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Struggling with your wiring? Cut it out! Get the right tool for the job.
How many wire cutters are in your tool box? One? Wrong answer! Mechanic’s card: revoked! Leave your coveralls with the receptionist. Because if you’re working with wires—and all mechanics work with wires—you need more than one wire cutter, because they’re not all the same.
If you have one wire cutter that you’ve been using for everything, take a close look at its poor, injured little blades: they’re dull, pitted, and look like hell. I’m going to give you a few different types of wire cutters you must have, and at the end of the article I’ll tell you more about wire, wire cutting, and other things that will make you a better, more efficient mechanic.
Table of contents
- 1. Editor's Pick: Knipex Diagonal Cutters
- 2. Hakko Micro or “Shear” Cutters
- 3. Klein Tools Side Cutters
- 4. Knipex End Cutters
- 5. Knipex Insulated Cutters
- 6. IRWIN Needle-Nose Cutters
- 7. BikeMaster Safety (or Locking) Wire Pliers/Cutters
- 8. Klein Tools' Wire-Stripping Pliers
- What are Wire Cutters?
- Why You Need Wire Cutters
- What You Need to Know About Buying Wire Cutters
1. Editor's Pick: Knipex Diagonal Cutters
These are the workhorses of wire cutters, with the ability to cut through the piano wire as well as the softer stuff. They are not what you use to make precise, clean cuts; they are for cutting through the tough stuff when you need the job done. It’s not a bad idea to have one or two sizes of these.
For brands, Knipex is a safe bet. Founded (and still operating in) Germany, this 140-year-old company is one of the top-selling brands of wire cutters, and though pricier than no-name brands, the lifetime warranty will likely more than make up that difference.
2. Hakko Micro or “Shear” Cutters
My one regret in life is that I didn’t buy a pair of these until I was 45 years old. Light, comfy, and easy to hold, for cutting or trimming automotive wiring or zip ties a pair of these can’t be beat. They can get into places a bigger pair of cutters or pliers can’t and flush cut the wire so there are no sharp edges.
Since these are for cutting soft copper or aluminum wire up to 16 gauge, they don’t really need to be high end, so I like the Hakko cutters. They’re cheap enough you can buy a three-pack, because somebody is going to love using yours and will steal them.
3. Klein Tools Side Cutters
These are also called “high leverage” or “lineman’s” pliers, but the location of the cutting blade—on the side—is what unites the different varieties. These are great to have because they let you grip, twist, or pull on something as well as cut wire. Speaking of cutting wire, these have features that let you cut through seriously tough stuff, even threaded rod.
I like the Klein Tools 9-inch side cutters. Made in the USA, they’re expensive but will last a lifetime and have a unique design that gives more leverage with less length, meaning a less bulky, heavy tool that can still get the job done.
4. Knipex End Cutters
If wire cutters were characters from a Scorsese flick, this one would be the “cleaner,” as it can solve a lot of messy, ugly problems. The shape of the jaws lets you get really close to the object to cut—and these will cut, twist, or pull just about anything, depending on the size of the end cutter you buy. This design is made for abuse.
Knipex makes all sizes of these, but a good one to keep on hand for automotive use is the 6 1/4-inch job. It has dual cutting surfaces for hard or soft wire, is made in Germany, and not that much more money than the cheapies. Oh, and lifetime warranty, of course.
5. Knipex Insulated Cutters
All the tools in this story are available in insulated versions, and if you think you might be working with live current (not recommended!), you really need to make sure your tools are specifically for working with live current! The thin plastic or rubber on regular pliers and cutters isn’t rated as insulation, and you could be burned or injured. If you guessed Knipex has a wide selection of these, you would be right.
6. IRWIN Needle-Nose Cutters
Try to get one of these away from a typical electrician and he or she will tackle you. That’s because they are so useful. In addition to having a small side-cutter, the narrow tips are great for grabbing, pulling, or twisting wire or other materials in tight spots—and aren’t the wires you’re working on in your car always in tight spots?
IRWIN is a reputable brand, and it makes some nice, moderately priced cutters and pliers, which is why I made them my pick here.
7. BikeMaster Safety (or Locking) Wire Pliers/Cutters
If you’re racing a car or motorcycle or working on an airplane, you probably already have a pair of these. If not, learning how to safety-wire is one of those weirdly satisfying things you’ll want to learn.
Safety wire is a twist of high-strength steel wire that keeps bolts or other fasteners from working loose and causing dangerous conditions like brake failures or fluid leaks. These have locking jaws and a knob so you can spin the pliers, twisting the wire into a neat, strong pattern, and a side cutter nips the long end when you’re done. There’s a bit of technique in doing this properly, so study up before you trust your life to your safety-wire skills.
I’ve had the same pair for 25 years, and they’re the same as what’s sold today in the bargain end of the hardware store. You can also opt for high-end versions if you’re using them a lot, but odds are you already have a pair if you need them. So I’m recommending the affordable but still dependable BikeMaster set; it even comes with a free roll of wire.
8. Klein Tools' Wire-Stripping Pliers
If you don’t have a pair of these, you might have very strong teeth, or are just really good with wire cutters. For the rest of us, wire-strippers are great, eliminating the fear of cutting your wires accidentally when you’re removing insulation. If you’re stripping a lot of wire you may want to look into “automatic” strippers that cut and strip the wire to a predetermined length with one motion—very cool, but do you have room in your toolbox for that?
Instead, you can look at Klein Tools’ line of wire stripper/cutters. They come in several sizes, for different wire ranges, but I’d go with the one that can handle wires from 8-18 gauge for automotive use.
What are Wire Cutters?
Wire cutters are often called “pliers,” but they’re not. They’re tools designed to cut wire or other forms of cylindrical metal, like screws, nails, cable, or bolts. They are frequently combined with some form of pliers—tools designed to exert force on an object so you can grab, pull, or twist—so people just call them “pliers,” and they’re usually not wrong.
Why You Need Wire Cutters
Wire cutters are indispensable. Not only do they cut metal—wire, screws, even bolts—they are almost always combined with pliers, a tool that exerts clamping force on a small area so you can hold, twist, turn, or bend metal and other materials. They’re not just handy for regular maintenance and special projects, they can be life-saving in an emergency, from splicing in a repair for a broken ground wire to pulling a splinter out of your toe. That’s why you’ll need more than one.
What You Need to Know About Buying Wire Cutters
Like almost every tool, there is no one “best” set of wire cutter/pliers. Ask yourself what you’ll be doing with it, and then buy the best one for your needs—see above for a basic rundown of the types and uses of pliers.
Another consideration is quality. Given unlimited budget, you’d buy quality USA or German-made tools with lifetime guarantees every time, but everybody has a budget to stick to. I’d recommend buying the best tools you can afford if you’re going to use them enough to break them—the high-end tools have lifetime warranties because they seldom break. Cheap tools have limited or no warranties because the people selling them know they will, eventually.
That’s why if you use a tool a lot, get a good one, especially wire cutters and pliers. Cheaper versions don’t align well, cause hand fatigue, get dull faster, and break under just mild abuse. Like everything else, you get what you pay for.
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