So a level is a simple tool right? Well, maybe. I am going to show you some tips that will help you stay level headed when using one. There is no need to go out and buy the top of the line level, just know how to use what you’ve got.
Tip #1 – Your level may not be level
Get to know your level and if it tends to favor one side. Take a level surface; if the bubble is in the center both ways, your level is reading pretty true. If you have a difference between the two ways, your level is not reading level. As long as you are starting out on a level surface, you can go ahead and mark where the bubble sits when resting on that level surface (use masking tape and a permanent marker). When using the level in the future, use the lines you marked instead of the lines already on the level. In general, if a surface is level, your level will read the same each way (example below favors side A equally both ways, so it shows a level surface).
Tip #2 – Using a short level for long level jobs
You can do this by finding a true straight edge and placing your short level on top of the longer straight edge. You can sight a piece of lumber or long piece of solid metal for the straight edge. Long levels are helpful for leveling tables or uneven surfaces because they use the entire surface instead of a portion that may not be a good representation of the entire surface.
Tip #3 – Don’t pop your bubble
Do not leave your level out in the sun or the extreme cold. It will destroy the bubble and render your level useless (I learned this one the hard way).
Tip #4 – Using a line level
Use a line level to find a common level point across long distances (here is the one we used at 2/$3). Great for keeping fences level or precutting 20’ golf net posts (see Tip #7). It is best to do this in no more than 16’ stretches if possible because your line will sag more as distance increases. Also, make sure you use a lightweight but strong line such as kite string or thin nylon string. Place your line level in the middle of your line and test it both ways (see tip #1). If you need to level out more than 16’, tie your line off and pick up from that point with the next stretch.
Tip #5 – Using an optical level
Using an optical level can be a bit tricky, but they are great for determining drainage slopes and surveying the contour of your property (example of one from Amazon). Your accuracy will be determined by how steady you can hold the level (although they are not meant to be precise). Use a stick of known height and hold the level even with your measurement point (the stick gives you a known height and helps to steady the level). At the far end, have someone else hold another stick with a tape measure running up from the bottom (this stick should be longer in case you slope down). Adjust the level up and down until it reads level. Have the second person run their fingers up and down the far stick until they match your level. This point is your level point.
Note: An alternative is to use a regular small level, sighting down the level when it is level (just like sights on a gun). This will have less accuracy, but for an approximation it works great. Also, if you don’t mind waiting until it is dark (or if you are measuring inside), you can use a laser level.
Tip #6 – Making and using a water level
A water level is simple to make and allows you to measure 2 level points across fairly long distances and around corners. A water level basically puts a lake into a hose; the surface of the water at each end of the hose will be level to each other, just like the surface of a lake. Below is a great video I found by Brad Lancaster on how to make a water level (also known as a bunyip). He also gives some specific techniques and uses for the water level.
Tip #7 – Precutting level posts
To precut level posts, simply determine the desired height from the level point up. Next, use a plumb bob to measure the distance from the level point to the bottom of each post hole (helps to keep a chart). For each post, simply add the two numbers together, and you have your cut length. This is the technique we used to precut the 20’ poles on our golf net, and it got us within a couple inches of perfect. When we put in the posts, we added gravel to the couple that ended up slightly low to make up the difference.
Tip #8 – Determining slopes
First, use one of the methods above to find 2 level points (you can use an optical level, laser level, line level, or water level to do this). If you are determining slope, take the difference in height of these 2 points over the distance between your 2 points (see diagram below). Many sources advise a 1% slope for drainage, which is equal to 1/100 (drop 1’/100’ or 1.2”/10’).
I hope these level tips were helpful. Please feel free to leave comments or questions.