After 15 hours of research, considering at least 50 different adjustable pliers, and testing eight, we found that the best ones for the home tool box are Irwin’s GV10 10-inch GrooveLock Pliers with the V-jaw. They have a jaw capacity of more than 2 inches, an easy push-button jaw size adjustment, and very comfortable handles. They also have a quick adjust that makes it easier to set the jaw width if you’re working in an awkward spot, like the cramped space behind your washing machine. In addition, the jaws are designed so that they actually self-lock onto a nut or bolt, letting you focus more on turning than gripping. With all of this for a reasonable $13, they’re also unlikely to break the tool budget.
If our main pick is sold out, we also like the DeWalt PushLock 10-inch Pliers for $11, which are similar to the Groovelocks in a lot of ways though the handles aren’t as comfortable.
But if you’re someone who wants total finesse and ease out of your tools (and you’re willing to pay for it), we highly recommend the 10-inch Knipex Cobras with the comfort grips. By virtually every marker, the Cobras excel against the competition. These pliers have a far more precise adjustment mechanism than any of the other tested tools, the handles are more comfortable, and the small, sleek head can fit into the tightest of spots. The self-locking mechanism was by far the best that we looked at. A tool of this nature doesn’t come cheap, but the price tag, closing in on $45, began to make sense once we got into our hands-on testing.
The most useful all-around gripping tool to have in the home toolbox is a pair of adjustable pliers. Because of their large jaw capacity—more than 2 inches for a pair of 10-inch pliers—adjustable pliers (a.k.a. water pump pliers or Channellocks, a trademarked name) are excellent for a wide range of uses like tightening the under-sink plumbing, installing a new toilet, or adjusting your garage doors. What’s so good about them is that the jaws of the tool, regardless of the setting, remain parallel to one another, making them perfect for grabbing nuts, bolts, and all kinds of plumbing, as well as stabilizing round materials like dowels or pipes.1
I have an extensive knowledge of hand tools gained from a decade-long career in construction. During that time, I worked as a carpenter, foreman, and finally a job supervisor for a high-end builder in the Boston area. I’ve also spent the past three years completely gutting and rebuilding my own 100-year-old farmhouse. Much of the work I’ve done myself (which would hopefully explain the three-year timeline).
I’ve also been writing about and reviewing tools for seven years, with articles appearing in This Old House, Popular Mechanics, and Tools of the Trade, as well as at my own site, Toolsnob.com.
In the tool industry, power tools get all of the coverage and glory with very little love left over for hand tools. So beyond a bunch of solo reviews of individual pliers, there is very little in the way of head-to-head category testing like there is with cordless drills or circular saws. To learn more about the tools and focus in on what to look for in a good one, I relied on my own experience, read what I could, and spoke with Marc Lyman, editor of HomeFixated.com, a website devoted to covering tools and the home improvement industry.
What I discovered is that the most important things to look for are a push-button adjustment, padded ergonomic handles, a 10-inch length, and a V-jaw design. Of these, the most critical is the push-button adjustment. It’s a fairly recent innovation and is far superior to the traditional tongue and groove mechanism because it’s faster and simpler and offers a far greater variety of jaw sizings. The benefit of ergonomic handles is, well, ergonomics. It’s well worth paying a couple bucks more for a more comfortable grip because the older style of handle (which is usually nothing more than metal handles dipped in a coating of plastic) can be extremely uncomfortable, particularly on a gripping tool like pliers.
The 10-inch length offers the best compromise between leverage and portability. And finally, the V-jaw is the only jaw style that can easily grip flat, hex, or round objects. (I go into more detail later on about why these traits are make for a more desirable pair of pliers, but you can click here to skip ahead if you’d like.)
To adjust the old school tongue and groove pliers, the handles first need to be opened up to the maximum width, which causes the tongue of one handle to disengage from the grooves of the other. Then the lower jaw can shift up or down to where you want it and the pliers are closed, catching the tongue on a new groove. So if you’re looking for a specific size (and you usually are), it can take a few tries before you find the right sizing because you’re making your groove selection with the jaws fully opened.2
The push-button design allows the locking ridges to be very small, leading to much more precision in the jaw sizing. A 10-inch pair of traditional tongue and groove pliers might only have seven settings, but the new design allows for at least twice that and, depending on the manufacturer, sometimes much more (the Knipex Cobra has 25 settings). This precision means a more snug fit on a wider size of nuts and bolts. In practical terms, a better fit translates into a gripping force that is more evenly spread over the nut, resulting in a better grab and an easier turn.
