Back to Basics: Focus on entry-level tools of the trade

By Jeff Griffin | Nov 15, 2020
Tool pouch filled with various tools like a hammer, screwdrivers and wire strippers




Tools of the trade—whatever the craft, every tradesperson must have them.

The tools must be right for the work at hand: quality tools that perform well and are easy to use, ergonomic, friendly and durable.

Participants in the IBEW-NECA Electrical Training Alliance Apprenticeship program learn about basic tools of the trade in class and when they begin working.

Local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees (JATCs) help make sure trainees choose the correct tools.

As most training centers do, the Western Oklahoma Electrical JATC, Oklahoma City, Okla., has a recommended starter kit that contains the basic hand tools apprentices need, said Cliff Stewart, licensed electrician and the program’s training director.

Ideal Industries fish tape

“Tools used by electricians receive high usage, and it is important to have quality tools,” he said. “Poorly manufactured tools wear out quickly, and the user will have to replace them over and over, spending more in the long run than quality tools would have cost. To make sure apprentices get exactly what they need, we provide a starter list of tools that must be in each apprentices’ possession when on-the-job training begins.”

Although apprentices may buy any brand they choose, Stewart described the tools on his list, which are made by training partner Klein Tools and identified by part number.

  • High-leverage side cutters, also known as lineman pliers, have many functions. They can be used to cut conductors, tie wire, tie wraps, etc. They also are used to twist wires together and pull wires and fish tapes. Some come with crimp tool options. Unfortunately, they also get used as a hammer.
  • Pump pliers, also known by the brand name Channellock, are used to tighten rigid conduit; compression couplings on conduit; and various nuts, bolts and other hardware. There are two pairs on the list: one is used to tighten and the other is used as a backup or to hold the object in place.
  • A 6-inch screwdriver is used to tighten screws and bolts with a slotted head. It is also used incorrectly as a chisel or pry bar, which the training center discourages.
  • A 6-inch, round-shank screwdriver, mostly used on smaller slotted head screws and bolts on controls, face plates for devices and hard-to-reach areas with smaller screws.
  • A Phillips screwdriver is used for screws and bolts with a Phillips slot on the head.
  • The blade of an electrician’s knife has a small, hooked shape to help eliminate slipping, but most users will graduate to a standard pocket knife or a knife with a utility blade.
  • An electrician’s folding rule is typically made of wood, and is therefore nonconductive. It will extend to 6 feet and has 1-, 1/4- and  1/8-inch markings. This tool can also be used to determine angles and offsets as the sections will remain somewhat locked in place during use.
  • Wire strippers are pretty self-explanatory, and there are many variations of this tool available from many manufacturers. Users typically have to try some of the different iterations and pick their favorite.
Channellock pump pliers
  • A hacksaw frame is used for cutting different types of conduit and other metal or plastic material using blades appropriate to the material being cut.
  • The electrician’s straight-claw hammer is typically lighter than a standard carpenter’s hammer and has an elongated head to make it easier to hammer through junction boxes. The claw and handle are normal.
  • Long-nose (needle-nose) pliers are used to reach in small spaces and for simple tasks and can come with a wire-stripping option.
  • Diagonal pliers are mostly used to cut conductors or smaller hardware close to the surface of a working area.
  • A torpedo level is a small, easy-to-carry level, with a horizontal, vertical and 45-degree bubble. It typically has a magnet on one side to stick to metal materials that are being leveled.
  • A scratch awl can be used as a hole-punch or to mark a location to drill a hole. (It is rarely used, and replacing it on the tool list is under consideration.)
  • The tool pouch is self-explanatory, although there are many variations available. It carries tools and is often worn with a material pouch on the opposite hip.
Milwaukee Tool wire stripper

“These tools will be used throughout an electrician’s career. Many additional tools will be needed and added to the basic list, but these will always remain the core for any electrician,” Stewart said.

Tool identification, use and safety are part of the apprentices’ curriculum, and the students are graded on the use and handling of contractor tools throughout their apprenticeship.

Stewart said apprentices are advised to start adding next-level tools with every pay raise to avoid being faced with a large expense when they reach journey worker level. These include, but are not limited to, National Electrical Code books, nut driver sets, drill bits and taps, pipe wrenches, and conduit reamers.

