This is post three in our series on the well put together homeowner’s toolkit. In the previous two installments, we covered how to make good choices when looking for a hammer and an assortment of screwdrivers. There’s also a directory of all our posts on tools in the Subject Matter Organizer. Links below may be affiliate links; see Disclosure on Affiliations .
Usefulness Group: Essential
Pliers have a couple of different functions depending on the type you are looking at. The common parts will be that they’ll have handles and jaws joined by a pin. The jaws will nearly always be shorter than the handles (some extra long needle nose types are an exception). What this arrangement allows for is a lever action where the force you put on the handles is increased, giving the jaws more gripping power. At the core, that’s what pliers are for, to grip something you’re working on stronger than you could with just your hands. That same action can also be used to cut materials if you have a cutting edge instead of a wider jaw. See figure 1 below for a visual on how pliers work.
To gain the most functionality, I recommend five sets of pliers be in every toolkit (although my own pliers drawer is a bit overfilled). Here’s the list:
- Slip Joint – Standard pliers like the ones in figure 1 above
- Linemans – Heavy duty and great with heavy wire
- Needle Nose – Gets you into tighter spots and finer wire work
- Wire Cutters – Good for snipping all kinds of materials
- Groove Joint – Bigger jaw opening and lots of clamping force
The good news is bundled sets usually include all five of these. I’ll cover each individually first with a link to a high quality option and then link to some sets of varying quality at the end.
The most common set will be called slip joint (sometimes combination because they adjust to couple of sizes). The jaws will likely be rounded in one area and have a flat area near the tip. These different areas are there to grip different materials as firmly as possible. They’re especially useful to hold small round things, square tubes, and things like rounded nuts if a wrench won’t work.
Lineman pliers (also called side cutters) were designed to be used by linemen that work on power lines and electrical wires. As a result they’re very good for bending, cutting, and twisting anything that is metal and round like a wire. Key features are a flat area that’s used for firm gripping and a cutter to trim excess. They’re a must for any electrical wiring work, tying wire around something (like rebar or the wire a chain-link fence is secured with), and they also do great with nails.
Needle nose pliers are also used for cutting and shaping wire (usually smaller wires than the lineman pliers can handle) and as a secondary use can get into much smaller places to pickup or hold small items. The force they put down may be reduced at the tip due to the longer nose is but that’s not the number one concern with these, it’s the shape and where they can get that’s important. The tapering of the nose gives you lots of different diameters to wrap wire around if you’re trying to form a small loop.
Wire cutters are just that; the entire jaw area is just one big cutting face. The biggest advantage over the built-in cutters in the other sets is that you don’t have to get the thing you’re cutting very far into the jaw. Imagine a wire tightened on a round fence post, you could cut it off with these much easier than the other sets.
Groove joint pliers (sometimes referred to as channel locks after the most popular brand) have a set of jaws that can be expanded into multiple positions. The advantage of this design is that it gives a very wide range of jaw openings for one handle spacing. If you’re trying to grip a pipe under a sink you want a set of these in the kit. They’re also very good with other oddly shaped items because of the wider jaw opening options. Commonly this will be one of your sets with the longest handles that will let you generate a load of gripping force.
Affordable Starter Set – This has everything we talked about above in a good size for household work. These will last a good long while if you don’t seriously abuse them.
Upgraded Option – These are a great quality product and a classic manufacturer. You’ll be missing out on the lineman pliers but gain an extra set of groove joints. This would be my recommendation overall, especially if you add a pair of the 9″ Lineman Pliers from above.
Upgraded Option #2 – Another higher quality upgrade, these include lineman pliers but exchange the normal slip joints for a set of end cutters. I have found end cutters come in handy on occasion, so if you don’t mind picking up a pair of slip joint pliers, this is a great set.
Bonus Mini Set – These are a set of tiny pliers. I have a similar set and honestly use them way more than I thought I would when I was buying them.
Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments.