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Johnson Level & Tool Laser Distance Measure
Accuracy (and speed) in a box
Text, photos and video by Tom Hintz
Posted – 12-1-2010
Measuring distances accurately is crucial regardless of whether you are working with metal, wood or something in between. Using a tape measure for outside measurements over short to medium distances can be fairly precise. However, when the distances get longer so do the odds against keeping a tape measure straight and flat to maintain accuracy. The Laser Distance Measure from Johnson Level & Tool scoffs at distances, taking ultra precise measurements and performing complex mathematical calculations in the wink of a laser beam. Since I can easily exceed my mathematical comfort zone when trying to enter my pin number correctly at an ATM, the Laser Distance Measure caught my interest immediately.
The Laser Distance Measure is only 4”-long by 2-3/8”-wide and 1-1/4”-thick but it packs several semesters of advanced geometry class into that package. The Laser Distance Measure is powered by a common 9v battery and they include one in the kit.
The Laser Distance Measure has a generous LCD (liquid crystal display) that makes reading the results easy even in bright daylight. When you work into the evening pushing a button backlights the LCD display. A large “keyboard” has blister-type pushbuttons that keep out the dust and weather. Another button on the side also for taking measurements makes the Laser Distance Measure easier to use in many positions. This tool also has a sound activated mode that lets you yell at it if you want to initiate measurements and relive stress at the same time. For the more forgetful of us the Laser Distance Measure can store up to 10 measurements in memory.
On the back of the Laser Distance Measure, next to the battery compartment you will find a threaded insert. This fits the mounting screws on most camera tripods. Being able to mount the Laser Distance Measure to a stand can be very important when taking many types of measurements. A small spirit level is built into the side of the Laser Distance Measure to help you get the instrument level to the world to further increase accuracy.
The kit also includes a silicone cover for the Laser Distance Measure along with a wrist strap that connects directly to the unit itself and a nice canvas case with its own longer carry strap. Johnson Level & Tool also includes a comprehensive instruction booklet. For those of us with 60-something eyes this booklet and its printing is a bit small but useable.
The Laser Distance Measure displays measurements in metric format for most of the world but for the rest of us (primarily the US) it has six other options. A single button on the front panel cycles through all of the dimension formats, metric, 0.00ft, 0’0” 1/32, 0.00 in, 0 1/32 in, 0 1/16 in, 0 1/8 in. The display is way smarter than we are and knows to only display feet and meters in decimal format in Area and Volume measurements. And, when things get dim on the job site you can press a button that turns on the back lighting in the LCD screen!
The Laser Distance Measure has an effective range from a 20” minimum to a maximum of 165-feet with an accuracy of +- 1/16”! What is even more counterintuitive is that the Laser Distance Measure actually can work better at night. Of course you need a clear line of sight. You can even tell the Laser Distance Measure to measure from its front panel, midway down its length or from the rear edge where I leave mine. That lets me set it against one wall and get an accurate measurement to the opposite wall in a room.
Of course the Laser Distance Measure can measure from here to there with great accuracy. It can also figure out the square feet of an area by shooting length and width measurements. Choose the volume setting which adds a vertical measurement and the Laser Distance Measure crunches the numbers to give you an overall volume of the space. Want to know how long a wall is or how tall a building is? The Laser Distance Measure performs those calculations also, based of course on the Pythagorean Theorem. (Yes, I copied that out of the manual!) By taking a measurement at the base of a wall and another at the top, both from the same place, the Laser Distance Measure calculates the height of the wall.
You can also take a measurement and then add another to that or subtract one distance from the first. I know that sounds simple enough but letting the Laser Distance Measure handle those calculations eliminates carrying around a calculator (or pencil and paper) and it does not make the errors so common to us humans.
In the Shop
I have to be honest and say that initially I had doubts about how useful a tool like the Laser Distance Measure would be in a woodworking (or metalworking) shop. As it turns out, that doubt was based on not having a Laser Distance Measure in the shop so that I could discover how handy it really is. I know these measurements could be done with manual tapes and stick-type devices but the accuracy would surely suffer, especially with longer dimensions where tapes sag and bend more than enough to compromise the dimension they provide. I was also a little concerned with the 20” minimum distance. However after using the Laser Distance Measure around my home and shop I found very few things under the 20” minimum. In most of those cases using a tape or other lower tech measuring device is easy enough.
As with any electronic device the learning curve is the most difficult thing about it because we anticipate it being complicated. On that count the Laser Distance Measure does very well because the panel controls actually are easy to understand as is the instruction manual that combines text and graphics to show how to use the various functions.
The fine red dot that shows where the Laser Distance Measure will take the measurement also makes using it much easier. As with many shop or home spaces the walls have things on them that could make getting a precise measurement difficult. With the laser dot you can hold the Laser Distance Measure against one wall and see that you are “shooting” at a spot on the other wall to be sure the measurement is accurate.
I did try to take measurements with the Laser Distance Measure and then carefully use a traditional tape measure to check the results. In all cases I had to really pay attention and take my time to get as accurate of a measurement as the Laser Distance Measure did instantly. The more I tried to check the Laser Distance Measure accuracy the more I became convinced that the only dumb thing about this device was not using it. Consider the cost of even minor measurement errors when determining how much tile or carpet you need for a room and the Laser Distance Measure sounds like an even better idea.
The Johnson Level & Tool Laser Distance Measure is a very accurate, easy to use measurement tool that has real utility around the house, wood shop or metal shop. Combine the accuracy with the speed at which that precision can be applied and the Laser Distance Measure starts looking more like a necessity than a luxury. If you’ve become frustrated over wasted wood, metal or other materials because of not-quite-right measurements or your own dud manual calculations the Laser Distance Measure looks better yet.
With a street price of $148.99 (11-30-2010) saving time and materials with its capabilities makes the Laser Distance Measure an attractive investment. Whether you are building cabinets, counters or stand-alone projects for the shop or home, you can’t get them right without accurate measurements of the space in which they must fit. Buying a Laser Distance Measure might be regarded as taking the easy way out but the improved accuracy it lets you focus more on getting the project right. With our increasingly tight schedules these days getting more accurate measurements (and calculations) quicker translates to more time in the shop and that is to be valued.
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