After three carpenters tested 10 sets of pliers, the praise for the Grip-Ons was unanimous. In my 15 years of tool using/reviewing experience, I’ve never seen a pair of locking pliers combine so much finesse with such aggressive gripping force. These pliers have, by far, the smoothest and easiest unlocking mechanism of any pair tested. They also have a jaw-sizing knob that turns easily, an overall build quality that is outstanding, and a funky orange color that’s easy to get behind for purely aesthetic reasons.
If the Grip-Ons are not available, we also like the Blackhawk PT-1110-2 (about $20). They have the same basic design as the Grip-Ons, but none of the refined build or ultra-smooth release. They do have a padded handle, which is nice, but that one feature wasn’t enough to pick them over the Grip-Ons.
I spent 10 years in the trades, first as a carpenter, then foreman, and finally site supervisor working on multimillion-dollar residential projects. During that time, I spent countless hours with locking pliers in my hands. I’ve also been writing about and reviewing tools since 2007 with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, This Old House, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor.
As part of the research for this guide, I also spoke with Stuart Deutsch of Toolguyd.com and Harry Sawyers, editor of The Sweethome and former editor at This Old House and Popular Mechanics.
Locking pliers do just that—they lock on to a nut, bolt, or a hundred other small objects with a thick pair of serrated jaws. To use them, the jaws need to be set to slightly smaller than the size of what you’re trying to grab. Then, as pressure is applied to the handles, a series of levers and pivot points tension and lock the jaws in place. In most cases to unlock the jaws, a release lever needs to be tripped, but with some designs, the handles simply need to be pulled apart.
At the most basic, locking pliers are used to grab rounded over and stripped screws and bolts, but in reality they’re much more versatile. As Sawyers told us, locking pliers “are at the center of a million little labor saving shortcuts that you pick up one by one over a lifetime of doing projects.” As an example, he pointed us to this video, which shows Tom Silva of Ask This Old House using the tool to hold up a garage door while he works on the cables. In the same spirit, I recently used them to clamp two fence sections together while I repaired a chicken coop.
Toolguyd’s Stuart Deutsch told us that the best locking pliers are all about ease of operation. “What matters most is user comfort. Can I open and close the pliers easily without needing super-human strength and without pinching my skin?” This is a very valid point, particularly concerning the release of the jaws. Because the jaw mechanism is so tensioned, their sudden release can be a jolting experience. Most carpenters have gotten at least one blood blister from a popping set of locking plier handles.
During testing, we found that the best of the styles is the upward release lever (found on both our main recommendation and our runner-up). For more detailed information on how the different styles work (and why we don’t recommend some of them), see the Competition section.
After spending time researching locking pliers, we chose our test candidates based on company reputation as well as customer feedback at retailers like Amazon and Home Depot. As for the specifics of our testing, I enlisted the aid of two other carpenters: Aaron Goff, with 12 years of experience in high-end remodeling, and Mark Piersma, with 14 years experience. Each one of us handled all of the pliers with time spent clamping, locking, unlocking, and adjusting. Once there was a consensus as to which one was the best—and really, after examining the whole test group, the winner was clear—we did a second round of testing in which I exclusively used our pick for eight months as I wrapped up the full gut and remodel of my 100-year-old farmhouse.
The Grip-On 111-10 pliers are unique in their combination of finesse and strength. Without question, the high point of the tool is the ease of the unlocking mechanism. The release lever is nested in the lower handle and extends slightly from the back end. To unclasp the jaws, the lever needs to be pulled toward the upper handle. Even when the jaws are locked extremely tight, it’s possible to do this with a single finger. Upon release, the jaws just open with a smooth, low-key pop. Compare that with nearly all of the other pliers tested, which either produced a sudden jolt, a loud springing noise, or some significant clicking or clacking of metal on metal—not here.
With the smoothness of the unlocking mechanism, it’s not surprising that the entire tool has an exceptional build quality. On all of the other pliers, the lower jaw could wiggle back and forth, but on the Grip-Ons, the tolerances are so perfect that there is no movement at all. In addition, even though there is no padded handle like on some models, the rounded-over shape of the handles makes them very comfortable to hold and squeeze.
The jaws of the Grip-Ons are long and capable of maximum grab of about 2 inches. The teeth themselves are deep and aggressive. I tried them out on a variety of bolts and pipes, and once this tool is locked on, it’s not going anywhere.
Because of an epoxy coating, the tool has an interesting orange color that is not only oddly stylish and attractive for a hand tool, but it makes them far less likely to lose. I’ve never had a problem spotting them in a toolbox or on my workbench.
The Grip-Ons are definitely on the high side of the pricing scale, but we’re convinced that the smoothness of the unlocking mechanism, combined with the overall quality of the tool, more than justifies the cost. After using the Grip-Ons, the majority of the other locking pliers felt clunky and cheap.
