What is a Chalk Line?

Dana Hinders

Whether you’re hanging wall paper or laying wood floors, a chalk line is one of the most useful carpentry tools available. Sometimes called chalk boxes, these simple gadgets make it easy to create perfectly straight lines in a manner of minutes.

Man with a drill
Man with a drill

Most chalk lines are filled with blue chalk for general purpose use, but other colors available include red, white, and fluorescent yellow. Red is a good choice for working outside, since the darker pigment will last longer than other chalk colors. White is easy to remove on fragile surfaces. Some carpenters simply prefer the high visibility of fluorescent chalk.

If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll be pleased to learn that price is no indication of effectiveness when it comes to purchasing a chalk line. An inexpensive chalk line will work just as well as a top of the line model, although higher priced items do tend to be made from slightly more durable materials and may feature a speed wind mechanism that can be useful if you’re planning to use the tool on a regular basis.

Using a chalk line is a fairly straightforward process. First, measure and mark where you want the line to be. Use the metal tab to pull the string out of the chalk line, holding it tight at both ends. If you don’t have someone to help you with this part, wrap the other end of the line around a small nail. Finally, snap the line by pulling it up from the center about six inches and letting go. You’ll see a straight line on your work surface if you’ve used the tool correctly. If you have unwanted chalk on your work area, blow it away. Wiping the chalk will simply smear the surface.

Unlike other carpentry tools, a chalk line is very low maintenance. If your string starts to fray, simply cut off the unusable portion and reattach the rest of the string to the metal clip. If needed, new string can also be purchased from any hardware store. New string is typically sold with a replacement metal clip for your chalk line.

A chalk line should always be stored in a dry place. If your string gets wet, you’ll need to leave the line unwound until it dries completely. If the inside of the tool gets wet, however, you’ll have to replace the caked chalk with fresh powder.

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Discussion Comments


I just wanted to share another chalk line tip I picked up not too long ago.

I was working on a project where I needed a straight horizontal line, but I was having a hard time getting the chalk line perfectly straight. I was trying to use a normal level, but it still wasn't perfect.

I was at the hardware store one day when I saw a tiny level that you could actually hang on the chalk line. Of course, you have to make sure the chalk line is really tight, otherwise the level can pull it down a little, but it worked great.

The level is perfect if you are trying to work by yourself, since it's almost impossible to hold a level, straighten a chalk line, and snap it all by yourself.


@cardsfan27 - I had the same problem as you not too long ago. The cost of replacement string is somewhere in the neighborhood of five dollars. I think that is for 100 feet. Some of the residential chalk lines don't even hold that much.

The cost of a brand new chalk line plus chalk is around three dollars with the nicer models just being about ten dollars. That being said, if you have one of the plastic models like I do, I'm not sure you can even replace the string in those. I don't know if they come apart.

It is probably a better idea just to buy a new one outright instead of messing with changing the string.


I have a chalk line that has a line starting to show some wear and tear. How easy is it to install a chalk line replacement?

I don't really have a high end chalk line by any means. I'm just wondering if it might be cheaper to just go ahead and buy a new one instead of messing with replacement string.

What all is involved in replacing it? How much do chalk lines cost nowadays? I have had mine for over 10 years, so I haven't kept up on prices.


@letshearit - Great idea. I never thought about being able to use different colors together. I will have to remember that for the future.

There are just a couple other little tips I have picked up about hanging wallpaper using a chalk line. First off, if you live in an older house like I do, there is a chance that your house has settled, and the walls may not be perfectly lined up. That being said, it is a bad idea to start in a corner to line up the paper. By the time you get to the other side of the wall, your paper may be tilted because of the original starting corner.

Instead, use a chalk line and put something heavy onto the end. I always just use a fish hook with a few sinkers tied on. This will keep the line straight. Next, let gravity give you a straight line in the middle of your wall, and snap the chalk line. You should be set from there.

Another small tip, once you snap the chalk line, it is a good idea to wash off most of the chalk and just leave a faint mark. Otherwise, the chalk can bleed through the paper. The same can happen to ink from a pen.


Different colored chalk line markers are really useful if you need to mark where certain kinds of flooring are going to go. I was doing a home renovation project where the homeowner wanted to use two kinds of wood for a distinct flooring look.

It was a bit of a pain to get the pattern right, so we ended up laying out the pattern first with chalk.

The marking lines made our lives a lot easier because the project just became a matter of matching the wood to the color on the floor. I think that more chalk line machines should come with a variety of colored chalk for more complicated work.


We discovered that trying to hang wallpaper without a chalk line can be a complete nightmare. We were wondering why everything was so off kilter, I just it just never occurred to us to use such a simple tool until our home improvement store told us to.

A chalk line tool is really cheap to purchase so you can just ask for one when you are picking up your wallpaper and other supplies. If you aren't sure how to use it just get the store to show you.

The home improvement store we go to actually has mini-classes on most of the products they sell. It makes it a lot easier to do something once you've seen it done once.

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