Using Levels and Squares in a Construction Process

using levels in woodworking

Levels can be one of the most common tools if you know how to read them. The following sections will describe the different types of levels, the proper use, and reading, as well as the versatility of project goals that levels can help you accomplish.

Getting to Know the Carpenter’s Level

There are many different sizes of carpenter’s levels, ranging from pocket-sized to an industrial size carpenter’s model. Despite the varying sizes, all carpenter’s levels work on the same principle. Knowing the proper way to read the level is the key to success.

Inside the carpenter’s level, you will find a bubble, regardless of the size of the level you are working with. To interpret the bubble, you need to determine if it is centered between the lines on the vial. If the bubble is centered, congratulations! Your surface is level. Take a moment to celebrate your victory and proceed to the next phase of the project.

If the bubble is not between the lines, this means that the surface you are working with is not level. However, this powerful little bubble can tell you more than just if the surface is level or not. Since the bubble is filled with air, it will rise to the top of the vial which can give you crucial insight into how to fix your leveling problem. If you are working with a horizontal board, for example, and the bubble is tilted to the left side of the lines, the left side of the board is the high side. If the bubble is towards the right side, then the right side is the high side. To fix this problem, simply raise or drop the opposite side and take another measurement to ensure accuracy.

Did you know that most levels have more than one bubble vial so that you can check to see if a horizontal surface is even or if a vertical surface is plumb? You will almost always find the level bubble vial in the center of the tool because it runs parallel with the tool itself and needs to sit horizontally when placed on a horizontal surface.

The plumb vial, however, is set at a 90-degree angle and stands straight up and down if you have the carpenter’s level resting horizontally. If you use the tool for a vertical stud, you will be looking at the plumb vial horizontally. If the bubble is on the left side of the vial, then this tells you that the top of the stud needs to be pushed to the left. The same applies to the right side; if the bubble floats to the right, then the stud needs to move to the right as well. Just remember whatever side the bubble is floating towards is the way you need to move the object!

How do you know if your level is calibrated? Any carpenter’s level that you purchase from a hardware store is pre-calibrated prior to purchase. If you want to check the accuracy of your level, place it on a flat surface and take note of the exact placement of the bubble in the vial. Then, spin the carpenter’s level 180 degrees so that the left end is in the place that the right end just was, and the other way around. Once you have made the flip, check the bubble again. The bubble should be in the exact same place as it was the first time that you looked at it. If it is not, you should get a new level. This strategy will work even if the surface you placed the level on is not actually level! It is always a good idea to check the calibration of a level prior to starting your project even if you just purchased it. The level could have been dropped on the floor and put back on the shelf which could skew your measurements.

In addition to making sure that your items are level, a carpenter’s level can be used as an array of other tools. Use it as a straight edge or clamp it in place on a piece of wood to use it for a saw guide in order to ensure that you are cutting straight lines. The level can also come in handy when marking lines. Start out by marking your endpoints and then line them up with the level to connect the dots! You’ll be left with a remarkably straight line that you probably could not have freehanded. You can also purchase levels that are pre-marked with markings on the side that you can use to measure so that you will not have to frequently switch back and forth between the tape measure and the level.

More Levels? An introduction to Specialty Levels

There are different types of levels aside from the popular carpenter’s level. Two of the common types of levels include line levels and post levels. A line level is a level with just a single bubble vial that hangs from a string. This can be used to check the tops of a line which may come in handy when checking fence posts. You read a line level the same way that you would read a carpenter’s level. That is, a bubble that is leaning to the left indicates that the left side is high. If the bubble is leaning towards the right, it means that the right side is high. Strive for a bubble in the center, which indicates that the top line is level!

A post level is a unique type of level because it consists of an L-shaped bracket that is able to check two adjacent sides of a post for plumb simultaneously. A large rubber band can be used to wrap around the post if you want to opt for hands-free operation. Some post levels even feature magnetic strips so they can easily be used on metal posts. You read a post level the same way as the traditional carpenter’s level, with the exception being that now you need to read both bubbles at the same time and adjust as needed until both bubbles are within the lines. This can be tricky the first time, but with practice, you will get the hang of it!

A Different Type of Level: The Speed Square

Did you know that speed squares are actually triangular in shape? Speed squares establish a perfect 90 and 45-degree angle, which make them a valuable tool when you want to make straight lines. A lot of people simply use speed squares for making straight lines, which they are great at, but this tool can do many other things too.

If you need a quick measurement, speed squares have markings along their edges just like a tape measure. Instead of losing your place, reach for the speed square that is right beside you to make a quick estimate measurement. If you are making a precise measurement, you may want to go back through and check your work because most speed squares do not get more detailed than quarter-inches.

The speed square also works as a cutting edge for a circular saw. Since the square has a thick body, it gives the saw’s shoe an abundance of material to ride against as it makes its way through the cut. A lot of professionals like to hold the lip of the square facing them with one hand while they push the saw through the board with the other. This is a great method for ensuring that everything is steady and reduces the likelihood that something will slip mid-cut. The more safety precautions you can take, the better!

The speed square also features a series of notches that are usually located close to the ruler markings we mentioned previously. These notches can help you to make long straight lines that run parallel to the edge of the board you are working with.

Since the speed square is actually a triangle, it makes checking right angles a simple task. If you want to check that two boards are exactly 90 degrees, you can place the square inside the corner. If the corner of the square does not touch the inside corner of the joint or if the square does not touch both edges simultaneously, the angle you are working with is not 90 degrees. You can also use the speed square by holding it to the outside of the corner to ensure that the edges line up.

In addition to the ruler markings, the speed square also has markings like a protractor along its 45-degree side. These markings allow you to read or mark any angle from 1 degree to 89 degrees. These precise markings will help you to designate the most specific angles with ease.

How to Lay Out and Mark a Sample Cut of 30 Degrees

  1. Use a pen to mark one side of the wood.
    Instead of marking a straight line all the way across a piece of lumber, measure and mark just one edge, where you want the angle to start.
  2. Designate a pivot point.
    To designate the pivot point, place the lip of the speed square against the wood and slide it until the tiny notch at the 90-degree corner of the tool meets the edge where you just marked.
  3. Move the square to the desired angle.
    For this step, hold the square’s pivot point tightly where you just placed it and swing the square until the desired angle number lines up with the edge of the board. In this case, we are looking for a 30-degree angle.
  4. Make another mark.
    Be sure to keep the square firm on the board and make another line down the square and across the surface of the wood. You will want to start at the pivot point. If you cut along the line you just made, you will end up with a 30-degree angle.If you own or plan to purchase a made by Swanson Tool Company who invented the tool, it will come with a booklet that explains the uses discussed the and more, such as explanations for all of the numbers on the tool and how to use it for more complex projects such as laying and cutting roofing rafters. If you purchased another brand of speed square, check to see if it came with a manual or consult the internet or manufacturer if you have further questions.

We hope you found this article helpful in learning the basics of working with levels. To recap, we discussed the infamous carpenter’s level as well as specialty levels including the line level and post level. We also talked briefly about speed squares and their many uses. If you find yourself with a level-related question when working on a project, feel free to refer back to this guide.

Published by Dave Malcolm

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