A Man’s Passion
The wife’s at a work-related function. The kids are abed. In a moment of weakness, on the way home, today, I splurged on an autumn sampler of Sam Adams beer. So, let me tell you what’s really got me excited: My newest tool.
In an uncharacteristic stroke of good luck, I won the flashiest of the door prizes at the Gary Katz Roadshow event (seminar? presentation?) on Wednesday — donated by the event’s host, JT’s Lumber: a 24″ digital Stabila level.
As it happens, of all the various sizes of levels, a two-footer is the one of which I’ve the least need. A while back, I bought a regular ol’ Stabila of that size, and my other levels (all of cheaper brands) have Xs across some of the vials to remind me that they’re no longer accurate… at least accurate for the sort of carpenter who frets that gravity naturally prevents an actually straight line. As it also happens, I’ve specifically pshawed at this series of levels as I’ve passed them in the store. When you’re upset at having to replace a $3 set of scribes (like an art-class compass, for those outside of the trade), a level nearing $200 looks awfully luxurious and unnecessary.
But upon playing with my new toy at home, I discovered what makes it very valuable, indeed: It doesn’t just beep with increasing urgency as you near your level line: It tells you how many degrees from level you are, or alternately, how many inches off of level you are over the tool’s length. That means pitch.
The day before I won the level, I’d had cause to build a box around a chimney that spanned the ridge of a house that I’m renovating. I knew the pitch of the roof instantly by my usual means: the fear method. Pitch is determined by the number of inches that the roof goes up for every foot that it goes across, so a four pitch roof rises only four inches for every twelve inches of run. You can play Frisbee on such a roof. A six pitch roof is eminently walkable, but you do well to hook your tools on something so they don’t take the quick route to the ground. An eight pitch roof can begin to be frightening if you’ve nothing to grab (especially when it’s still covered only in plywood), and a twelve-pitch roof begins to feel like a ramp by which James Bond villains expel people from their zeppelins.
While the fear method is adequate for such tasks as estimating square footage or (more importantly) impressing clients and bosses with your ability to call a pitch on “sight,” it doesn’t quite get you to the point of knowing what angle to put on your saw when making cuts. I’m sure more-expert (and less self-taught) carpenters than I have better ways of discerning that data, but for me, tasks of such exactitude have required measuring down from the end of a shaking and wobbling level, with the other end touching the roof, and working out some basic arithmetic on a piece of scrap lumber, remembering that saws and squares measure angles at the perpendicular.
My new level, though, will tell me precisely how many degrees it is off from perfectly level. And since saws and squares measure angles at the perpendicular — which means, for example, that an angle of 60-degrees on the protractor reads as 30-degrees on the saw, because zero degrees is actually 90-degrees relative to the edge of a board — the number on the level is exactly the saw setting for a plumb (or vertical) cut.
As if to emphasize my good fortune, on Thursday, I found myself having to install a long trim board to which to attach a handrail. In old practice, the carpenter will measure up to the same height from the edges of stairs at each end of the run, draw a line, and find the angle of the line. Alternately, he could find an average length of each tread (keeping in mind how much it overhands the stair below) and the average height of each step (or riser) and use a framing square to mark out the plumb and level cuts.
With the digital Stabila, things were remarkably easier. I just spanned my six-and-a-half-foot level along the stairs and put my digital level on top of it. The screen informed me that the angle was 43.4 degrees, and I pressed a button that made that the reference angle (the zero). I then held the two levels against the wall and worked them up and down until the beeping told me that I’d achieved the same angle, and I drew my line. The plumb cut at the top of the board, I already knew to be 43.4 degrees, and for the level cut at the bottom, I merely subtracted that from 90 degrees.
In general, I prefer old methods to newfangled, mostly because they allow me to think about the physics and geometry involved. Where most guys will grab a laser level to draw a line around a room, I much prefer a coffee can, a clear 3/8″ tube, and a length of ferring to make a water level. Somehow, though, finding angles doesn’t have the same ye olde feel; it just feels as if I’m taking too long to accomplish a basic task.
Now, it’s simple. Of course, being a conservative, I’m prepared to lament, in advance, that future generations will not have experience with the frustrations and long considerations that bring me to my appreciation of the technology that they’ll take for granted.