Taking Measurements on Site ó Tape Measure or Laser Device?

The new generation of laser measuring tools can improve accuracy and save time. Here, cabinetmakers describe why they made the switch and how they use the new tools. November 22, 2005

Does anyone use an ultrasonic or other electronic measuring device to measure rooms? Usually I'm on my own when measuring and it's difficult to get accurate measurements.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
I sure wouldnít trust a device that may give a general measurement. If I'm going to build for the room, I'll want the distance down to the mm. When I'm alone, to measure a long wall I'll put a piece of masking tape on the wall with a tick mark on it, and measure to that from one side. Then, measure the other way and add the two measurements together.

From contributor B:
I know that the local granite company provides their field measurer with a laptop that comes with a device that has an articulating arm that allows him to get very precise measurements for the granite tops. I think it runs on AutoCAD and is then downloaded to a machine that cuts the granite to fit perfectly.

I think that would be great for counters but for cabinets you have more dimensions to account for and it would be much more complicated than just getting reference points on a single plane. I have always used a tape measure, but I always factor in 1/4" scribe per wall. If there is a possibility that there is more than 1/4" to scribe, that can also be done if the customer specifies.

If there is an odd angle or opening I will make a template out of 1/8" masonite and build the cabinet from it. I also do that with islands frequently. I can lay it on the floor for the customer and he can get a good feel for the clearances to walls and other cabinets. I know it is time consuming, but customers really appreciate it and are willing to pay to have it done so they know exactly where everything sits in relation to the cabinet.

From contributor C:

I use a Stabila Laser Distance Measuring Tool. It is very accurate. I think Disto and Pacific Laser offer the same device with different packaging. This is not to be confused with a sonar device that has a laser. I get very accurate measurements on inside walls with this. It will give you the shortest distance, thereby making this measurement at level. If your tape is skewed, then your measurement will be long. It also takes measurements inside a cabinet, so if I need to retro fit a pullout, it gives me the exact numbers without having to fumble with a flashlight and tape in a cramped space. It also gives quick read of ceiling heights. It has paid for itself many times over. I think it is accurate to 1/8" over 600'.

From contributor D:
I use the Hilti laser. I believe they only have one model. It is extremely accurate and convenient and can perform square foot and cubic foot calculations. Occasionally I still use a tape measure, because sometimes there is nothing for the laser to bounce off. Often I'll use a story pole, or two of them banded together for inside measurements.

From contributor E:
I work alone and on a budget. Stanley makes a tape rule called Fat Max that extends to 11'. I can hold it out with one hand and pull the tape another 4-5' with the other to do a pretty accurate job.

From contributor F:
We use a Disto laser measuring tape. This should not be confused with a sonar measuring tape. The sonar system is very inaccurate. The laser system is fantastic. It was an expensive initial purchase but it is worth it as it saves a lot of time on site.

From contributor G:
I have done my share of field measures and no matter how careful or I tried to be, when I got the numbers to the drafting board there was always something that did not add up. I started taking my laptop to the job site and laying out my field measures in scale.

Whether it is a horizontal or vertical dimension, if there was a problem I knew right there and was able to sort it out before leaving the job site with no gaps or omissions. With more practice I was able to insert pre-drawn appliances, fixtures and outlets for a much more comprehensive field measure. I was able to eliminate having to go back to verify anything.

The CAD programs are able to run on the mini CE operating system so you don't have to have a full size notebook. With the field dimensions added in CAD, I was able to verify a dimension even if it was not labeled because I had a full size template. Also, having CAD on the job site, I was usually able to verify where the walls or floor and ceilings would bow out so I could find my high spots and work out the drawings from there. I am also able to see the best place to put my scribes from the CAD view. I am able to round up my numbers so I don't have to give the cabinet men many drawings with wild fractions.

From contributor H:
I still use a tape. Many of our jobs are in older remodels. I start with a level in the corners and I assume nothing is plumb.

