Having access to spot and straight line guides when doing DIY can be an invaluable aid for producing work that is accurate and professional looking. There are a few different ways to generate these work guides but the most modern and arguably the most accurate is to use a laser level. As its name suggests, a laser level uses lasers to project spots or lines onto a surface to act as a work guide. They are often superior to other methods since the user does not have to hold any type of levelling device, such as a spirit level, to keep ongoing work accurate. In addition, they can be left on continuously so that the laser guides remain in place and visible as the work is being carried out rather than having to stop periodically for work accuracy checks. A laser level is also generally more accurate than other manual methods, and they are not prone to user error as most laser levels are self-levelling.
Spot, line and combination laser levels
In general, there are three types of laser level: the spot, line and the combination laser level. The spot laser level fires lasers that align spots on different surfaces, the most common example being plumb points on the floor and ceiling. The line laser level, on the other hand, projects lines onto surfaces and is often used much like a spirit level for keeping work aligned with the three major spatial axes in 3D space. Finally, the combination laser level is simply one that can produce both spot and line lasers. Today line and combination laser levels are by far the more common types, so we will primarily focus on these in this article and refer to them collectively as laser levels.
So what can you do with a laser level?
There are numerous uses for a laser level and only by having access to one does it become apparent how useful they are. Some typical uses are listed below, but their use is really only limited by the DIYer’s imagination.
Some typical use cases for a laser level
Hanging cabinets or shelves
Installing down-lights in ceilings
Putting up wall tiles or laying down floor tiles
Installing stud-work for partition walls
Line & Spot
Making rectangular holes in walls (eg. for electrical sockets)
Passing pipework through cavities and room spaces
Features to look for when buying a laser level
When shopping around for a laser level, there are certain characteristics to look out for that can make getting straight and level lines and plumb points a breeze. These include some key features that any decent laser level should have and some that are more discretionary.
Laser levels of today almost all come in one of two flavours: those that operate using green lasers and those that use red ones. Choosing a colour is mostly based on preference although green is more visible to the human eye than red, especially at longer distances, while red lasers are more economical on battery consumption. However, laser line visibility and energy consumption are also impacted by the voltage the laser level operates at. In general, the higher the voltage, the more powerful the laser and the more visible and greater energy it will consume.
The number of axes
The laser line aspect of laser levels comes in multiple different forms. One characteristic that differentiates between them is the number of laser lines or planes in the spatial axis in which they can operate simultaneously. Lower-cost devices today will have at least two line lasers, one for the horizontal and one for the vertical plane, with the lines intersecting in front of the device. Higher-cost devices will have three line lasers: a horizontal one, and two vertical ones, all perpendicular to each other to cover all three axes of 3D space. In combination laser levels, the line lasers are usually distinct from the lasers used for generating spot guides. Many devices will also allow control of which lasers are on at any one time so that only the laser lines that are needed for a particular job will remain on. This not only saves on battery life but also reduces the chance of accidental direct eye exposure to the powerful lasers which, although not usually eye-damaging, is not trivial either.
Laser levels today are almost all self-levelling, using pendulum action and gravity to make sure that the laser lines produced are exactly parallel (or perpendicular, depending on the plane in which they operate) to the horizon.
Until recently, laser levels have tended to produce laser lines that only partially cover the plane in which they are projecting, so, for example, a horizontal axis laser will only project a line in front and at the sides of the laser device, but not behind it. More recent devices have seen the introduction of 360º lasers where one or all of the lasers in a laser level will project around the full 360º of their axis. This can be especially useful when working on a building job that goes around the whole of the room, for example installing room wall fixtures or bathroom tiling.
It is important to realise, however, that 360º lasers do not actually project completely throughout the full 360 degrees. That's because the laser is usually housed within a square turret (see picture) whose supporting legs usually block the laser beam at certain points around the 360º path. The resulting laser line often has four dead spots at the four corners of its 360º projection. For most work, this does not usually pose a problem as the laser level can be rotated slightly to reposition these dead spots away from critical areas.
Another minor negative worth pointing out with 360º lasers is that they are much more likely to dazzle someone working in the area. As the lasers project across the whole room, it is inevitable that workers' eyes will inadvertently pass through their 360º beams. This can be annoying (and even potentially dangerous) especially if the all-round laser beams are unnecessary for the work at hand, which can often be the case.
Essentially all laser levels today are battery-powered, however, the type of battery used can have a major impact on the usability of the laser level. Laser levels are typically powered by one of three battery types:
- 1Regular disposable or rechargeable AA batteries: These batteries are readily available from any grocery or hardware store. This makes it easy to manage or replace them as they wear out, however, in laser levels, this type of battery tends to run down quickly. For disposable batteries, this can also mean a high recurring additional cost, not to mention the environmental one! Consequently, we are not a fan of laser levels that use this type of battery power.
- 2Power tool batteries: These batteries tend to be the well-known brand-name ones (from the likes of DeWalt, Bosch or Makita) that belong to one of a power tool company's universal battery systems. They will often power a wide variety of different power tools from the company including its laser levels. These types of laser levels are ideal for someone who already subscribes to a brand's battery power system and simply needs to buy the bare laser level device that fits. In this way, DIYer's existing power tool batteries and chargers can be used with the laser level.
- 3A bespoke rechargeable lithium-ion battery: This type of battery is included with the laser level and is usually tailored to fit only the laser device type itself. For those that do not have or do not want to commit to one power tool company’s battery system, a laser level with its own rechargeable battery and charging system is likely to be the way to go. Charging such batteries is often via a USB port which makes it even easier for just about anyone to keep their laser level powered.