Even with the additional moving parts of the spring-loaded adjustment button, durability does not seem to be an issue. In all of my research, I didn’t run across any patterns indicating a failure of the mechanism. What I found was the opposite, with reviewers and customer feedback applauding the tools for their durability. The recommended Irwin and Knipex pliers both come with a similar lifetime warranty, so it wouldn’t be a very good business decision for two very well-respected companies to sell something that is due to fall apart in a year.
Oddly enough, Channellock, the company whose name is so closely related to the tool, has yet to release a version with this new style of adjustment. As Lyman said, “why Channellock hasn’t stepped in with a push-button style plier is beyond me.”
After narrowing it down to pliers that fit these criteria, we ended up with eight to test. The Irwin GrooveLocks ($14), DeWalt PushLocks ($11), Knipex Cobras ($43), and Milwaukee Quick Adjust Reaming Pliers ($25) all had the push-button adjustment and ergonomic handle.
Finally, we looked at the Craftsman Adjustable Pliers ($41) and the Klein Quick Adjust Klaw Pliers ($35) which do not have ergonomic handles. These last two were selected based on the reputations of the companies. I was curious whether the tools would offer anything that might offset the need for comfort handles.
To test the tools, I used each one to disconnect and reconnect a radiator as well as a number of the fittings around my water heater. Each tool also took a turn loosening and tightening the 4-inch PVC clean-out on the waste line heading out to the septic (required by code and essential to the homeowner if something gets clogged in the pipe). The square PVC fitting was a good indicator of jaw width (the fitting is about 2 inches).
For more controlled tests, I took them all out to the workshop and used them with a wide variety of nuts and bolts. I also strained the hinge point by clamping the tip of the upper jaw in a vice and twisting, pulling, and pushing on the other handle. I tested the strength of the teeth by clamping each pair of pliers down on the head of a galvanized joist hanger nail.
The connection points all proved to be sturdy and the teeth all fell within the same range of durability, so it really all came down to ease of adjustment, general usability, and overall ergonomics.
What this means in practical terms is that the adjustment can be made quickly and, if need be, at arm’s length. Once the upper jaw is hooked around a nut, the lower jaw can just slide up to where it’s snug and the tightening/loosening can begin. If you’re in a crawl space, under your deck, or reaching into the nether region behind your water heater, this feature will come in handy.3
The handles are definitely another high point. They’re nice and wide and have a very slight texture to them that adds a considerable amount of “stickiness.” The upper handle swells a little at the top edge, creating a nice spot for a thumb to rest.
The self-locking handle feature is also very useful. Once the jaws are securely around an object, they grip in such a way that the lower handle no longer needs to be held. This means you can put your energy into turning and not worry about gripping, almost like locking pliers (a.k.a. Vise-Grips). Lyman has an image here where he displays how strong this lock is (the image shows the Knipex Cobras). It’s a cool feature and one that I ended up relying on while removing the rusty fittings of the radiator.
This feature works well for the most part, but I often had to fiddle with the jaws in order to get them to lock in. I found that it worked best on hex shapes like nuts and bolts and was less successful on round objects like pipes. Still, the GrooveLocks were better than most at this.
Irwin offers a full lifetime warranty for the GrooveLocks that covers “defects in material and workmanship for the life of the tool under normal wear and tear, except for damage caused by misuse or alteration.” So presumably, if something goes wrong, you should be able to return them for a new pair.
The GrooveLocks have been very well-received among credible tool reviewers. Carl Duguay, writing at Canadian Woodworking said that Irwin’s GrooveLock line “are well designed and manufactured tools that you won’t regret buying, and with a lifetime guarantee you won’t have to worry about replacing.”
Thomas Gaige of ProToolReviews applauded the tool for the fast adjustment and comfortable handle. He wrapped up his review by saying, “the Irwin GrooveLock Pliers are a fantastic choice if you are on the market for some quality slip joint style pliers.”
In a video review for Tools in Action, Dan Maxey called the pliers, “a good, high quality tool.”
The customer feedback at Amazon and Home Depot is also very positive. As of this writing, Amazon has the tool at 4.5 stars with 31 reviews and Home Depot is logging in 4.7 stars with 19 reviews.
The one area where the GrooveLocks fell short compared to the rest is the width of the nose. Measuring ½ inch, the GrooveLock is almost twice as wide as all of the rest of the tested pliers. This hinders the line of sight on small little nuts and bolts and makes it a whisker trickier in tight spots. I’ve had a pair of GrooveLocks for about four years and it never struck me as an issue until I used the other pliers with smaller noses. It doesn’t alter the functionality of the tool at all, and it’s likely that you won’t even notice it unless you have experience with other thinner-nosed pliers.
