Digital levels: Is a brain better than a bubble?
As a finish carpenter, I rely on box-beam levels every day, and I’m expected to have them in a whole quiver of sizes—from 16 in. up to 8 ft. That represents no small outlay of cash when you consider the cost of professional-grade models. For example, Stabila’s accurate, durable, top-of-the-line 48-in. box-beam level costs just less than $100. The company also offers a digital version of that level for $230, which raises a question: Why would I want to pay over twice the price? To find the answer to that question, I ordered eight digital levels and incorporated them into my daily work.
After a few months of use, I had a strong sense of how these tools work. I decided that for the simple plumb-and-level operations done by most tradesmen on a day-to-day basis, a digital level is far from a must-have. But I also decided that I really wanted to keep one. When you’re working with levels day in and day out, a little bit more speed and accuracy can go a long way toward improving the quality of your work.
Bottom line: Digital levels cost more than their bubble-vial companions; to some, that will be the end of the story. I think the added cost is in balance with the added functionality of these tools. They are extraordinarily easy (and fun) to use, mostly foolproof, and superaccurate. At the end of the day, I believe that they not only enhance the functions of a standard box-beam level, but they also add features that aren’t possible with a bubble vial.
Going Beyond the Bubble
Digital models aren’t more accurate than standard bubble levels; it’s just that their accuracy is easier to take advantage of. Besides being kinder to aging eyes, a digital display means that you know exactly how level or plumb you are in inches or millimeters, and which way to move the tool if needed.
Digital levels allow you to read an angle or a slope as a fraction, decimal, or percentage. For example, the fractional mode allows you to lay a level across the floor of a doorway and know how much to remove from one jamb leg or the other on a prehung door; no homemade shim gauge is necessary.
It’s easy to test a standard box-beam level for accuracy, but fixing a problem means returning the tool to the manufacturer. Digital levels can be fieldcalibrated.
Digital levels can be zeroed at any setting, essentially establishing a benchmark angle so that you can easily repeat it. This is great for consistently pitching the framing on a deck or porch, setting concrete forms, pitching indoor and outdoor drainpipes, or finding cut angles for handrails and other sloped work.
The icing on the cake is an audio feature that beeps to indicate proximity to level or plumb, a true blessing when working in dim light or awkward positions where bubble visibility is compromised.
Most of the digital levels on the market share similar specs. Models are available in 2-ft. and 4-ft. lengths, and many have the same digital module. Baseline accuracy is 0.1° at plumb and level and 0.2° at all other angle—numbers that a few companies have improved on. All of the displays flip themselves when the levels are used upside down. All models feature an audio alert and an auto shutoff, and most come in a padded case.
Of the eight models I tested, the Stabila IP65 was my hands-down favorite. On top of the usual features, this model has light-up LED screens on both the face and edge of the level, its digital module is washable and has a two-year warranty, and its accuracy is an impressive 0.05º. For a savings of $55, the Sola ENW 120 is also an excellent choice, but it lacks the light-up screen and top-viewing window of the Stabila. The best baseline models I looked at were the M-D Building Products SmartTool and the Bosch DNM 120 L, which are clones. Both are basic tools, but are absolutely solid and accurate.
Photos by Dan Thornton