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.
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.
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.