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cutntrim 02-08-2004 09:32 AM

Basic grade/level info
Hey there - another basic question for residential installation projects <$10,000.00.

For grading of patios/walkways/driveways on these smaller jobs would a laser level be worthwhile? Or just measure off of string lines with a line level, or some other method?

What method(s) do you use? What method(s) would you recommend?

If a laser level is a viable option - what type/price level would I be looking at, and in-a-nutshell how do they work?

Thanks boys.

scl 02-08-2004 11:52 AM

A Laser is the cats meow. I'd be lost without mine and I'll honestly tell you that I suck when it comes to strings and little hanging levels. I have no patience for stepping over, walking around and resetting lines. A laser makes that little beep and off you go.
Expect to pay >$1k for a good one, and get a good one! Mines a Laser Pro and its been through hell. Still working good and in tolerance. We actually had a wind storm so bad one day, gusts to 60, and it flipped it right over on the tripod.
This is one of the most valuable tools in my arsenal!

Bill Schwab 02-08-2004 12:13 PM

I'm with scl on that one, but I also have to add...A well rounded crew leader can get things pretty darn close simply using his eye and skills.

Have a guy like that, you set up the laser, he purposly does not use it, and you go check hom and he will win the bet of being every time!

Stonehenge 02-08-2004 01:42 PM

If you want to check out a laser, go back an issue or two in Pro - I put a short article together on using one to do grading work.

But for patios and walls and such, if they are under 500 sqft (pavers) and don't involve lots of elevation changes, we just use stakes, strings, levels and line levels. It's when you get into tricky elevation changes, or greater distances that we like to use lasers.

But if you do any grading of lots for seed or sod, the laser is indispensable. One man can do all the work (where a sight level requires 2 men) and it's extremely accurate.

For a basic laser set-up, including laser, laser detector, tripod and direct-read rod, expect to start at $1200 new. Go for some of the fancy stuff Paul uses (dual slope, etc) and you'll end up closer to $5K.

This discussion has been included in the site beginner's brick paving page.

HRLand 02-08-2004 03:30 PM

It may not be the best, but I bought a Lasermark LM30 complete kit for around $450.00 at home depot. I've only used it a few times to measure jobs by myself but it works great.

Anybody use these for setting up your string?

chesie 02-08-2004 05:00 PM

Here is what we use:

Makes me mad though.....they have come down in price in the last 2 years. I suggest getting a second rod and receiver so that 2 different people can work 2 different grades.


dan deutekom 02-08-2004 05:48 PM

A laser level is nice to have and I personally use a dumpy because it is still in good shape but for most smaller jobs where you are doing a walkway or stairs or even a drive I find that I use the dumpy once to set my grades and even many times it dosn't come out of the truck because in most existing subdivisions your grades are set up already. You have an existing door at the building that you have to work to, the walk has to meet up at a existing driveway or if doing a drive, the garage door is set and so is the curb at the road. A few strings to check for even grading usually does it. I find it faster to do it this way than setting up and leveling the transit and having my helper having a hard time trying to figure out how to read it. (I know it is simple but new guys/parttimers always have a hard time with it:rolleyes: ) ) When doing a larger job or when grading lots for drainage then the Dumpy comes out to be used. For most small jobs a 4' level and the occasional string line suffices.

diginahole 02-08-2004 05:57 PM

Well yet another year has passed that I got by with my old dumpy. There are a lot of start up expenses the first year and the right deal never showed up. I'm sure I'll move into the future this year and get a laser.

Great idea chesie. I hadn't considered that I could have 2 guys setting grades just by adding a second reciever. That makes a laser that much more attractive.

To answer your question cutntrim, we use the dumpy (contractors site or ??sight?? level) to set string elevations. Base materials are filled to the string. For most simple patios and walkways we don't even need to get out the dumpy as the elevations are pretty much a given. We still use strings to ensure a nice glass flat surface.

You will not regret buying a laser but is it a must. I don't think so. You can get by without it. A saw and tamper are must haves before the laser. I even chose to buy 2 saws before I get the laser. I'll start a thread on that come spring. I am going to be trying out my new Echo.

jwholden 02-08-2004 06:20 PM

Echo chop saw???

