Sunday, April 3, 2011

Making A Level: Part IV

According to Herbert P. Kean's book Restoring Antique Tools, mounting the vial in place can be achieved by filling a bathtub with a few inches of water, floating a board, laying the level on top of the board, and adjusting the vial until it's level.

I tried this with a large tub of water, but the board did not support a block of wood very well. It tended to tip, become soaked with water, and sink.

Fortunately I tried this with a sacrificial block of wood rather than my homemade level.

Instead, I sat one of the nice antique levels I own on top of my table saw and shimmed it with two thin metal rulers until the vial showed that it was level.  I used this surface on which to sit my level.

I considered using spackling to secure the vial in place, but decided to use Plaster of Paris instead. It sets up quickly and it's the same substance that was used in antique levels.

Mix the plaster two parts to one part water, dab water in the wood cavity of the level, and spread the mixture with thin strips of wood.  Through trial and error and a few moments of panic, I found that it's best to let the plaster set up a little bit, then push the vial in place.

You need to consider the "windows" through which the vial will be viewed—there should not be any plaster on these areas of the vial or it will be noticeable and unattractive.

Make sure the vial is sitting a little beneath the top surface of the level. That way, when the brass plate is screwed in place it won't touch the vial. You also need to be sure that the convex curve in the glass is arcing upward and that the vial is positioned in the center of the cavity.

I used thin strips of wood to scrape away excess plaster, then used a moistened Q-tip to clean up smudges.

I pre-finished the wood before I seated the vial. In a few days I'll rub on some paste wax and take some glamour shots of the completed project.


The previous three blog posts about making this level are 1, 2, and 3.


Dyami said...

Well done, Kari. I can't wait to see it come to completion. Looks like an awesome project.

Vic Hubbard said...

You always do such cool projects and do them so well!! What a beautiful device!

Darnell said...

Thanks for the tips, but this post is a tease.
Exactly how long is "a few days"?

Marilyn said...

Yeah for glamor shots!

Dave Griessmann said...

Very cool Kari! Very cool indeed!

Charles Davis said...

Very interesting how they set the vial in the past by employing a floating board. I would have never imagined that.

I think your level-on-level action is a pretty brilliant technique as well.

This level is just looking amazing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kari,

You continue to amaze!

Nicely done!

I wish that I were a neighbor.

Warmest regards,

The Village Sexton

The Village Carpenter said...

Thanks guys. :o) I'll try to post the glamour shots by Thursday this week. Now I just have to figure out what to build next.....

Anonymous said...

Kari this is a gorgeous tool impossible to buy because of its extreme beauty, you have become to impress one´s eye
I´m drooling over
Keep on such an inspirative projects

Ethan said...

"You need to consider the 'windows' through which the vial will be viewed—there should not be any plaster on these areas of the vial or it will be noticeable and unattractive."

Wise words, Kari, else you end up with just a square block of wood!

Mike said...

Beautiful work!
I thought at first you had shimmed your tablesaw. Should you have turned your large level 90 degrees and verified your setup in two planes?
Having trouble with the "vision thing",

The Village Carpenter said...

Thanks, Julio!

Ethan, I'm just glad I laid the brass on top to check the vial placement, otherwise I wouldn't have seen the messy plaster that was visible through the "windows."

Mike, you just have to get the antique level's vial bubble to be on center in order to use it as a flat and true base for the level you're making.

You can also double check the vial placement by setting your homemade level on your table saw, then spinning it 180º. If the bubble is located in the same spot (even if it's off-center, which just means the surface on which it's sitting isn't level), then the vial is mounted correctly. Hope that makes sense.

Eric said...

One can only imagine what an "Original Hultman Level" will fetch in 100 years..... :D

Bob said...

I can not only appreciate the effort, but the fact that you're willing to stop every so often and take a photo, which I'm sure is a complete pain in the butt.
I'm a long ways away from my shop back home, so any little snippet of living vicariously is what keeps me coming back here.
I just try not to drool on my keyboard.
Gets kinda messy.
Many years ago, I restored a couple of my father-in-law's well used masonry levels, since they were missing vials and basically a mess. Best I could do was use a water filled hose to first establish a level surface, from which I could then set the new vials in their respective housings. Can't remember what kind of plaster I used, to be honest, since the whole exercise was a bit of an experiment. Twenty years later, and after some rough use, they're still hanging in. Didn't take any pictures, since there was neither the internet nor digital photography. Can you imagine??
Those levels were subsequently well used when I built pillars on either side of our driveway. Sure beats turfing them out.
Keep it up. I'm having fun.


Brad said...


You may have addressed this previously but if so I missed it. For a wooden tool like this that becomes a standard of sorts in future projects - you have to get this right to make sure they are also true and straight - how do you make dead sure the stock you choose to build the level or plane from wood is through moving around? Is kiln driying enough or do you need to watch a piece over time to make sure before starting work?

You do good work, lady!


Bill said...

Nice work on the level, Kari. I also use the machined cast steel table on my saw as a reliablly flat surface. Well, it's the best I have in my shop, anyway!
Love your blog.
Bill Wells

The Village Carpenter said...

Eric, I hope I'm not around to find out. haha!

Bob, it's great to hear stories of old or broken tools being brought back to working condition. Another reader had commented on another post that you can sit the level on a flat surface, examine the location of the bubble, then spin the level 180º. If the bubble is in the same spot, the vial is seated properly. I double checked my vial this way and it was pretty darn close.

Brad, that's a great question. I just used a chunk of wood that had been lying around my shop for few years. It's cherry so it will probably move. If the bottom becomes distorted, I'll true it up by rubbing it on sandpaper that's sitting on my table saw (or handplane the bottom). You can check to make sure the vial is still level by using the technique I mentioned above. A different wood like bloodwood, which in my experience doesn't move any noticeable amount, might be a better choice.

Thanks, Bill. :o)

Anonymous said...

Actually, Plumbers putty is a better solution to put the vial into and it's closer to the original vial holding stuff (a mixture of glue, sawdust and plaster).

Straight plaster has a tendency to be brittle and as the wood will expand/contract can work it's way lose from the wood.

The Village Carpenter said...

Anon, I thought about that, but was concerned that it would take too long to harden and the vial might sink a bit or otherwise fall out of register. The labels I read on spackling said it takes up to 24 hours for final curing.

I found the reference to Plaster of Paris in Don Rosebook's book on American Levels but don't remember seeing anything about glue and sawdust. Do you know where I can find a reference for that online?