Several pliers lay on top of a wood workbench.

Pliers: What Are They Good For?

“Hand me those pliers” seems like a pretty basic statement, but it’s probably the most loaded question in the world of hand tools. The majority of pliers perform relatively the same function of gripping something, but the number of variants could go on for days, and each has a specific purpose. 

The basic design of each kind of pliers is similar with two handles, a pivot, and a head. From there, the variations add additional features that are tailored to perform a specific function, such as cutting, fitting in smaller areas, or creating a tighter grip. Some pliers also serve a very niche purpose. Here’s an explanation of the most common types of pliers and how they’re used.

Slip Joint Pliers

Channellock 6.5-Inch Slip Joint Pliers

Some of the most common pliers, slip joint pliers, are general-purpose pliers that can be used for the majority of gripping applications. Used for various tasks such as tightening and loosening bolts or gripping rounded surfaces, they also can be used to crimp metal or loop wire.

Instead of a fixed rivet pivot point, a fulcrum with a sliding pivot point allows the two handles of the pliers to shift so the jaws can get wider. The tip of the jaws usually features a flat, serrated texture to help grip objects. A rounded area behind that is perfect for gripping pipes or rods. 

Tongue & Groove Pliers

Crescent Z2 Auto-Bit Tongue and Groove Pliers

Also called water-pump pliers, or Channellocks (which is a brand name), tongue & groove pliers work similar to slip joint pliers but have a much wider range across several positions to grip larger objects and pipes. Also similar to the slip joint pliers, the head features both a flat serrated area and a rounded serrated area for gripping pipes. 

They’re a common tool among plumbers as the large range of the jaws makes it easier to grip rather large pipes. The head is usually angled, and the handles are longer to make it easier to work on pipes in tight spaces. The longer handles also create a higher amount of leverage for loosening fasteners.

Locking Pliers

Stanley FatMax 10-Inch Curved Jaw Locking Pliers

Locking pliers work almost like a hand-held vise, hence the common name Vise-Grips (a brand name from Irwin Tools). They work similar to any other pliers but clamp down with added pressure. A lever on the handle releases the pliers from their hold. A dial at the bottom of one of the handles can adjust the width of the jaws for added versatility. 

Work well as a substitute for pipe wrenches or clamps. They can also be used to remove stubborn reusable fasteners such as a bolt. Extra caution should be taken when using the locking pliers in this fashion, though, as the added pressure could damage the fastener.

Cutting Pliers

Knipex Diagonal Cutter Pliers With Plastic Coated Handle

Cutting pliers are one of the few styles that aren’t designed for gripping objects. They serve a very specific purpose, and that is cutting wire. Also known as diagonal pliers, cutting pliers are angled with two cutting edges. Some variants have a smaller head for snipping wires in a tight space, such as a crowded gang box. They’re very strong and can even be used to cut through thinner nails or screws in a pinch. Cutting pliers are a common tool of electricians.

Lineman Pliers

Klein Tools Lineman Pliers (D2009NETH)

Lineman pliers are known by many names. They’re sometimes called electrician’s pliers, side-cutting pliers, or even “Kleins,” which relates to Klein Tools, one of the leading producers of lineman pliers. Find a pair with insulated handles to help protect from electric shock, but the pliers should never be used on live wires.

They feature serrated flat jaws for gripping flat surfaces, such as sheet metal. An electrician typically uses the jaws to twist wire. The standout feature that categorizes them as lineman pliers is the side cutters, found behind the flat section, used to cut through stiff wire. As the name would imply, they’re common in an electrician’s tool bag.

Needle Nose Pliers

Klein Tools 7-1/2-Inch Needle Nose Pliers

The general makeup of needle nose pliers is similar to lineman pliers, and they are used in almost the exact same fashion, but they have one specific feature that sets them apart, the long tapered jaws. The thinner design allows the pliers to be used in tighter spaces lineman pliers wouldn’t be able to access, such as congested electrical boxes. 

Needle nose pliers are capable of cutting, shaping, and bending wire, and more but aren’t designed for the heavy-duty work that a lineman pliers would be used for. They can easily break if too much pressure is applied to them. They’re also a great option for holding smaller objects such as nuts, washers, and more that need a more precise placement that you can’t reach with your hand. Variant styles feature tips bent at 45- and 90-degree angles to access odd spaces.

Specialty Pliers

Nipping Pliers

Knipex Concreter Nipper Pliers

If you need to cut a piece of wire or a nail flush with the surface it’s in, you’ll need nipping pliers. Alternately called nippers or end-cutting pliers, these are used to cut through nails, wire, rivets, and bolts. The jaws appear almost circular and wide with sharp ends that close like a pincer. Their flat-head pincer-like design allows closer cutting to the surface. The pivot point is closer to the head of the pliers for increased leverage for cutting thicker nails.

Fencing Pliers

Channellock 10-1/2-Inch Fencing Pliers

Some of the strangest looking pliers around, fencing pliers almost look like someone mashed a hammer together with a pair of pliers. Designed specifically for wire fencing, fencing pliers are very versatile as each part of the head has its own function. The head features a hammer face on one side for driving nails and a spike on the other for prying staples. Pincers on the top can be used if the spike isn’t able to slip under the staple. Fencing pliers can also be used to cut wire and nails or twist wires. It’s a common tool among ranchers.

Nail Puller Pliers

Crescent 11-Inch Nail Puller Pliers

Aptly named, nail puller pliers assist in removing nails, even if they’ve been sunken into the wood. A tapered head makes it easy to dig beneath the surface of the wood to grab the nail. Most nail pullers are designed to minimize damage to the surface of the wood.

Oil Filter Pliers

Irwin 9-Inch Oil Filer/PVC Pipe Pliers

Featuring grooved or ridged metallic or rubber-coated jaws, the pliers can easily remove a stuck oil filter from your vehicle. They also can be used to remove some air filters that may be in tighter spaces a hand can’t reach. The longer handles make them ideal for reaching deep space. Some are adjustable to accommodate different-sized filters. Oil filter pliers are an excellent alternative to an oil filter wrench.

List of the most common pliers and what they are used for.

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