We’re not the only ones that like them. Deutsch, writing at Toolguyd, calls the Grip-Ons “the bees knees” and “spectacular to use.”
The only slight negative of the Grip-Ons is that the jaw adjustment knob had to go through a breaking-in period. Out of the box the threads were a little grainy. But a squirt of WD-40 and a few minutes spent threading the knob in and out, and the problem was solved.
If the Grip-Ons aren’t available, we recommend the Blackhawk PT-1110-2 (about $20). It offers the same style and design as the Grip-Ons, with the upward release lever, but just at a lower quality. The jaws are smaller and the release mechanism isn’t anywhere as smooth. On the good side, the upper handle has some thick rubbery padding on it, which is nice, although not essential seeing as how comfortable the Grip-Ons are. The Blackhawks also come with a small pad on the release lever, but that kept falling off (I finally lost it). The slight additional cost for the Grip-Ons is well worth the upgrade, but these are better than the rest if the Grip-Ons are out of stock and you can’t wait for them.
The upward release lever is the easiest to use and it offers the most control over the tool, so that detail really guided us as we narrowed in on our picks. In this style of lever, once the jaws are locked, just slide your hand back on the handle and simply pull the lever upwards. During the process you can maintain full control of the tool with the one hand. The release is smooth and not jarring. Our recommended Grip-Ons have this style as do our runner-up Blackhawks.
In this category, we also tested the Knipex 40 04 250 ($40). These are very nice and have a release lever that is almost, but not quite, as nice as the Grip-Ons. These also have what Knipex calls a “universal jaw,” which is supposed to make it easier to grab a variety of shapes (round, hex, and flat). We couldn’t find any real additional benefit to them compared with the Grip-On jaws. That, combined with the fact that they’re almost twice the price of our pick, led to their dismissal.
The second style of release, the downward lever, is the one most typically associated with locking pliers and is what was found on the original Vise-Grips. It’s a similar but mirrored design compared with the upward lever—the unlocking lever is in roughly the same place, but it needs to be pressed toward the lower handle and not the upper one. This means that you either need to use two hands to operate it or drop one hand entirely down to the lower handle. This method is not smooth at all and in fact, the jaws tend to release with a violent pop that can cause the tool to jump right out of your hands. Another issue is getting your palm stuck between the lower handle and the release lever, which can easily lead to a blood blister. This system appears to be the least expensive to manufacture as we found quite a few models for less than $10, like these Tektons ($7) and these Fullers ($6).
As for tools using the downward release lever, we tested the Stanley 84 809 ($10) and the Irwin 5-10WR ($13), neither of which impressed us in any way. They’re functional, but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot to say about them. The Irwin 5-10WR are the living descendant of the original Peterson Vise-Grips (Irwin merged with Peterson in 1993) and are what most people think of when they hear the term “locking pliers.”
The third unlocking method is with no release lever. To open the jaws, the lower handle is simply opened up. This may sound like the easiest system, but if the jaws are tight (like they usually are), it takes two hands. The other thing is that when the jaws are in the open position, the handles are nearly perpendicular to one another, which means that it also takes two hands to lock the tool onto an object.
Of the tools with no release lever, we tested the Irwin 10WR ($14), the Irwin 11T ($13), and the Craftsman 45714 ($13). They all have beefy padded handles, which is nice, but it was ultimately the awkwardness of the release that caused us to dismiss them.
We also took a close look at the CH Hanson Self-Adjusting Locking Pliers ($20). These are unique in that they eliminate the jaw width adjustment that needs to take place before each use. The Hansons simply clamp on an object and the tool adjusts the jaw width by itself. A separate small knob lets you tweak the gripping force. While this method has the benefit of speed, the handles open too widely to lock them on without using two hands, particularly with larger objects (Deutsch has a video of this here). Also, if you want to tinker with the gripping strength, you still need to fiddle with an adjustment knob. Sawyers likes the idea of the automatic knob adjustment, but ultimately prefers the more traditional adjustment knob, saying that “once you get the hang of it, it’s infinitely adjustable, and your hand gives you all the feedback you need to know when you’re at the right pressure.”
A (much) lesser version of this style is the Kobalt Self-Adjusting Locking Pliers ($5) that we also tested. Of all the locking pliers we looked at, these were at the bottom. In Deutsch’s review of them, he notes, “These pliers perform unpredictably,” and “I have no use for pliers that only work sometimes.”
Locking pliers are a very useful tool to have around, and the ones to get are definitely the Grip-On 111-10. They’re more expensive than most, but no other pair beat them out in terms of ease-of-use, finesse, and overall build quality. We have a runner-up option, the Blackhawk PT-1110-2, but strongly recommend going with the Grip-Ons for just a bit more. You won’t regret it.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney)
Originally published: August 18, 2015