An innovator and not afraid to stand alone.

Bill Schwab 02-08-2004 06:29 PM

It amazes me that for years contractors used bader boards, string lines, and simple sight levels, they worked fine, and if you consdier the time taken to set those boards, and use the site level, then consider the cost of a low cost lazer, it would take 4 years to recover the cost of the lazer if you know what you are doing with the site level and bader boards.

We save about .25 man hours per 1000 sq ft of paving, and .10 man hours per 100 ft of wall base course. Do the math and you have quite a bit of time to save before the lazer pays fopr itself. Why we got one? I was at a Navy auction and saw a Leica lazer with case and tripod come over the block...Got it for $75.00.

Should have had one years ago, but, the old reliable method my uncle and grandfather used was just fine. Bottom line, make due with what you have, master it, and when you can afford an upgrade, go for it!

diginahole 02-08-2004 06:44 PM

I took the Echo on trade for a job for a supplier. Brave? Maybe but Echo has a pretty good reputation. If I actually had to pull the cash out of my walllet I'd have chosen another Partner.

PSUscaper 02-08-2004 07:07 PM

One of the biggest things I use my laser for is on estimates.

Whenever were doing a larger patio with grade changes/steps from the wall/drainage issues, I find the laser invaluable.

You can set it up in minutes and take a few quick elevation shots. Therefore, you don't take guesses at what you will be doing if you get the job.

In my estimate, I can be assure that 6 steps are needed......not 7 or 8. I can also be assured that if I'm doing a raised patio I need to bring in 30 yards of QP......not 20.

Bringing the laser along can pay for itself in one estimate if you are involved in a larger project. Adding a extra course to that raised patio can add up FAST!

chesie 02-08-2004 08:51 PM

Pennscapes- you brought up the exact point i was going to. This is where it has saved us big $. It is invaluable in these situations of estimating.

cutntrim 02-08-2004 09:34 PM

I appreciate the replies. Being that I barely have any experience in setting grades period...I think I'm leaning towards embracing the most "up-to-date" methods/equipment I can.

Sounds as if most are either using lasers now, or gradually moving towards using them in the near future. Granted, as I mentioned, the projects I'll be accepting will be small, but it sounds as if a relatively inexpensive (yet still useful) laser can be found at places like Home Cheapo.

I've got a course at Landscape Ontario next week on Grading & Drainage, so I'm hoping to not only get more insight into "what" tools to use for grading...but also "how" to use them.

jwholden 02-08-2004 09:44 PM

What do the lazers that run 1200-1500 and over have that the lazers that run 700-800 don't? I'm sure MANY on the site would like to know what to look for in a lazer.

The basic ones seem to be a revolving lazer and reciever unit. Pretty basic. Does more bling get you more feautures, is it more durable, does it just depend on the brand?

Do you really need a remote control to turn a lazer on and off?

chesie 02-08-2004 10:43 PM

I am not sure why you would need a remote to turn it on and off. The one we have(see the link above) has an invisible beam. Set it up in morning, turn it on, and leave it. It is ready when you need it. Ours simply puts out a level plane 360 degrees. Some of the more expensive models will put a sloping grade out for you. But as someone metioned earlier I think that puts you in the $3500-5000 range.

Stonehenge 02-08-2004 11:33 PM

We don't need no stinkin' remote...

I've never tested any of the lower-priced lasers, so I can't really say what the more expensive ones have over them, other than to say when a dealer showed me the $400 model, it looked like it wouldn't hold up to much abuse. I delaer also gave me a demo of one that I purchased - he dropped if off the counter, then later picked it up and bowled it across the concrete floor. (I didn't buy that exact one - ;) ) Worked fine afterward.

PSUscaper 02-09-2004 12:46 AM

For most landscape residential work, a expensive laser really isn't necessary.

almost all are accurate in up to 100-200 ft range anymore, to be within a 1/8 inch for landscape work is more than adequate. If your doing work like setting foundations, then that may be a different story.

As for the remote........completely useless in most cases.

