Scholars cannot pinpoint the precise origin of hand tools in human history though variations have existed for thousands of years. Most likely the first gripping-type tools were two individual sticks used to pull hot items out of a fire. From there early tools probably advanced into wooden one-piece implements and later into forged metal tools that included joints or pivot points. Over the centuries the designs for pliers developed within various trades: from electricians and mechanics to farriers and craftsmen.
Thousands of years of refinement generated myriad pliers for specific tasks. Here’s a quick guide to the different types of jewelry making pliers used in modern studios.
Chain Nose – each jaw is flat on the inside and rounded on the outside. The flat side is for gripping small parts (headpins, earwires, jump rings…etc). They are used to manipulate small items and to make 90 degree bends in wire. With two pairs of pliers you can easily twist jump rings apart and closed again for basic assembly work.
Round Nose – the jaws on these pliers are conical or rounded all the way around making them difficult to grip with but perfect for creating wire loops. Use caution when gripping and refrain from too much force to avoid denting metal parts.
Bent Nose – generally flat on the inside with a 45 degree angle at the nose, these pliers are especially built to work with awkward angles. Bent nose pliers are shaped to handle tricky areas that could put a strain on your hands and wrists. They also keep your hands, and the tool itself, out of the way so you can clearly see your focal work space.
Needle Nose – these pliers have an especially long nose and often have a serrated jaw for a very strong grip. They are long and pointed at the tip making them handy for using on areas that are difficult to reach. Serrated jaws will scratch and mark your metal pieces so always handle with care.
Flat Nose/Duck Bill/Metalsmith – have a wider nose that is shaped like a duck bill instead of a narrow tip. Flat nose pliers are usually 3mm-5mm wide for a firm grip or straightening metal strips, plus you can use them for creating sharp bends in your jewelry designs too!
Nylon Jaw Varieties – nylon tips eliminate the marks and scratches that metal jaws can cause making them ideal for shaping soft metals. The only downside is that occasionally the soft nylon tips need to be replaced. It’s a good idea to keep replacement jaw sets handy.
Crimping Pliers – are specifically made to work with crimp tubes. Although you can use standard pliers for this task, crimping pliers, if used correctly, create a smooth rounded crimp where as the standard pliers do not.
Punch Pliers – are used to make perfect holes in jewelry pieces. These pliers are commonly used with blanks to create connection or riveting holes. Punch pliers can pierce different gauges of sheet, but it’s important to know the recommended maximum thickness before punching. Hole placement can be limited by the distance from the punching pin to the pivot on the plier jaws. These pliers work great near the edge of a blank but they cannot reach to the center of a large circle to punch a hole. Punch pins will need to be replaced periodically as they become dull.
Setting/Prong Pliers– these pliers are important tools for gem setters. The pliers used for setting gems have jaws that are flat (some may feature a groove) and by gently squeezing the handles while the jaws are placed against the prongs you can close them around the stone. Pliers used for opening prongs have a groove at the tip of the jaw which pulls open the prong while the bottom jaw braces the piece. Both of these pliers are designed to prevent damage to the prongs and stones.
Cutters – are invaluable in your metal work for quick, clean cuts. As most specialty pliers go, there are many varieties that are built for different gauges and jobs.
Looping/Coiling Pliers – have jaws that are round on at least one side. They may also feature tiers on the jaws so you can wrap wire around them to make loops or coils in different sizes. Not only do these pliers speed up wire forming, they are great for making jump rings and eyepins, too!
Bending Pliers – allow the user to create smooth curves in bezel wire or metal strip. They can be used to shape rings, bangles or hoops, as long as the plier can handle the gauge.
Dimple Pliers – have a nose that is bent on one side while the opposite jaw has a corresponding concave indentation. With very little pressure you can create a dimple in your metal pieces without breaking through the material. Perfect for creating precise patterns in your designs without taking a chance by using a hammer and punch.
Mandrel Pliers – come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, from squares and triangles to rounds and ovals. They are designed so you can use them with your hands or a nylon/rawhide hammer while still retaining a strong hold on the piece, thus eliminating the need for a visel. They create perfect shapes in all types of metals.