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Johnson Level & Tool Mfg. Products

What is a Builder's Level?
How do Builder's Levels Work?

Johnson Level & Tool Mfg. Co., Inc.

Johnson Level #40-6900 22X Builder's LevelA builder's level is used in the construction field to set up level points and to check elevations. It is an optical instrument used mainly in surveying and building but is also useful for transferring, setting, or measuring horizontal levels.

The tripod the builder's level is being set up on must be set on secure ground to get the telescope positioned level.

Also called a "dumpy" level, the builder's level is inexpensive, easy to assemble, easy to use and lightweight. There are many parts to a builder's level, but it is primarily a leveling vial attached to a telescope. The leveling vial consists of marks called graduations used for centering the bubble. A builder's level works by attaching the telescope to a leveling head and finally mounting to a tripod.

Key Terms

  • Benchmark - permanent or fixed point with a known elevation.
  • Height of Instrument - how high above the bench mark the telescope sits after being leveled.
  • Station - definite point between which lengths are measured. When the instrument is moved, each new location becomes a station.
  • Turning Points - intermediate points used for transferring a known elevation.
    • Backsight - the measurement taken when the instrument, in the level position, is directed "back" toward the bench mark. Always recorded as a plus-sight because a back-sight is always added to the known elevation in order to record the height of the instrument.
    • Foresight - the measurement taken when the instrument, in the level position, is directed away from the bench mark. Always recorded as a minus-sight because it is always subtracted from the instrument height. This new measurement creates another bench mark.40-6900 Builder's Level, Top View

Parts of a Builder's Level

A builder's level consists of many parts:

  1. Telescope - holds lenses which magnify objects in the sight.
  2. Graduated Leveling Vial - used to level the telescope on its base.
  3. Graduated Horizontal Circle - marked by degrees, used for setting and reading angles.
  4. Leveling Screws - allows adjustments to be made to ensure the instrument is level in all positions.
  5. Focusing Knob - can be turned to make object appear crisp and clear.
  6. Base - area where the builder's level attaches to the tripod.
  7. Eyepiece - located at viewing end of telescope, can be turned to bring the crosshairs into focus.
  8. Horizontal Clamp Screw - holds the instrument in the horizontal position when tightened.
  9. Horizontal Tangent Screw - allows the instrument to be adjusted horizontally.
  10. Vernier Scale - moves when the telescope is turned to the left or to the right.


The telescope is located at the top of the builder's level. The telescope's main purpose is to magnify distant objects and make them look nearer. The telescope moves horizontally around a graduated horizontal circle. The horizontal circle is marked at each 1 degree up to 360 degrees.

The objective lens sits at the end of the telescope. It catches the object being sighted and with the help of other lenses inside of the telescope, the object gets magnified.

At the opposite end of the objective lens sits the eyepiece where the user looks. Inside the eyepiece, crosshairs run horizontally and vertically. Rotating the eyepiece allows the crosshairs to become more focused and clear. There is a focusing knob located on the barrel of the telescope used to focus crisply on the object being sighted.

Stadia lines are located on the eyepiece. Stadia lines are short horizontal lines located above and below the crosshair that runs horizontally. The stadia lines get bisected by the vertical crosshairs which allows for the user to find the distance of the object being sighted.

Level Vial (Graduated Leveling Vial)

Also known as a spirit level, the graduated leveling vial is used to level the telescope while being placed on the base. This works much like a traditional hand spirit level.

The base plate of the builder's level is the area which the level is attached to the tripod. There are three different kinds of base plates, all with specific instructions for attaching instruments. When using a threaded instrument base, it can be screwed to the threaded tripod head. When using either a flathead or a dome head tripod, there is a center bolt that is located on the bottom of the tripod that will need to be screwed into the level.

Setting Up and Using a Builder's Level

Heavy Duty Fiberglass TripodWhen preparing to set up a builder's level, make sure you have the right tripod since tripods can have different types of heads.

  • When using a 5/8" center bolt mount: the protective cap from the tripod head should be fitted onto any of the tripod's legs using the attachment found on the cap.
  • When using a threaded tripod head mount: remove the threaded protective cap and set aside. Unthread the level from the case mount and screw on the tripod head. After being connected to the tripod head, thread the protective cap onto the case mount.

