The most useful tool you never learned much about.
“^[email protected]&%*!!!” That’s the sound of you as you drop a bolt (again) into the depths of your engine compartment, after tearing a dime-sized patch of skin off your knuckle (again). After stanching the blood with duct tape, you wonder: how do I hold onto something in a tight space firmly enough to get something else in place? I only have two hands!
This is why we have locking pliers. They’re pliers, usually adjustable width, that can be locked into place using an “over-center” action. That means as the jaws of the pliers reach maximum tension, they clamp down on an object with extra force, thanks to the springy nature of steel. That means if you have the jaws set at the correct distance, with sufficient tension, the tool isn’t letting go of whatever it’s gripping, nohow. They’re commonly known as a brand name: Vise-Grips, but there are plenty of competitors with their own names—and advantages.
So what’s the best pair of locking pliers? Well, there is no single best pair: just like people, different pliers are for different things. That’s why we don’t recommend just one best option, but break it down based on different types of locking pliers.
For more information on the best locking pliers, refer to our table of contents.
Table of contents
- 1. Best Straight-Jaw: IRWIN Vise-Grip Locking Plier
- 2. Best Curved Jaw: Auto-Grip Locking Pliers
- 3. Best Long Jaw: IRWIN Vise-Grip 9" Fast Release Pliers
- 4. Best Large Jaw: IRWIN Vise-Grip 12" Jaw Plier
- 5. Best C-Clamp: DCT C-Clamps for Woodworking and Welding
- Bonus Recommendation for Best Set: Craftsman 3-piece Locking Pliers Set
- What You Need To Know About Locking Pliers
- Why You Need Locking Pliers
- What to Look for When Buying Locking Pliers
1. Best Straight-Jaw: IRWIN Vise-Grip Locking Plier
About a century ago, Danish immigrant William Petersen, a blacksmith in Nebraska, patented what he called “Vise Grip Locking Pliers,” and the company he founded, through a circuitous linage, is still making vastly improved versions today. Sadly, they’re no longer made in Nebraska, but still have a reputation as a solid, well-made product.
Bill Petersen kept improving the original Vise-Grip until his death in 1962, and you can take advantage of them. An adjusting screw was added in the late 1940s, and the quick-release lever appeared about 20 years later.
The most-produced style—and the one no tool drawer should lack—is the straight-jaw locking pliers. The straight, toothed jaws can grip round, flat, square, and hexed surfaces with all the grip you need, making them very versatile. The whole thing is made of rust-resistant heat-treated alloy steel and we’ve found the 10 inch is the most useful for automotive applications.
2. Best Curved Jaw: Auto-Grip Locking Pliers
This is probably way more than you need to know about locking pliers, but ol’ Bill Petersen dreamed of making locking pliers a mechanic could use with just one hand. He died before that happened, but 39 years after his death, engineers found some conceptual plans Petersen had placed in an old shoebox and finished the design.
Behold the Auto-Grip curved locking pliers. Once you set the desired amount of tension with a hidden adjustment screw, the clever dual rivet design clamps down on thick or thin objects with the same amount of force, and a release lever lets you pop it off with one hand. It’s tested to 2,500 pounds of jaw pressure and guaranteed for life, but again, not made in the U.S., though some are assembled in Auto-Grip’s Virginia facility. The curved jaw is ideal for pipes and other rounded objects and you can get them in six-inch, eight-inch or a seven-inch combo flat/curved long nose.
3. Best Long Jaw: IRWIN Vise-Grip 9" Fast Release Pliers
At this point, we’ve probably made the case for IRWIN Vise-Grip pliers, so here’s another set for you. When you need to get into a really tight space and grab something, you’ll want a pair of flat long-nose pliers like these. They offer a soft rubber-like grip, one-handed triggerless release, and even have a rounded part and wire cutters. Another bonus feature is the hex-key recess in the adjuster knob for precise setting of tension.
Amazon reviewers really liked these pliers. “Great size for appliance work; they will fit into tight spots better than the short jaw version,” writes “Kayaking Don.” “You can still tighten and remove fill hose fittings with them and work… on wire hose clamps, you can crimp off a hose with them in a pinch.” Others praised the quality and durability, but a few others noted corrosion and that the “teeth slip way too easily.” Still, 4.4 out of 5 stars is nothing to sneeze at, and the IRWIN brand, guarantee, and name make this a good value.