From the original questioner:
I'm looking at getting a Disto. I checked out their site and units have a 3mm typical to 5mm maximum error range. I suppose it's no worse than measuring over 20' with a tape with kinks and bends.

From contributor I:
My disto is rated plus or minus 1 mm.

From contributor J:
I still use my 25' Fat Max and do fine with it but everyone has his own way of doing the job. It is great if you can get a measurement accurate to a millimeter but I have yet to see in any construction, new or old, a wall that was plumb to within a mm. Regardless of how accurate your measurements are, you will have to leave some room for scribe. Framers and drywallers will never be as accurate as we are.

From contributor K:
I met a representative of Laser Product Industries at a show about 5 years ago. He gave me a story about how this laser would save me enough time to make a BMW payment each month. I didnít believe him. Then I went on a job and tried to measure with a tape behind clothes in a closet. That afternoon I called him and he sent it next day air. I have an older Leica Disto 4, but the new ones are even better. I find them to be more accurate. When you stick a tape in a corner you might round down to the nearest 1/8" or so, but the laser gives you the exact measurement. They also have a feature that you can set up to automatically add or subtract a desired amount.

From contributor C:
Look at the Stabila. It is the same instrument, but includes several extras, such as a hard case, and I believe it was less money. I have never had a need for a scope.

From contributor M:
To contributor C: Are the Disto and the Stabila made by the same manufacturer? What about the Hilti? If I recall from researching on the net that it has better accuracy ratings. I just measured a job with long distances - too long for the Stanley - and this would have been very nice.

From contributor I:
Once you start using any of the decent laser measuring devices you will not want to go back to using a tape.

From contributor L:
It sounds great to measure the house with a $200 tool accurate down to 1mm, then go to the shop and build the cabinets with a $20 tape. I was taught to use the same tape to build the cabinets with the same tape that you measure the house. Not that this new high tech way isnít better, but it goes against what I was taught.

From contributor I:
None of us was taught to use tools like the new lasers, but that is no reason not to take advantage of them. The accuracy is great, but even more important is the speed. In a case of measuring between two walls, for instance, how does one do that with a tape? I know that you can add the body of the tape reel which is usually written on the side, to the distance you see on the tape, but in the time it takes to do that, the guy with the laser has already done half a dozen measurements and has been able to determine whether the walls are sloping, bulging, etc.

From contributor C:
I am going to say that the Stabila, Disto, and Pacific Laser are all the same unit. I can't remember why I chose the Stabila. I think one included the scope and was more money. I would look at the Hilti, too. It seems like it was more accurate, but I've not had a problem with mine.

From contributor M:
I just got back from delivering a load of cabinets. The homeowner and client were there and wanted shelving for several closets. I wished I had one then. Trying to walk around them, and fish the tape between them was difficult. If I had the laser I could have butted it against a wall and be done with it.

From contributor N:
I am curious how or if you can measure distances without the sheetrock being up. Many times we have to field measure the rough framing.

From contributor F:
This is where lasers are perfect. We often use ours to site measure off timber or steel wall frames, then just take off the cladding thicknesses. The laser dot is ideal to show exactly where you are measuring from. Ultrasonics just donít cut it in this situation.

From contributor O:
There's no guesswork or numbers that don't add up when you use story poles. Sorry, I'm stuck in the sixties.

From contributor P:
I'm curious - say you are measuring up a new house with rock but no trim. How do you get locations on doors and windows? Do you have to place targets or something where the edge of the trim would be? I am very interested in this, especially the Disto plus that will link directly to my PDA, but I want to make sure this is going to be useful and not just a cool gadget.

From contributor M:
I'm planning on aligning the laser with the rough jamb and targeting the wall. For centers I think one could align it with a mark and target a stud or the rock.

From the original questioner:
I donít believe that measuring doors, windows etc. with only the framing up is an application for a laser. The installers may shim one side more than the other, so there's no way to get an accurate measurement until trim is up. My main reason for getting an accurate measuring device is to measure finished spaces.

