Introduction To Laser Levels
Product Photos by Manufacturers
Photos by Rob Brown (Lead Photo by Manufacturer)
For most of us, when we think of lasers, our mind flashes to movie scenes like that of James Bond in the 1964 film Goldfinger. Bond, of course, successfully escapes his planned demise with some fast talking as the laser inches towards him, whilst cutting through the metal table he is strapped to. I can assure you, lasers are used for much more practical, real-life situations than Hollywood blockbusters.
When one picks up a laser in the store, and reads all kinds of warnings on the package saying “Warning: Laser light. Avoid contact with eyes”, you have to wonder if the tool is really safe and useful. After all, lasers are also used in eye surgery these days, so are you more likely to perform impromptu eye surgery than level something with one of these devices? Well, the good news is that the laser beams used in laser levels are a little different than the one James Bond faced, and the one your eye doctor uses. The laser levels I tested for this article are all Class 1 or 2 lasers, very low power, and safe under normal operating conditions. Your eye’s blink reflex should protect you from accidental contact with this type of laser beam. The only real danger would be if you purposefully stared into the laser for a period of time.
In this article, I’m going to take a close look at five of the most popular levels on the market today and give you a run-down on each one so that you can decide which one is best for your shop. All five lasers that I evaluated are what are known as “Laser Line Generators.” This is the most popular and useful type of laser for the small shop or homeowner. There are two other types of laser that you might want to know about as well.
The laser plumb bob is a fairly simple device. It’s a laser pointer with a self-leveling feature that projects a dot straight up and straight down, providing a straight line just like a plumb bob. Laser plumb bobs tend to be a bit limited in their uses. You can only see the dot from a laser plumb bob where it intersects a surface, like the floor or the ceiling. However, if all you want to do is transfer a mark from a surface, either straight up or straight down, a laser plumb bob is your answer.
The other main type of laser level is the rotary laser. The main difference between rotary lasers and line generators is the visible distance. Typical line generators are visible for about 50 ft. indoors, while a good rotary laser is visible for about 200 ft. indoors. Generally speaking, no laser level is visible outdoors. Line generators diffuse laser light to cast a line, while rotaries take a powerful beam projecting a dot and spin it at high speed to create the illusion of a continuous line on the surface of a wall, floor, or ceiling. This is what allows rotary units to have a greater visible range. A good quality rotary unit will set you back around $700 or more, with some units costing over $1000. Reasonable quality line generators can be bought for less than $200, with top-notch units around $300.
Tested: 5 laser line generators
I took a close look at laser line generators from five different manufacturers: Bosch, DeWalt, Mastercraft, Stabila and Stanley. Each of the units shared some common features and created level lines, but there were some important differences. All the units I examined cast both a horizontal and vertical line, but a couple of them had extra lines. The Stabila level has a plumb dot built in, while the Stanley has a third line, an additional vertical line cast at 90° to the main vertical line.
Each of the lasers I looked at are self-levelling. This means that once set up closely level (usually within 2–3° of level), the level adjusts itself to show a perfect level line. One of the first tests I did was to check each one for level. While each manufacturer published different specs for the accuracy of the levels, they were all spot on, casting parallel lines with each other. I also checked each level with a top-quality “old school” vial level and found that the lasers were just as accurate. Each level had an indicator of some sort to show if the unit was sitting too far out of level for the internal mechanism to bring the unit to level.
Mounting and positioning
Each laser came with some sort of mounting bracket to enable it to be attached to just about anything you want. While the configuration of the brackets varied, the general purpose was the same. The MasterCraft and Stanley levels both had clamps that could directly grab onto a 2 x 4, while the Stabila, Bosch, and DeWalt levels all had brackets that could be hung just about anywhere with a single screw. The Stabila, Bosch, and DeWalt levels also all had some sort of magnet built in to allow them to be stuck to any steel surface.
Hands On – Keller get his hands on all five models of laser levels in this article, and put them through their paces.
Quick Clamping – The Stanley and Mastercraft versions both have clamping accessories that allow the user to quickly clamp the level to a 2x4 or other item. The clamp mechanism on both units isn’t overly strong and grippy though, and is slightly prone to slipping unless you take good care to use it.
The lasers also all had a standard 1/4–20 tripod mount, so any of the lasers I looked at could be attached to a standard camera tripod, which I think is one of the most useful ways to use a line generator level. If you wanted to hang a set of cupboards, for example, you can use a tripod to hold the level at the correct height to cast a line across the wall as a reference point. Instead of trying to hold a cupboard, a drill, and a level all at once, the level holds itself. The laser line will also go around corners and obstacles, so if you set the laser up strategically, you could do an entire kitchen without moving the level, ensuring your cupboards are at the same elevation from one wall to another.
The last feature that the levels shared in common (other than all using batteries) is the fact that you can select which line or lines are visible, depending on what task you are trying to perform. Each unit varied in how this was controlled, but each unit had some sort of mode selector switch, enabling me to select horizontal, vertical, or both lines.