I use to use a robo-lazer for about 3 years. Under $300, and it worked great for 99% of my smaller jobs. A little hard to see in bright sun, but it worked. I upgraded it 2 years ago, but leave it in my car for estimates now. After the years of use , it was off by about 4 inches over 100' (Discoverd this 2 years ago when I was setting stone in prep for a concrete floor in a 4000 sq ft basement, wasn't very happy with it!!!)...........but it still is adequate for most of my estimates. The robo lazer can be calibrated, but after a while, it becomes too far out of whack to be adjusted without being sent in. If you do get one, calibrate it regularly, and then plan on replacing it after a few years.

I bought a dewalt last year. Its got a power remote (i never use) for power. It also has a sensor, which i use all the time.

As for buying a expensive laser, I'm not sure if it is a good move or not yet. The dewalt was around $1200, and to be honest, I haven't done a whole lot more with it than the $300 cheapo robo-lazer.

All things considered, I wonder what the life expectancy of a laser is being used on the job every other day. 3, 4, 5, years???? Unless I personally handle the instrument myself, I can't be assured it's getting treated properly. It stays in my trailer, in a good hard case, but I'm always catching my guys handling it improperly. I tried keeping it in my truck........but it takes up too much room and I always was needing it on one job while my truck was at another.

For the price of the one laser, you can buy 3-4 robolaser. As I said, for most smaller residential work, the robolaser works fine, so I have to say I am still questioning whether I should take the 'disposable' approach or go with the more expensive model.
only time will tell I guess.


Bill Schwab 02-09-2004 01:09 AM


We found that older lazers in cold weather would eat batteries. So if you needed to use it, you would have to drop what you were doing climb off a machine, and turn it on, then when you got your readings, shut it off. With the remote, it is no different than the TV set, or the remotes I use for all the irrigation installs we do...From over 3 miles away, I can program someones irrigation control...No more appointments, no more entering garages...Same as with a lazer...The machine operator, estimator, or whoever can turn it off or on at command....Want to play a trick on someone, take your remote on the same frequency and flip off thier lazer while they are using it... I can play with my irrigation remote control and get a lazer frequency occasionally....Good for a few laughs...

Do you need them?, well, back to a post I made on lazers...I have not seen the time saving features that would immediatley justify the cost, but that is who I am...
Now if you take away some of the walking back and fourth to save batteries, that time saved increases, so I recover my investment faster....
I still maintain however, that unless you know how to do something manually, without all the toys, the toys will confuse your learning curve. Learn the mechanics first, learn the math, do the math manually, day in day out and stop your brain from becoming lazy by using calculators.
Thenn and only then, broaden your horizons and mechanize...Sort of like walking before running...The one thing I will never allow anyone in our family or company to do is become dependant on electronic gizmos, because they all eventually fail, need work, etc etc...By knowing how to do the basics you can go forward with your work while the machines are being repaired without loosing too much focus by attempting to fix them yourself.

Just a different spin on things here....

Paul 02-09-2004 01:11 AM

Some of the newer $1000 lasers have a self leveling feature, that means you don't have to turn any screws to get them level. More expensive lasers have longer ranges and higher head speeds. But these are more for the grading contractor that runs his equipment with automatic controls. Higher head speeds allow automatic equipment to be more accurate. So the longer the range on your laser the faster it has to run.

For most here a laser in the $800 to $1200 range will do fine.
Things to look for a good quality tripod, it should weight about 15 lbs and be made of fiberglass and aluminum. I like to tell people to stay away from all aluminum tripods, sun light tend to make them move a bit as they heat up. Lasers in this range will have a 700 foot range and a head speed of 400 rpm or better. They will be water proof and carry a manufactures warranty of 2 years or more.

I don't recommend buying a set. I like to buy the head and tripod separate. Most sets include a cheap rod and tripod. A good rod to buy is a Linker direct reading rod, it makes it easier to convert reading(no adding or subtracting) If I remember right we have a thread on this rod some where on this site about them. They run about $200 for the rod now. A good tripod will run about $90 to $150. Lasers have other options that you can get if you think you need them, like rechargeable batteries, 12 volt conversions for long run times, remotes that allow you to increase the speed of the head or on the more expensive models change the slope on them.

