As a residential framing and finish contractor, I'm always looking for new tools that help me work faster and deliver better product to my clients. My company's projects are usually large-scale, complex residential remodels with multiple elevation changes. We often wrap trim details around rooms to tie door and window heads together.

Using a laser level to set these critical layout points is the way to go; it saves time over manually chalking level lines or setting up a traditional transit. For several years I've used a vial-calibrated laser level, which produces a dot. It's a fine, accurate tool, but it requires two people to operate it efficiently -- or one person who does a lot of walking.

Self-leveling rotating laser levels are the next evolution: Their quick set-up, accuracy, and efficient one-person operation make their steep price tags worth the money. Many builders find these tools quickly pay for themselves in man-hours saved.

My carpenters and I tested the CST/Berger 57-LM400-1, David White 4110-1 AutoLaser 2110, Laserjamb Q-Pro Multi-Line, LCI Lasers 621-R Auto, Laser Reference Pro Shot L5, Stabila 05100, TLZ. RoboLaser, Trimble (formerly Spectra Precision) Spectra Lasers 1452XL, and Topcon RL-VH3C.

Except for the Laser Reference and TLZ. models (which cost $750 and $300, respectively), these tools cost between $1,445 and $2,000. For that kind of money, I wanted to evaluate the bang for the bucks. Do these tools really self-level? How sensitive are they? Can I give the tool to a lead carpenter and expect him and his crew to use it with a reasonable learning curve? Does the tool do what the manufacturer says it will? What are these tools' limitations?

Test Criteria

First I shop-tested all the tools for ease of set-up, interior and exterior use, beam visibility, and accuracy, and evaluated base package accessories like remote readers and remote controls. I then sent the tools to the field to check for level on new foundations, set grades, and to find level lines while tying new work into an old, sagging house. After my crew had handled the lasers with all the delicacy one would expect from field carpenters, I re-tested them all for accuracy and consistency at varying distances.

Setup and Operation

Getting Level. All the tools I tested are ready to go right out of the box. Each comes with a screw mount that attaches to any tripod -- which all manufacturers offer as optional accessories. Once you mount the unit on a tripod, you turn it on and wait a few seconds while it self-levels. The red laser beam usually blinks and steadies itself after the leveling function is complete.

These tools use various internal mechanisms to level themselves. The TLZ. laser employs a pendulum, the Laser Reference model uses a wire-hung, air-dampened compensator, and the rest use electronically driven servo motors. I couldn't detect any significant leveling time difference between the systems.

Controls. The Trimble level was the easiest to operate. I really like its remote control and appreciate its simple control panel. It has few buttons but plenty of functions. The well-designed laser eye control allowed me to adjust the reading sensitivity for my needs. Topcon's tool is an exceptional level, too, although it performs more functions than I usually need on my residential jobsites. It seems best suited for users who do lots of slope work. The remote control makes it really easy to manipulate the X and Y axes for this application only. Because I don't use that feature in my work, I found the tool's controls a little too busy.

I found Stabila's, LCI's, and TLZ.'s remote control/control panel configurations versatile and easy to use. Stabila's well-designed remote let us switch between the different beam functions from a distance. LCI's remote adjusts the spin rate; chalkline or dot adjustments are keyed into the tool. TLZ.'s straightforward remote also gives you good tool control from a distance. It activates the level and lets you rotate the beam right or left at fast, medium, or slow speeds so you can hit your mark quickly.

The Laser Reference remote control turns the level on and off and doubles as a remote reader. The David White tool comes with a remote reader but no remote control for the unit itself. Since the tool is on constant spin, the remote reader is a necessity.

Accuracy. We used the levels to lay out a foundation, set grade and wall heights, and verify an old, existing house's conditions while tying in an addition. We also set door and window heights on another addition. For each task, we used the CST/Berger, Laser Reference, LCI, Stabila, and Trimble levels which have three modes: dot, chalkline, or continuous rotation. Each worked very well. We found that the Laser Reference, and Laserjamb models don't allow for a single-dot function. The constant-spin David White tool produces neither a dot nor a chalkline, and the TLZ. level only produces a dot. With the exception of the TLZ. and David White model, which only work on a horizontal plane, all of these tools let you set vertical and horizontal lines. They're all accurate to within 1/4-inch over 100 feet or better. I staged a control test to see if they stayed that way after life on the job.

First I struck lines at 20, 40, 80, and 120 feet with all the tools before they went to my jobsites. After they returned from the field, we tried to get the tools to hit the same marks I'd struck earlier. After weeks in the field, all the lasers stayed within their published margins of error (see spec boxes). While I wouldn't treat them like my framing nailers, all of the lasers showed some grit during our test.

