If you spend any time at all working on construction, whether professionally or as a DIY project, you eventually will become haunted by that one, single question: Is it level? Just about everything begins and ends with that question, because it establishes a key part of structural integrity, as well as a primary aesthetic requirement.
As a result, not that long ago, if you stopped to watch tradies working on a construction project, you would see them taking up their bubble levels and consulting them with a frequency pretty close to that of teenagers checking their phones for text messages. All that started to change about 20 years ago, when laser-based levels began to become more affordable, a trend that has accelerated over the past ten years. Over the past two to three years, the laser level has passed an inflection point in its development, and has become truly affordable for even occasional DIY use around the home.
Lasers were themselves initially developed in 1960. It didn't take too long for inventors to see how useful they could be in construction, and the first construction laser was launched in 1968 by Spectra Physics. This consisted of a simple laser that had to be levelled by the use of the traditional bubble level. The plasma tube, which contained the helium and neon gasses which were "lased" to produce the laser would last for up to 300 hours of operation. The rig cost USD8,000 - equivalent in today's US dollars to over USD56,000.
The first development Spectra made was to add a motor to rotate the laser beam, which meant the level standard could be available to multiple workers building the interior fittings to a room. Next, the first self-levelling laser was developed, again by Spectra, in 1973. By the late 1970s there was general acknowledgement of just how useful the lasers were, with some sources stating they increased productivity by 30% to 40%.
The next big thing to happen to the industry was the commercial development of the diode laser in the mid-1990s. These used semiconductor materials similar to those used in light emitting diodes (the familiar LED lights). Much less expensive to produce than gas-based lasers, and offering a much longer operating period, these began to fundamentally change the laser level industry. The effect was to produce lasers that lasted for 30,000 hours of operation instead of 300, and cost half the price of gas-based lasers.
Over the past 10 years, as production in China and other low-cost labour countries has taken off, the prices of laser levels have plunged even further. Once used only on high-value construction sites, then by professional tradies, laser levels are today easily within reach of DIY consumers, as a convenience around the home.
Types of consumer levels
There are basically two types of laser levels for consumer use, with a third, in-between type emerging as well. The simplest type is basically a bubble level with a laser attached. These are typically fixed to a wall or other surface, levelled-up with the bubble level, and then project a reliable level laser line across the surface. These can be purchased for less than $45.
The second, more complex type is the self-levelling laser level. These can sit on the floor, or, more commonly, be placed in a more elevated position, either by fixing to a tripod, to a special attachment fixed to a wall, or, using a universal attachment, to some other "holder" such as a ladder, plumbing, or even a chair back, bed frame - anything. Most consumer levels use a pendulum system to provide levelling.
The third, emerging type is something of a hybrid of the other two. This makes use of a smartphone with an accelerometer. Connected to the phone via the headphone or connectivity port (Apple's Lightning port, micro-USB or USB-C), the connected device mainly produces the required laser line, while the phone provides the technology to sense when it is level.
Pioneered by companies such as Bosch, laser levels are becoming a more common consumer purchase. At the moment, there are not that many levels in the consumer price range produced by the major manufacturers.
However, if we accept that these consumer products need a price point under $120, there are already a range of reliable trade offerings between $180 and $240. It won't be long before we see more of these these reach down to the $80 to $130 market, and begin to become attractive to consumers.
Of course, what will cause that to happen will be a higher adoption rate of laser levels among consumers, driving better volume, and leading to manufacturing and distribution cost reductions. The question then becomes, how big is the potential market? Which leads us to an underlying question, just how useful is a laser level to the average DIYer?
The answer, HNN believes, is "very useful". That is in part because we need to remember that the average DIYer today probably has fewer skills than the DIYer of 20 years ago. It might seem like a bit of a joke to suggest that using the traditional beam bubble level is difficult, but if you only ever put it to use a couple of times a year, it is tricky. Many DIYers confidently get out the level, draw a pencil line, put up a shelf or cabinet - only to find that things have drifted out, and the bubble in the level is now distinctly out of the middle-zone.
In contrast, the laser level is a constant reminder to check the level, and offers an easy way to check and correct the seemingly inevitable drift. Spending $80 for what might amount to two hours of use over a three year period might seem excessive.
However, while cost-saving is great motivator for DIY, once undertaken the main motivator is making sure that you don't make mistakes. The shelf that is out of level by enough that it needs to be shifted 2mm or 3mm creates all kinds of problems. How do you drill mounting holes for the brackets that are so close to the existing holes, for example. Correcting mistakes is particularly difficult if you are inexperienced, and don't know some of the tricks professionals can use.
There are surprisingly few tools offered in this area by major manufacturers. This is likely due to increasing commodification. Doing a search for this type of tool on Alibaba, for example, returns a wide range of tools.
Bosch PLL 1 P Laser spirit level
With a length of 270mm and a width of 120mm, this is a simple, portable Bosch green tool that effectively boosts the functionality of a standard, small bubble level. One end of the level can emit a laser line, which has an effective range of around five metres. The other end can emit a single laser dot, which has a claimed range of 20 metres.
>http://hnn.bz/bosch-pl-laser.jpg}Bosch PLL 1 P Laser spirit level}http://hnn.bz/bosch-pl-laser.jpg
The level is attached to the wall using a mounting bracket. The bracket itself is attached to the wall using nails, pins, screws, or adhesive tape. The level then attaches to the bracket magnetically. The same mount can also be used to attach the level to a tripod with a 1/4 inch mounting thread. Once mounted, the level can be adjusted to an angle, for use in construction of items such as stairs.
