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?
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.