“In the union sector, contractors supply replacements for the smaller bits and taps, hacksaw blades, hole saws, but also supply all cords, power tools, tool boxes if needed, conduit benders (both manual and hydraulic), wire pullers, lifts, and ladders—basically everything but hand tools. A nonunion employer will, typically, require the worker to supply these additional tools as well as the hand tools,” Stewart said.

An Alternate Program

The Construction Wireman/Construction Electrician program was initiated to fill a gap and to create a place for those who want to be an electrician but may not qualify under apprentice registration standards, according to Cliff Stewart, Western Oklahoma Electrical JATC. It is also a place to slot in workers who have experience in the electrical trade and do not want to start a registered apprenticeship program. Construction wiremen can work in the field while gaining knowledge and experience and getting needed documents or qualifications to enter the registered apprenticeship program.

This program requires the same basic tools.

Southwire Tools high-leverage, side-cutting pliers

Training Partners

The IBEW-NECA Electrical Training Alliance partners with electrical industry companies and organizations that share a goal of training the next generation of electrical workers to be the very best in the electrical industry.

Greenlee, Ideal Industries Inc., Klein Tools, Milwaukee Tool and Southwire Tools are primary providers of the entry-level and next-level tools apprentices need as their careers progress, said Cliff Stewart of the Western Oklahoma Electrical JATC.

Klein Tools, Lincolnshire, Ill., offers three entry-level tool kits for electrical apprentices, said Tyler Winthers, senior product manager.

“These tools are designed to accommodate a wide variety of applications and are of the utmost quality. The basic kit has minimal tools an apprentice will need, the next step up is a six-piece set that includes a tool pouch. The top-of-line kit is a 14-piece set,” he said.

“The next level of tools needed depends on the types of work that will be done and can include fish tape and fish-tape pullers, conduit benders for routing conduit, and multibit screwdrivers and nut drivers. Insulated tools are always an important level of safety required when working around electricity.

“As an electrician grows in experience, other tools are necessary for more in-depth and specialized work. Consequently, tool kits grow in the number of tools included to help with a wider variety of applications,” he said.

Southwire Tools, Carrollton, Ga., has three kits of entry-level tools: a six-piece set of made-in-the-U.S.A. tools, a 10-piece set and a 14-piece kit.

“Kits include pliers, wire strippers, NCV [no contact voltage] and voltage testers, which are used in everyday functions for all levels of electricians, but are especially used for tasks like wiring up electrical outlets and affixing wall plates,” said Tayler Brinson, who was Southwire’s product manager, hand tools, at the time of the interview. “The tools included feature a mix of simplified versions and more feature models. For example, our NCV would be a mid-level NCV, and the side-cutting plier would be the more advanced model in the line.”

Brinson agreed that, as apprentices advance, “they absolutely look to acquire more tools specifically suited to their application, whether operating as a residential or commercial electrician.”

Greenlee, Rockford, Ill., carries a variety of professional tool kits designed to accommodate all skill levels.

Greenlee apprentice tool kit

“A popular starter kit for apprentices includes three types of pliers, a stainless steel wire stripper/crimper, and two commonly used screwdrivers,” said Chelsea Grochocki, product specialist. “We also offer 28-piece kits, which include a tool bag or backpack in addition to a wide assortment of professional hand tools.

“As their careers progress, apprentices should be ready to learn and operate with more advanced tools and consider updating knockout and cable termination kits to a battery-hydraulic platform, understand how to operate various types of benders, and start adopting tools that help improve overall productivity and safety,” she said.

Ideal Industries, Sycamore, Ill., is well known for termination and connection products and a variety of hands tools, including basic hand tools, tool pouches and carriers, fish tape, measuring tapes, conduit benders and power tool accessories. A variety of tool kits is available.

Milwaukee Tool, Brookfield, Wis., long known for its quality power hand tools, introduced a broad line of hand tools for the professional trades in 2010, including electrical apprentices and journey worker electricians. The Milwaukee Tool line today offers lighting, numerous accessory products and an expanding line of cordless and corded power tools.


About The Author

GRIFFIN, a construction journalist from Oklahoma City, can be reached at [email protected].





featured Video


New from Lutron: Lumaris tape light

Want an easier way to do tunable white tape light?


Related Articles