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Pliers belong in the category of must-have tools, with a basic design and functionality that hasn’t changed since medieval times. Every basic tool set includes a pair of pliers, but sometimes sorting through the various types of pliers can be confusing and intimidating.
This article aims to provide you with the knowledge to understand various pliers styles, their intended use, how to properly maintain them, and how to choose your next set.
Most of us grab a pair of pliers when we need to cut something, like a piece of wire. While cutting is a common use, pliers are multi-functional tools designed to accomplish a variety of tasks, depending on their design. For example:
Pliers can be grouped into 3 broad categories, based on their functionality:
Cutting - this category includes styles such as side-cutting and end cutting, that can only be used to cut wire, bolts, nails and other materials.
Holding - pliers in this category have no cutting function and can only be used to hold objects of various thicknesses. Popular models include groove joint, slip-joint and locking pliers (without wire cutters).
Multifunctional - the jaw configuration of these pliers allow users to perform both cutting and holding operations. Popular models include linesman, long and bent nose pliers.
Below is a more in-depth look at some popular styles:
Combination (linesman's) pliers- as the name suggests these are must-haves for those who do electrical work. Because of their multi-functionality, combination pliers are also one of the most popular pliers style in any professional or homeowner toolbox.
The ridged nose can be used for grabbing as well as pulling, bending, straightening, and twisting wires together. A less-known feature is that the outside edges of the nose can be used to rim off the end of a piece of cut conduit.
The round cavity can be used to hold round objects, such as nuts and bolts. The double cutter near the joint is ideal for cutting wires and threaded bolts.
Diagonal-cutting pliers - are designed to cut piano, medium and soft wire, screws and nails up to 5 mm thick. The head and jaws are not meant to hold objects. Since this design is very popular for electrical work, many manufacturers provide a version with insulated handles, to protect users against electrical shock.
Long nose pliers - also known as needle-nose pliers, these are similar in functionality to linesman pliers, with the added bonus of allowing the user to reach into tight spots due to the long, tapered jaws. Depending on the design, long nose pliers may feature various jaw configurations that allow users to perform various tasks.
Water pump (Groove - joint) pliers - although not considered a "precision" tool, groove - joint pliers are another must-have in every toolbox. This type of pliers allows users to hold objects of various sizes as result of the 2 jaws being joined by a pivot joint that slides inside a slot.
The most common design feature is set of curved serrated jaws. The slot might be grooved to allow jaws to be positioned a certain width apart, or have a smooth surface to allow the jaw to quickly adjust to the size of the objects being worked on.
Water pump pliers are used to hold objects of various sizes, and bend wires. Typical sizes are between 8" and 20" in length. A variation of the groove joint pliers features smooth jaws that prevent marring or damaging of the object being handled. These pliers are popular in the aerospace industry, or whenever handling soft materials, such as plastics.
End-cutting pliers - also known as nippers, are used to cut nails, wires, rivets, and bolts. Due to the almost flat head design, the user can get flush with the surface to cut the object, without digging into it. The most popular sizes are 7" & 8". A rivet either exposed or concealed connects the jaws. Some models feature longer handles for increased leverage and access.
Locking pliers - are a distinctive category of pliers rather than a style. As the name suggests locking pliers lock onto the piece to be worked on for better stability. The first step is to adjust the distance between the 2 jaws according to the size of the piece to be gripped; then clamping the handles together to secure the work piece. We have written an extensive article on locking tools that can be accessed here.
Other more specialized pliers include seamers (used in HVAC for bending and flattening sheet metal), crimping pliers (ideal for crimping terminals and connectors for stranded cables with vinyl and rubber insulation), fencing pliers and well as high leverage and spring loaded models which make opening and closing handles easier.
Pliers construction hasn’t changed much since medieval times, and consists of 3 main components:
jaws - come in various patterns and designs that provide the tool's functionality, such as cutting, pulling, holding, and stripping.
The tip of the jaw (nose) can be flat (combination pliers), half round (long nose) and round (electronics pliers), and provide functionalities such as bending, holding, and gripping various objects.
The cutter is designed to cut wire of different thicknesses, bolts, nails and other materials.
pivot point - holds the jaws and handle together. The closer the pivot point to the jaws the more leverage and cutting power the pliers have.
handles - provide the means by which the operator can use the pliers. There are a variety of materials used to cover the handles, providing different levels of comfort. Some of the most common materials include vinyl dipping, moulded material and insulated handles that protect the users against electrical shocks.
The first step when choosing your next set of pliers is deciding the application you need them for. As seen above the degree of versatility differs among various styles, some models being designed to perform multiple functions, while others being designed for more specialised applications.
Once you decide on the style, do your research. Read as much as you can about different brands, watch videos, read product reviews, and ask other professionals what they like in their pliers. It is important to also try different brands and see which one feels right to you. Pliers can vary in surface finish, handle comfort, weight, ease of handle opening, and of course performance. In the end it's a matter of personal preference in design and ergonomics.
The budget plays an important role in the choice of pliers. Pliers are one of the most commonly used tools, so buy the best pliers you can afford. Although most brands back their pliers with a lifetime warranty, professionals will not appreciate pliers that don't cut well, dull prematurely or break, and have to be returned for warranty which leads to loss in productivity.
Below are some general safety rules that apply to pliers, regardless of style: