A small pry bar isn’t exactly a home-toolbox essential, but it is quite handy, whether you need it to open a stuck window, lift a corner of a bookcase for shimming, remove a piece of baseboard, or pry up a floor register. After three veteran carpenters pulled nails and separated boards with five leading pry bars, they chose the Stanley 55-116 8-inch Nail Puller (about $9). From a visual standpoint, it wasn’t the most polished tool, but when it came to functionality, no other pry bar offered as much control while prying boards. It also impressed us with its multiple nail pullers. Best of all, at less than $10, the Stanley was the least expensive bar we looked at, performing just as well as pry bars that cost nearly twice as much.
The prying edge of the Stanley pry bar also has a notch in it, creating a second nail puller; this feature wasn’t present on all of the pry bars we tried. During testing I found it to be useful for very small items such as picture hangers: The dramatic arc of the Stanley’s fin made it easy to lift the tiny nails out, and because the width of the fin spread out the fulcrum pressure, I didn’t mar my walls as I might have if I had used a hammer’s nail pullers or even a set of pliers.
While our testers lavished the most praise on the prying end, we also liked the nail puller quite a bit. Because it’s so small, it can work in places that a hammer’s bulky nail pullers can’t. Also, the tips of the pullers taper to a point, so you can use a hammer to pound them in and around a buried nail head in order to get a good grab. (Just don’t expect this procedure to leave the wood surface in perfect condition.)
The Stanley pry bar is missing a level of polish, which likely accounts for the low price. Grinding and machining marks are visible along the handle, and the prying edge is slightly uneven. But the shortcomings are strictly aesthetic and do nothing to change the effectiveness of the tool. Unlike, say, a precision instrument, a pry bar is a rough working tool that spends its days enduring whacks with a hammer—and the Stanley pry bar is definitely refined enough for that kind of action. As one carpenter/tester said, “it may not be the fanciest, but it’s a nice tool.”
If the Stanley isn’t available, consider the Shark 21-2220 8-Inch Prybar and Nail Puller (about $16). It’s similar to the Stanley, but to the eye, it has a slightly crisper prying edge and a higher level of overall finish. On this tool, you can’t see grinding and milling marks. You can shimmy the nearly 2-inch-wide prying end between two surfaces with little difficulty and minimal damage (but slightly more than the Stanley). As thin as the end gets, it’s very stable and durable. The Shark nail pullers, however, have a slightly narrower mouth, and the prying fin lacks an additional nail-pulling notch. The main reason this model isn’t our first pick is the price—we believe you can pay less to get a tool that’s just as effective (and probably a bit easier to find).
I spent ten years in construction as a carpenter, foreman, and site supervisor working in the high-end residential arena in the Boston area. I’ve also been writing about and reviewing tools since 2007, with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, The Journal of Light Construction, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, This Old House, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor. I also gutted and rebuilt my 100-year-old farmhouse recently. Between these three roles, I’ve probably spent months of my life with a pry bar in my hand.
For this guide I also got the opinions of two other noted tool experts. Rob Robillard, licensed contractor and editor of A Concord Carpenter, contributed his expertise. In addition, I talked to Harry Sawyers, who spent significant time holding a pry bar while doing historic-restoration work and now serves as a Sweethome editor; he was formerly an editor at This Old House and Popular Mechanics.
Pry bars come in all shapes and sizes, from the $550 Artillery Bar to the smaller pry bar and scraper design. After speaking with our experts, we decided that the Japanese-style pry bar and nail puller is the best for overall use. Sweethome editor Harry Sawyers has done a lot of the grunt work on historic-restoration jobsites, and he prefers this design: “It’s slim enough to get into a narrow gap, designed to be tapped with a hammer when wedging into tight spaces, and it has two ways to pull nails, whether they’re on the surface or buried beneath it,” he said. “It simply gives you a lot of options for removing a piece of wood without destroying it.” Robillard, who shares the same general opinion, told us that a “small trim bar is excellent to have and I carry one with me at all times.”
Backing that up, all of our carpenter/testers (including me) agreed that it’s the style we would recommend to a homeowner. I’ve carried one for years, and I think it’s by far the most useful of the smaller pry bar designs.
We tested a variety of sizes, from 16 inches down to 8 inches, and we found the 8-inch size to be the best for general use. Aaron, one of our testers, said, “If you’re a tradesperson, I’d go with the 10-inch, but if you’re just doing small things around the house, the 8-inch will work great.” Personally, I’ve always preferred an 8-inch because it can fit in a back pocket without falling out. If your needs are a little more aggressive, you can easily scale up a size. Other than overall length, the 8-inch models are identical to the 10-inch ones. The larger version of the Stanley, for example, is the 55-117 (about $10).
We also tested the 10-inch Estwing MP250G Molding Puller (about $16; the company doesn’t make an 8-incher). We liked the fact that it had a padded handle, but the prying end was blunt, and we had problems getting it between two boards without significantly damaging the surfaces. It was nothing at all like the thinner Stanley or Shark.
The larger 10-inch Shark (about $17) had a slightly thinner edge than the 8-inch tools, but that wasn’t enough to justify the higher price.
If you’re planning to step up into some serious DIY prying, you have a lot of other options. A much larger version of the recommended tool is the 16-inch Vaughan BCSB16 (about $25), which we tested and liked. A construction-site favorite is the flat bar (the most prevalent on jobsites is the stellar Vaughan SuperBar at about $11). Personally, I don’t know what I’d do without my Crescent DB18X Indexing Flat Pry Bar (about $25). With its articulating head, it can fit just about anywhere, and it has proven itself to be invaluable during my three-year full gut and remodel of my own home.
Tip: I always keep a small block of wood in my toolbox (currently, it’s a 3-inch-long scrap of ¾-inch-thick mahogany decking). When I’m using a pry bar, I sometimes place the block under the fulcrum for a better lift. This arrangement also spreads out the pressure of the pry and prevents damage to the surface that I’m prying against. In addition, if I’m trying to tap a board into place, I use the block to diffuse a hammer blow against a delicate surface, which spreads the force and prevents the hammer-strike damage that some pros call “donkey tracks” (the marks of an ass).
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)