But on the good side, the nose of the PushLocks is much thinner than the GrooveLocks, making it a little easier to work with smaller nuts and bolts as well as in confined spaces. The PushLocks also have 17 adjustment sizes, two more than the GrooveLocks. The two additional sizings aren’t enough to make a real functional difference, so in that regard, the tools are basically the same.
Compared to the GrooveLocks, the handles on the PushLocks are narrower and feel harder. To make things worse, at the base of the upper handle, “DeWalt” is printed in slightly raised lettering. Because this is the exact spot that you grip the hardest during tough jobs, the result is “DeWalt” stamped into your palm.
The self-locking feature is a bit hit or miss, sometimes taking a number of adjustments to get the sizing right. And once they were locked on, I had them slip on me a few times.
But in the end, they operate a lot like the GrooveLocks, just without an added layer of finesse in the details.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $43.
I would say that overall they’re about 100 percent better than the Groovelocks, but they cost 300 percent more, so you really have to want them in order to justify spending that much. But once you get your hands on them, you’ll use them all the time. Ever since our test sample showed up a few weeks ago, I’ve basically been wandering around the house looking for excuses to break them out.
The Cobras also had the smallest head of all the tested pliers, making them easy to work with in tight spaces and allowing for great sight lines no matter what position you’re in.
At HomeFixated, Lyman wrote a lengthy piece comparing the Knipex Cobras to the Irwin GrooveLocks and in the end he preferred the Cobras as well “mainly for its more precise adjustability, more compact head design, and the button that locks in both directions.”
We also have to note that Knipex sells the Cobras with both ergonomic handles (which we recommend) and old-school dipped handles. The non-ergonomic Cobras are priced at about $10 less ($33) and in all other aspects are identical. We feel that the added comfort of the padded handles justifies the added expense. Plus, once you’re up above the $30 mark, it makes sense to bite the bullet and go for the full experience.
For the past seven months, I’ve used the Irwin Groovelocks and the Knipex Cobras quite a bit while wrapping up my own renovation. The Irwins are still holding up with absolutely no problems, and their solid usability combined with their inexpensive cost still makes them an easy choice for our main recommendation.
But the more I work with the Knipex, the more impressed I am. Using the tools side by side in a consistent manner over a long period of time, it has become very clear to me that the Knipex operate in an entirely different realm. With the handles so nicely formed to the natural curves of the hand, they’re far less tiring to use for extended periods of time. And if it wasn’t for the perfect locking feature, I would have never been able to disconnect an old rusted radiator. I locked the pliers on the connection and stepped on the handles, bouncing my entire body weight to get the connection to move. While anyone looking for a set of pliers for the junk drawer would likely balk at the $40 price tag, if you really want a high-quality tool, you’ll be happy you spent the additional money.
The Milwaukee Quick Adjust Reaming Pliers ($25) have comfortable handles, a nice push-button action, and 22 size settings. Because they focus on industrial users, Milwaukee has equipped this tool with an interesting pro-only feature. The top of the nose is reinforced and the ends of the handles are exposed metal and taper towards one another, making two areas designed for reaming out the burrs on a cut piece of metal conduit. This is potentially a huge bonus for a pro electrician or plumber, but it’s not going to mean a whole lot to the average homeowner.
On the down side, the Milwaukees were the only pliers that did not have anti-pinch handles. When the jaw is in the widest position, the top and bottom handles are basically touching one another, so if you’re using them and something slips, your palm can easily be pinched and you could be looking at a massive blood blister. I’ve had this happen to me with another brand and it’s nearly as frustrating as hitting your thumb with a hammer.
We also looked at the Craftsman Adjustable Pliers ($41), but they turned out to be identical to the Cobras, made possible through some kind of co-branding agreement. Craftsman only sells a version with the dipped handles and not the ergonomic ones. Oddly enough, the Craftsman pricing for the 10-inch model is a little more expensive, but they offer another option where they bundle a 10-inch and a 7-inch for $45. Purchased separately under the Knipex name this would cost more than $60.
A another similar tool is the Klein Quick Adjust Klaw Pump Pliers ($35) which are also made in Germany and share many characteristics with the Cobras, including the overall design of the head and handles. There are some differences, though: The locking mechanism has the same ratcheting action as the Irwin and the jaw design is slightly different. Klein specializes in electrician’s tools, so it’s not surprising that the jaw has a small notch for gripping a wire. This is a very nice tool, but the dipped handles were what ultimately took it out of contention. There are also only 11 jaw positions.
The CH Hanson Auto-Grip LockJaw Self-Adjusting Groove Pliers ($19) have an interesting adjustment. The lower jaw is spring-loaded to the closed position, so to make an adjustment, you need to pull it down, and when the jaws are around something, release the lower handle so it slides up and into place. It’s a two-handed operation and the jaws only have a parallel opening of about 1½ inches (compared to most of the others at well more than 2 inches).