One of the biggest differences between the units was the quality and brightness of the laser line. To examine the line quality and brightness, I set up all five levels side by side and aimed them down the length of my shop. If you’ve never used a laser level before, you might expect that you’re going to get a pencil thin line all the way down the wall. There is normally some width to a laser line, but ideally it is minimal, and the edges of the line are sharp to give you a consistent reference point.
At 10 ft. away from the units, I could see some difference in both the quality of the line and the brightness, but nothing that would make any particular unit useless. For quality of line, the Stabila unit produced the sharpest and narrowest line, at just 1.2mm. The DeWalt, Stanley, and Bosch units produced slightly wider lines at 2 mm, but were almost as crisp as the Stabila unit. The MasterCraft level produced a line about 1.5 mm wide, but the edges of the line were a little blurred. The Bosch, DeWalt, and Stanley units were the brightest, with very little difference between them. The Stabila unit was slightly dimmer, but still very acceptable.
The MasterCraft unit was the dimmest, but even under the bright lights in my shop, I was able to see it easily. At 28 ft. away from the units, some more differences started to pop up. For one thing, some of the lines got slightly wider. The DeWalt and Stanley units managed to maintain their width of 2 mm, but the Bosch unit widened out to 3 mm. The Stabila unit had expanded slightly from 1.2 mm to 2 mm, but it still produced the crispest line of all the units. The MasterCraft level, while still within its specified range of 10 m, produced a line about 10 mm wide at this distance, and quite blurry.
A Simple Screw – The Bosch, Stabila and DeWalt products can all be hung from a single screw, making for quick and stable positioning.
Magnetic Grip – The Bosch, Stabila and DeWalt products all have magnets, allowing the user to position in on metal studs, or other metal surfaces. Can you see the difference?
Another difference between the units, in terms of the line generated, is the degrees of field. What this refers to in simple terms is how wide an area the unit can cast a line over. So, imagine I am trying to cast a vertical line from floor to ceiling. If I set the level on the floor, I want my line to reach all the way to the ceiling. If I can move the level back infinitely from the wall I am projecting onto, then no problems will arise. However, each unit has a limited range, and remember the best line generators are only good for about 50 ft. Also, in a small room, I may not be able to back up far enough to accomplish this. The good news is that three units I tested – the Bosch, Stabila and DeWalt – all cast vertical lines up past 90°, going right over the top of the unit. With these units I could place one practically in front of a wall and still get a floor-to-ceiling line. I can also back these units into a corner and get a line part way down the wall behind them.
Tripod Support – All the models tested could be supported with a standard tripod.
What Type of Line? – All the versions came with a variety of options for line readout. Typically, horizontal, vertical and an option for both lines at the same time were standard.
Slightly Different Lines – For comparison (from top to bottom) the Bosch, Stanley, Mastercraft and DeWalt lines. The Stanley line is currently set to produce a ‘cross’, though any of the units can produce one. These lines are all generated from 10'. It’s hard to tell, but the Mastercraft line is lighter than the others, although all are crisp lines.
Protect its head
All of the units I tested, except the DeWalt, had some sort of locking mechanism when they were switched off. What this mechanism does is secure the delicate laser head to protect it against bumps and drops during transport. Basically, this type of laser employs gravity to act on a sensitive movement within the unit to find level. Should this mechanism get damaged, it will no longer be able to find level accurately, so it’s important to protect your laser from any sort of impact. But accidents do happen, so having the head locked in place during transport helps to keep the unit safe.
Picking the “Best Professional Value” was tricky. There were a couple of good contenders for that position, but I settled on the Stabila LAX300 ($349) for that award. While I don’t like the fact that the LAX300 is not the brightest unit, even under the bright lights in my shop, it was still quite easy to see. I like that the Stabila had the sharpest, narrowest line of all the units, and I think this is the most important feature of the unit. I also like the built in plumb bob. For large-scale projects, I think the ability to cast a sharp line over a long distance is key for a professional user. I also like that when placed in a corner, the unit draws the vertical line right across the ceiling, and somewhat down the wall behind. For the same reasons I also picked the Stabila for the "Best in Class" award. Overall, the unit outperforms the others hands down.
The “Best Hobbyist Value” unit I tested was the Stanley unit. While far from the most expensive unit on the market, it gives the purchaser a lot of bang for his or her buck. The Stanley unit has nice crisp and bright lines, and also features two vertical lines, allowing the unit to work as a tile laser. This feature helps you to draw out a grid to lay floor tile. The unit could only cast a vertical line up to about 80 degrees, but it does have good range, which is also important. I think this unit still delivers the best value to a homeowner or occasional user, giving a nice blend of a mid-range price and features.
We inadvertently covered the wrong Bosch model in this article - unfortunately the error was not noticed until after the article was publshed. The comparative model in our round-up should have been the Bosch GLL 2-15
and NOT the model GLL 2-50. The street price for the GLL 2-15 is $169 compared to the model tested at a retail of $369 –making the GLL 2-15 the second least expensive unit, on par with the DeWALT DW088K. The GLL 2-15 is being replaced with the GLL 55
available now at your local retailer.