Not many member here have a need for slope lasers, but I find them indispensable in my line of work. They can make setting slope on larger jobs much easier and faster, help find mistakes before they bite you. They can speed up job site layouts on multiple slope jobs that would take many people here a few hours to lay out. Thus increasing production speed. The down fall of them are. The high cost, some running over $5000, remembering to reset them back to 0%-0% each time, and recalibration costs.

One last thing remember to have your units recalibrate every year, we send ours out twice a year.

agla 02-09-2004 07:11 AM

Someone mentioned not needing string anymore. That makes me wonder if you are setting block by block or paver by paver with the laser. Is that right? I can not see that being faster than using strings especially on a sloped walk. Can someone explain?

jwholden 02-09-2004 09:16 AM

One advantage to lasers I see is setting my stakes more accurately and quickly. I always feel like Laurel and Hardy looking through my transit yelling up, up, up, little more, right THERE. The guy holding the rod thinks it is some kind of joke and needs to be reminded to hold the rod STRAIGHT up.

I like the fact that I, or any job foreman, can turn it on and have that 'permanent' benchmark and not rely on someone else to shoot or mark the grade.

Honestly, the laser is pretty low on the list right now. However, if I start to do more patio installs I will seriosly consider one. I suspect the next 'Big Job' will be my justification to get one.

Stonehenge 02-09-2004 09:28 AM

Agla, I know there are smaller lasers that emit a visible beam and can actually lay down a 50' line on the ground to follow for laying pavers, etc. Our palm laser can't do that.

But we still snap chalk lines for paver bond lines and for block lines. The thing that a laser eliminates for us re: string is trying to use some contraption of stakes and strings to measure out elevation changes, or long runs, where the weight of the the string makes it sag and makes the measurements we take from it unreliable.

We still have a 250' spool of string in each set of tools, and use the string almost exclusively on smaller projects. But the use of the laser has made string obsolete for some projects.

I'm not sure if I was the one with a post that made you ask, or if that answered your question, but that's my $.02, anyway.

Paul 02-09-2004 09:40 AM

In an older post I mentioned that we don't use strings on walls jobs and on some larger paver jobs. We use slope lasers for our paver jobs, we can adjust them to set our base material using a laser control box blade then with the same set up they set the screed pipes. Wall we have a "Speed Base" machine that we use to install our base. With it we use the laser in level mode or use one of our laser levels. Once the rail system of the speed base is set we don't have to adjust or play with the units. We just mark our lines for curves or use the a hand laser to give us a straight line.

Bill Schwab 02-09-2004 10:49 AM


Did you buy your a speed base from Len Browning? He patented them back in Illinois and we stored them for him when he moved to New York. Just curious...

Bill Schwab 02-09-2004 10:51 AM

[ The guy holding the rod thinks it is some kind of joke and needs to be reminded to hold the rod STRAIGHT up.

J.W.: Ever consider geting a tripod for the rod? It eliminates the need to use a second person, costs about $100.00....

Paul 02-09-2004 10:53 AM

Yes Bill, We got ours From Len.

Bill Schwab 02-09-2004 11:17 AM

Len's back in the Chicago area now...I hope he starts manufacturing them again....Great tool...

scl 02-09-2004 02:31 PM

I bought my Laser when on a job by myself, setting in base for a garden wall 60' long. I taped my rod to a hand tamper and proceeded to run about 20 miles that day from the dumpy to the stick. I'm not sure what you're getting at agla, but I'd like to figure it out. I'm always looking for new techniques to speed things up. I still use lines for straightness, bond lines and such, but the laser works darn well when excavating or bringing in and leveling base. I've never run over a laser(knock on wood) but those dang lines were always in the way.
For estimates there is nothing better or quicer, glad you guys hit on that one. The more expensive lasers have a greater range as Paul said, but most of us don't need to shoot 1200'. I have no experience with the cheaper ones so I'm not qualified to comment on them.
When I got my first laser it was locked on the finest setting, within 1/32" at 100'. Tough to keep that mark boys, but talk about a level wall LOL. I now shoot at the 1/8" scale and find it more accurate than most of the blocks we use. Thing eats batteries like Howard Dean eats Malox. I like the rechargeables, they last a long time. I really want to try a direct read rod. Paul has me really curious about these. To me the visible lasers are pretty useless outside and you definitely need a detector.
I called Laser Pro about recal. last year and they told me test it. They said set it up and level it, then mark a spot at least 100' away. Spin it 90 degrees and do it again, then again, then again. It should be within the tolerance of what its set at. Mine was fine and this saved me some $.
Sorry to ramble, but this is just my opinion.

