The 8 Best Timing Lights

We spent 45 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top options for this wiki. If you want to make sure your vehicle is running as efficiently as possible, you’ll need to check the timing of the spark in relation to the piston with one of these lights. We’ve included budget-friendly models good for home or occasional use through to professional-grade units that can stand up to the rigors of a busy automotive shop. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work.

8. MSD Ignition 8992

The MSD Ignition 8992 would make a great addition to the arsenal of any dedicated mechanic. Its intense strobe is clearly visible even in daylight, and it will last through years of daily use. Its major drawback is price, as some similar units sell for much less.

  • Very stable signal
  • Detachable inductive pickup
  • No advance settings

Brand MSD
Model 8992
Weight 1.9 pounds
Rating 3.6 / 5.0

6. PMD Products Xenon Spark Checker

The PMD Products Xenon Spark Checker has a 60-degree advance dial on the back, so you can accurately fine tune your engine. Its trigger activation is a convenient feature, but the squarish grip isn’t that comfortable to hold on to.

  • One-degree dial increments
  • Impact-resistant housing
  • Not the brightest option

Brand PMD Products
Model 6083
Weight pending
Rating 4.4 / 5.0

4. Electronic Specialties ESI 130 Self-Powered

The Electronic Specialties ESI 130 Self-Powered is ideal for 2- and 4-stroke engines, as well as any type of ignition system. It’s accurate all the way up to 14,000 RPM, and its protective sleeve allows it to stand up to temperatures as high as 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Made in the usa
  • Comes with batteries
  • Leads are a bit short

Brand Electronic Specialties
Model 130
Weight 1.6 pounds
Rating 4.5 / 5.0

3. Innova 3568

With the Innova 3568 nothing is left to chance. Its split-screen LCD readout shows both tachometer and advance functions at the same time, so you know you’re reading your engine just right, and it features skip circuitry testing up to 9,990 RPM.

  • Works on domestic and imported cars
  • Folds down for compact storage
  • Protective knuckle guard

Brand Innova
Model 3568
Weight 1.5 pounds
Rating 4.9 / 5.0

2. Performance Tool W80578

The Performance Tool W80578 derives its power from a pair of D-cell batteries, and its detachable pickup is incredibly easy to quickly hook up to start your reading. It will work on any gas engine, from your lawnmower to your motorcycle to your boat.

  • Compatible with magnetos
  • Connection indicator pilot light
  • Sturdy push-button switch

Brand Performance Tool
Model W80578
Weight 11.2 ounces
Rating 4.8 / 5.0

1. Innova 5568 Pro

The Innova 5568 Pro is deadly accurate and has a high-contrast, backlit display that is easy to see in a variety of working conditions.The barrel can be adjusted, allowing for convenient aim at the timing mark in tight spaces.

  • Includes 6-foot detachable leads
  • Can measure dwell and voltage
  • Comes with a hard storage case

Brand Innova
Model 5568
Weight 4.1 pounds
Rating 4.7 / 5.0

Air, Fuel, and Spark

No, they’re not a 1970s soul band, but they are on fire. Or, more accurately, you could say that together they cause fire. And if that fire happens under enough pressure, there’ll be a violent explosion — and who doesn’t love (safe and controlled) explosions?

Cars certainly love them. In fact, cars have been scooting down the road for decades now thanks to millions of little, tiny, violent explosions happening in quick succession. They comprise the most energetic part of the internal combustion engine: the combustion itself.

But cars are big machines. If those little explosions pack enough punch to hurtle a two-ton vehicle down the road at 85 mph, there must be a pretty exact science to making sure that each of these ingredients is applied in the proper volume and at the exactly right time.

Fear not, because engineers have developed an intricate system of air/fuel/spark timing, ensuring that our trusty engine is getting its gasoline and oxygen meals at precisely the right intervals.

Don’t Let The Mechanic Get The Best Of You

Sometimes, cars run strangely. Sometimes, they have rough idles or get choppy during a certain range of RPM. Other times, enthusiasts create customized vehicles, complete with specialized, high-performance engines. In all of these cases, it’s absolutely worth making sure that your engine’s timing is properly set, and a mechanic will charge you a minimum of $100 simply to offer a diagnosis. And that doesn’t include labor. But timing is one test you don’t necessarily need to have done at the shop. A simple and readily available tool, the timing light can enable you to check this integral setting on your vehicle from your very own one-car garage.

Let’s slow down a bit, though. Opening the hood and inserting strange, flashing gadgets into the engine compartment can seem intimidating at first, especiaally to the non-gearhead. Don’t worry; this isn’t an involved process. It’s worlds easier than, for example, a brake job. And just a couple more steps (again, relatively simple) let you adjust your engine’s timing, making sure you don’t have to take an extra, expensive trip to the automobile doctor just to address that cylinder that keeps knocking or misfiring at 4,000 RPM. Of course, to understand and adjust timing, it helps to have at least a fundamental knowledge of how an internal combustion engine works. While they look like big, complicated beasts, engines actually aren’t so difficult to understand on a basic level.

As mentioned earlier, combustion happens in the presence of three things: oxygen, a fuel source, and a spark. In standard engines, this happens inside cylinders bored into the solid metal of the engine block. To start the process, the crankshaft pulls the piston away from the cylinder head, essentially the base of operations for combustion. Valves in the cylinder head open to allow air into the now voluminous cylinder while the fuel injectors spray a measured amount of gasoline or the mechanical carburation allows air-fed gasoline into the cylinder at a set rate. When the piston is at its peak distance from the cylinder head, the camshaft (a knurled rod, or sometimes two, running parallel to the crankshaft) lets the valves close. The piston then compresses the space, and the spark plug fires after the air/fuel mixture has been increased to as much as eleven times atmospheric pressure. Then, BOOM.

This fire under pressure, also known as an explosion, forces the piston outward. The piston rods propel the crank to rotate, the crank turns the flywheel, and then the motor’s job is done and the transmission takes over.

The Miracle’s In The Timing

The kicker here is that, because the power plant of a car is made of so many complex moving parts, the camshaft, crankshaft, fuel injectors, and spark aren’t permanently connected in a fixed system. In reality, they operate as a series of components that manipulate each other mechanically, and some of these components can independently move slightly out of alignment. This throws the whole system out of whack. For that reason, cars are most often designed with one particular belt (or rarely, a chain) that attaches to every critically-timed part in the system at once, ensuring that every mechanical voice in the engine is at the same tempo for the entire symphony.

Sometimes, the timing belt is prominent in the motor, and in some setups, it must be removed before certain large jobs are done to the car or frame. It’s commonly found underneath a few engine components. Because it’s such an important part, most manufacturers recommend it be replaced every 60,000-100,000 miles. If a timing belt should break during use, the best-case scenario is that your car simply won’t run until it’s replaced. If a car uses an interference engine, meaning the pistons and valves occupy the same physical space in the combustion chamber but at different times in the firing process, a popped timing belt could very well destroy an engine beyond repair. Interference motors are very common, so it’s important to give timing belts their proper due.

Using a timing light is actually very easy. Check your car’s manual to learn which of the pulleys has the timing marks around it. Connect the light to your battery and clamp its signal wire to the number one spark plug. This plug fires when the piston reaches the maximum distance from the crankshaft, a position known as top dead center. When the timing light is aimed correctly, exact degree markings will become visible on the pulley, telling you how far advanced or retarded your engine’s timing is relative to TDC. The distributor is easily adjusted to bring this figure in line with your car’s specifications.

Remember, any dirty hands or cut knuckles you experience are a small price to pay for not getting fleeced by a mechanic.