DEAR MIKE: We want to spruce up a few rooms in our house with chair rail and add cabinets on some of our walls. My husband is a perfectionist and wants everything lined up like a marine drill team. My question is about making sure everything is perfectly level. I have thought about a laser level, but I doubt I would ever use it again. Any ideas? -- Shelly S.
DEAR SHELLY: Let me level with you: use a water level. They are extremely accurate, easy to use, and you can make one yourself with low-cost vinyl tubing and throw it away when you are done.
Don't get me wrong, laser levels are great, but they will set you back at least $40, even for an inexpensive one. A cheap carpenter's level is about $20, but vinyl tubing and a little water for a water level costs under $5.
A water level has the advantage of being able to level around corners without fiddling with the setting. With a laser or carpenter's level, you have to pick up the tool and reset it on the other side of the wall. With a water level, if you have enough tubing, you could level out the whole house in a matter of minutes.
To make a water level, you will need a length of clear plastic tubing. Buy one-quarter inch inside diameter tubing, and make sure you buy enough to reach where you need to go.
Now you want to fill the tube with water. The easiest way to do this is to siphon it from an elevated bucket. Think back to your high school days when you and your friends wanted to go out but didn't have gas money. If your friends were like some of mine, siphoning gas was the answer (and illegal, so don't try it).
Place a bucket of water on a chair and stick one end of the tube in the bucket. Hold the other end of the tube beneath it and suck a little air out of it until the water starts flowing into the tube, then place the end of the tube in an empty bucket.
When the tube is just about full, pull the end of the tube out of the water bucket to stop the siphoning action. By the way, you can add a little food coloring to the water in the bucket to see the water level easier, but be careful because it will stain if it spills. Make sure the water doesn't go all the way to the ends of the tube or it will spill as you are moving it around.
So now your water level is ready to use. Make sure there are no air bubbles left in the tube which may distort the reading. You can flick your finger along the tube to expel the bubbles. If you hold both ends of the tube together and the water marks line up, you are ready to go. If they don't line up, you have air bubbles trapped in the line or you are standing on the tube.
About the only drawback of the level is that you have to work with another person.
Determine what height you want your line to be. The first worker stands at that location and puts the tube against the wall with the water line at the determined height. The second worker moves to another location (further down the wall, around the corner, down the hall, etc.) where you want a perfectly level height marked and he places his tube against the wall. The first worker will need to adjust his tube height until the water level comes to rest at the determined height. The second worker can then mark the wall, then the first.
It's not high tech, it doesn't require batteries, and it is so basic, any elementary school pupil could master the water level. Maybe that's why I understand how to use it.