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 agingeyes. 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.
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. 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.
The end caps are fitted with rubber stand-offs that grip the wall and make it easy to hold the level still.
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.
A couple of months back, I bought the 24″/48″ lighted Stabila set out of frustration — lately I have been holding 3×5 cards, flashlights, cellphones, etc. next to the vials to be able to see the bubble. Anyway, I love the lit up vials — really easy to see no mater what the ambient lighting is.
That said, I’m really disappointed in the thought given to replacing the batteries — 4 tiny jewelers screws have to be removed to get at the batteries. Not only do I need to track down my jeweler’s screwdriver, I have to try and not loose 4 very small screws while I’m replacing these batteries. Not at all jobsite friendly. I would think Stabila would have made it so that it didn’t require any tools to replace the batteries. This brings me to my second point — its easy to forget to turn off the lights and boy is it a bummer to realize that you left it on overnight … I would have preferred a light that turns itself off after a couple of minutes (or at least a switch that allows that as an option [off-timed-on]).
Anyway, I was a bit disappointed that you didn’t make these points in your review of the Festool 48″ level.
Gray Wolf Construction
Thank you for your feedback and your trust in us at Stabila. We totally understand your frustration with hard to read vials and appreciate your purchase of the Lights kit. I also understand your comments about the 4 screws. I like to call them “irritating little screws” myself. You have a couple of options for now. New light packs are available through your local Stabila dealer. They are sold in a 2 pack and even include the housing that is mounted in the level frame, in the case that the housing gets cracked from a nasty fall. The part number for the 2 pack is (20090) and usually retails for around $12. considering the cost of the “wafer” batteries, it is a pretty decent option.
We totally agree with your auto shut off comment and are always looking at options. The decision to go with the type of switches we did were to combat dust and water. The switches are actually magnetic so that the light packs would have a dust and water rating of IP54. The decision was also based on ultimate cost. In the future we will consider all options.
Thanks again for your business, support and opinion. We appreciate all of them.
I haven’t run the batteries down on one yet…I guess I haven’t left them on! But that moment will come, I’m sure. I know that Stabila told me the batteries could be replaced but they provide a complete light replacement instead. I haven’t needed one yet, but I may as well prepare for that, too, and order some so they’re in my van when I need them. Thanks for pointing that out!
How do you write any type of tool review article and not include the manufacturers suggested price for the tool. If it is priced like other Festool tools the price could be astronomical.
How bad of me!!! I just checked online and the only source I found for the new level was at Highland Woodworking:
And the price is $150.00, which is about $50.00 more than a a Stabila 4 ft. level without lights!
At times we level off a mark in a corner that a beveled end cap makes guess work out of. I guess the end caps pop out but why can’t they be unbeveled ? Am i imagining it or are some levels more sensitive ? How close the bubble fits to the “lines” also makes a difference i’d say. Does the bubble size change with the temperature ?
Sorry it took so long to get back to you with answers. I tracked down Jason Becker in Germany while he was at Stabila headquarters. Here’s what he had to say in response to your queries:
“Beveled end caps! Boy do we totally understand the question. The size and shape of the end caps are the way they are for two reason. First, the material is different and can expand and contract at different rates. We can’t allow any chance that an end cap might ever be larger because that would throw off the accuracy of the level! And the second reason the end caps have beveled edges is to avoid sharp corners.
Sensitivity! What a great question. That’s at the heart of any highly accurate measuring system. Sensitivity varies with and is almost a function of vial shape, material, texture and size. We use a barrel-shaped vial and a specific texture in order to control the speed of the bubble traveling through the vial; we balance those features while maintaining the highest possible accuracy which is comfortable to use for tradesmen. It is possible to be even more accurate, but then the level becomes finicky and difficult to use.
Bubble size. It is not a good thing to have a larger bubble that gets closer to the lines for the very reason you mentioned! In cold temperatures, the bubble gets larger. If the bubble gets so large that it touches both lines, the level is useless.”
I hope Jason’s explanations help!
Thanks Gary , i believe i’ll be either pulling out those end caps or trimming them down to almost the metal.Too often i believe work is done off the end of the level. If these levels are stay true and easy to read true (beside lit) i guess i will get one before long.
Thank you for the article, I really appreciate it as the fest/stabil 4 footer is on my list of tools to buy. The lighted vials may seem a little gimicky at first but so did the lights on my Makita screw guns when they first came out. Once they perform in a situation where they are truly needed I curse the many days previous where they could have improved my performance. These days I do most of my closet shelf or any horizontal layout for that matter with a 360 degree self leveling laser. As with any tool that require batteries I always have an extra set of rechargeables ready to roll thus eliminating the frustration of a dead battery.
I think I’ve had a conversation with every carpenter I’ve worked with in the past about the bubble size in the vial relating to the gap between the lines. The bubble always seems too small. Your conversation with J Becker solves this mystery. As well as the tapered end cap issue (my end caps come off after purchase and live in my tool bag and are used only when needed).
As with every Festool I own as well as any other tool that stimulates the “I can’t believe you paid that much” statement I am reminded of my stock response…. “I can’t afford not to buy it”.
It’s nice to see that Stabila keeps moving forward.
I still own the first 4′ level I bought from Stabila and never bought another company’s tools since my first Stabila.
That four footer convinced me when I dropped it three stories down a chimney shaft, where it landed end first on the concrete hearth with a spectacular metallic sound as the end cap shattered. I was sure it was history but it wasn’t even bent and still reads accurate to this day.
The beefier end caps with retainer buttons, and the new lights, might make an upgrade worth it at this point. But it would seem I will never be able to render my old one inaccurate.
I agree with Tim’s comment about the lights. I’ve even used my Makita impact driver for lighting when I’ve stayed late to finish a job in the dark! I just won this level at a Gary Katz Roadshow in Portsmouth, NH. Very much looking forward to using it. From, Ronald Sauve
Just thought I would drop you a line, unfortunately Jason Becker no longer works for Stabila, my name is Steve Underhill and I hold the same position that Jason did but based in the UK.
So if you ever have anymore queries regarding Stabila Products, drop me an email and I will kindly help out.
Stabila UK and Ireland.
were do you buy this level and I have a STABILA level and I lost my light packs can you tell were I can buy some and the Festool level too. thank you GW.
I thought it was stocked by most Festool dealers? I’ll ask Festool. And most Stabila dealers should stock those light packs or be able to order them from Stabila
Hi guys, I’m interested in purchasing the old levels we used to use with the little windows on the ends, so as you can read plumb by looking down the top of the level, any ideas where I can get one in Australia,??
Kapro levels have that little peep-hole for their plumb vials, but I’m in the USA and don’t know if they distribute them there.
Can I buy a 4 foot heavy duty level anywhere? I am a bricklayer and find the 3 foot 3 inch a bit short.