Power tools speed and simplify electrical work. However, many tasks still must be done as they have been for years—with basic hand tools.

Crimpers, cable cutters, wire strippers, various types of pliers, screwdrivers, hacksaws and other hand tools are used by electricians every day. To casual observers, hand tools may look much like those that have been available for years, but the men and women who use them know that today’s tools are better—they are lighter in weight, easier to use and more durable than older tool designs.

Tool shapes make them more efficient and reduce physical stress during use. For example, basic wire strippers are shaped to take strain off the weaker areas of the wrist, lessening the chance of repetitive-motion injury and at the same time, allowing the user to get more work done in less time.

Tool pouches and belts are better, too. Made of nylon and other man-made fibers, they weigh less than conventional leather belts, and some even include have built-in back support.

“Electricians want improved ergonomics in hand tools,” said Bruce Hartranft, business unit manager, Ideal Industries Inc. “Wire strippers and pliers get used all day long—preparing 200 to 250 electrical terminations a day isn’t unusual. When you’re cutting and stripping that much wire per day, you want tools that are comfortable to use, efficient and lightweight.”

Manufacturers also are offering more tools that are not limited to a single purpose.

“Multifunction tool designs mean that workers can carry fewer tools with them on the job and make fewer trips to and from their trucks, saving time and simplifying everyday work,” Nancy Szankowski, product manager, Klein Tools Inc., pointed out.

“The latest tools,” she continued, “are compact. They are lightweight, yet durable...and they perform with more accuracy and consistency. Curved tool handles permit the user to reach into confined areas. Tools with a diamond-shaped versus round stripping holes facilitate faster removal of a cable’s outer jacket. Rubber jackets or coatings protect against tool breakage and provide better gripping. Grips combining soft and hard materials add comfort and durability, and textured materials provide excellent gripping surfaces.”

Use of new materials has helped manufacturers develop improved tools.

“Composite materials are making tools weigh less and last longer,” said Dan Vega, product manager for Thomas & Betts.

Fiberglass and nylon handles make tools lighter and more durable to withstand tough use and conditions, explained Ken Woo, director of strategic marketing, FCI-Burndy Products. “Durability of the product has improved to keep up with the increasing variety of jobs that installers are doing. Hand tools are smaller and more powerful, and designers of newer products take into account ergonomic conditions and operator fatigue factors. Manually operated hand-held crimpers can crimp a wide variety of conductor sizes with and without dies. The tools have also become easier to use with matching die and color coding. This allows for less chance of problems with inspections.”

Klein’s Szankowski said that stainless steel tools also are lightweight, and they are corrosion resistant. Depending upon the grade of steel, the price tag can be a little steep for the average user, but that is offset by strength and durability.

Cutting-edge technology has improved cutting edges, she continued. “Saw blades and cutting knives on tools are made or dipped with titanium for durability and longer tool life.”

Compact, easy-to-use laser tools—small and light enough to be carried in holders on workers’ belts—speed work by providing instant reference points for conduit runs; positioning of hanger systems; cable tray installations; aligning locations for wall boxes, switches and light fixtures.

Tool weight, how a tool feels in the user’s hand and the amount of physical strength necessary to operate a tool have become important factors in tool design.

“Electrical professionals work with hand tools all day long,” said Ideal’s Hartranft. “Proper tool ergonomics can make work a pleasure, while poorly formed tools can make the work day torture. Carpal tunnel injuries are on the rise as a result of ongoing use of tools with poor human factor considerations. The new soft-grip wire strippers and pliers coming onto the market this past year have captured the electrician’s full attention. Tool makers are modifying traditional tools, like wire strippers and pliers with dual-durometer grips designed for improved grip and functionality. These ‘rubber’ grips provide enhance grip and improved efficiency for tradesmen working with wire strippers and pliers.”

Grips are manufactured with a dual material molding process, which allows a softer, more comfortable grip on the outer surface, and a harder, more durable grip on the inner surface and handle ends, added Szankowski.

Creative use of materials includes rare earth magnets for tape measure blade tips or torpedo levels permitting hands-free use when working on iron and steel surfaces and glow-in-the-dark materials for vial frames on torpedo levels for easier viewing of the bubble in dimly lit areas. Simple improvements such as two-sided printing on tape-measure blades make it easier to take elevation measurements.

Weight is becoming an increasingly important factor when buyers evaluate tools.

“The average age of a professional electrician is now over 45,” Hartranft pointed out. “Minimizing the number of tools required for a job helps lighten the tool belt load the wireman has to haul. A good example is the growing use of multibit screwdrivers and screwdrivers with built-in wire connector wrenches.”

Professionals, no matter what their trade, must have tools that will not break during use and that are made to last.

“Electricians demand durability from their hand tools,” said Hartranft. “Tools are a significant professional investment for most electricians; if a tool doesn’t hold up, the cost of the replacement comes out of the wireman’s own pocket. That measure of performance goes beyond a ‘lifetime guarantee’ that some department-type stores sometimes offer. If you’re in returning the tool for a new one every month, it’s not worth the time it takes to do it. Quality tools are a better investment.”

A significant recent trend in hand tool design is the availability of a wide range of insulated hand tools for working near energized circuits.

“Use of 1,000-volt insulated tools are on the rise in the U.S.” Hartranft said. “As skill and safety competencies improve through NJATC training classes and in-plant seminars, electricians are insisting on insulated tools for use on and around live circuits.”

Several companies offer full lines of insulated hand tools, along with safety training programs in how to properly use them.

“‘Isolated’ hand tools are not made of the traditional metals but rather with composite materials such as plastics with reinforced fiberglass,” said Jeffrey S. Russo, vice president and chief operating officer, Cementex Products Inc., a company specializing in insulating tool for the electric industry. Linesman pliers, cutting pliers, needle-nose pliers, combination strippers and crimpers, slotted and Phillips screwdrivers with cushioned grips, and screwdriver kits are the most popular products in the company’s line of insulated hand tools, including non-sparking hand tools.

“Trends in insulated tools,” Russo added, “are toward double installation and making tools egonomically friendly and, above all, providing education by suppliers to inform customers how to comply with OSHA safety related work practices regarding insulated tools.”

Expect continuing improvements in hand-tool products, say manufacturers. Some changes may be subtle and not necessarily noticeable in a product’s outward appearance, but tomorrow’s tools should be of even higher quality and value.

“Tool designs advance in small, but significant, steps,” concluded Hartranft. “The hand tool market will continue to see innovations in materials, technology, and design. The new synthetic materials and woven fiber composites can be incorporated into tools to make them stronger, lighter and non-conductive. Dual-durometer injection molded grips will appear on more hand tools for improved ergonomics. The advances in materials open up new design options for engineers who are constantly striving to produce tools that provide more results for less energy.”

“Look for the trend toward compactness to continue,” predicted Szankowski. “Lightweight tools will offer increased leverage and larger cutting capacities. There will be fewer moving parts on ratcheting systems. There will be tools for left-handers.”

Hartranft believes younger workers are especially open to new tool products: “Apprentices, those 19 to 25 year olds just getting started in the trade, are the electricians most open to new technologies, materials and designs in hand tools. They haven’t formed the habit of ‘suffering through another day’ with a poorly-designed tool. You’ll see them on the job trying out the latest in hand tools and products.”

The number of manufacturers competing for tool business from the electrical industry generates strong a motivation to design and produce products to hold customers and attract new buyers.

“Tools will continue to evolve as long as competition exists,” said Thomas & Betts Vega. “Competition is the key that drives improvements to existing tool designs.” EC

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