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      • Published 12 Jan 2023
      • Last Modified 29 Aug 2023
    • 9 min

    A Complete Guide to Pliers

    From circlip to long-nose pliers, our buying & user guide will help you choose the best pliers for the job.

    What are pliers?

    Pliers are among the most basic and familiar of handheld tools. They are available in a wide variety of sizes, designed for many different tasks, but the fundamentals remain the same: two lengths of steel riveted together close to the midpoint to create a pivot, with clamps on one side and handles on the other. The clamps may be long and thin and pointed, broad, ridged and heavy duty – or somewhere in between.

    Plier design

    Whilst specific types of pliers have slightly different designs to make them more suitable to different tasks, the main components of this hand tool stays the same. All of the key parts can be seen in the labelled diagram of combination pliers below.

    What are pliers best used for?

    Pliers allow the user to grip an object much more firmly than they otherwise would be able to and apply ‘torque’ – rotational force - making them ideal for any building, maintenance, engineering or repair task that requires gripping, twisting, pulling or shearing.

    Typical uses include attaching or detaching small components or cables – for example nuts from bolts or TV aerials from their plugs. Diagonal pliers are specifically designed for cutting metal wiring – for example steel, copper or aluminium: hence the alternative name ‘wire cutters’.

    Fundamentally, pliers are simple tools: squeeze on the handles to grip the target object between the clamps, leverage amplifies the pressure exerted by the user. Very specialist pliers may require additional refinements to your technique.

    Different types of pliers

    Pliers are available in a surprising number of varying designs for many different tasks. The following are some of the most common types you will come across:

    Circlip pliers

    Circlip pliers

    Circlip pliers are designed with one specific purpose in mind: the installation or removal of circlips. These circular metal clips are used to hold rotating bearings in place, as well as components fitted vertically to pipes, shafts, or housing. Common locations include washing machines, bicycles and food blenders.

    Circlip pliers are visually distinctive and typically have long thin clamps with tips designed to be inserted into the grip holes of the circlips. Ensure your pliers are compatible with the size of circlip you wish to adjust.

    They're typically made for either internal or external circlips, although some models can handle both: these are called ‘reversible’ or ‘convertible’ pliers. Pliers designed to work with external circlips feature a spring that opens the tips when the handles have been closed.

    Other models feature interchangeable tips that can be unscrewed and replaced for compatibility with different sizes of circlip - and easy replacement of broken tips. Circlip pliers are also known as retaining ring or snap ring pliers.

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    Combination pliers

    Combination pliers

    Combination pliers combine wire cutting and insulation stripping with serrated jaws, allowing users to bend, twist and compress. Some models add additional functions or extended leverage.

    Typically, the gripping jaws in combination pliers have a circular indentation to facilitate the user’s hold on the target object. The flexibility of combination pliers ensures wide usage, both by professional technicians and amateur DIY enthusiasts.

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    Cutters are a category of pliers designed primarily to – you guessed it – cut materials. Diagonal cutters are used for gripping and splicing wires in addition to cutting them, and they can also be used to strip insulation for crimping and similar procedures. They're even useful for removing nails and doing work via indentation. Diagonal cutters are also known as side or wire cutters.

    Also known as ‘nippers’, end cutters are similar but more focused on a clean slice and they can also be used for cutting more solid objects like bolts, nails and rivets.

    Bolt cutters are designed to provide significant cutting power in order to break open metal locks.

    Wire rope cutters are self-explanatory, designed to apply a firm hold in order to slice without causing the material to fan out.

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    Flat nose pliers

    Flat nose pliers

    Flat nose pliers are used for reshaping wire, either straightening or bending it, as well as attaching ‘crimp beads’. Such beads are used to hold attachments in place – ‘crimping’ means attachment via compression.

    Flat nose pliers are widely used by jewellers.

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    Locking pliers

    Locking pliers

    These are used when a particular task requires pliers that will lock firmly into place –for metalwork, welding, or similar tasks. They feature a bolt and lever mechanism to lock the clamps into place before releasing them again.

    Locking pliers are available in multiple configurations and sizes for different uses, and commonly known by the brand names Vise-Grips in the United States and Mole wrenches in the UK.

