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Traditional Technology – How to Setup & Use a Water Level

I first learned about water levels during the summer I was 12 years old.  That summer, my father and I built a shed (of his own design, from scratch – not one of these kits available today).  Besides building on an already-developing skillset with tools, I learned the Pythagorean Theorem that summer – as well as how to make and use a water level.

In this post we’re going to show you how to setup a basic water level for use in even the most remote locations on the planet.  We’re using a water level, as well as a handful of other ‘bare-handed’ techniques, to construct an outdoor classroom at our field site.  Enjoy.

In it’s most basic form, a water level simply uses liquid water’s self-leveling property (due to gravity) to strike a ‘level’ line.  It’s actually a ridiculously simple (and yet surprisingly accurate) technique.

If you fill a pool with water and the surface is still, then the surface will be universally level – even if the floor of the pool is uneven.  That goes for a pool, a gutter, trough, or even a plastic tube that you fill.

Water levels have been in use for centuries (at least).  It’s fairly common now (though not necessary) to use clear plastic tubing, an invention of only the last hundred years.  I find a bit of irony there.

At our field site, we’re in the process of building a simple outdoor classroom to shield students from the sun and the hail that we see frequently enough.  To start, we’ve installed four Lodgepole Pine posts approximately 24″ into the ground and standing seven+ feet above ground.  (Geek fact:  From the center of the fire pit, each post demarcates one of the Cardinal Directions, so our classroom is also a compass.)  Now it’s time to level the tops to one another.


If you like traditional skills, you may be interested in our article ‘How To Make a Hook Knife In 4 Easy Steps’:

How To Make a Hook Knife In 4 Easy Steps


To demonstrate, we’re using a piece of 1/2″ clear tubing.  Each end is secured (using a clove hitch in each picture) to a post that we’d like to cut level to each of the other posts.  If you’re working with a partner, no need to secure the tube, just hold it and move as necessary.

The tube is filled with water to the top of the lowest post.  (It’s fairly common to siphon water into the tube from a tank of water, or you can pour water into the tube to fill it.)  Tap the tube gently to remove air bubbles.

Because water (and any other liquid) will level itself due to gravity, the resulting level of water in the other end of the tube is at the same ‘height’ as the first.

Simply strike (or cut) a line at the level of the water and it will be level with the height of the first post.

Piece o’ cake.  Even the pyramid-builders might be proud.

Have fun – and come see our field site classroom sometime!


To learn more traditional and outdoor skills, check out our online, place-based, independent study program THE PACK.