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The Spirit Level

Craftsmanship at a glance

spirit level
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Clockwise, from top: Mahogany
level with vial covers, level
with protractor, rosewood level
and plumb bob, rosewood pocket
level, mahogany level with top
and butt plates, cherry level.

Spirit levels, the kind with the bubble in the vial, were first used by surveyors in the 1700's. It wasn't until 150 years later, however, that spirit levels were manufactured in sufficient quantity to supply general craftsmen. Before then, to make sure something was level, they relied on a version of the plumb bob.


Adjustments to fight warp

The first levels were quite simple, with vials mounted in plain wooden stocks. However, the wood tended to warp slightly, or wear, and throw the level out of plumb. Eventually, tough, stable woods, such as beech, boxwood, cherry, and mahogany--even ebony and rosewood--proved more reliable. Finer levels were bound with brass top plates and butts. After 1860, set screws allowed adjustment.

Cast iron and iron filigree models first appeared after the Civil War, and conquered the warping problem. By 1940, mass-produced metal levels finally replaced the wooden level as the most popular.


Price matches beauty

Levels vary from pocket sizes, 2" to 5" long, to mason's and builder's levels of more than 10'. Unusual patent designs include those with 100 protractors; inclinometers; and combination level, plumb, and rule.

You'll pay for craftsmanship. Like sleek, imported sports cars, fine levels look expensive. Exotic woods, brass bindings, ornate cast iron and filigree stocks, and unusual designs bring highest prices.

Condition affects value, too. A level shouldn't show much wear. A maker's mark on the stock or stamped in the top plate also makes it worth more.

Levels represent a somewhat neglected area of collecting. You'll find most selling for $5 to $150. A very rare example may bring $1,000.

Photograph: Jim Elder


 

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