Toolsday: Pliers

Seldom are pliers the right tool for any job in home maintenance.

But they are often an OK tool to use, as long as you have good pliers and use the right pliers.

Lets start with the wrong pliers: 51 cents! You know that’s a quality tool!

These pliers are the most common. You’ve seen many pairs of them. A pair comes in every “basic home owner’s tool kit” sold (including/especially those horrible all-pink “ladies tools!” kits), and they are almost universally crappy, and even the ones made well by quality tool manufacturers are of very limited utility. I know of no job for which slip-joint pliers are the best, or even an appropriate tool. They just plain suck.

There are a couple of other types of pliers that are useful around the house, though.

First among these is the Vise-Grip. These pliers have a strong spring and a thumbscrew in the handle. As you close them, at a certain point (set by the thumbscrew) the jaw overbalances the spring and the jaws snap shut; there’s a little release lever in the handle to let them loose. Once they are locked on, the grip is quite strong. They’re useful for holding something while you work on the other half. So holding one half of a connector pair while you turn the other half with a wrench, when the two halves are out of reach of each other, or you need to use two hands on your half. Or holding two pieces in alignment while you drill/cut/hammer/weld/whatever. Vise-Grip’s patent has long expired, and other people make versions of this tool. But they’re quite similar in price to the genuine article. I would just buy the genuine article.

Next is Chan-nel-lock. These are what slip-joint pliers wish they were. You can adjust the jaw opening (like slip-joint pliers), but (unlike slip-joint pliers) they stay in place and never change size while you’re using them. They adjust from fully-closed to comically wide. They have long enough handles to get a good grip (again: giving you leverage is the point of almost all hand tools), but are not so long compared to the jaw size as a pipe or crescent wrench, or nearly as heavy. They’re especially useful for doing things like gripping the strainer basket so you can tighten the drain pipe onto it without it twisting in its seat in the bottom of the sink; jobs where you need to hold something large steady, but you don’t need the grip or heft of a pipe wrench. Here again the patent has expired and many people will sell you a pair of pliers with this mechanism. But again, they’re all roughly the same price for similar quality, so you might as well buy the original.

I would not buy either of these until you think you’ll need them. But don’t hesitate to buy one the instant you think you’ll need one. They’re very useful for certain tasks, but not worth having around waiting for one of those tasks to arise.


A guy in his early 50s, living more or less alone in a 90-year-old house, trying to keep it all together.

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4 comments on “Toolsday: Pliers
  1. MEEEESTER ZEI says:

    I would disagree with your statement of not buying them until you need them. Chanelocks are invaluable and a 3 pack of different sizes would be the first thing I would buy.

    Vice grips, less so. They have a tendency to strip and or round out many of the nuts and bot heads that the average homeowner/apartment dweller uses them on. As a ‘3rd hand’ they are useful.

  2. Sam Paris says:

    I seldom go more than a week without using a pair of needle-nose pliers for something or other–sometimes just as glorified tweezers. I’d give them up before I gave up my channelocks and vise-grips, though.

    • Erik says:

      Yes. After this went live I thought about needlenose pliers. I have no idea why I didn’t think of them. Probably because in my head they are so a different tool that they don’t fit in the “pliers” box in my head.

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