The Hand Level Vs. The Abney Level: Which One Do You Need?

Here at Warren Knight, it seems we write about levels quite a bit, and why not? Where would the world be without quality levels? In crooked houses with crooked floors and crooked artwork, no doubt. Let’s take a quick look at two commonly used field instruments – the hand level and the Abney level. These can be used by professionals as well as homeowners on a variety of projects.

The hand level looks a lot like a small telescope with a spirit level. The Abney level also resembles a telescope to a certain extent, and the Abney level does include a spirit level, sometimes called a bubble level or bubble vial. However, the Abney level also features the addition of a protractor scale or clinometer.

With the hand level, you would use this device to determine a point or line that is equal in elevation to your eye level. With the Abney level, you can use this device to find a point equal to your line of sight, but you also can use this type of level to measure the height of an object or to measure angles of slope. For instance, a forester might use an Abney level to measure tree height.

Both levels are lightweight and ideal tools to take out into the field and don’t require batteries or external power, which is definitely a plus for fieldwork. Often foresters and land surveyors or construction engineers will use these tools, especially during the initial phases of a project. It’s far easier to bring along a simple hand level or an Abney level than to drag a total station or a bulky theodolite into the wilderness.

When it comes to the hand level, this actually can be used for some hobbyists, as well. This includes people interesting in highpointing, which is a sport where people climb to the highest point in a specific area.

There are several highpointer’s clubs, and many of these club members have a goal of climbing to the highest point in all 50 states. This ranges from Denali in Alaska, which has a height of 20,310 feet above sea level to the lowest high point in the United States, Britton Hill in Florida. At just 345 above sea level, this hill is, no doubt, the easiest highpoint to climb in the United States.

Of course, the elevations of these points typically are well known, so there’s no guesswork involved. In fact, most of these points have geodetic markers identifying their position, placed there by the National Geodetic Survey. Still, if you are out in a wilderness area and want to find the highest point of elevation to enjoy the view or take a few pictures, the hand level is a lightweight and easy-to-use tool that can help you do that.

Hand levels and Abney levels also can be handy tools for homeowners, as they are easy to use and inexpensive. It’s unlikely that the average homeowner will be purchasing a theodolite or total station for backyard projects, but an inexpensive hand level can help with a variety of projects.

Typically, for homeowners, we’d recommend a basic hand level while a professional might need the additional functions available with the use of an Abney level. Our own WK-40-1750 Abney level is meant to be used by surveyors, engineers, foresters and professionals that need a lightweight, rugged device that they can use to obtain multiple slope readings.

Our Abney level can provide you with one or a combination of four slope readings, including degrees, percent of grade, topographic arc and chainage correction. Typically, a homeowner won’t need all of these readings and can get by with that basic hand level.

Of course, there are other types of levels contractors, builders and even homeowners might need. A carpenter’s level is handy for many household tasks, including hanging pictures, mirrors and shelves, while a precision frame spirit level can be a great tool for contractors or homeowners needing to check vertical and horizontal surfaces concurrently.

At Warren Knight, while our selection doesn’t include a hand level, we still highly recommend these types of levels for some basic surveying and measurement tasks. If you need a device with a bit more versatility, our Abney level might be the perfect tool. We also have a high-quality precision frame spirit level as well as digital and electronic protractors and many other leveling tools.  

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