Renewed Life for My Dad’s Stanley Level

My dad died when I was still a teenager.  Unlike his father, who was a carpenter, my dad wasn’t much of a woodworker.  The few tools he left behind were mostly garden variety homeowner tools purchased from the local hardware store.  So when my brother gifted me my dad’s old level this summer, I didn’t give it much thought.  It was in horrible condition from decades of neglect.  I brought it home and with barely a glance, set it aside on my workbench to deal with later.

With cooler fall temperatures here on the east coast, I recently pulled it out for a closer look.  Upon closer inspection, I found that it is a Stanley no. 3 level, which was somewhat of a surprise in and of itself.   More interesting, the trademark stamp dates it to the 1890s, approximately 30-35 years before my dad was born.  It could have been my grandfather’s, but even he would have had to have purchased it as a teenager, if acquired new.  Of course there is no way to know where it came from or who originally owned it, but it ended up in my father’s hands, then my brother’s, and thanks to him, it now belongs to me.

As you can see from the quick shot I took before I got started on it, virtually all the original finish is gone and the wood faded from exposure to the elements.  It appears to have spent a good deal of time in a shed or barn.  The primary glass vial was intact and serviceable, but the plumb vial was broken long ago.  Otherwise, all the parts were in place and thankfully, the vial adjustment screws were not frozen.

Level Pre-Restoration

My dad’s 1890s vintage Stanley no. 3 Level, partially disassembled

I disassembled and removed all the hardware to better evaluate what needed to be done in terms of cleanup, and to assess the broken plumb vial.  After cleaning the rust off all the screws and the vial adjustment mechanisms, I cleaned the crud off the brass plates and end caps.  I never polish old brass hardware, but I decided in this case to clean off most of the oxidation in order to better see the center scribe line.

With the hardware cleaned up, I moved on to the wood.  Despite its condition, there were numerous paint specks and splatters from years of use that I wanted to protect.  The wood itself is evidently cherry.  I cleaned it lightly with Kramer’s Blemish Clarifier to remove any loose dirt and crud.  I then applied 6 or 8 applications of Kramer’s Best Antique Improver, which I’ve written about before.  It’s great stuff, all natural (no petrochemicals), and restores life to finished and unfinished wood.

In the meantime, I went to work sourcing a proper replacement vial.  I preferred to keep it as close to original as possible, so new acrylic vials were out of the question.  I found a few glass vials for sale on eBay, but the prices were absurdly high.  So, I started trolling for a suitable “donor” level of approximately the same vintage.  It took 2 or 3 weeks, but I finally found one for under $10 that had the plumb vial intact.  When it arrived, I was surprised to find the condition actually better than the photos reflected.  I actually felt a little guilty stripping it of one of its parts.

Plumb Vial Before Repair

Plumb Assembly Before Vial Replacement

Now if you’ve never replaced a vial in an old Stanley level, you might be surprised to learn that they used Plaster of Paris (or something similar) to cement the glass vial in the tube shaped holder.  This both held it in place and also protected the fragile ends.  Getting the vial out of the old plane was much easier than I anticipated.  Pulling the split holder tube open slightly, the vial and plaster slid right out in one piece.  Once out, the old plaster easily released from the glass vial.  The vial has a paper backing that wraps around the back side, but it isn’t attached.  So carefully removing that paper and setting it aside, a quick cleaning of the glass had it looking very much like new in short order.  Positioning the vial along with the paper backing into the assembly on my dad’s plane, I dabbed some plaster into place at each end and allowed it to dry.

I reattached all the hardware, and calibrated both vials using another level as a guide.  Completed, my dad’s old level is once again accurate and ready for the workshop.  You can just make out the replaced vial in the photo on the left.  Now, as to the donor level I bought, it’s still sitting here in need of a plumb vial.  There’s clearly something wrong with this scenario!

Complete Full ViewComplete Full View 2


About Bryant
Bryant is a business management and organizational development executive with over 20 years’ experience focused on financial and operational efficiencies, talent development and optimization, improved employee engagement, and cultural alignment of teams within the organization. He has diverse experience in successful financial and strategic planning, brand management, leadership analysis and talent development, as well as designing and executing improvements to teams’ cultural efficacy and organizational alignment. Bryant has experience in both International Public S&P 500 Corporate and Non-Profit Sectors, and also runs his own entrepreneurial business venture, a consulting company specializing in helping small businesses and organizations improve operational efficiency, leadership development, and employee engagement . Bryant holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and a Bachelors in Fine Arts (BFA).

10 Responses to Renewed Life for My Dad’s Stanley Level

  1. Gglave says:

    Very nice article. I really enjoy a good story about the proper restoration of old tools. Yes I am getting there too, I am much closer to sixty than I had realized. Perhaps that has aided my appreciation of ‘old-things’. Tools today are very expensive if they are any good, if they are cheap, well those are disposables. I am sure that Mr. Stanley envisioned his level on a bench 123 years after he manufactured it. Because, back then it was all about quality at an affordable price. I am sure Mr. Stanley appreciates, even more that you realize, the kind restoration you gave to one of his tools.
    Good stuff.


  2. Great post on restoration, I have 8 to 10 old Stanley wood levels that I need to restore. They also belong to my dad.


  3. andrewlbc says:

    I happened upon this article while searching for a replacement bubble vial for what turns out to be the almost identical Stanley level. Much like yours, it belonged to my father and had seen better days, so a couple years ago I refinished it. The original finish on mine kind of reminded me of milk paint, as it was thin enough to see the wood but was clearly a surface coating as opposed to stain which is more “in the wood”. I ended up sanding it and applying a few heavy coats of Cherry Watco Danish Oil and allowing it to dry on the surface in order to replicate the original finish, then applied a few coats of homemade wipe on poly. (50/50 oil based polyurethane and Naptha)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Tillman says:

    I have a level like the one restored and am missing the primary level. How do I get in touch with the fellow to see if he would sell the one he didn’t use?


  5. Barbara Diehl says:

    Your story of reclaiming the original beauty of your late father’s level was just what I needed to read. I am doing the same, and benefited from your share. Thanks.


  6. Robert Stout says:

    Very cool! Great story! I found this because I, too, have my grandfather’s Stanley #3 level. Fortunately, it is in very good condition and fully intact. My normal level was too long for the narrow powder room I needed to hang a mirror in. So out comes grandfather’s level probably upward of 120 years old. I tested the the calibration was it was perfect. I guess I am duty-bound to pass this on to my son and grandson.


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