Pendulum lock and Slope mode
Self-levelling laser levels use a swinging pendulum within the device to get their laser lines parallel or perpendicular to the horizon. This is ideal for getting the lines to level up quickly and accurately but it is not so great when it comes to transporting the laser device. The delicate pendular mechanism within the laser level can easily become uncalibrated or even damaged from excessive motion. As a result, most devices will include a pendulum lock which locks the internal levelling mechanism when not in use.
In addition to protecting the delicate internal hardware of the laser level, locking the pendulum can also serve another role: Slope mode. If a diagonal or sloped line is needed instead of the usual parallel or perpendicular one, for example, when fitting staircase fixtures, then the laser line can usually be locked in place using the pendulum lock while the whole device is rotated to generate the sloping straight line guide.
Although not critical for the functioning of the laser level itself, a carry case is essential for storing and transporting this delicate tool. As a result, a well-padded carry case is considered essential. Some laser levels include this essential accessory as part of their overall package while others, particularly well-known brand-name ones, require a separate purchase.
Another function of many laser levels is to align points, also known as plumb points, on different surfaces. The typical example of this would be to align drill holes for the passage of pipework from floor to ceiling.
Laser levels that can generate plumb points do so through one of two mechanisms. Currently, the most common method is to shoot a laser, separate from the line lasers, at two different surfaces using pendulum action to ensure that they are projected exactly parallel to the vertical axis. More recently, however, with line lasers that exhibit 360º coverage on two or three of the spatial axes, a separate spot laser becomes unnecessary. That is because the laser line projections of the 360º lasers will naturally intersect at the plumb points. This allows the operators to use these intersection points as the plumb points instead and thereby reduce the laser level’s overall mechanics and energy consumption.
Laser levels need to be mounted to a stable support for them to work properly. This is usually in the form of a tripod, a bespoke laser level pole, or even an appropriately-positioned surface. Consequently, laser levels usually possess multiple attachment mechanisms, the most common of which are listed below:
Most laser levels will have one or more threaded holes or screw mounts on their underside, identical to those found on cameras, that can be used to attach the laser level to a tripod or pole. These threaded receptacles come in different sizes, the most common of which is the 1/4” screw mount which is usually the size found on camera hardware. Construction equipment also makes use of a larger 5/8” screw mount to provide better support to power tool hardware that, in general, tends to be heavier and bulkier than photography equipment. In the case of laser levels, either size screw mount will do and some laser levels come with the ability to attach to more than one size.
Another mounting mechanism laser levels often use to attach to surfaces, in this case certain metallic surfaces, is the use of strong magnets. These are usually found integrated on the rear of laser levels so that they can be attached to magnetic metal surfaces while projecting their laser lines forward. These magnets are usually very strong to ensure that the sensitive and expensive laser level device cannot accidentally fall off. However, it should be noted that the magnets used by different power tool brands will often differ in strength, for example, although the magnets used on DeWalt laser levels are excellent, the ones used in Milwaukee laser equipment are even stronger.
The final common modality used by laser levels to allow them to be attached to surfaces is through the use of a clamping accessory. These clamping accessories themselves often attach to the laser level using the magnet mounting mechanisms already mentioned and then the clamp and the laser level together are clamped to an appropriate surface.
When first setting up a line laser, the resulting line projections are often not exactly where one wants them to be, meaning that micro-adjustments are needed to move the laser lines to the exact position.
For the horizontal laser line projection, this can involve making use of the micro-adjustment hardware, if available, on the tripod mount or laser level pole to move the line projection up or down. More often the projected vertical line will be slightly out of place. Tripod or laser level pole hardware rarely have micro-adjustment mechanisms to move the laser level incrementally from side to side. This can make it difficult to get the vertical guide line exactly on target. Fortunately, a couple of solutions do exist to make micro-adjustments to the laser level so that it can easily project its laser lines exactly where they need to be.
For some devices, vertical laser line micro-positioning may be part of the device itself, as is the case for most Milwaukee-branded laser levels, where the laser level can be pivoted using a small adjustment thumbwheel on the integrated bracket. However, this is usually only found on premium hardware that is often out of reach, cost-wise, of most DIYers. Fortunately for the DIYer on a budget, there are more financially viable options on the market. One of our favourites is the Huepar PV10+ laser level bracket, which allows for micro-positioning of the laser level in almost any direction.
The self-levelling aspect of the laser level needs to be highly accurate otherwise you are going to end up with wonky building work that will please nobody. Fortunately, today’s laser levels are all very good at self-levelling their lines, so this should not be a major feature to be concerned about when looking to buy one.
Outdoor use and compatible detectors
One place where laser levels are at a significant disadvantage is in brightly-lit environments such as outdoors. Typically, laser levels can often be unusable outside even in overcast conditions as the laser lines become almost invisible. To address this problem, some laser levels come with or are compatible with a separate detector that can be placed in the path of the laser to accurately locate its position. If your laser level is intended for outdoor use then ensuring that it will work with a compatible laser line detector becomes a must.
Popular Laser Levels in the UK
*** plumb points are formed by the intersection of the 360º lasers
^^ Only the horizontal axis is 360º
Although not essential to the DIYer, laser levels can be an excellent addition for the toolbox at home, making many DIY jobs easier and with a more professional-looking end result. However, laser levels come with a variety of different features, some essential while others more discretionary, so choosing the right one from the plethora of laser levels out there can be a challenge. In this article, we have focused on the various features found on today's laser levels which should help more easily differentiate between those currently on the market. By comparing the different capabilities of these laser levels, choosing one that fits your particular needs should become a much simpler task.