The laser is a class II, and accuracy is stated as around 0.5mm per metre.
>http://hnn.bz/fixa-laser-level__0161653_PE316526_S4.JPG}IKEA Fixa Level}http://hnn.bz/fixa-laser-level__0161653_PE316526_S4.JPG
Ryobi AirGrip Laser Level
The AirGrip dates back to the time when Ryobi tools were darker blue/green and not their current colour, though a revised model in the current colour has been released. It's a device based on a unique idea. One of the main difficulties in using this kind of laser level is how to position it safely on a wall or other vertical surface. The AirGrip solves this problem by incorporating a small, battery powered suction pump in the design, which maintains enough of a vacuum, even when faced with some slightly porous surface, to keep the device in place.
>http://hnn.bz/ryobi-airgrip.jpg}Ryobi AirGrip Laser Level}http://hnn.bz/ryobi-airgrip.jpg
IKEA Fixa Laser spirit level
We're including this to give some idea of the market. This is a very simple device, which provides means of attaching to surfaces magnetically, but in no other way, unless the user drives in a couple of nails to hold it in place. The laser has a limited range of three metres, and accuracy, at 1.4mm per metre, is not great.
>http://hnn.bz/fixa-laser-level__0161653_PE316526_S4.JPG}IKEA Fixa Level}http://hnn.bz/fixa-laser-level__0161653_PE316526_S4.JPG
On the other hand, it retails for $20, and is designed for light tasks, such as hanging pictures.
Ryobi Phone Works Laser Level Device & App
This is one of eight Phone Works products that Ryobi produces, including an inspection scope, an infrared thermometer, and active noise suppression earphones.
Rather than relying on a bubble level to adjust the system, it instead relies on the inbuilt accelerometer in many smartphones. The advantage of the system is that it offers additional features, such as photos of the level line which can be shared. The disadvantage is that the accelerometers in many smartphones are notoriously unreliable.
Often it is necessary to first calibrate the phone using a standard bubble level. Additionally, as smartphone design is quite variable, getting the laser attachment to line up with the phone display can be difficult.
>http://hnn.bz/Laser_Level_00089.jpg}Ryobi Phone Works Laser Level Device & App}http://hnn.bz/Laser_Level_00089.jpg
Considering that this approach costs more than many self-levelling laser levels, it's best to regard this as a developing area for special uses.
Self-levelling laser levels
The Cubix is perhaps the most interesting of all the self-levellers that would be suitable for consumers. While it is at the very top of the consumer price range, with an average price of around $105 on eBay and other places, it has a good range of features, and, importantly for smaller retailers who might only stock one item of this type, it is certified for trade use as well. About the only issue is that its accuracy is rated at 0.8mm per metre, with the laser line visible for up to eight metres.
It has most of the features needed, including the generation of cross-line for alignment, and the inclusion of a handy grip that slots into the body of the tool, making it easy to attach it to anything from a ladder to a vertical stud. It also includes a 1/4 inch socket for a tripod.
Stanley Cross90 Self Levelling Laser Level
The Cross90 is really pushing the upper end of the consumer price range, but it does deliver for the extra cost. It features a class I laser, and provides accuracy of 0.5mm per metre. Like the Cubix, it uses Stanley's mounting system.
Its unique feature in a device at this price point, is that it offers a second laser at an angle of 90 degrees to the main laser, making it easy to set up the Cross90 in reference to a secondary point.
When you think self-levelling laser levels for consumers, the Quigo is one of the first devices that comes to mind. Bosch virtually pioneered the category with the Quigo, and now into its third generation, it remains a strong performer. It is a very compact design, which comes with a handy mounting grip included (the MM2 universal clamp), making it easy to set up on ladders, chairs and so forth.
Accuracy is rated at 0.8mm per metre, and the line is visible on surfaces up to 10 metres away.
It is a Bosch "green" tool, but it does come with a two-year warranty, which is automatically extended to three years when the tool is registered.
What HNN hasn't mentioned so far is that, outside of these major manufacturers, there is actually a very wide range of laser levels of all kinds available from a range of manufacturers in China.
In fact, it's possible that the laser level market of today presages what much of the power tool market in general may eventually look like, in another 10 years or so. Log onto the Chinese online wholesale marketplace Alibaba and search for laser levels, and you will see over a hundred variations on every kind of laser level imaginable, ranging from $20 up to $1000. Even if you go to a website such as Chinese online retailer Banggood - which, in electronics, largely gives you an idea of what are the more reliable offerings on Alibaba, for an additional cost - there are still dozens of choices.
This leaves Australian retailers in something of a tricky (and very interesting) situation. Some of those unfamiliar brands coming out of China will prove to be reliable, and offer customers a good deal - but which ones? While there are several Australian brands that have taken on the task of getting reliable laser levels manufactured in China - Imex, Redback and Spot-on, to name a few - these companies concentrate on trade-level devices. Except for the simplest levels, those used for tile-laying, they don't really cater to the consumer market.
One way through that morass is, of course, for retailers to establish a relationship with a reliable Chinese supplier, and effectively "own brand" the product. That is what Sydney Tools has done, for example, with its CPI line of self-levelling laser levels. The CPI X-Line sells currently for $49, and the CPI Cube sells for $99.