I always procrastinate when it comes to hanging up artwork. The permanence of hammering nail holes in the wall makes me nervous, and I worry about making a mistake and having to hammer in another hook. The old adage of “measure twice, cut once” is fine in theory, but difficult in practice.
That’s where laser levels come in. They can provide a helping hand (or more like a guiding light) to make sure everything is level, equal, and flush before you have to pick up that hammer. And maybe you might be doing an even bigger project than just putting some frames on the wall. You could be remodeling a kitchen, and, though artsy, hanging cabinets at odd angles is just not an option.
That’s why a laser level like the Huepar US-BOX1G(available at Amazon) works so well. It’s something you might find on a construction site with its pendulum-style self-leveling feature, but it’s also simple to use for any home DIY-er with its incredibly bright light. That’s why it’s our choice for best overall laser level.
And for those on a budget, or who just need a more basic tool for their DIY project, the handheld Skil 8101-SL (available at Lowe's) is our choice for best value.
Here are the other laser levels we tested, ranked in order:
1. Huepar US-BOX1G
2. Ryobi ELL1002
3. Bosch GLL 30 S
4. Skil 8101-SL
5. Tavool T02
6. Black & Decker BDL220S
7. Tacklife SC-L01-50
8. Black & Decker BDL190S
9. Craftsman CMHT77636
10. Hart HHMLE104
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The most important factor when testing laser levels is whether or not users can see the light, because otherwise, what’s the point? Well, Huepar outshines the competition…literally. From the moment I turned on the device until the final test, I was amazed at the laser beam’s intense brightness.
Plus, the light is a distinctive neon green, which stood out from the other devices’ standard, and much duller, red lasers.
The Huepar also has a feature common among other cross line laser levels—its internal self-leveling smart pendulum system. You don’t have to worry about reading bubble levels to make sure the laser is perfectly horizontal or vertical. All you have to do is unlock the pendulum and let gravity do the rest.
Two of my main goals while testing was to do it all without another set of hands, and to leave no marks behind. That’s where these professional-style levels work best, and the Huepar led the field. I don’t own a tripod and didn’t want to fuss with a ladder, so I just rested the device on a bookshelf while I conducted the tests and that worked just fine.
Additionally, the mounting bracket it came with was simpler than some of the others, but its attached magnets allowed me to secure it to the metal bars of the bookshelf without leaving any marks behind.
Finally, this was the only of the devices we tested that can work over a large space, like a backyard. Huepar makes a receiver that can be lined up with distant objects. Say you want to make sure your hedges are all the same height—just flip the US-BOX1G into “pulse mode,” put it at a desired height in a central location, and then move the receiver across the space. When it lines up with the height of the centralized device, it’ll beep, just like a top-of-the-line (read: expensive) level would at a construction site.
The Huepar US-BOX1G is a modest investment compared to some of the other devices we tested, but it seriously outworked the others, proving it’s worth the money. You’ll find a use for it both inside and outside the home.
Incredibly bright laser
Lines didn’t bounce as much when walking around
“Pulse mode” for larger areas
Easy to smudge or potentially break large laser window on the front
The Skil 8101-SL is one of the handheld devices we tested, which are all on the lower end of the price spectrum. While the Skil is simplistic from a technical standpoint, it was reliable through all of the tests, including being the only one to properly hang picture frames at an angle.
The device itself is minuscule, easily fitting in the user’s hand. I found it wasn’t a problem to hold the device against the wall, and because it’s so lightweight, it didn’t shift while conducting the tests. If you need both of your hands, it comes with an adhesive putty that can easily keep the level elevated.
It also has a bracket tool that accurately measures angles. The plastic tool features notches on the corners to pin it up on the wall, and magnets if working with a metallic surface, though I used the adhesive putty most of the time. This really set it apart from the rest.
None of the other devices had a way to measure angles, meaning if you’re hanging frames at an 18-degree slant, or trying to measure a perfectly flush 90-degree corner, you still have to judge for yourself if you think it’s level. The Skil could at least tell you if the angle is correct.
As for the laser itself, the light could be brighter and the laser essentially faded out after a few feet, but that’s par for the course with these more inexpensive handheld levels. I liked that the bubble levels are backlit when you turn the device on, though I was disappointed to see the lines on the bubble levels were spaced further apart than the width of the bubble itself, so it took some eyeballing to make sure the device was properly level.
