I found a Starrett level in an antique store the other day. All of the vials were intact but the paint was starting to come off in spots. I decided to take it apart to fix the paint….and break it.
The vials in this level are held in place by Plaster of Paris from what others have said on line. This makes sense as it hardens quickly but not so quick that you can’t adjust the vials to read correctly.
I soaked the level in water to soften the Plaster of Paris and was able to pick bits of it out with some dental tools.
The big vial on top came out pretty easily as it was the most accessible. The two smaller vials had plaster on top and bottom of them. I removed the plaster on top of them and then gently turned them back and forth to remove them figuring the plaster on bottom had softened. Unknown to me at the time, I also broke the small viles open. It turns out that the fragile end that was pinched together to seal the vial was on the bottom and I broke the tip of it off. Yay. I didn’t realize this until later when I looked at one of the small vials and thought “Hmm, it used to have a smaller bubble.” In the pic below you can see the broken tips.
Here’s what I ended up with after stripping the paint. Most of it is gone.
Once the paint was dry, I moved on to reinstalling the vials. I needed a level surface to set the level on to set the vials. To do this, I pulled out my small granite block and machinist level which is more sensitive than the one I’m working on. I grabbed three bolts and nuts to use as adjusting feet for the block by putting a nut on each bolt. Then I laid them out in a triangle and set the block on them. The feet were adjusted until the block was level in both directions.
I installed the top vial pretty easily and was able to get it to read accurately. I ended up using some drywall hole patch in a squeeze tube which made it easy to apply.
About this time I had my “Ah ha” moment when I realized I’d broken the two smaller vials. I looked around online but couldn’t find any replacement vials that were the same size. I’m sure Starrett would sell me some but the vials would probably cost more than the level. I started to think about how I could fix the vials. Some searching around online said than light petroleum spirits are usually used to fill vials. Mineral Spirits would work then. That left me with a couple more problems: how to fill it and how to seal it.
At the factory it appears they sealed the ends by pinching the glass. I can see myself screwing that up and decided try to find an adhesive to seal it. The substance would have to be impervious to mineral spirits. A little searching lead me to JB Weld. I tried that out and ran into another problem. As the JB Weld was drying a little hole would appear in it. It seems that the mineral spirits were evaporating and pushing through the JB Weld. I knew the mineral spirits would evaporate, I just figured the JB Weld would be thick enough to not let it through. Lesson learned. Now I need something impervious to mineral spirits that sets up really quick. I settled on 1 minute epoxy…which according to the instructions takes 5 minutes to harden. Why? I don’t know. Anyways, epoxy seems to have done the trick and sealed the vials. I’d place a drop on the end and then move it around slightly if I thought I saw a hole. Shortly, it had hardened enough not to be a problem.
The other problem I had was how to fill the vials through the tiny holes in them. Surface tension would keep the mineral spirits from flowing in. So, I decided to suck it in instead. I made a fancy vacuum chamber seen below. Onto the hose I hooked one of those small hand vacuums and proceeded to pull enough air out to fill the vial.
Once the vial was full, I removed some of the mineral spirits by tapping the open end on some cardboard. Each tap left a small drop and eventually I got the bubble to the appropriate size. After that I quickly sealed the ends with epoxy.
The vials are slightly curved which means the hole they sit in allows the vial to move some. I put some drywall patch on the end of the vial inserted it and then squeezed more patch on top of the vial. I used this sophisticated mechanism to hold the vial in place while the patch setup.