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    Long nose pliers

    Long nose pliers

    Long nose pliers are a more delicate model used by electricians and engineers to grip, bend, shape and cut wires in confined spaces such as electrical boxes. Craftspeople and jewellery designers also make extensive use of them. The elongated jaws provide flexibility and enable the user to pick up small objects and get into hard-to-access areas. Cutting is normally conducted near the pivot point.

    Longnose pliers are also known as needle nose pliers, long nose pliers, pinch nose pliers and snipe nose pliers. Bent nose pliers are another variation – as the name suggests, these have curved clamps.

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    Pincers typically have rounded jaws that close together at the end to apply force and grip materials. They have many uses, including pinching, twisting or cutting wire, including that made from tough materials like steel. They are also an excellent choice for tasks that require pulling power: for example, removing nails from wood.

    Pincers are widely used in engineering, construction, industrial environments, carpentry and DIY. Different sizes and designs are available, including models with soft grips for ease of use.

    Key types include:

    • The concreter: these provide strong twisting and cutting power and have hardened edges.
    • The carpenter: for cleanly removing nails and similar objects.
    • High leverage pincers: with long handles for a stronger grip and a rounded head, these are ideal for removing from nails from tough settings.
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    Slip joint pliers

    Slip joint pliers

    Slip joint pliers have movable pivots, which can be adjusted down the length of the device to increase the distance that the jaws can open. Channel pliers are similar but use a sliding rather than pivoting mechanism to adjust the jaws.

    Straight slip joint pliers have jaws in line with their handles, while tongue-and-groove - or ‘water pump’ - pliers have their jaws offset.The latter are most frequently used by plumbers, electricians and mechanics for adjusting nuts and bolts, as well as other fittings with an irregular shape. They typically have serrated jaws set at a 45 to 60 degree angle from the precisely aligned handles.

    Water pump pliers have several alternative names, including arc joint pliers and pipe spanners.

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    Wire twisting pliers

    Wire twisting pliers

    These are the ideal choice for precise wire work in environments prone to vibration, such as vehicle or aeroplane engines. Wire twisting pliers allow users to quickly cut and twist different lengths into durable strands in small spaces.

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    How to change Circlip plier tips

    How to change circlip plier tips:

    1. Remove the tips currently in place. These will be attached to the head with one or two screws.
    2. To remove the screws use a small screwdriver, hex key or any special tool supplied with the pliers.
    3. Select the required replacement head, depending on the type and size of circlip you wish to adjust.
    4. Insert the new tips and reapply the screws.
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    Product Spotlight - RS PRO 3 Piece Plier Set

    RS pro plier sets

    Plier sets are available that contain multiple types and designs of pliers which are excellent to have as part of a tool kit - so that you are prepared to handle any task. The RS PRO 3 piece steel plier set consists of three high-quality pieces of popular plier types including combination pliers, heavy-duty side cutters and long nose pliers. The steel pliers have double injection handles which offer a soft grip, helping to ensure smooth and precise operation while easing user fatigue over prolonged use. The pliers have induction-hardened serrated jaws which allows for an excellent grip on the subject, for total confidence. The set is kept within a pouch for easy storage and transportation.

    Kit Contains:

    • 180 mm Hi-Leverage Combination Pliers
    • 160 mm Heavy Duty Side Cutters
    • 200 mm Long Nose Pliers
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    What is the difference between pliers and wrenches?

    Both are familiar staples of the workbench, with similar central functions: to grip and manipulate objects. But they achieve this function in different ways. Pliers grip objects in pivoted jaws of various shapes and sizes, allowing users to apply more force than they would be able to with their bare hands, or to manipulate very small or very unwieldy items. Wrenches, by contrast, are specifically designed for tightening and loosening nuts and bolts, gripping these within a specially shaped head so the user can apply significant rotational force (torque) and achieve movement. They are less likely to damage nuts and bolts.

    Who invented pliers?

    The inventor of pliers is lost in the midsts of history. A form of these tools has most likely existed since the invention of smelting and metalwork around 3,000BC because smiths would have needed a way to handle molten materials. The first depictions of pliers date back to the classical Greek era.

    Interchangeable circlip plier tips – why do they exist?

    Interchangeable circlip plier tips enable single plier sets to be adapted to different size rings, extending their utility and freeing technicians from the need to carry multiple tools with them to accomplish different jobs.

    Popular in the pliers category