PHOTO: Daniel Johnson
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July 16, 2019

Are you the type of farmer who loves DIY and frequently tackles significant construction projects on your farm? You should consider investing in specialized tools to improve the quality of your work. One tool I highly recommend for projects requiring precisely level planes—patio decks, building foundations and so on—is a builder’s level.

Unlike a typical level for determining whether surfaces are flat or plumb, a builder’s level is a different tool designed instead for measuring height. The theory is simple—if two or more points are located at precisely the same altitude, then by definition those points must be level.

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A builder’s level is essentially a small telescope on a tripod. Setup is simple—first you place the tripod legs so the telescope sits roughly level (and not particularly tilting in any direction). The next step depends on the model. In some, you manipulate a series of screws to adjust the position of the telescope until it is level (as determined by the bubble level installed in the unit). On others, the telescope automatically levels itself. An adjustable mirror then lets you view the bubble (to make sure everything stays level) even while using the telescope.

Once the telescope is level, you can peer through it, rotate it 360 degrees on a horizontal plane and know that any point within the crosshairs is the same altitude as any other point. Let’s say you need to know the difference in height between two concrete blocks so you can raise or lower one to match the other. While looking through the telescope, have a helper hold a tape measure vertically with one end at the top of the first concrete block. Focus your telescope on the tape measure—if the crosshairs fall on the 36-inch mark, you know your level line is 36 inches above the concrete block.

Now repeat the process with the other block. If the crosshairs now fall on the 38-inch mark, you know the second block is two inches lower than the first and needs to be raised. It’s simple once you get started.

Prices for builder’s levels vary. You can get one for $100 to $150, but more sophisticated models cost $200 to $400. A builder’s level comes in handy for a variety of tasks. For example, if you’re building a small shed—perhaps for storing all of your tools—a builder’s level is crucial when laying out the foundation. If you can ensure all points of the foundation (the four corners especially) are the same height, then the building you eventually construct will be level and structurally sound.

Here’s another example. I was recently installing a series of wooden fence posts 10 feet apart, with plans to run horizontal boards across the top of the fence to lock everything in place and improve the appearance. My problem was the fence line. It runs along sloping ground, so if each post were installed at the same depth, their tops would rise and fall with the lay of the land and interfere with the addition of the top boards. These would likewise rise and fall while sitting at odd angles.

Fortunately, a builder’s level can solve this problem too. By marking a level point on each post, I could then measure up to the desired maximum height of the fence and trim off varying amounts from the tops of each post so that they’re all perfectly level regardless of how the land unfolds beneath them. Where the ground dips, the posts are taller; where it rises, they’re shorter.

Once you acquire a builder’s level, you might be surprised how often you use it. If you care about precision in your construction tasks (and precision is always a good idea), a builder’s level is a great tool.

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