How to Fully Restore an Antique Wooden Level in 6 Easy Steps
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As the saying goes, "they really don't make them like they used to". For old things, especially some tools, this adage couldn't be more apt.
For this reason, this tired, battered, and generally neglected wooden spirit level is in much need of some TLC. Follow this simple guide to see how you too can restore an old vintage spirit level back to its former glory.
Like any project of this nature, you'll first need some stuff to get you started.
Tools and equipment needed
- Old vintage wooden spirit level
- Brass strips
- Mirror pieces
- Glass sheets
- Wood plane
- Table saw
- Wood glue
- Wood filler
- Coping saw
- Dremel rotary tool and various bits
- Clear varnish
- Brass rods
Step 1: Review what needs to be done and break the piece down
The first step is to give the piece to be restored a good visual once over. Check for any damage and itemize what parts of the piece can be cleaned up and restored, and which, if any, will need to be completely replaced.
This particular piece is pretty dusty, so we'll first use some small brushes to remove old cobwebs and years of dirt. This will also help us to see the condition of the glazed parts and the all-important original spirit level vials.
With that complete, we can now begin to start the restoration process. Clamp the piece in a vice, and start to remove things like screws and nails.
For the latter, use a thin-headed screwdriver to gently price the nails (and any metal plates they are attached to) from the piece. Take your time, and be sure not to unduly damage the original parts, where possible.
Obviously, don't throw away any parts you removed, and take note of where they came from, they will need to be reattached later.
Use a pair of tweezers to gently remove more delicate pieces, like glass pieces too. When you open up the spirit level, continue to use small brushes to remove dust and other debris.
You may find that the spirit-level vials are not easily removed from the piece. In this case, gently remove small amounts of the wood to free up the parts before removing them.
Be very careful, as these parts are notoriously fragile and liable to easily break if forced. With that completed, and where needed, take a small chisel and excavate some of the wood (from the inside of the piece) to free any glass pieces fixed into the wooden frame of the spirit level.
Again, be careful not to hit and break the glass.
Keep removing parts as carefully and gently as possible. Where needed, drill and chisel small parts of the main wooden frame to loosen pieces and remove them.
Keep going until all parts of the old spirit level are completely liberated.
Step 2: Restore the main wooden frame
With the old spirit level now dismantled, we can begin the restoration process. Let's start with the main wooden frame.
Take measurements of the piece, and then begin to file down and plane the wood as needed. You may find it easier to secure the piece in a vice when doing this.
The idea is to remove the old, and likely perished, lacquer layer and expose the original wood underneath.
Turn the block around in the vice, and continue to plane all surfaces of the spirit level. For any grooves in the wood, using a curved piece of metal to plane the woodwork too.
With that complete, square off either end of the wood plane (if needed), and cut the block down to size. Don't cut off a large portion of the block, only a small piece in order to give the ends of the block squared edges.
Next, redrill any nail and screws holes in the piece using the same dimensioned drill bits. Take your time when doing this, and don't make the holes bigger or deeper than they need to be.
With that complete, make some small dowels, and glue them into and drill holes you've just made. Leave the glue to cure and then cut off the excess to turn the dowels into plugs of wood to later re-screw/nail into.
Next, plane off the plugs, or sand them down flush, as needed.
For any hooks that may be present at one end of the block, redrill and plug the hole as before.
For any small holes, cracks, and wide grain parts of the wood, treat the parts with wood filler. Follow the instructions to the letter.
Where required, leave to cure, wipe off any excess, and then sand down the areas as needed.
For circular voids within the wood (like for moveable spirit level parts), countersink the areas using a suitably sized drill bit. If an awkward size, you may need to make your own from a piece of spare metal.
Use coring tools too to clean up any other larger circular voids within the piece. Remember, you are only attempting to clean up the wooden block.
Where needed, use a Dremel tool with wooden polishing bits to clean remove barbs, splinters, and sawdust. If in relatively good condition, you can completely skip these steps.
For linear parts, clean up the wood using thin chisels.
With that complete, treat the entire wooden block with lacquer or wood polish. Rub it into the wood grain using a clean cloth.
Wipe off any excess once complete, and leave it to fully cure.
Step 3: Restore the vertical spirit level
With the main wooden part of the spirit level now complete, we can move on to the gubbins of the piece.
Depending on the condition of the vertical spirit level pieces, you may need to replace them with new replacements. If this is the case, make adjustments to the wooden block, and insert the pieces as needed.
Calibrate them to ensure they are true and adjust as needed.
With that complete, for any damaged glass covers for the spirit level, score out a new piece of glass to the same dimensions.
Trim down the glass to make glass cover plates as needed.