Stonehenge 02-09-2004 03:43 PM

I just happened to be at Home Depot today and saw their top end laser, a Porter Cable/Robotoolz horizontal and vertical laser. The detector also served as a remote. It looked pretty beefy, I'll admit. And I think the price was around $600, not including stick or tripod. But the accuracy was only rated out to 100' - I guess not a huge deal if your projects tend to be small ones. Porter Cable makes some good tools, this might be a good one as well.

Tim 02-10-2004 05:46 PM

more bling is by far better. Here is my 2 cents after having bought many lasers. At all costs, get a self leveling model, or suffer! The bubble mounts leave way too much on the table due to human error. They have cost my company a fortune in the past. Do not skimp on the tripods either!

Topcon and Eagl are both excellent lines, and get my nod. I have had several David Whites. I will take a pass on owning another. They eat batteries like no tomorrow, and they are not dependable in my book.

Guys using string levels... I wish you the best, but I am afraid that you are running down mediocre street. Upgrading will save you time, and increase your productivity quotients.

Better tools will usually render better results. Nay sayers may disagree, but anything can be made not to work given awkward, or extreme circumstances.

If you have a model T in the garage, and a brand new truck on the drive, which one do you think you should drive everyday. The same old way, gets you the same old profit margins. I opt to improve the bottom line even if I have to make a payment to do it. :const: Tim (I reread this and I think, "Did I get off on a rant?")

chesie 02-11-2004 06:25 PM

Here's where we got our laser from if anyone is interested.

Will Pacala 02-15-2004 02:36 AM

Are Keson lasers any good. I was checking out differnet lasers and found that name. Anyone use them??

MWM 05-29-2004 08:05 AM

We use one of these and it works pretty good.
We typically do smaller projects that many of you however.

VoodooChile 05-29-2004 09:23 PM


The one thing I will never allow anyone in our family or company to do is become dependant on electronic gizmos, because they all eventually fail, need work, etc etc...By knowing how to do the basics you can go forward with your work while the machines are being repaired without loosing too much focus by attempting to fix them yourself
True in lasers, true in life.

Bravo Bill!

Paul 05-29-2004 10:04 PM

Some times you just need the Gizmos to do the work......... Lots of jobs we have done need grade lasers in order to get the job. Sport fields now have to be machine lazer graded in our area.

Bill Schwab 05-31-2004 10:55 AM

I agree with Paul in tis day and age, and we are going to have to get a lazer here pretty soon. What is sad is what is lost by using the machines. Computers and calculators make our brains lazy. I use a slide rule and am teaching our daughters how it works. Calculators make us dependant, and we use them to check math problems after we do them manually.

We have a changing marketplace, and needs along with that. I guess much of me comes from the old school...If a person cannot perform the functions they need to perform manually, using trigenometry to calculate earth masses, I see no way they could even comprehend how using tech items would work. But, I would also imagine they might tell me the same.

Rex Mann 05-31-2004 11:17 AM

We use string lines for small jobs. And, we use a laser for the bigger jobs. Most entry level lasers are + or - 1/4 inch over 100 feet. What do you think a sting and a line level are over 100 feet?

A laser will speed up your initial layout.

I take one with me on all appointments. Beats the eyeballing and the guessing game of how much we need to cut. Or how many steps we may need to build and charge for.

Saturday I went to an appointment. 2000 sf plus of pavers. Owner said it was already cut out. I busted out the laser and we have to cut out 35 yards of soil! It enabled me to give a much more accurate proposal for the homeowner and for our company. Also, clients are always amazed I take the time to get the correct measurements and final elevations.

I would equate getting a laser with a mobile phone. After you have it you'll wonder how you ever managed without it.



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