In The Shop: Pliers: The Universal Tool

December 5, 2015 02:26 AM
In The Shop: Pliers: The Universal Tool

At a farm machinery auction or other casual gathering of farmers, ask aloud, “Who has some pliers I can borrow?” and watch dozens of hands slap leg pockets or leather belt pouches. Many farmers would rather leave home without their wallet than leave behind their trusty pliers.

The history of pliers stretches back to around 2,000 B.C. When folks began to forge iron, they quickly found it was more comfortable to handle hot metal with tongs rather than with bare hands. An unheralded genius figured out that pinning two metal bars together so they could pivot on the pin produced a tool that amplified hand strength—and kept their hands away from hot metal. 

Since then, more than 100 different designs of pliers have evolved. Three basic handle/joint designs, used in conjunction with dozens of jaw designs, create pliers for just about any situation.

If the two halves of a pair of pliers are merely laid against each other then pinned together, it’s called a 
lay-on joint. Lay-on joints are most often found on tongs, snap ring pliers and other basic pliers.

If pliers have a pin fixed in one handle, while the other half has a slot or pair of holes, you’re looking at a lap joint. The plain ol’ “combination pliers” so many of us carry are lap joint pliers. The option of changing the pivot point in relation to the handles gives more or less leverage while increasing or 
decreasing the potential jaw opening.

Cool Tool
No discussion about pliers is complete without mention of Vise-Grip pliers. Vise-Grips were invented in 1924 by Nebraska blacksmith William Petersen. They were a novelty tool until World War II when a Pentagon contract led to their use around the world. After the war, they become an essential part of any mechanic’s tool inventory. 

Box joint pliers are exemplified by slip-jaw pliers, aka tongue-and-groove pliers. The faces of the two handles at the joint are milled so once a jaw-opening size is selected, the pivot point is fixed in that position. 

Along with the three basic pivot/joint designs, pliers have dozens of jaw configurations. 

Combination pliers carried by many farmers have flat jaws. Serrations or grooves in the surface of each jaw 
improve grip when twisting wires or turning bolts. They’re called “combination” pliers because their jaws include wire cutters near the pivot point, making them two-in-one tools.

Wire cutters, side cutters and dikes specialize in cutting wire. On diagonal cutters (sometimes abbreviated to the first two syllables of their name, as in “dikes”), the planes of the cutting edges are diagonal to the plane of the handles. Some cutting edges are centered in their jaws, and others have them on the side of the jaws to cut wires flush with a flat surface. Handles at an angle to the cutting edges allow clearance for the user’s knuckles when flush-cutting.

Needle-nose pliers are exactly as named—the jaws are long and tapered to reach into small spaces. There are big 18"-long needle-nose pliers, and there are tiny needle-nose pliers to work on electronics. Needle-nose pliers come with straight jaws, 45° jaws and 90° jaws to help reach into awkward locations.

Beyond these basic pliers found in most toolboxes,  farmers use dozens of specialty jaws and handles. Wire-stripping pliers neatly clean insulation from electrical wiring. Crimping pliers install electrical connectors onto wires. Snap-ring pliers remove either internal or external snap rings, depending on the configuration of their 
pivot point.

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