The big beefy handles are comfortable, but they’re only available with flat jaws, and with the other quick-adjust mechanisms, so this one doesn’t seem to save all that much time.
The Triplett ClikGrip ($12) also has a unique adjustment. It’s similar to the Irwin in that the lower jaw can ratchet into place, but on this tool a little spring-loaded button acts as a fulcrum for the handle, so that just by closing them with one hand, the lower jaw moves into place. But the non-ergonomic handles are tough on the palms and the maximum jaw opening was smaller than most (1½ inch).
The Kobalt Magnum Grip Pliers ($23) are similar in that the jaws auto adjust as the handles are being squeezed. The downside to these is that the handles are spring-loaded to the open position, making them difficult to use in tight spots. Also, once you close the handles, it’s hard to tell when you have a good grab on a nut because of the amount of cushion in the jaw mechanism. The handles are also dipped and uncomfortable. There are enough design similarities between the Kobalts and the Robo Grips ($21), that we dismissed the Robo Grips without testing.
There were a number of other tools that we looked at but decided not to test. The Wiha Adjustable Plier is a pricey one ($37) but only has eight jaw settings and if you’re already closing in on the $40 mark, it makes sense to go with the Knipex Cobras. The Rothenberger RoLock Pliers ($28) look nice, but have dipped handles. And these Snap-Ons with their thumb-trigger adjustment, at $60, are just too expensive for around the house use.
As stated above, all Channellock pliers have the older tongue and groove adjustment, which took them out of the running. But they’re not alone. We dismissed many other models due to the lack of a push button adjustment: Stanley 84-024 ($7), Douglas P-813P ($22), Proto J260SGXL ($30), Greenlee 0451-10M ($25), and KD Tools 82064 ($15) all had the older style adjustment.
It very quickly became clear that one major differentiator between pliers was the style of grip. With two exceptions, we only looked at tools with padded ergonomic gripping areas. Because high and mid-range brands like Knipex, Irwin, Milwaukee, DeWalt, and CH Hanson all make pliers with comfort grips, we felt it was safe to use this as a determining factor. With names like those in the mix, there was no doubt that we would be able to find a tool worthy of recommendation for home use.
Many companies still manufacture the older-style grips, which are nothing more than metal handles dipped in plastic or metal surrounded by a thin layer of plastic shrink tubing. There’s simply no reason to go with these. If you need to take the blade off your mower or remove a radiator so you can paint behind it, you’re going to be exerting a lot of hand strength on the pliers and there’s no point in using the dipped style that is sure to leave a giant, sore, red line running through your palm..
The 10-inch length splits the difference between too big and bulky and too small and ineffective. 10-inch pliers have a grip area of about 5 inches, making them comfortable in any hand with gloves or without. On average, they have a jaw capacity of about 2 inches which means they can handle all of the plumbing connections under the kitchen sink as well as any standard 4-inch waste line clean-outs or large pipes.5
The step up in size is to a 12-inch tool, which can be tough to get into tight spaces (there’s also quite a bit of handle to deal with). The step down, to an 8-inch, comes with a limited jaw capacity (about 1½ inch) and a much smaller handle. We tested out the Milwaukee 8-Inch Quick-Adjust Reaming Pliers ($22) and found them to be too small for many jobs. The smaller handles also mean less leverage.
Another thing to look for is the shape of the jaw. Most companies sell two and sometimes three different varieties. The most versatile are the V-jaws which, if looked at from the side of the tool, have a V-cut out on both the top and bottom jaw. Because of these notches, V-jaws are capable of securely grabbing flat, hex, or round shapes.
Straight flat jaws run totally parallel to one another are specific to flat and hex materials and will struggle if you ever need to hold a pipe or anything else that’s round. Smooth jaws, the third style, run parallel and have no teeth for gripping. These are meant for delicate surfaces that might dent under the pressure of the teeth, like PVC or a finished material like chrome.
Due to the slip-joint mechanism, those pliers have only two jaw widths, neither of which is very large. A 10-inch pair of adjustables can open up to easily two inches and, depending on what you’re grabbing, more than three. This means they can handle small little nuts and bolts as well as larger items like a garden hose fitting or a big radiator coupling.
Basically, it’s a good idea to have a set of adjustable pliers around the house. And for that we recommend the 10-inch Irwin GrooveLocks. They have a nice, fast adjustment, extremely comfortable handles, and are backed with a full warranty. Best of all, they’re only $14.
Originally published: May 5, 2014
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