Cool Tools: Hand Tools

The proliferation of lithium-ion powered cordless tool models continues to hold the attention of tools buyers, including electricians. However, electricians still turn to an old staple to do theire work: manual hand tools.

Although the necessary basic tools vary by job, most toolmakers contributing information for this report said many electricians have a basic set of tools that includes pliers of various types, wire cutters and strippers, crimpers, multibit screw and nut drivers, a utility knife, a tape measure, a level and hex keys. On the job, some tools are hung on a belt while others are stored and carried in a tool bag, often one of the many new soft-sided designs.

Electricians also usually have basic testing instruments, including a multimeter, a voltage tester, a clamp meter and a fork tester to measure current and voltage.

The lithium-­ion revolution continues for cordless power tools, and a large selection of compact, yet powerful, basic cordless tool models is available.

Manual hand tools

Without question, most basic hand tools on the market today are better than similar products sold a decade ago. Multifunction tools can perform several tasks. Ease of use has been a primary consideration in today’s hand tool designs and tool durability has improved significantly.

John Fee, senior hand tools product manager at Greenlee, said the most significant recent hand tool advances are ergonomics, high-leverage designs that reduce fatigue, and multifunction tools, such as screwdrivers and nut drivers.

Kurt Owen, Klein Tools director of product management, said the primary improvements in today’s hand tools are quality, comfort of use and multifunctionality.

“Electricians work long hours, and many jobs take time,” Owen said. “The more comfortable a tool is, the longer he can stay on task to get the job done. Quality affects ease of use, durability and safety. This contributes to the demand for ‘made in the USA’ products, where manufacturing is recognized for its superiority. Also, perhaps driven by the weak economy, tradespeople are taking more pride in American-made products as a way to contribute and support the economic growth of our country.”

Owen said manufacturers are expanding tool functionality to increase productivity and create more value.

“By increasing versatility of a tool, electricians need to buy fewer tools,” he said. “And, with multifunctional tools in their bags, electricians reduce the chance of being unprepared on the job site.”

For example, Owen said multibit screw and nut drivers are perfect for quickly addressing most fastening needs with a single hand tool.

“Lighted levels have been a big hit with buyers,” he said. “The vials light up for maximum visibility to read plumb (vertical), level (horizontal), and 45 degrees. They even include a top-read level window for viewing in tight areas. Also, our new pocket-sized level ensures precise 90-degree bends to eliminate doglegs in conduit bends. The V-groove accepts up to 1-inch conduit.”

Owen added that another reason multi­functional tools have become more prevalent over the years is that tradespeople are expanding their skill sets to increase job opportunities.

Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., long known for its line of power tools, has expanded its product line to include manual hand tools and test equipment.

“Electricians generally carry the same core hand tools no matter in what region of the country they work,” said Tim Albrecht, Milwaukee vice president of hand tools. “Improvements over the past five years have been focused mainly on ergonomic feel of the hand tools. Milwaukee has focused on improving ergonomics and adding functionality to existing tools, such as bolt cutting and reaming edges on all of our cutting pliers.

“Multifunctional tools that improve real job-site applications have been gaining traction—our 6-in-1 combination wire pliers are an example of this. Multifunctional hand tools have allowed electricians to carry fewer tools to get the job done. That means less weight on their tool belts and less downtime searching for additional tools. Insulated tools are becoming required on more job sites than ever before, and I expect this trend to continue because it provides an added safety measure.”

In addition to expanding functionality so one tool can serve more purposes, toolmakers have created new specialty tools that fill distinct niche uses based on observed behavior. For example, Klein introduced two demolition screwdrivers designed to handle prying and chiseling.

“For years,” Owen said, “tradespeople have been using screwdrivers to do tasks that [the tools] were not manufactured for, often damaging the tool and creating a safety issue at the same time. With a heat-treated shaft that runs the length of the handle, along with the plated metal strike cap, this unique screwdriver design transfers impact force directly to the work surface.”

Cordless power tools

Power tools are a necessity on many jobs, and lithium-ion technology has provided surprisingly compact and productive basic cordless tools routinely used by electricians, including drill/drivers, hammer drills, screwdrivers and reciprocating and band saws.

“Lithium-ion has caused a fundamental shift in cordless tool technology,” Albrecht said. “It is comparable to the type of change consumers have seen in technology such as flat screen versus tube televisions. It is a massive change in form, features and function. Lithium-ion technology provides the opportunity for power tool manufacturers to create innovative new solutions and set new standards of performance and durability for electricians.”

Onboard electronics make possible features such as electronic clutches, overload protection and temperature control, providing users with smaller, more ergonomic tools.

Greenlee recently added a line of lithium-ion cordless tools. Hand tool product manager Fee said the tradeoff with cordless tools has always been finding enough power with enough run-time that did not require a 50-pound backpack full of batteries. Lithium-ion power has solved that problem.

“As lithium-ion technology continues to develop,” Fee said, “its true impact is just now unraveling uses that surpass conventional cordless ideology. Originally, the basic idea was to offer more power in a similar weight package. The real impact is that lithium-ion technology offers better performance in a smaller package. This unlocks the possibility for more cordless tool options.”


Cool Tools reports treat testing equipment as a separate category from hand tools, but this report on hand tools includes an overview of basic testers that electricians typically carry.

“The basic test performed by electricians is measuring voltage,” said Leah Friberg, educational program manager, Fluke Corp. “The two most popular types of test tools are a plain old voltage tester—either solenoid or digital—or a digital multimeter [DMM]. Multimeter users appreciate the ability to also test for continuity and ohms. The third most popular type of tool is a so-called fork tester, or an open-jawed clamp that measures both current and voltage.”

André Rebelo, who was global communications manager for Extech at the time of this interview, said for basics, electricians must rely on a DMM.

“The DMM can be used to measure AC/DC voltage and current, resistance, capacitance, frequency, temperature, duty cycle in industrial applications as well as test diodes and continuity,” Rebelo said.

For many applications, such as where load testing is important, Rebelo said, the multimeter is either complemented or replaced by a clamp-on current meter, which is effectively a DMM with a set of clamp jaws placed around a conductor to measure current noninvasively.

“Another useful tool is a noncontact voltage detector,” Rebelo said. “This pen-style tester is a front-line tool that can detect the presence of voltage at a receptacle or fixture and in unshielded wiring at the beginning of any job, big or small. Similar-looking current detectors function the same way but are also able to identify live shielded wiring.”

Some electricians also use a continuity tester to ensure proper wiring installation and to troubleshoot problems.

“Today, the functions of secondary testers like these are being integrated into the primary instrument—the DMM or clamp meter. Without breaking the bank, an electrician can have a meter with a built-in voltage detector, continuity tester and even an infrared thermometer for safe, point-and-shoot temperature readings of potentially overheating equipment. The incremental upgrade translates to the convenience of fewer tools to tote around or wear. In this case, less is always more,” Rebelo said.

Instrument durability is important.

“Rugged, compact meters survive being tossed in a tool bag, dropped in a puddle of water, and taken from job to job,” he said.

Fee said that dual noncontact testers are becoming extremely popular.

“They automatically detect and indicate low voltage (12–48V AC) and standard voltage (48–1,000V AC), allowing for many applications from security and entertainment to circuit breakers and outlets. This relates to the trend for multifunctional tools,” he said.

Klein recently added testing equipment to its line of hand tools, and Owen said the basic testers in highest demand are noncontact voltage testers, electronic voltage/continuity testers, auto-ranging clamp meters, and ground-fault circuit interrupter receptacle testers.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at .

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