4. Best Large Jaw: IRWIN Vise-Grip 12" Jaw Plier
Have you ever tried to get a large first bite out of a particularly outsized sandwich and hurt your jaw? We wonder if that feeling inspired the inventor of the large-jaw locking plier. More likely it was a plumber or pipe fitter faced with a job that was just a bit too big for even the largest pair of curved-jaw pliers he or she had, and C-clamps just couldn’t bring enough force to bear.
And of course, IRWIN Tools has been there, done that. These 12-inch large-grip pliers have all the familiar Vise-Grip features like the handle release, big knurled locking screw, and of course the IRWIN lifetime guarantee. You might find these are useful not just for plumbing or welding work, but any time you need a third hand to hold two large and unwieldy objects together. Like other IRWIN products, these are made in China.
5. Best C-Clamp: DCT C-Clamps for Woodworking and Welding
There are times when large-jaw locking pliers just aren’t big enough, or you need to hold two flat objects together with more force than ordinary carpenter’s C-clamps can provide. That’s when a set of C-Clamp locking pliers will come in handy. Unless you’re a welder (these are also called “welder’s pliers”) you probably won’t use these that frequently, so we think you can save some money buying a less well-known brand.
If you have room in your toolbox, why not opt for a set of three for the price of one of the big-name brands? Deadwood Crafted Tools offers this set of C-Clamp locking pliers for an affordable price. You get an 11 inch, a six inch, and a second six inch with rounded, non-swiveling tips to hold larger items. They’re made of nickle-plated carbon steel, but the screws and pins will need periodic oiling to prevent rust. Amazon reviewers really liked these—they’re rated as high as better-known brands, but some noted the 11 inch was small for some jobs; we think they’ll work great for most automotive jobs, including joining body panels. One-year warranty.
Bonus Recommendation for Best Set: Craftsman 3-piece Locking Pliers Set
If your toolbox is completely devoid of a decent pair of locking pliers, and you’re inspired by this story to have a complete set, it may be more cost-effective to buy a complete set of them. Doing so is a trade-off, as different brands tend to make better locking pliers of any particular type—to get the best of everything you’ll have to mix and match. Buying curved-jaw, flat-jaw, and long-jaw locking pliers with lifetime guarantees separately could run you $70 or more.
Or you could just do what grandpa did and buy this three-piece set of Craftsman locking pliers for an affordable price. You get a 10-inch straight-jaw, a seven-inch curved jaw and a six-inch long-jaw. The two smaller ones include wire cutters, and all three have adjusting screws and one-handed release. They’re constructed of nickel-plated steel and of course have that legendary lifetime warranty that made granddad a loyal Craftsman customer for life.
What You Need To Know About Locking Pliers
Main photo credit: ilotlenglu/ Shutterstock.com
Locking pliers are good for two basic sorts of situations. The first is for holding one or two objects so you can perform a task with another hand, or for clamping one or two objects into place for assembly or adjustment. The other is as an angel for “oops” situations; they can remove stripped or jammed screws or bolts, pull heavy, wedged-in items out of tight spots, and a million other tasks that require a firm grip on something.
Why You Need Locking Pliers
The primary reason you need locking pliers is that they are a versatile tool that can take the place of expensive, rare, or missing tools you lack, especially when it’s a one-time kind of thing. We’ve seen them used as door handles, motorcycle shift levers, and even steering wheels! Please, however, don’t keep using locking pliers in situations like that—be smart and get the proper tool or part if you will use it more than once or twice.
What to Look for When Buying Locking Pliers
Like any other tool, buy the tool, not a bargain. Sure, there are locking pliers for $3.99 or cheaper, but this is a tool that brings a vast amount of force to bear—sometimes more than a ton!—and failed tools can cause damaged parts and painful injuries.
We’ve outlined a lot of outstanding features above, so decide what you want or need and shop with that in mind. If you will do more household repairs, a larger pair may be fine, but for automotive use you want something designed for smaller fasteners. We also like the one-handed release and soft-touch handle coverings, and Auto-Grip’s automatic adjustment feature—which adjusts for an item’s size while retaining your preferred (and also adjustable) clamping-force setting—is sheer genius.
Look for lifetime warranties if possible—everything is made in China these days, but Chinese factories produce high-quality goods if you pay more and buy from an established brand, a brand that has an interest in standing behind its products. Happy gripping!
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