(Webmaster's note: This article was scanned from the December 1994 issue of ToolTalk. )
I don't remember specifically why or how I began collecting levels. My first levels were real dogs, beat up, relatively modem, common items with broken vials, missing brass and lots of dings. As time wore on, my world enlarged a little and I began to find better quality levels, but of the same type and vintage as those I already had. Actually, my world had enlarged from the Baton Rouge to New Orleans corridor to include the Canton, Texas Flea Market, and some antique stores and flea markets in northwest Arkansas. Still, not exactly the best place to search for levels, but ~ what did I know? Precious little, which is what I thought I needed to know.
Slowly, my world expanded, and I began to find older and better levels but for the most part they were still made by Stanley. I didn't believe that anyone else made levels. Then there was the first trip to Brimfield. They sold levels there that showed little if any signs of use. Some were made of rosewood. I found some rosewood levels with concrete on them, too. What a sacrilege.
Then came the big Beitler auction. Rare levels. Brass-bound rosewood levels. Strange levels. Inclinometers. Metal levels with fancy cast iron filigree and gold paint. I was hooked. Collecting wasn't going to be the same. For one thing, it was going to be more expensive. I bought thirteen pieces in the Beitler auction. Far more than half of those were levels. Then Bob Stanley sold me some of the rare pieces from his collection. Collecting had changed.
I began to acquire every catalog and reprint I could get my hands on -- always interested in the levels they contained. I looked in auction catalogs. I went everywhere I could afford and bought everything I could find, whether I could afford it or not. A lot of strange makers were turning up in my office: Poole, H.M. and J. & H.M. of Easton, Mass. (the partnership of J. & H.M. Poole came first, well before 1850). These were levels of mahogony, elegant in their simplicity--some of the most beautiful pieces of wood I've seen anywhere. H.M. made many levels later, with beautiful Cuban mahogony, heavy, sleek wood, with purple highlights, sometimes using one sided double scalloped brass sideviews.
McCoskrie, Watt, the Lamberts, George & William, Lambert Mulliken and Stackpole, and Mulliken and Stackpole. Now I knew what I was looking for. These things were elegant, similar to Pooles, simple but distinctive. The woods were, again, exotic. Some really were rosewood. Some were a blackish, extremely dense wood that resembled ebony. The was a blond wood somewhat like satinwood or boxwood that came with German fittings. There was a definite Boston style for levels. A little later came Harmon, the Mason Brothers, and many, many more. Slowly, it dawned on me that there were whole series of levels put out by these manufacturers, just as by Stanley, which was competing with the Boston makers by 1859.
Stanley jumped into the level business just as they got into so many other businesses: they bought a company, Hall and Knapp. I was fascinated by the idea that every level that Stanley advertised in 1859 was probably also made by Hall and Knapp during the few brief years of their existence. I still think that's true, and I've tried to collect the whole series of Hall and Knapp levels according to that theory.
Stratton Brothers appeared on the scene. Now came the elegant little brass bound rosewood machinists levels that are so sought after today. No question about it, Stratton levels were probably overall the best wooden levels on the market. Stratton Bros. apparently made some levels for special order. These were standard pattern oversized levels or standard size and pattern, but of exotic woods such as birdseye maple. These special levels are fantastic pieces.
Then there were the cast iron levels. L.L. Davis with his fancy filigreed pieces. The Davis patent inclinometer. Like Stratton, these levels were soon recognized as the finest metal levels on the market. Davis made some pretty elegant wooden levels too. He used Cuban mahogany, rosewood and cherry. His wooden levels, like the metal ones, were produced in two stock sizes referred to as small and large stock or regular and tall form. Davis had his imitators too, and this led to a profusion of metal levels of varying quality and style. Patents were issuing fast and furious now. Why things were patentable is not always obvious.
Around the turn of the century, the flood gates opened and men allover the United States began to patent levels. Many of these were gradefinder or inclinometer type levels. These constitute one of the most collectible classes of levels today. The names are familiar to many collectors. Texas Clinometer, Deck Gravity, Protractor Level, Juney's patent, Rowes' patent (a very early one, in the 1850s, has a plumb bob that is let down with a crank), Gibson, Murray Porter, Challenger (1860s), Helb, and Mellick. This is not a complete list, either. There are many others that mystify collectors--their makers are unknown. Many of these gadget levels were patented from the Midwest--Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri.
Then there are the sighting levels. Some of them have only a long tube with a pin hole at one end and cross hairs at the other. Some of them have mirrored arrangements. Some have glass protective covers over the holes and some do not. Some of them are forerunners of the builder's level still used today. Some of them were patented and some weren't. The O. Hanks patent goes back to the 1840s, for example, and this level is very attractive with its gold trim, adjustable sights and pivoting pieces.
The machinists' levels form another collectible class. Usually three to twelve inches long and usually of cast iron or brass. Again there were several interesting patents, as usual, for adjusting the bubble and sometimes for function. All the major level manufacturers of the late 1800s and early 1900s made one or more machinists' levels and most were of a style different from the classic Starrett. Some of them like the Davis levels with their acorn end knobs were very distinctive. A few of these levels had provisions for setting a constant angle such as in the Richardson patent.
Finally, I'll stop with a plug for homemade levels. Some of the most beautiful and ingenious levels in my collection are home made. They often feature brass parts from commercial levels but the quality of the wood, of the workmanship and of the imagination are remarkable. Many of them are inlaid with geometric designs or stylized initials of exotic wood. One type of level that lends itself to being craftsman produced is the plumb level. This is a plumb bob and a right triangle with perfects flat sides. These could be made of any wood that was handy or of brass. There was plenty of variety in the plumb bob too.
Early craftsmen-made levels are often impossible to assign, with certainty, to the craftsman category. :Early level makers had the maddening habit of marking their work with no more than a paper label. When that label was lost or became illegible it was not intrinsically possible to assign the product to a commercial maker. There is nearly endless variety in levels. We haven't even touched on pocket levels and levels made for use with a rule or square. We haven't talked about some of the later but major producers of levels, such as Disston and Morrs, and later Disston; or about Davis and Cook; or Akron, Jennings, Chapin and Chapin Stevens, and so many more. We haven't talked about the special qualities of mason's levels, or railroad levels, or of levels with irregularly shaped vials. We've skipped the levels with batteries and light bulbs in each porthole. Then there is the whole category of inventions that might best be called "rafter levels."
Collecting levels has become quite consuming. I hope I have given some insight into why I've found this type of tool so interesting. I think that there are as many patents applied to levels are there are for planes. Certainly size, form and function are also comparable variable. Then the intrinsic beauty of the wood, the shapes in brass, and... there's no end to it.