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Builder’s Level vs Transit Level: What’s the Difference?

Builder's Level vs Transit Level

Builder's Level vs Transit Level

Looking at a builder’s level and a transit level side by side, if you haven’t used both before, you’d be forgiven for mistaking them for the same tool. Not only do they look almost identical, but they also perform practically the same function. However, there is one key difference that sets the transit level apart; it can measure vertical angles.

Aside from this one difference, these two tools are almost the same. They both setup and operate the same way, and the tripods and measuring rods used for each are even interchangeable. So, why might you choose one over the other? Are there any other differences between these two almost-identical tools? Let’s take a closer look at each and find out.

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Overview of Builder’s Level

Builder’s levels more commonly go by the name of dumpy levels. They’re a relatively simple device that has been in use for many decades, though they’re not as common today since newer tools have decreased the need for their limited functionality.

DEWALT DW090PK Builder Level

How Does a Builder’s Level Work?

The builder’s level is pretty simple and straightforward. It’s basically just a small telescope on a leveling block that allows you to adjust the telescope to be level at 360°. This means that you can turn the level in a complete circle and it remains level no matter which direction it’s pointing.

To set it up, you first need to stand up a heavy-duty tripod. The builder’s level will mount securely onto the tripod. Then, you can use the 4 level-adjusters to slowly set the level, moving the telescope around as you do to ensure that it’s level at all 360°.

But you can’t use this by yourself. There must be something to measure. So, you’ll need to have a partner standing at another location some distance from the level holding a measuring rod. Crosshairs in the level will allow you to pinpoint a measurement on that rod, which you can then compare to measurements taken from other points.

What It’s Used For

Each time you move the measuring rod, the level remains in the same place, allowing you to get the relative elevations of many different points. This allows you to see the high points and low points in an area for grading, leveling, building, and surveying, and more. It’s a necessary practice before starting construction on almost any project.

But the builder’s level can only move horizontally. Once it’s set, you can no longer adjust it vertically. If you attempt to do so, you’ll have to reset it and retake all of your measurements.


  • More affordable
  • Easier to use
  • Lightweight
  • Easier setup
  • Not as precise
  • Can’t measure angles

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Overview of Transit Level

Transit levels look almost identical to builder’s levels. They feature a telescope on top of a mounting system with a small level installed so that you can ensure it’s completely level at all points in a circle before taking measurements. Like builder’s levels, these have been in use for many years, though newer models are far more sophisticated with some even employing computer technology and laser beams to measure elevations, angles, and more.

NWI NSLP500B Siteline Transit:Level

How Does a Transit Level Work?

In essence, the transit level works the same as the builder’s level. First, you must set up a tripod, on which the transit level will be mounted. Once securely mounted to the tripod, you will need to adjust the leveling feet on the transit level until the built-in level indicator reads that it’s level at every point in 360° rotation. So far, there’s no discernable difference between the operation of the transit level and the operation of a builder’s level.

But once you have the level setup and fully adjusted, you’ll be able to see the difference. Now, you can actually adjust the transit level vertically and horizontally, where the builder’s level is only adjustable horizontally. By raising and lowering the front of the telescope, you can effectively measure vertical angles with the transit level, while still retaining the elevation measuring capabilities of the builder’s level.

What It’s Used For

Transit levels are used for surveying and building most commonly. They can measure elevations for surveying but are also capable of measuring vertical angles so you can get measurements of inclinations in degrees and check how level vertical surfaces are. It’s often used by framers, excavators, and even landscapers.


  • Can be used to measure vertical angles
  • Also does everything a builder’s level does
  • More expensive
  • Can be more difficult to use

There’s One Main Difference

When comparing the functionality of these two tools, there’s really only one major difference that’s worth noting; the ability to measure vertical angles. Because builder’s levels are only adjustable horizontally, they can only be used to measure elevations. Transit levels, on the other hand, are adjustable vertically, allowing you to measure vertical angles as well as the same elevations that builder’s levels can measure.

Affordability vs Ability

Often, transit levels are more expensive than builder’s levels because of their increased functionality. Therefore, if you only need the ability to measure elevations and you won’t be using the angle measuring capabilities of a transit level, a builder’s level can save you some money. But if you think you might want to measure vertical angles in the future, spend a little extra now and get the improved functionality of a transit level.

You Always Need Two People

One thing to keep in mind with both of these tools is that you’ll always need someone on the other end to hold the measuring rod. Without a measuring rod on the other end, you won’t have anything to measure. Granted, some of the higher-end transit rods today use lasers to measure distance, angle, and height, but it still can’t measure elevation without something out there to measure against.

When to Use a Builder’s Level

  • You’re measuring just elevations
  • You’re on a budget
  • You want a simpler tool
When to Use a Transit Level
  • You’re measuring angles and elevations
  • You can spend a bit more
  • You want a tool with more capabilities

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Quick Look: Our Top Choices

Image Product Details
Our Favorite Builder’s Level DEWALT DW090PK Builder Level with Tripod and Rod DEWALT DW090PK Builder Level with Tripod and Rod
  • Heavy-duty
  • Quick and easy to set-up
  • Offers a visibility range of 200 feet or more
  • Our Favorite Transit Level NWI NSLP500B Siteline Transit/Level Package NWI NSLP500B Siteline Transit/Level Package
  • 20x magnification transit leve
  • Includes a carrying case
  • Our Favorite Builder’s Level: DEWALT DW090PK Builder Level with Tripod and Rod

    DEWALT DW090PK Builder Level with Tripod and Rod

    With everything you need to start measuring elevations today, the DEWALT DW090PK is a complete kit. You get a builder’s level with an accuracy within ¼-inch per 100 feet and 20x magnification that offers a visibility range of 200 feet or more. It also includes a heavy-duty leveling base that’s quick and easy to set up, plus a measuring rod for your partner to hold on the other end.

    Our Favorite Transit Level: NWI NSLP500B Siteline Transit/Level Package

    NWI NSLP500B Siteline Transit:Level Package

    This transit level package includes everything necessary to start measuring not just elevations but angles as well. You get the 20x magnification transit level that has an accuracy range within ¼-inch at 100 feet and a working range of 200 feet. There’s even a carrying case to keep it safe. Also included are the builder’s tripod and 9-foot grade rod, ensuring you’re ready to scope out your next build immediately.

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    For many jobs, these two tools are interchangeable. If you just need to measure elevations and set your markers for the dimensions of a building, then you can use either of these tools. But keep in mind, builder’s levels are often cheaper and a bit easier to use since there aren’t as many adjustments. If you need the ability to measure vertical angles though, you’re going to have to go with a transit level as this capability is absent from builder’s levels.

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