All in all, the Skil 8101-SL is a very handy level (pun intended) that’s useful for any amateur handyman to do small projects around the house. Its affordable price point makes it easy to overlook any shortfalls, which are outnumbered by its strengths anyway.
I’m Nick Bove, and I’m a jack-of-all-trades broadcaster, announcer, and voiceover artist based out of Boston. With my line of work, I’m always on the move, jumping to different job opportunities across the country. I‘ve moved 12 times in the past 12 years, which means I’m pretty familiar with the process of packing up my things, going somewhere new, and unpacking those things.
My design style has stayed pretty consistent throughout my life (I love maps, concert posters, handcrafted wooden signs, and vintage pennants), meaning I’ve owned the items I hang on my walls for a long time. Funny enough, I own all sorts of tools to hang that art, like bubble levels, hooks, stud finders, and even a tool designed specifically for hanging picture frames, but I’ve never considered a laser level before.
After doing these tests, I’ve re-evaluated my work around the house. I thought I had a pretty good eye for telling when something is level, but these devices prove I’m not perfect. While that knocks my ego down a few pegs, it shows that going forward, a laser level is very useful to have in my toolbox.
There are several styles of laser levels, and there are different applications they can be used for. One style can help show a straight line when handing several picture frames, Another can make sure the hooks in a lopsided gallery wall all line up at the right angle. That’s why we conducted a variety of tests to see where devices shined--and where they didn’t.
To test the devices’ ability to measure a straight line, we took 4-foot-long strips of painter’s tape and made a square on the floor and on the wall. The professional-style levels shone brightly on both surfaces, while the handheld lasers struggled to shine beyond a few feet. The hefty, brick-like multi-functional devices didn’t do well in either test, especially against the wall.
We also assessed each device’s self-leveling or bubble level feature and it’s mounting function. We took a piece of plywood, gave each device a lane, and tested how level its laser line was. For the handheld and multi-function levels, we were able to tack them directly to the board using the pins they came with. For the professional levels, we mounted them across from the board with their included bracket tools.
Finally, we used the levels to hang picture frames in a straight line on the wall and at an angle in a staircase. All of the levels had little problem hanging the frames in a straight line, which was promising. Hanging frames at an angle proved to be much trickier. None of the devices except the Skil had a reliable way of measuring an angle. That was frustrating because a main reason for using a laser level is to measure a slant, and almost all of the devices weren’t able to do that.
What You Should Know About Laser Levels
Something I discovered quickly about the world of laser levels is that they can be grouped into several categories. There are handhelds, which are compact and simple for smaller projects. There are also professional-style levels, which project the lines onto the work surface from behind the user. And then there are multifunctional levels, which include other features like a stud finder and a live wire detector.
Handhelds are perfect for someone who doesn’t need many bells and whistles for their project. You might, say, attach them temporarily to the wall if you’re hanging picture frames in a gallery wall. They are more inexpensive than the others, but they also require more out of the user, like reading bubble levels to make sure the device is level.
Their lasers are weaker in brightness, and it doesn’t help you have to hold them against the wall, so if there’s an imperfection on the wall, like a bump or a wallpaper seam, the line can get interrupted. I also found that I had to change my approach to hanging pictures with these units. If I hung a hook closer to the device, I would block the rest of the light, so I had to go backwards and start on the opposite end, working towards the light.
The professional-style levels aren’t held up against the wall, but sit across from the work surface and project their lines onto it. These devices have a mounting thread on the bottom so they can sit on a tripod, or attach to their own mounting bracket. I can see this coming in handy for someone renovating a bathroom or kitchen in their house and they’re strictly measuring horizontal and vertical lines.
These devices also have a pendulum inside so gravity automatically levels the laser. Any time the ground moves, like if someone takes a step nearby, the projected lines will bounce, so you’ll need some patience with these units.
If the user needs to measure a straight-line at a slant, most of the devices allow you to lock the pendulum in place and turn the device, though the line will flash off and on every few seconds to let you know the lines aren’t level.
The multifunctional levels included a stud finder and a live wire detector, so they are helpful if you don’t want to buy multiple tools to do a single job. They also have a self-leveling feature, but it only works horizontally. If you want to measure a vertical line, you have to turn the device counterclockwise and eyeball how straight you think the line is. If you turn it clockwise, the line disappears entirely.
