Innovations in power tools—especially the introduction of cordless tools using lithium-ion battery technologies—attracted attention of tool users in recent months and justifiably so. Important as power tools are, electricians and professionals in other trades accomplish much of their daily work with basic hand tools. And while the cable cutters, wire strippers, crimpers, screwdrivers, pliers and hand saws sold today may look much like those of the past, there are significant differences that make them better.

The trend toward multipurpose tools continues: the more jobs a tool can do, the fewer tools an electrician has to carry.

Tool designs advance in small but significant steps, and manual tools today are easier to use and more durable than ever before. Many are much lighter in weight. Ergonomics has become a sometimes-misused promotional term; however, today’s best tools that incorporate ergonomic designs not only are more user friendly and comfortable to hold and use, they reduce physical strain and reduce the risk of repetitive motion injuries and help workers in productivity.

Most basic tools are available in insulated versions that meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other safety standards.

“Hand tools are an integral part of how pro-fessionals make their living,” said David Serdynski, Gardner Bender product manager for hand tools. “It is amazing how much productivity can be lost when the right hand tool is not available on the job.”

Customers are asking for hand tools that reduce the number of steps required to strip wire or multiple conductor cables.

“Meeting this need,” Serdynski said, “reduces the number of times users must fumble to find an additional tool to complete a job. For example, circuit-alert, voltage-sensing wire strippers provide increased efficiency on the job. Rubber-dipped handles provide a tactile grip, but alternative handle types can provide improved feel. When a user is more comfortable using any hand tool, their level of confidence is only increased that the job can be done safely.”

Some manufacturers are developing tools specifically for electricians.

 “Our staple-gun market is very broad. But we recognize securing cable is an important part of an electrician’s work, and we recently introduced a new wire and cable staple gun specifically aimed at the electrical market,” said Bill Smith, director of sales for the Arrow Fastener Co.

“The tool is a manual wire tacker used to secure nonmetallic sheath cable to wooden studs in residential construction. It uses a steel staple covered by a plastic insulator so the wire staple does not rub on cable. Of course, it can be used on other types of wiring. Also, it is ideal to keep bundled wires together for applications such as under-counter wiring.

“This is a new tool category for our company. Recognizing wiring is an important part of electrical work, we found many electricians pound a wire staple into the stud with a hammer or use clips to secure wire to a stud. It is faster and easier to use a staple gun. Holding the wire in one hand and the stapler in the other is a much better way to secure wiring.”

Scott Jonap, vice president of sales and marketing for Channellock, said the hand tool sector is taking cues from wide-reaching industries today and is increasingly focused on safety through both tool design and training programs .

“Manufacturers,” he said, “now consider the end-users and how they use the tool—not just the design aspect of the tool itself. For us, that means providing quality hand tools that are high on functionality and addresses safety issues.”

Combination tools allow work to be completed faster and easier.

“Last year,” Jonap said, “we introduced new lineman’s pliers that combine crimper, cutter, fish tape puller and crusher functions into one tool. In regards to tool evolution, hand tools today are generally better designed to help the user access hard-to-reach areas while being more comfortable to use and more progressive in their appearance. This is what end-users demand, and committed manufacturers are listening.”

Lightweight materials, ergonomic designs and reduced physical effort requirements to perform tool functions are features found on today’s hand tools, said Bob Poirie, senior product manager at FCI-Burndy. Titanium is replacing steel for weight reduction, and while not quite fitting the power tool category, some tools now have battery assist to reduce the level of strength needed to operate them.

“Today there are more battery-actuated features for smaller hand tools,” Poirie said. “For example, we have taken the head of one of our most popular crimper products and put it on a battery-actuated platform to eliminate repetitive motion injuries associated with these types of tools.”

Poirie added that by training equipment users and receiving input from those users after training, the company is able to determine whether products need to be revamped or changed.

“Interaction with actual users creates great feedback,” he said.

Greenlee Textron senior product manager Brian Allison said advances in manufacturing processes continue to provide more consistent and less expensive tool products.

“Forging technologies have advanced,” Allison said. “Riveting technologies have also advanced, and overall finishing processes have improved substantially. There are superior metals and more precise and consistent hardening properties. These factors provide better overall tool quality and performance. Ergonomic grips make the job less strenuous, therefore reducing user fatigue and chance of long-term damage due to repetitive motions.”

Curt Weber, director of marketing for Irwin Industrial Tools, said a growing number of tool manufacturers take advantage of new technologies and processes to bring customers better tool values.

“For example,” he said, “a relatively new manufacturing process is being used to treat cutting edges of some tools. Laser hardening is a more efficient method than the traditional induction-hardening process. Both methods provide a strong, sharp cutting edge, but the laser is more efficient even though it is still a relatively new technology with a high cost.

“Ergonomics has reduced hand fatigue, provided comfort and reduced slippage,” Weber said. “One of the biggest design improvements is elimination of pinch points through new designs. The grips and shape of the tool have been upgraded to allow the user to get the best possible results with the least possible injury. Many pliers now come with a two-layer molded grip instead of the old-fashioned dipped plastic grips. These grips allow comfort and control when using the tool.”

The addition of automatically adjusting wire strippers is a significant improvement, Weber added.

Jeff Konkle, Klein Tools manager of new product development, said the most notable changes in hand tools are in handles and grips.

“Advances in materials and improved geometry have provided more comfortable, easier-to-use and often more durable products,” Konkle said. “We are constantly watching the way people use our tools and the jobs they are performing, looking for ways to make improvements.”

Konkle said the ergonomics buzz has decreased, with the term not as prominent as it was a few years ago.

“But whether you call it ergonomics or something else,” he said, “manufacturing leaders are always looking for ways to make a tool better, and improving the way a tool interfaces with the user is a great way to do it. Professional tradesmen use these tools all day, every day. They need to consistently fit, feel and perform right. Anything we can do to improve user comfort, increase productivity or make the job easier are high priorities.”  EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.