From contributor P:
Obviously measuring after the trim is up would always be my preference, however when you have to install cabinets while the trim is going up thatís not an option.

From contributor C:
You can put targets up. Or, if you are measuring from a window to a wall, put the end of the laser at the place where the trim will be, and shoot to the wall. Use the same procedure with door casing. But remember, especially with door casing, it depends on how and where they mount the door. If they use a ton of shims, the casing could be off by that much, as opposed to mounting it straight to the rough opening. I guess it depends on who mounts the doors - the framer or a trim guy.

It does help to have a tape as a back up. I think my laser is about 6" long so obviously you wouldn't be able to make measurements less than that. If you want to find the center of an opening, like a window over a sink, you can use the laser to find the distance, divide by 2, and then use the tape to mark center. Then you can use the laser again, from the center mark, and shoot to the corner.

From contributor Q:
The Disto is made by Leica, as in the world's finest cameras and lenses.

From contributor R:
I just got the Hilti and went to a job site to measure up. It is smaller than the other brands and was 429.00 at Home Depot. The Hilti rep demoed it for me and answered all my questions. The client was very impressed with the technology and I gave him an extra 15 minutes of my time calculating square footage for his marble floor and backsplash. This tool will not build any cabinets for me, but it sure builds image as well as saving time measuring.

From contributor M:
I got the Stabila. I have Stabila levels and am very happy with their quality, so that was the real driving force. I took it to measure a job, a small home office packed to the gills. It was very fast. I'm sure there were places I could not have gotten a tape into without a lot of hassle. I did use the tape in a couple of spots where I couldn't see to aim the laser.

From contributor P:
This would also be good for cabinet installations or running crown moulding, especially on inside measurements. It sure would beat a six ft folding rule or a tape

From the original questioner:
I'm doing a site measure for a kitchen today. I'll post my thoughts later. So far, just playing with it, it's an amazing device.

From contributor P:
To the original questioner: Either A: you're still trying to figure it out, B, having too much fun with it, or C, figured it's not worth all the hype.

From the original questioner:
To contributor P: Yes, it's B. I did the site measure and the Disto worked great. It was to studs only and I was able to direct beam very easily. It was also nice to see 15/16" on the measurement.

From contributor P:
I must admit I never even considered owning such a device until I read this thread. I have a one man shop and produced almost 200k last year with little reliable help. I live in a small town in the south and there's no way I could do that without high tech tools like my Shopbot CNC and KCDw software. I hope my new Disto will help me make it over 200k next year.

From the original questioner:
Here's one way to look at this. Measure your workshop with a tape measure to the 1/16". That includes a diagonal. I'll wait an hour or so for you to do that! When I got my Disto, that's the first measurement I took. I realized that with all the stuff on my walls etc. it would be a nightmare to get an accurate measurement. That's also true of customersí homes.

From contributor E:
Which model Disto would make most sense and be the best value for a cabinet installer? Can you experienced owners help me out here?

From contributor I:
The Disto I have is called the 'Special'. It has the accuracy of the more expensive models but doesn't have the built in telescope. With indoor measuring I figured I didn't need it and it turns out I was right.

From contributor S:
I purchased the Hilti unit from Home Depot. I sent it back today because of the display. It will display in feet and inches with fractions, or it will display in inches with decimal inches to the 1/10th of an inch. Neither of these is the display I want, and for $350 I want it to display in inches and fractions. I do not want 5í 2-1/4Ē mistaken for 52 1/4Ē so back she went. I bought the Disto Classic 5 for a little more and Iím told it will display the way I want it to.

From contributor M:
The Stabila will display in inches and fractions, for example, 114-13/16".

From contributor P:
Got my Disto Classic 5a today. So far I am extremely impressed with its capabilities. It will display in several different formats. I'm going to use inches/fractions so I can input straight to my design software. I can see this tool being used in all phases of the job.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor Q:
SL-Laser Systems sells a ProCollector. This device will take measurements with a laser Disto and create a 3-D CAD file. Anything the laser can see it can measure and save.