Once you have found the correct head for your instrument, you can start your set up.

Mounting a Builder's Level

Place the level directly on the tripod head after removing the level from the carrying case. If the level is placed elsewhere, it could lead to instrument damage. After placing it on the tripod, the next step is threading or bolting onto the tripod base. Remove the protective lens covers and put them in the carrying case. You should also place the sunshade on the telescope. After these steps, the mounting process is finished.

Leveling a Builder's Level

After mounting your instrument, it is important to make sure it is level around all 360 degrees to allow for precise and accurate measurements. Before beginning the leveling process, ensure the safety and security of your instrument and others.

  • Make sure that the tripod is stable and securely planted before starting the leveling process. It is important to do this step to make sure the instrument will not tip over while doing the leveling process.
  • Make sure that the attachment between the builder's level and tripod is secure.
  • Make sure the four leveling screws are not too tight against the leveling base plate.

Procedures: Leveling a Builder's Level

  • First position: line up the telescope until it is located directly over a pair of leveling screws. Using the leveling screws, center the bubble in the spirit vial.
  • Placing both of the leveling screws between your thumb and forefinger; turn both screws at the same time in opposite directions and watch for movement in the graduated spirit vial.
    • Move the thumbs together in or out. The bubble will follow the left thumb.
  • Second position: when the bubble is centered, rotate the telescope 90* (insert degree mark).
    • Repeat the thumbs in, thumbs out action until the bubble is centered in the second position.
  • Turn the telescope back to the first position and make the proper adjustments to ensure that the instrument is still level.
  • Move the instrument through various stages of the 360* (insert degree mark) and check if the instrument is level at all points.

Make sure that the instrument is level at all four leveling points. If it is not level at all points, the final check must be done again until the bubble is centered at each point. If the bubble is still not being centered, there may be damages to the leveling instrument.

Focusing a Builder's Level

After making sure your instrument is level at all leveling points, the next step is focusing the builder's level.

  • The first step in this process is to aim your telescope at an object. It should look blurry at first, but turning the eyepiece either left or right should make the object appear clearer.
  • After focusing the eyepiece, point the telescope directly at the specific target. While keeping the crosshairs in focus, use the focusing knob to make the specified object appear sharp.

Marking a Reference Line

Using a Builder's Level - The operator looks through the eyepiece of the telescope while an additional worker holds a graduated staff or tape measure vertical at the point under measurement.A level grade line, or reference line, is a sight line that is established through the telescope. It is created at the horizontal crosshair and requires two workers to establish.

  • The operator looks through the eyepiece of the telescope while an additional worker holds a graduated staff or tape measure vertical at the point under measurement.
  • The instrument and staff are used to gather or transfer elevations during site surveys and building construction.
  • Measurement starts from a benchmark with known height, or an arbitrary point with an assumed height.

Helpful Hints for Builder's Levels

  • When the objective lens is not in use, it should be covered with a lens cap to prevent damage to the equipment.
  • Detachable sunshades are useful in preventing glare and protecting the objective lens.
  • Do not lift your level by the telescope; always be sure to lift it by the base.
  • Make sure to turn both screws at the same time and rate when leveling a builder's level.
  • Make sure the builder's level is level around all 360 degrees of direction; if this is not done, the measurements will be incorrect.
  • Make sure the leveling screws are not too tight - over tight screws need to be loosened for the most accurate results.
  • Do not look at the sun through the telescope.
  • Keep both of your eyes open when looking through the telescope. This will avoid tiring your eyes and eliminate squinting.
  • The image being sighted will be sharpest when it is quartered by the crosshairs. This is the most accurate place on the lens.
  • The jumping of an image is called "parallax". With each movement, adjust the focusing knob until the image stops jumping.
  • Do not touch the tripod at anytime after the builder's level is mounted. This can cause problems with the measurements as well as the accuracy of the level.
  • In the case of a threaded base, the instrument must be unscrewed before it is removed.
  • While unscrewing the threaded base, make sure you hold the instrument with one hand. Also, make sure you hold the instrument by the frame.

See Johnson Level's Builder's Level, Builder's Transit Level and Automatic Levels

©2010 Johnson Level & Tool Mfg. Co., Inc.

Johnson laser levels, spirit levels, construction measuring and marking tools - JobSite Tough Since 1947

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