Moisture meters are an invaluable tool for any woodworker, from professional to hobbyist. You can find both pin and pinless meters, but increasingly people are drawn to pinless meters since they are much easier to use and don’t physically penetrate the wood being measured.
Instead of pins that must get inserted into the wood, a pinless meter uses a metal plate with sensor pads. The plate is simply pressed down on the wood. The pinless moisture meter sends electromagnetic waves into the wood and measures the amount of the waves returning to the sensor plate since moisture content (MC) impacts how these electromagnetic waves move. The meter uses that data to calculate the moisture content in the wood.
Pin-style meters measure moisture content using resistance. A pin moisture meter sends an electric current between the two pins pushed into the wood. Moisture in the wood will measure the electric current passing through the wood, giving the pin meter the information it needs to calculate the wood’s moisture content percentage.
While it’s beneficial that pinless meters don’t damage wood the way pin meters do, that’s only one of their advantages. One of the pinless meters’ greatest advantages is that they are much easier to use than pin-style meters. Pin meters are difficult and slow to use since each reading requires pushing or hammering the probes into the wood.
Yet if you want to get an accurate reading of a batch of wood, you need to make multiple measurements in a single round to get the comprehensive picture of the wood batch’s moisture condition.
The truth is, meter manual instructions aside, most people aren’t going to take the time needed to gather all the readings necessary with a pin meter. Using pin meters is a laborious, time-consuming process. In contrast, you only need to press down on a pinless meter until the reading appears, then you can move on to measure the next piece of wood. Pinless meters let you quickly scan big pieces of wood and large quantities of lumber easily.
With that said, there are times when a pin-style meter is the better option. The sensor plate on the pinless meter needs to lie flat on the wood’s surface to take a reading. It can’t be used on any wood that’s gnarly or misshapen, like firewood. Pin meters are perfect for measuring the moisture content of firewood. A pinless meter can’t do that job, and pins don’t damage firewood.
A pin meter is also a better option if there is metal beneath the wood. Most pinless meters can measure up to ¾ inches deep. For a board that has a depth of less than ¾ inches, the waves will pass through to whatever is below the wood. Any other material that gets hit by the meter’s electromagnetic wave will affect the meter’s reading. Ideally, you want a small gap of air below the wood being measured.
With these two caveats in mind, you’ll find that a pinless meter is the better option in nearly every case, especially if you need to take plenty of readings or don’t want to risk damaging the wood’s aesthetics with pin holes.
Common Features in a Pinless Moisture Meter
Before diving into the top three pinless meters, let’s review the common features you should expect to see in any pinless moisture meter. Of course, you want a meter to meet high standards in its core function: consistently returning an accurate reading of the wood’s moisture content. We’ll address issues of accuracy and repeatability for the top three meters discussed below. Right now, the focus is on the extra features that add significant value to a pinless moisture meter.
A meter that can take readings on wood with varying depths provides the greatest flexibility. If the wood you need to measure is generally uniform in-depth, a single depth wood moisture meter may suffice.
Scope of species settings:
You also want a meter versatile enough to measure moisture accurately on a wide variety of species. The species range impacts the moisture content calculations the pinless moisture meter runs to specify moisture content. If your meter doesn’t have the right species settings for your needs, then you can’t get an accurate moisture content reading. If you work with rare or exotic species, then you want to make sure the meter has a large range of species settings.
If you take readings where you can’t read the meter when it’s on the wood, you need a meter that will hold the current reading visible in the window after it’s removed from the wood. Having a digital moisture meter that holds a reading long enough for you to mark it down can also be helpful.
Scope of data collected:
Top-end moisture meters will collect and calculate more data points than just the moisture content. These moisture meters include features like ambient air temperature and relative humidity sensors. The meter collects this environmental data and then uses it to calculate dew point and equilibrium moisture content (EMC). Having the moisture meter calculate this data for you increases your confidence when deciding if the wood is ready for use and the speed with which decisions can be made.
Data storage and sharing:
For organizations that are taking readings across multiple batches of wood, look for a moisture meter that has data collection functionality. This could mean a moisture meter that stores a good number of readings on the meter itself. For a company with robust data tracking needs, look for a digital moisture meter that integrates with an external data management application.
Relative moisture mode:
Building inspectors or anyone who needs to measure the moisture content of common construction materials in addition to wood should look for a meter with a relative moisture mode. Relative moisture mode doesn’t tell you what the moisture content is of the drywall or engineered wood, but it can tell you how much moisture a spot has when compared to a known dry spot.
This feature emits an alarm sound when the meter detects high moisture content levels. You should be able to program for yourself what moisture content level will trigger the alarm. If you’re taking a lot of readings, a programmable can keep you moving. Since the alarm will go off on a high reading, you don’t have to read the digital display for each reading, just keep an ear out for the alarm.
Battery light indicator:
Nobody wants to show up at a job site or have to check a batch of wood before buying or accepting it, only to find out your moisture meter has a low or dead battery. A battery light indicator helps you keep your meter working when you need it.
Some moisture meters come with an internal calibration check feature, but these can be unreliable as it relies on the same circuitry to work as the meter itself. There are reliable external calibration check tools that can be bought or separately, but which some vendors may include in a pinless moisture meter kit. Keep in mind that a calibration check feature doesn’t recalibrate the meter. In most cases, if the check test tells you the meter has become uncalibrated, you’ll have to send it to the manufacturer for recalibration. The most advanced pinless moisture meters can be recalibrated in the field.
