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Bubble-free, electronics based leveling accuracy
Text, photos and video by Tom Hintz
Posted - 9-11-2008
The days of a bubble in a tube telling us if something is level - or close to it - are numbered. The SmartTool™ line of electronic levels offer precise, digital readings in a multi-function unit that makes this ingenious tool useful for more than just seeing if your bench is level.
What It Does
The SmartTool™ is built around an electronics package that uses a digital LCD display to show how level (or not level) something is with a remarkable 1/10-degree accuracy. It does the same for plumb. While those functions are cool on their own, the SmartTool™ does more. A button changes the display mode between degrees, percentage (slope) or pitch (inches per foot, 1/8" resolution).
When you can see the display, the SmartTool™ provides arrows at the ends of the LCD that show which end has to go up and which goes down to achieve level. The arrows get larger as the SmartTool™ moves farther from level (or plumb) and shorter as the error is reduced. Another button turns on the audible system that beeps when the SmartTool™ hits level or plumb. Now you really can build something level with your eyes closed!
The SmartTool™ also has a Hold button that freezes the display for when you can't see the reading or just need to save it. Interestingly, the Mode button works while the Hold is engaged. That is handy when you want to convert a reading from degrees to pitch or slope.
The SmartTool™ was designed for the construction trades so it is tough and relatively maintenance free. The SmartTool™ is also water resistant. (The literature also says it is mortar resistant!) You can't submerge the SmartTool™ but a little rain or spilled coffee in the shop shouldn't be a disaster.
Power and Calibration
A normal 9V battery powers the SmartTool™. The accompanying literature makes no claims of battery life but considering what it is powering, I suspect having the battery actually run out of juice will be rare. More likely is many of us changing the battery "just in case" because we can't remember when it was changed last. To help extend the battery life even more, the SmartTool™( automatically shuts down if it is not moved for 6 minutes.
As you might expect, people that are smart enough to build the SmartTool™ also know enough not to let us go into it with a screwdriver to set it up. Rather, they added a button for calibrating the SmartTool™. You put it on a surface, push the Calibrate button, turn it end for end (180-degrees) and push the button again. Flip it over and repeat the process. The electronic brain compares the readings and averages them out, which tells the electronics what is exact level regardless of how level the surface used really is. A similar process is included for calibrating the plumb function as well. The instruction sheet and on-screen displays make the calibration process fast and easy.
The SmartTool™ is available in a number of configurations. It can be purchased as the 6 5/8"-long by 2 1/16"-tall and 1 3/8"-thick module alone or mounted in a 24" or 47 1/4"-long level body. The module can also be combined with a special level body or placed in a special magnetic fixture that can be used on any metal (ferrous) surface, including table saw blades.
The range of configurations makes the SmartTool™ compatible with lots of work places but I think the module and magnetic base, along with the level frame it fits, may be most useful for woodworkers. Being able to use it for setting up machines is great. Being able to use the same module for installing some of the projects we build is nicer yet!
In the Shop
After following the calibration procedure, I tried to check the accuracy of the SmartTool™ and have not been able to define an error. If the SmartTool™ is not dead on, the error is too small for me to measure. The SmartTool™ literature claims an accuracy of 1/10-degree and I cannot find anything to refute that - or even cast any doubt on their claim. For all intents and purposes, the SmartTool™ is as close to perfect as I can expect in the real world.
The SmartTool™ is easy to use and its functions simple to understand. I suspect many of us will leave it in the degree mode but having the slope function could be very handy when we build anything with an angle, or a roof, including that new shop or shed. The beep function comes in handy when working within cabinets or at odd angles when getting a good look at the display is difficult or would require leaning off a ladder...
The SmartTool™ is very useful tool that makes being accurate way easier. With a street price of $99.85 (9-10-2008) for the module itself, $110.37 for the module mounted in a 24"-long level and $14.99 for the magnetic bracket, this certainly is not an exorbitantly priced tool. With a little care and the occasional 9V battery, the SmartTool™ should last as long as you do - at least.
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