How to Build and Use a Water Level
Every home center and hardware store has an assortment of electronic laser leveling devices which can cost over $100. Most homeowners have a 2-foot or 4-foot level, but occasionally you need something for a larger job such as laying out kitchen cabinets, installing a suspended ceiling, marking cuts for fence or deck posts, or other carpentry projects. In this case all you need is a length of plastic tubing and a bucket of water to build your own water level.
While you might not impress your friends with a water level, it can outperform laser levels due to the fact that a water level does not depend on line of sight meaning that you can level around corners without resetting the tool.
While some use a bucket as a reservoir, this article will describe how to make a simple water level using tubing and water alone.
Tools and Materials
50 feet (or more) of clear plastic tubing
5 Gallon Bucket
Food coloring – optional
Plugs or stoppers for the ends, for storing the filled tubing
Setup and Use
1. Fill the 5-gallon bucket with about 2 gallons of water. Add food coloring if you prefer.
2. Fill the hose by siphoning water from an elevated bucket, and let the water flow long enough to force out the air bubbles. Adding a few drops of food coloring makes the fluid more visible, but it will stain if spilled.
3. Test the accuracy of the level by holding both ends together. If the water levels don’t line up there are air bubbles trapped in the line or there is a kink in the tubing. If you can’t get the bubbles out by tapping the line with a finger, the best thing to do is empty the hose and fill it back up.
Using the Water Level
This type of level works best with two people. The tubing ends need to remain open so if you cant secure the fixed end, have a helper hold it in place.
4. With the water level tested, make a benchmark by drawing a straight line to indicate the water level. Science Tip: The surface of the water is slightly concave, called a meniscus, you and your helper should agree on whether to mark the high point or the low point.
Once the benchmark is set it has to be held in place if you are working alone.
5. After establishing a benchmark in a convenient corner, one worker remains at that location with one end of the tubing while the other person heads for the nearest corner with the opposite end and a pencil. The person holding at the benchmark slowly moves the tube up or down until the surface of the water lines up with the original line. Wait a few seconds to verify that the water has stopped moving and call out that you’re good.
6. In most cases it’s easier to pick an arbitrary height and use the water level to place a reference point in each corner. Once these benchmarks are in place you can use a tape measure or a piece of wood cut to length to lay out the correct height quickly.
For small jobs indoors, you should have no problem using a water level. For larger jobs requiring longer tubing, and when working outside you can experience some technical difficulties.
Uneven expansion - Water expands when it is warmed so leaving half of your tubing in the shade and the other half in direct sunlight can throw off the readings as much as 3/8 inch between readings. The smaller the diameter of tubing the greater the effect. If that happens, your best bet is to refill the tubing to even out the temperature of the liquid.
Kinks - The liquid needs to be able to flow freely in the tubing while in use. Kinks or stepping or kneeling on the tubing will completely throw off your results.
Air bubbles – If you are building a stone wall a few air bubbles won’t be the end of the world, but if you're leveling piers for a deck every air bubble in your level will throw off your results. No matter how careful you are air bubbles seem to appear in the level over time. Refilling the water level before each use is the best way to ensure your tubing is full of water only.
You can also purchase a water level, see the links below.