As the owner of a small remodeling company, I need to be as efficient and productive as possible to stay in the black — particularly these days. One tool that helps me do that is a compact laser. Since it requires only one person to operate, it’s more efficient than the two-person builder’s level I used in the past. It boosts productivity by speeding installations, and thanks to its accuracy of about 3/8 inch in 100 feet, work set to its line looks good.
When I bought my first laser level 15 years ago, the choices were limited and the cost was high — well over $1,000 for the manual leveling rotary tool I chose. Nevertheless, it quickly paid for itself in labor savings, and I was hooked. Fast forward to today: Prices have dropped, and there are numerous lasers on the market with myriad features.
Though having a range of options is great, it can make selecting the right laser confusing. A must-have for deck builders is a laser that can be used outside. However, the brightest lasers can be difficult to see even on a cloudy day, and if the sun is bright, forget about it. The best option is a laser that works in tandem with a receiver (also referred to as a detector).
For years, the only lasers that could be read by a receiver were rotating lasers, which rapidly spin a laser line in a 360-degree circle. Since then, a new breed of laser has emerged. The beams of these new tools pulse faster than the eye can see and enable the beam to be located by the detector. The advantage of a pulse instrument over a rotating-beam laser is it can be much smaller, since there are no moving parts. Some are small enough to be worn on a belt when not in use.
Rotating lasers do have a distinct advantage for users who need to cast lines great distances: Their beams travel farther than those of a compact, or pocket, laser. The accuracy of rotating lasers is also usually better than that of their counterparts, though not enough to matter in typical residential applications.
I rounded up nine laser-level kits from six different companies to review. The kits all have a couple of important things in common. All are self-leveling. Having to manually level a laser can be time-consuming and frustrating as well as inaccurate, because precision depends on correctly reading the bubble vial(s) on the tool. Also, all the tools I reviewed work with a detector, and have street prices of $500 or less for the kit, detector included. Many of the tools do much more than level, as noted in the following pages.
My objective in testing the lasers was not so much to pick a winner as to learn more about the available models, discover what features do and don’t work, and pass that information along. Even the least expensive lasers are a vast improvement over the 4-foot-level-on-a-straight-board alternative.
While the most important feature for a deck builder is certainly leveling, some of the other features — like a plumb dot or the ability to square a corner — might tip the balance in favor of one laser over another. I focused on the following 12 aspects of the tools.
Level lines. Except for the PLS 90E, all the models I tested cast a level line — and most often, this is what I used them for. The clarity of the lines varied, however, ranging from thick and fuzzy on the Stanley model to crisp and fairly thin on the CST/Berger XLP 34.
Plumb lines. All but the PLS 360 have some sort of plumb function in addition to a level line. A plumb line is okay inside on finished surfaces, but for decks I prefer a dot, since I’m using the laser in place of a plumb bob — a huge improvement, by the way, on windy days. Lines are more difficult to reference — without the aid of a detector — than a concentrated dot, which is usually visible in even the brightest conditions. Tools with either a plumb dot or plumb cross hairs include the CST/Berger XLP34, the Johnson Level Co. 40-6515 Acculine Pro, and the Stabila LA-2PL.
Squaring corners. While not the most important feature for deck builders, the ability to shoot square corners can be a big help laying out footings. Only the CST/Berger XLP34 and the Pacific Laser PLS 90E have this capability.
Detectors. These are essential when the laser line can’t be seen. Detectors emit a series of beeps, depending on whether they’re above or below the laser beam. Typically, faster beeping indicates the receiver is above the beam, while slower beeping lets you know the detector needs to be raised to reach level. A solid tone indicates level.
All the detectors worked well; those with the PLS models were the most compact. All could be mounted on a grade rod through some type of clamping mechanism included with the kit. It’s standard for one detector to work with all the exterior lasers made by the same manufacturer.
Cases. Though not a deal breaker, a nice case is a point to consider. These are precision instruments and should be protected when not in use.
Power supply. All the models I tested accepted standard alkaline batteries. Most also accepted aftermarket rechargeable nicads, though the run times would likely suffer as a result, as nicads don’t last as long as alkaline batteries.
Accuracy. In general, the larger the tool, the more accurate it will be. This is because all self-leveling lasers use a pendulum hung from an interior mechanism to level the tool, and the longer the pendulum, the more accurate.
That said, all the tools I reviewed had an acceptable degree of accuracy, with most being in the range of +/- 3/8 inch at 100 feet — plenty accurate for residential contractors.
It’s worth noting that it’s important to be consistent when reading the lines or dots on any laser. Always mark the same part of the laser beam, whether it’s the top, bottom, or dead center. Not doing so will introduce error, as most laser beams are more than 1/8 inch thick, and inconsistency in marking the line can accumulate on larger projects.
Pendulum lock. Most often found on rotary lasers, a pendulum lock is an internal clamp that secures the pendulum when the tool is not in use, thereby protecting the leveling mechanism. The Johnson Level Co. 40-6515 Acculine Pro and the Stabila LA-2PL have this feature, while in the PLS 180 and the PLS 360, Pacific Laser Systems lines the cage surrounding the pendulum with rubber for the same reason.
Range. For all the tools I tested, the manufacturers listed a working range of at least 100 feet — plenty for most typical residential applications.
Mounting. Like a transit, lasers work best placed on a firm base such as a tripod. A few tools came with folding mini-tripods. While these worked okay for limited applications, a full-size tripod is a worthwhile investment for tools that will see a fair amount of exterior use.
A good tripod allows you to set up the tool secure in the knowledge the setting won’t change. An even better option is to use an elevator tripod, which provides the ability to raise and lower the tool while it’s attached to the tripod. All the lasers I tested can be used on a standard thread (5/8 inch by 11) tripod, although some require an adapter.
Out-of-level sensor. This feature lets you know when the instrument is out of its leveling range (anywhere from 3 to 6 degrees, depending on the model). The tools beep or flash indicator lights (some do both) when knocked out of level.
Size. The smaller and handier a tool is, the more likely it is to be used. Not surprisingly, I found this to be true of lasers, too — those that were on the larger side tended to get used less than the more compact ones.
No single tool was best for all users; all have strengths and weaknesses, depending on the application. You have to evaluate the type of work you do and pick the tool (or tools) best suited to your needs.
The two models I turned to most often were the Stabila LA-2PL and the PLS 180. Neither one does it all, but I was able to perform the vast majority of tasks I needed to, both interior and exterior, with a combination of these two models. The Stabila offered almost everything I needed for deck building, though I often reached for the PLS 180 for leveling jobs, thanks to its handy size and quick setup.
I also liked the CST/Berger XLP 34 but found the time required for it to self-level to be frustrating. It has an attractive combination of features at a reasonable price, though, so if I could own only one laser, the XLP 34 would warrant serious consideration.
Greg Burnet is a remodeling contractor and deck builder in Berwyn, Ill.