Take some time to determine which features are the ones that are most valuable for you. If you’re a furniture hobbyist, then you might not need advanced data reporting features. If you’re a professional woodworker handcrafting furniture, then you may want data reporting features to build a strong documentation record of your work. Commercial wood floor installers or building inspectors will likely find all these features useful and valuable.
Top Three Pinless Moisture Meters
Alright, time to get down to the brass tacks. Here’s an overview of the top three pinless moisture meters and what makes them special.
1. Wagner Meters’ Orion® 950 Smart Pinless Wood Moisture Meter
Independent testing has repeatedly validated the superior accuracy of Wagner Meters’ wood moisture meters. This meter also meets international ASTM D4442-16 (Standard Test Methods for Direct Moisture Content Measurement of Wood and Wood-Based Materials), which is the industry’s highest standard for determining wood’s moisture content. Let’s get that out of the way and focus on the Orion® 950’s feature set.
The Orion 950 has a robust feature set, including functions like extended species settings, dual depth settings, holding readings, programmable alarm, relative moisture mode, and a 7-year warranty. Yet two features really make it stand out from the rest of the field:
- Its data collection capabilities are impressive. First, it collects and calculates the widest scope of data, including calculating EMC and grains per pound/kilogram (GPP/GPK), which is a more precise measurement to know the exact weight of water vapor in the air around the wood. It’s also Bluetooth-enabled, which allows it to send data readings to both Wagner Meters’ free moisture meter data management apps.
- The Orion line of meters is the only line of wood moisture meters that you can recalibrate in the field. Any other meter costs time and money to have it sent back to the manufacturer for recalibration. Some professionals will often buy multiple moisture meters since they have to be able to keep working while one meter is getting recalibrated. The Orion 950 gets rid of that problem.
The Orion 950 is a full-service moisture meter intended for building inspectors or woodworking professionals.
2. Wagner Meters’ Orion 930 Dual Depth Pinless Wood Moisture Meter
For professionals looking for a moisture meter at a lower price point, the Orion 930 is a great choice. Its price tag is around 20% lower than the Orion 950, yet they share nearly all the same features. They also both use the same technology that delivers moisture content readings with unsurpassed accuracy. The big difference between the 950 and the 930 is the data collection and management capabilities. The 930 doesn’t collect ambient data points or calculate the EMC.
However, it does have features like dual depth settings, a good range of species settings, and relative moisture mode. Most exciting, it can also be recalibrated in the field. With this feature set, the Orion 930 moisture meter is comprehensive enough for many woodworking professionals and building inspectors.
3. Lignomat’s Ligno-Scanner SD Moisture Meter
This pinless moisture meter has a more limited feature set than Wagner’s Orion line, but can be an excellent choice for woodworkers that have limited requirements.
For example, the Ligno-Scanner SD is highly accurate when an MC reading is in the five to fifteen percent moisture content range but starts to lose accuracy above that range. This is especially true if the MC reading is 18% or above. Inaccuracy at the high end may not be a problem for someone who doesn’t need to estimate a timeline for when wood will hit a target MC below 15% before it can be used.
This meter also exhibits sensitivity to surface moisture or wood temperature, which can affect accuracy. If inaccuracy on the high-end of the MC range and surface moisture sensitivity isn’t a concern for you, this meter might be a good choice.
Surface moisture might be a concern if you measure wood that has been outside. But the best course of action, regardless of whatever meter is being used, is to make sure there’s no surface moisture on the wood before you take a reading. If necessary, wipe down the board and then let it dry before using the meter.
On the plus side of the ledger, the Ligno-Scanner SD has dual depth options and can operate in relative moisture mode. It does have a species setting, although it loses accuracy below 6.8% MC for some species. . . its reading hold function helps with visibility and reporting. It doesn’t have any internal data storage capacity nor integrates with an external data management application. Nor can it be recalibrated in the field. The Lignomat meter, like most manufacturers’ meters, must be returned to the factory for recalibration as needed.
While the Ligno-Scanner SD has a more limited feature set than the Orion 930 and 950, it also comes in at a lower price than the Orion meters. For hobbyists or part-time professionals who work with small batches of wood, the Ligno-Scanner SD can be a good economical option.
Finding the ROI on Your Moisture Meter Choice
In terms of a meter’s core function of providing accurate MC readings, the Wagner Meters’ Orion line of pinless wood moisture meters stands apart. When you also consider that the Orion meters consistently have the most robust feature set, they really are in a class of their own.
The fundamental questions you need to ask yourself when deciding what moisture meter to buy are what scope of functionality do you need and what is the impact to your work if a certain feature isn’t available to you. If your business relies on regularly being able to take reliably accurate MC readings quickly, then the higher prices of the Orion line is more than justifiable.
For a professional who also wants the confidence and security of advanced data logging and reporting tools, or built-in EMC calculation, the Orion 950 really has no competitor. However, there are few reasons for a hobbyist to invest in a top-of-the-line meter that’s only occasionally used.
When choosing a meter, your starting point should be the meter’s accuracy. After that, stay focused on ensuring your choice has the features you need.