Adjustments. The LCI, Laser Reference, CST/Berger, Laserjamb, and TLZ. models let you adjust the X and Y axes with adjustment screws. The other models require adjustments by certified professionals. With the exception of the TLZ. model, all the levels we tested include functions for squaring rooms, walls, and foundations. All let you set slopes, too. They all turn off if they get knocked out of level.

 

Seeing the Light

Accessories. Since lasers are nearly impossible to see in direct sunlight, it's important that manufacturers include accessories -- particularly remote laser readers -- in the tools' base packages.

These tools can be very specialized. Manufacturers offer various packages for numerous trades and applications, including suspended ceiling installation and electrical work. Despite these tools' sophisticated, expensive technology, they're very limited without the right props.

Laserjamb recognizes the need for versatile jobsite accessories. Its easy-to-use tool mounts on a tripod or the company's adjustable pole and includes a reader and remote control. Using the tool inside and outside, we found that we could place the beam height where we wanted: low for leveling a foundation or high for matching window heads -- and we could move the beam height in a hurry. The tool's reader worked well in bright light and its beam was easily visible inside.

I prefer tools with the simplest remote controls; most of the lasers we tested fall into this category. Again, Topcon's performed more functions than I wanted (that's a good problem to have), but I found it confusing to use. The LCI model is a little too simple: It only allows you to turn the level on or off, or rotate right or left.

Beam visibility, inside. All of these tools emit a visible beam in interior applications, but LCI's is the brightest and tightest. The better tools' (CST/Berger, Laser Reference, LCI, Stabila, and Trimble) have single-dot and chalkline modes making foundation, wall, and window head layout much easier -- especially with one person. The LCI and Laserjamb tools are our favorites for these tasks because their line beams are bright and easy to see. If the tool you like doesn't have a single-dot function, buy a remote reader if it doesn't come with one. The tools that only rotate (David White, CST/Berger) would be useless without remote readers because the beam generally spins too fast to see.

Beam visibility, outside. All the tools' laser lights disappear in bright light or over long distances, so you need a remote reader outside, too. These tools come standard with readers, and they all worked well. Some manufacturers include a pair of red enhancement glasses to help you view the beam in bright light, but I generally found them useless; the glasses were distracting and I couldn't see the beam any better. The Trimble and Topcon readers were the most reliable. They're comfortable to hold and the readers' output is easily understood.

Vibration dampening and auto re-set. My crew was most concerned about these two issues. Tool limitations quickly appeared when we set up in an old house with a bouncy floor. The better tools' internal mechanisms compensate for slight floor vibrations. When a tool shuts down because of movement, it's important that it quickly reset itself so that work can continue.

The Topcon level responded best on these two fronts. It shut down the least and reset itself the quickest. The Trimble, Laser Reference, and Laserjamb models also performed well. The Stabila level was disappointing; it's quite sensitive to vibration and shut down often and it didn't reset itself. We had to walk back to the tool and manually reset it. Stabila acknowledges that the model 05100 is a sensitive instrument and the company is redesigning it to correct the problem without compromising the tool's accuracy. A new model is scheduled to rollout this year, but it wasn't available for this test.

Alternative Tool

If you don't mind locating a single dot instead of a rotating laser, the TLZ. RoboLaser is your tool. For a fraction of the big boy's cost, this tool performs basic functions most contractors need for laying out and leveling horizontal surfaces. The RoboLaser is a self-leveling dot laser that spins 360 degrees. Its radio-controlled remote allows you to spin the dot in either direction. I found it quite reliable and easy to use. It's not the tool for squaring up walls or foundations or for setting vertical lines or slopes. But, if you only need it to level horizontal surfaces, you can't beat it for the price.

Favorites

After field-testing all the tools, we picked the Laserjamb level as our favorite of the bunch. The tool's versatile pole setup allowed me to set and adjust the bright, easily controllable beam anywhere from the floor to the ceiling. The level can also be used on a conventional tripod.

Close seconds are the Trimble and Topcon tools. They both performed well and each was the laser of choice among my carpenter crew. The other models performed closely in terms of accuracy and operation.

Picking the right tool is really a function of your personal use and accessory needs. The only one that I'd stay away from at this point is the Stabila 05100 model -- it's accurate, but it seems too sensitive to floor vibration.

Steve Veroneau owns and operates Transformations LLC, a custom framing and trim company in Northern Virginia.