how parallel a surface is to the earth. The term spirit level comes from the mineral spirit solution used for this measuring tool. When a carpenter or a woodworker checks if a project is level, a spirit level is used.

If you are just starting out in woodworking, you must learn how to accurately read levels. It’s not too hard to do so, you just have to practice and have more practice by using levels in all the woodworking projects that you will undertake from here on.

Spirit level basics

There are a lot of brands of spirit levels like Stanley, Johnson and Empire and there are generic spirit levels as well. But no matter what brand or manufacturer, the use and features are basically the same. Here are a few basic points about levels

  • The glass or plastic vials in spirit levels have yellowish-green color, this is for the user to easily see the inside of the vial and to check If the surface is level
  • The liquid inside the vials have UV protection as well as maximum performance in temperatures from -20 degrees Fahrenheit to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. So this means that the liquid will not evaporate and will still remain in liquid form up to a certain degree.
  • There is a certain degree of accuracy known as the best spirit level which is within plus or minus 0.5 millimeters/meter or 0.005 inches/inch or 0.029 degrees.
  • Vials used in a spirit level can also be called bubble level and these could be shaped like a barrel, curved-shaped, rectangular block shaped or even banana shaped.
  • Most vials of spirit levels manufactured in the past were made of glass but now acrylic is mostly used.

Reading a spirit level

1. Prepare your spirit level

Prepare your level by wiping it with a soft clean cloth to remove dust, grime or dirt that can affect the way you use it. Make sure to wipe the area that will rest against the surface that you are trying to check.

2. Locate the bottom of the level

Locate the bottom part which is the side that will be placed against the surface of the workpiece that you want to check for level.

3. Hold the level correctly

Locate any handles or grabbing points on the level. These will allow you to hold the level without blocking your view of the vials.

4. Special levels

There are levels that come in a set of four. Two tube vials at the center will help find the true horizontal while the two vials, one on each end, helps the user find the true vertical. Some specialized spirit levels have angled vials to help you find the level at 45 degrees.

5. Check if the level is defective.

Create a line along the bottom edge of a wall. Flip the level so that the bottom part becomes the top part of the tool. Place the top edge against the marked line. If the bubble is at the center of the vial then the level is accurate. But if it is not centered then the level is not accurate.

6. Use the level.

Place the level on the surface of the workpiece or thing that you want to check. Find the true horizontal like or “the horizon.” The spirit tube must run parallel to the object that you will check. The bubble should float to the top of the spirit tube.

7. Read the level

Place your eyes at level with the spirit tube to get an accurate reading. You can also close one eye to get a better view of the level. You might need to crouch a little bit to check the level out.

8. Check the bubble inside the vial

Now that you are in position, check the bubble inside the vial. It has to be found in between the lines of the tube to say that the surface is level. If the bubble is found at the right of the tube then the surface slopes in a downward direction right to left. If the bubble is to the left then the object slopes downwards to the left to right.

9. Finding the true vertical

To find the true vertical or the “plumb” use the same procedure but this time it has to be done vertically.

Checking for spirit level accuracy

Before you use a level that has been stored or kept for a long time, you need to check for its accuracy. Checking for accuracy ensures that the tool is able to provide reliable results. It is easy to check for accuracy by following these steps:

  1. Clean the level by wiping it with a clean soft cloth. Pay close attention to the sides of the level since these come in contact with different surfaces. Put the level on a flat surface to check.
  2. Place a mark at the end of the level, along the side and under the vial found along the center of the level.
  3. Read the position of the bubble. Rotate the level at 180 degrees from one end to the other. Align the tool using the marks that you have made.
  4. If the bubble remains in the same position for all the readings, the level is accurate, if not then the level is defective.
  5. For the vertical vial. Follow the same steps in a flat vertical surface. If the bubble is at the center and in the same position for both readings then the level is accurate.

The different types of spirit levels

There are a variety of spirit levels; each one has a particular feature and purpose. The most common is the i-beam level which looks like an “I” shape at the end, box beam level which is a level that has a rectangular shape and torpedo levels which are larger than pocket-sized levels.

You will also find line levels which is a level with a hook that can be hung on a string, circular levels for checking surface levels, cross check levels which are pocket-sized levels with two level vials arranged in right angles, post levels which can be placed around two sides of a post to check for level and plumb and pocket levels which are pen-shaped levels with a magnetic tip.

There are levels that have extraordinary features like a magnetic base, changeable vials, levels with vial covers, vial caps, ergonomic hand grips and of course levels with unique and fun designs.

Buying a level

In purchasing a level, you must see to it that the tool has to have the following features: it has to be made from durable and updated materials, the vial has to have markings to easily check the position of the bubble and it has to have ergonomic handles to hold on to. A beginner woodworker must invest in quality levels with a traditional design to take a hand of using a regular level first before using updated and fancy versions.

There are spirit levels as affordable as $5 while there are updated and very durable models at around $50 and above. However, an expensive level does not mean it has the best quality. Read customer reviews and product comparisons to get the best value for your money.

Conclusion

A level is a very reliable device or tool that checks for the level of a surface of a workpiece in woodworking through the use of a spirit liquid inside a vial. The bubble trapped inside the liquid will stay in the center if the surface is level horizontally in a horizontal level and will stay in the center of a vertical level in a vertical level.

A beginner woodworker has to learn how to use a spirit level before learning how to use digital levels, fancy levels and other updated models. Buying a level should be about the material used for the level, the features and the overall quality if the tool. There are many level manufacturers and brands of levels and levels also come in varying prices. But it does not mean that an expensive product has the best quality. You must read reviews and check out comparisons to get the most out of your money.

Do you have some techniques on how to use a level? Tell us through the comments section below. And if you like this article, share it to someone you know would like to learn some neat woodworking tips.

  • October 10, 2017
  • DIY
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