When I started teaching carpentry clinics at lumberyards around the country, one of the first companies I sought support from was Stabila—I used their levels for a couple of decades and wouldn’t think of switching brands. There was no other spirit level available that guaranteed the same degree of precision, whether the vials were right-side up or up-side down.
When I first started in the trades, I used an adjustable level, but threw it away after setting door jambs in a home getting bull-nose drywall. The jambs on the first floor were fine, but something must have happened to the level—maybe I dropped it or banged it on the way upstairs, because the heads on the second floor were out of level about 1/4 bubble…in different directions! Once the drywall was in, looking down the hallway you could see every cock-eyed jamb.
Ironically, in the last few years Festool has joined Stabila in supporting Katz Roadshows, and now they're working together to produce a new line of spirit levels. The Festool M0106 (48-in.) level is their first co-branded tool, and it's a keeper. Like Stabila's other high-end levels, this one is accurate to .029 degrees, right-side up or up-side down. And, short of running over your spirit level with a truck, that accuracy is pretty much guaranteed forever.
Just this year, Stabila started offering levels with lights, and Festool's 4 footer has two of them. If you've ever laid out shelving in a dark closet, or set cabinets in a dimly lit bathroom, you'll immediately appreciate these LED wonders. They also snap out for replacement and can be used to light your way down a dark hallway, search through your tool bag, or find your way back to your truck!
As far as I'm concerned, one of the best improvements are the lighted vials, which make it much easier to read the bubble accurately, especially with my aging eyes. But standing square to the level is a must.
Some levels are made with frames that are splayed around the vial, theoretically making it easier to see the vial from any angle. But the truth is, you can't judge a bubble vial accurately unless you look at it straight on—perpendicular to the level.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Festool product without a couple of custom features that make work easier and faster.
A solid bridge spans each vial, so when you're striking a level line, your pencil doesn't drop into each vial.
And the top of the level is etched for precise centerline layout. Exactly. You don't have to do the arithmetic before laying out a cabinet or towel bar or a cutout for a new door or window.
Strike the centerline and use the centerline marks to measure back half the width of the cabinet or window opening. And in case you didn't notice from the photograph—the measurements are in millimeters AND INCHES!
For laying out a 24-in. towel bar or cabinet, simply make a small center mark at the center of the towel bar or at the top or bottom of the cabinet; place the level on the mark so that the bubbles are centered in the vials and the etched centerline is aligned with the center mark.
||The end caps are fitted with rubber stand-offs that grip the wall and make it easy to hold the level still.
For a 24-in. towel bar, make a small mark at 12 in. on both sides of the centerline; for a cabinet, draw a solid line from 12 in. to 12 in. across the middle of the level. You can also use the centerline measurements to mark stud layouts in two directions once you find the first stud.
Close enough isn’t good enough
Even though this level is accurate to .029 degrees (that's 1/32 in. over 72 in.!), reading a spirit vial is subjective—you have to estimate how close the bubble is to being perfectly centered between the indicator rings. Yes, experience helps. When I first started setting 8/0 door jambs, I thought having the bubble anywhere near to the center of the lines was close enough, but it's not—a slight tilt in either direction can mean a difference of 1/8 in. over 8 ft., which can be a critical error.
If anyone is wondering about those indicator rings, you might be interested to know that they're not lines but spring steel rings inserted by hand inside each crystal-clear acrylic vial. They actually snap into precisely cut kerfs! Each vial is checked for accuracy, speed, and bubble size. Only the top 15% make it into Stabila's high-end 196 series levels. The next 15-20% are used in the 80 series frames, etc. The lowest grade performers are used in DIY tools marketed in other parts of the world.
||If you look closely at the vials you'll see two small holes on the vertical vial housing. Those holes are used to adjust the vials… by hand.
Each level is hand calibrated while a camera-assisted computer checks the vials for accuracy. Once the computer gives the green light, the tool is set carefully on a rack for twelve hours—enough time for the epoxy to dry, which permanently locks the vial in place and guarantees the precision and durability demanded by professional craftsmen.