These levels are cumbersome to handle since they contain electronic sensors. It was difficult to get them to stay in place—I had to wedge them against the wall, lean them against other objects, or get another set of hands entirely just to hold them up. They were the most expensive devices we tested, yet the most challenging to work with.
Other Laser Levels We Tested
I really enjoyed the vacuum pump feature of this laser level. When you turn on the laser, it automatically turns on a tiny suction pump that allows you to attach the device to the wall. That means no marks left behind and no need for another set of hands.
This does affect its battery life compared to the other devices, but Ryobi says the power to the laser will die before the power to the suction, so the user doesn’t have to worry about it falling and breaking.
Innovative and useful suction pump
Includes mounting aid for various surfaces
Laser light is on the weak side
Suction function means turning device off and on to readjust
I actually wasn’t terribly impressed with this device compared to the other professional levels. Its laser was modestly bright, and its horizontal line was much shorter than its vertical line. It was also the only professional level that didn’t have the ability to lock its pendulum in place.
What I liked best about this product was actually its unique mounting arm. Compared with the other levels that came with a simplistic screw/magnet-mounted L-bracket, this bracket had a clamp on one end and two multi-directional arms. It made it very easy to position and reposition the device.
This is your middle-of-the-road professional-style laser level. There is nothing bad about it, but also nothing that really called out to me when I used it. Its laser lines are on the brighter side and they bounced less than some of the others when I walked around.
Because the device is easy to turn on by just pressing a button on top, it kept accidentally turning on inside its included carrying case. That may sound like a mild annoyance, but the Tavool requires four AA batteries, so any accidental turn-ons could cost you money in the long run.
This is a small product, but it really packs a punch. Its laser light is surprisingly bright and sharp. The bubble levels on the device are also oversized and backlit, making them easy to read, though I thought the guide lines were spaced too far apart.
An angle tool that rotates 360 degrees is included, but I wasn’t really able to use it. When you attach the level to the tool via magnet, a sharp mounting pin automatically pops out so you can push the unit into the wall for hands-free use, which I really didn’t want to do.
And even if I tried to use the angle tool, I found it didn’t work as advertised because the device and angle wheel spin independently of one another. If one of the two stayed constant, then you can tell the angle of the laser.
I found that the laser lights on this unit were the weakest of the professional-style levels. The lines barely registered, and as with with the Bosch, the horizontal line faded out after only a few feet.
It’s nice that only two AA batteries are required, but that could explain the lack of serious power. Also like the Bosch, its pendulum was very sensitive to external movement, so patience was needed to wait for the lines to stop bouncing.
To some, having a tool that can give you a straight laser line, a stud finder, and a live wire detector all in one device might sound appealing. To me, though, I’d rather buy those items separately if it meant I got a more dependable laser level.
I didn’t like how the level lines only worked horizontally. If you need an angled line, make sure to turn the device counterclockwise, because turning it the other way will make the line disappear entirely. It was also heavy to hold, and bulky to store. To me, it felt like this device was too much, and yet not enough all at the same time.
I was frankly baffled to see this laser level is the exact same as the Black & Decker BDL190S. Even down to the fake “screws” making it seem like the plastic casing of your laser level was hand-tightened together, and the knockoff batteries that went into the difficult-to-open compartment.
So as I used this product, I found I experienced the exact same issues as with the other multifunctional level. Truly, I have no idea how two competing companies can put out the same exact product without hitting copyright snags.
Of all the laser levels I handled, this one felt like the lowest quality. Its boxy design, though nice for lying flat on a surface, didn’t look sleek or user-friendly.
It’s nice that this device’s laser sits higher up on the product itself, so when you hold it against the wall the line doesn’t get interrupted as much by imperfections. But the laser itself is weak. The light is bright in the first inch or so, then fades out considerably after only a couple feet.
It requires two AAA batteries, but doesn’t include them (it was the only device to not include batteries).
The user can hold the device on the wall, use a command strip to keep it up (again, not included), or use the two mounting pins tucked in the package, though those will leave marks behind.
Nick Bove is a journalist and broadcaster based out of Boston. He's currently a public address announcer at Boston University, Harvard, and Northeastern, and is breaking into the voiceover industry. He's also lent his voice as a professional hockey broadcaster and news anchor for NBC News Radio. When he isn't speaking into a microphone, he's probably on a long hike or daydreaming of being the next Bob Costas.
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