Builder's Level vs Transit Level: What's the Difference?
by Mike Wu on Nov 19, 2022
A level is a level, right? Not so. There are many different kinds of levels used by construction professionals all the way down to your novice homeowner. But with professionals, the straight level with that mysterious green liquid tube with the bubble floating about just won't cut it. In construction and building, levels need to be measured over great distances. Surveyors need to measure levels at even greater distances. This is why there are professional levels that will perform a variety of functions.
Two of the most widely used are the builder's level and the transit level. Although they look very similar, they are not. The transit level has one up on the builder's level. It performs a function that the builder's level does not. What is it? Read on to learn about this function along with any other potential differences between the builders level vs transit level.
There are some basic similarities between the two levels in question. Below is a list of the most common similarities.
Telescope: This is the long cylindrical object found on top of the level. It is used to magnify objects at distance, just like any telescope.
Eyepiece: Without this, looking through the telescope would be just a blur. The eyepiece is on the end of the scope--the end that you look into--and used to physically view objects at distance.
Leveling Vial: The familiar air bubble in a tube, this is used to make sure your level is actually level once it has been attached to the tripod.
Horizontal Measuring Circle: As measurements are being taken, the level can be turned horizontally 3600. To keep track of which direction the measurements are being taken is critical to being precise with the surveying.
Focusing Knob: Depending on the distance your partner is holding the measuring rod, adjustments will need to be made so the crosshairs in the unit can be focused and clearly visible.
Attaching Base: The level, although typically not too heavy, will need to be securely attached to a tripod with the attaching base.
There may be other features the each of these levels share, such as locking screws and leveling knobs, but the basics above are what constitute both of these levels. Keep in mind, there are levels that now come with laser technology, computer chips and Bluetooth connectivity, and more. Whether these technological advances are really necessary is up to debate. The good old dependable telescopic level will still get the job done. And these new advancements will definitely pad the price of your next level purchase.
Either way, the end goal is the same: Precise measurements in surveying. Now let's focus in on the builder's level and the transit level individually.
The Builder's Level: Old School Dependability
Also known as a "dumpy level," the builder's level is an optical instrument you can use to check elevations and set up your level points. It is strictly used to measure horizontally, typically used by builders and surveyors. The beauty of this level is that the telescope can be moved around in a complete 3600 circle. It is a very basic level by today's standards since newer, more advanced levels are available on the market as I mentioned earlier.
This unit should be mounted on a heavy-duty tripod for use. As you look through the telescope, you will need something to look at. In essence, you will need a coworker to have some kind of measuring rod marked with the height you're wanting to set. As the measuring rod is moved around the plot of land being leveled, the builder's level will be able to demonstrate the relative elevations at different positions. This information is extremely important if you are planning on constructing a building--unless you want to end up with the leaning tower of Pisa.
Builder's Level Pros
- First, the classic builder's level is more affordable. If you're trying to save money and this level will cover all of your needs, it is an excellent option.
- Second, this level is fairly lightweight and manageable. You won't be straining your back trying to haul this unit around the construction site.
- Third, your setup will be simple. Just establish your center point on the property, firmly secure your tripod, then attach the builder's level and get measuring.
- Fourth, ease of use. It's not a complicated piece of machinery. It has one function and it will do that function well.
Builder's Level Cons
- First, although ease of use is a pro, it's also somewhat of a drawback due to it's limited abilities. If you have to make any changes vertically with your level, you will need to remeasure everything you've already done.
- Second, you are limited and unable to measure any angles. If only there was a way to adjust the builder's level horizontally?
The Transit Level: A Critical Added Feature
At first glance, it is hard to see the difference between the builder's level vs transit level. They could easily be the same tool. In a sense, they are but with one crucial difference: The transit level has the ability to adjust vertically, not just horizontally in a circle. What does this mean?
Just like the builder's level, the transit level has the telescopic proponent and also needs to be mounted on a very sturdy tripod. It, too, can rotate 3600 and is used to measure elevations in a complete circle. And again, two people are needed to use the equipment properly. But once the first set of horizontal elevation measurements are completed, the transit level can now be adjusted vertically. This will allow the team to measure vertical angles from the exact same position. So if you need to determine angles and positions along with surveying, you will need to use a transit level.
One issue that could arise when using a transit level is experience. It is imperative that the operators of the level are versed in how to use a transit level properly. If, at any time, the tool is accidentally adjusted vertically when taking the horizontal measurements, accuracy could go out the window.
Transit Level Pros
- First, it does everything a builder's level will do but also gives you the ability to measure angles and positions of objects.
- Second, if you have experience with the builder's level, you will have no issues completing your work with a transit level.
Transit Level Cons
- First, transit levels will have a higher cost due to it's advanced functionality.
- Second, you may have some difficulty using the level if you don't know how to use the vertical proponent of the tool.
Setting Up Both Levels - How to Use
Manual setup and installation is required for both types of levels. Once you've determined the best location for your level, you will need to set up your tripod. You won't need to be precise at first, but adjusting the legs to a point where the base looks close to level would save you some time. Once this is completed, securely attach the level to the tripod. This may be the most critical step in the process. The last thing you want is to see your level fall to the ground and break, thereby becoming a useless paperweight!
Once completely secured, now is the time to get dialed in. You will need to use the leveling screws or knobs and make adjustments until your leveling vials indicate that your level is, well, level. You will need to make these adjustments on both the X and Y axis.
Once level, always double check to make sure the tripod is secure, There is nothing worse than getting halfway completed with your measurements and the tripod settles out of level and you need to readjust and start from scratch!
A Smart Non-Level Addition
As for use, both levels will need two people to use properly; one at the level taking measurements and the other moving in the distance with the measuring rod. Since there could be some great distance between the level operator and the measuring rod handler (and add in the typical loud noises at most construction sites) communication could be difficult, if not impossible. An obvious addition to your team would be some kind of communication device such as walkie talkies so everyone is always in communication and on the same page.
Builder's or Transit? Which Should I Get?
This begs the question: Why not just get a transit level and be done with it? Well, this decision really depends on your needs. If you're just going to measure elevations and have no need to measure angles, the builder's level could be all you need. If you're on a budget, they are less expensive. They are also simpler to use. If you want a tool that has more features and capabilities and you have the budget, getting a transit level is the smart choice. And if you plan on measuring angles along with elevations, the transit level turns into a "must-have" tool.
Bottom line, if you can afford it, springing for the transit level makes the most since, even if you only need to measure horizontally for your current job. If your next job requires a transit level, you will be ready to start immediately--and you won't have to waste resources buying a second level.