Sand down the edges of the glass as needed to make them fully circular. Be sure to do this in a well-ventilated space and/or wear a mask as breathing in fine particles of glass is never a good idea.
With that complete, check the condition of any brass or metal glass plate restraining pieces. If beyond saving, you may need to machine new parts to the same shape and dimensions.
If not, clean up and polish the parts as needed.
With that complete, insert the glass plates into the piece, and add your new, or restored, brass/metal restraining rings into the wooden block.
If needed, machine a closer plate of brass for the vertical spirit level part of the piece. Insert and affix this into the wooden block as needed.
Step 4: Restore the main horizontal vial section
With the main vertical spirit level section now restored, we can move on to the main feature -- the horizontal spirit level.
First off, take the old base mirror from the spirit level; measure out its dimensions, and take a new piece of mirror.
Transfer the dimensions to the new mirror, and cut out the piece, as needed. Depending on the tools you have available, make the new mirror strip as needed.
With the new strip of mirror made, add some adhesive to the non-reflective side of the mirror, and glue it into place inside the horizontal spirit level section of the old level.
With that complete, take the original horizontal spirit level vial. If in a good enough condition, clean up the glass using soapy water and a toothbrush.
This process may result in old markers (painted or not) come off the vial, but don't worry, we'll be adding restoring those too in a moment. With the glass effectively as good as new, we can now add back in the spirit level markers, as needed.
Tape off the majority of the spirit level vial to expose two thin lines on either side of the bubble in the vial when held perfectly level.
Once complete, paint the exposed parts of the vial black either by hand or by using some spray paint. Leave the paint to dry fully, and then remove the tape in its entirety to expose the fresh guidelines on the vial.
With that complete, mix up some two-part epoxy putty. Roll it into small balls, and add each small ball to either side of the horizontal spirit level section.
Lay the main spirit level wooden frame perfectly flat, and then push the restored vial into the putty, ensuring it is perfectly calibrated.
With that complete, add two more small balls of putty on top of the vial above the other balls of putty. Remember that it may look ugly now, but the vial (and putty) will be hidden later.
Step 5: Restore the top cover plate for the horizontal spirit level vial
Once complete, take the original brass or metal cover plate for the horizontal spirit level. Grab your Dremel tool and insert a metal polishing bit and then give the piece a good once over to remove any tarnish, dust, and other debris from the piece to expose the bare metal underneath.
With that complete, if the plate is distorted, hammer or bend it flat. Once done, further polish the plate using chemical and mechanical polishing tools until perfectly shiny.
With that complete, place the plate into position on the spirit level block. Mark out its position and mounting holes using a combination of a sharp knife and marker pen.
With that complete, carve out a notch to match the thickness of the plate, so that it can be secured into place flush with the surface of the main wooden frame of the level.
With that complete, take the original glass cover plate for the top of the horizontal spirit level. Mark out its dimensions onto a new piece of glass, and cut it out as needed.
Once complete, take the original nails or screws for the horizontal spirit level vial cover plate. Depending on their condition either restore them or machine new ones to the same dimensions.
With that done, add the glass plate into its position above the horizontal spirit level vial.
Then, place the brass or metal plate above it, and secure the plate into position using your restored or newly machined nails/screws. To make this easier, you should add pilot holes to the wooden plugs you created earlier first.
Step 6: Restore the side viewing panes for the horizontal spirit level vial
With the top cover plate for the horizontal spirit level vial now complete, we can move on to the final phase of the restoration. Measure out the dimensions of the fenestrations on either side of the horizontal spirit level vial section.
You can use tracing paper and pencil to make this as simple as possible. Once complete, transfer the shape size to a strip of brass and cut out a lozenge shape to match using a coping saw, or similar.
Once complete, mark out or scour the brass an inner boundary the thickness you want the lozenge rings to be for this part of the spirit level.
With that complete, cut out the shape using a coping saw, and then drill two holes at either end of the inner side of the lozenge. Then cut out the inner section using your hack saw to create a lozenge-shaped ring.
Rinse and repeat to make a second ring to the same dimensions and shape.
Once done, file down and mechanically sand down, file, and mechanically polish the cut edges to make them perfectly smooth to match the dimensions needed to fit the holes on either side of the spirit level.
With that complete, either cut some matching sections of glass or clear perspex and adhere them to the rear sides of your newly formed brass rings.
Once done, gently, yet firmly, secure the side viewing panes into place on the spirit level wooden frame. You may find it easier to use a piece of wood and a rubber mallet to do this.
With that complete, your old wooden spirit level is now fully restored.
If you enjoyed this restoration project, you may like to sink your teeth into something a little more challenging. How about, for example, an old floor tire pressure gauge?
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