After getting our hands on 13 pairs of wire cutters and spending three days relentlessly snipping wire ties, finish nails, hardware cloth, welded wire fencing, and thick electrical wire, we believe the best tool for most is the Channellock E337CB Diagonal Cutting Plier.
Channellock’s pliers cut far better than its competitors during our tests, managing tough jobs that the other wire cutters struggled with. The wide, padded handles—a surprisingly rare feature among wire cutters—eased hand strain during difficult repetitive cutting. The durability is outstanding as well. After making at least 200 cuts through a wide range of materials, the jaws showed no signs of wear and still had edges that were sharp enough to cut a piece of paper. These Channellock pliers typically sell for about $25. That’s toward the higher end of the scale, but it’s worth it if you want to be secure that your wire cutters have the strength to handle the toughest jobs.
I’ve been using hand tools daily since 2001. I spent 10 years as a carpenter, foreman, and jobsite supervisor working on high-end residential projects in the Boston area. I’ve also been writing about and reviewing tools since 2007, with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, Popular Mechanics, This Old House, Popular Science, Tools of the Trade, and The Journal of Light Construction. Also, about a year ago, I wrapped up the full gut and remodel of my own 100-year-old farmhouse (a four-year process). Since I started as a carpenter 15 years ago, I’ve always had at least one set of wire cutters in my tool bag.
To gain more specific insight on wire cutters, I spoke with Greg Norris of Huntington Hall of Frames in Huntington, West Virginia. Norris is a certified picture framer and has been in the business for 30 years (with a full-time storefront for 21 years). According to his website, Norris “regularly consults to picture framers around the world on mounting techniques.” During our interview, Norris told me he has four pairs of wire cutters that he uses on a daily basis.
We also researched wire cutters specific to the needs of the A/V hobbyist. For this I spoke with Chris Heinonen, A/V staff writer at our sister site, The Wirecutter. Heinonen has written extensively about Blu-ray players, speakers, and media streamers, among other topics, and constantly testing this tech requires a lot of work stripping and snipping wires.
Wire cutters1 are a useful tool, but they’re not an essential one. For most, they’re a fill-in-the-cracks tool, great for snipping wire ties, cutting the banding off a package, shortening picture framing wire, or trimming the exposed end of a small nail or brad. These aren’t tasks most people do every day, but they can be frustrating with the wrong tool.
Most wire cutters (in the size range we tested) have the capability to cut standard electrical wire, but for efficiency, most electricians use needle-nose pliers instead. Needle-nose pliers combine wire cutting with a long, narrow reach and the ability to curl the end of the wire, all in one tool. The drawback is that the cutting edges are at the back of the jaws, near the pivot, so they can’t make cuts in tight spots and they don’t work for snipping wire ties because the long nose gets in the way.
Wire cutters are available in a wide variety of sizes, from miniature 4-inch models to massive 11-inch ones. Not surprisingly, the sweet spot for general around-the-house versatility is the 7-inch ones, right in the middle. This size is small enough for precision-based tasks like picture framing, but robust enough to cut a finish nail or a length of 12-gauge electrical wire. Norris told us that 7-inch is “what I would recommend to someone who is only going to have one pair.”
The 7-inch wire cutters also split the difference on comfort, fitting both large and small hands. Norris, who told us he has smaller hands, noted that “7-inch gives me the best grip.” I have fairly large hands and after all of the testing I did for this guide, I have no complaints on the general size of the handles. Some were more comfortable than others, but they all fit my hand.
We tested 7-inch tools from most of the major hand tool manufacturers, such as Stanley, IRWIN, Klein, Channellock, and Knipex, among others, all priced from about $10 to $30. We did not look at any budget tools under $10. My experience is that cheap hand tools suffer from poor manufacturing, sloppy hinges, and ineffective cutting edges. In fact, some of the ones we tested in the $10 to $20 range suffered from these characteristics as well.
For testing, I spent three hand-cramping days snipping wire ties, small brad nails, hardware cloth, welded wire fencing, and 12- and 14-gauge Romex (vinyl-jacketed copper electric wiring). I looked at each tool’s cutting ability, comfort, and general ease of use. I also paid attention to the cut ends of the wire, looking for a crisp edge and not a mashed one.
After all of our cutting, snipping, and trimming, we’re convinced that the Channellock E337CB Diagonal Cutting Pliers are the best wire cutters for the home toolbox. They’re not the cheapest, but their cutting ability was substantially better than the rest, and that’s really what matters with a tool like this. They were able to easily make the toughest cuts that the other models struggled with. The padded handles, an oddly rare feature among wire cutters, greatly reduced hand strain on hard, repetitive cuts and the unique design of the cutting jaws should prohibit them from ever becoming misaligned over time. These pliers are consistently priced around $25, which may seem like a lot for a peripheral tool, but given the impressive nature of their cutting abilities, you can be confident that they’ll be able to get any job done.
To test the upper limit of the Channellock pliers, I used them to cut an 8d finish nail (⅛-inch-thick), which it sliced through with little problem. Some, but not all, of the others could do the same. Then I tried cutting two nails at once and only the Channellock pliers could do it. The others could barely get the cut started.
Because of the padded handles, extended use and difficult cuts were much easier than with other models. After one day of testing, I came to realize what a difference padded handles make. For some strange reason, there are relatively few models that offer this feature. Of the 11 standard wire cutters we tested, only four had handles with anything more than minimal padding. This added comfort doesn’t matter as much for simple, one-time cuts like wire ties or the banding used on large packages, but for repetitive cutting, like the sheet of hardware cloth I snipped up, or aggressive cutting, like the 12/2 Romex, the extra protection makes all the difference in the world.
The cutting jaws are in a “knife and anvil” design, which should prohibit them from ever becoming misaligned. With this design, one jaw has a sharp edge while the other is flat. This way, the sharpened jaw is cutting against the flattened one, like a cleaver on a butcher block. On other models, both jaws have sharp edges, and with repetitive use, they can start to shift and bypass one another slightly, becoming misaligned. Even by the end of our testing, a very tight squeeze on one of the models resulted in a slight clicking noise, the telltale sign of the jaws slightly shifting past one another.
After days of relentless cutting, the Channellock pliers were still able to make a clean, crisp cut through a piece of paper (most of the tools could do this). With the jaws tight together and holding the tool up to a light, I couldn’t see any divots or dents along the jaw.
The Channellock pliers typically cost about $25. While they weren’t the most expensive of the bunch we looked at, they’re getting up there. Still, given their impressive cutting abilities, we feel the investment is worth it.
The Channellock pliers are designed with a rounded, somewhat blunt nose. This is the design found on most wire cutters, but we did see a couple of models with a narrower, more pointed cutting head, which helps with both precision and maneuverability in tight spots. Unless you are specifically engaged in a hobby that requires high precision, like picture framing or jewelry making, the difference may never be noticed. Our pick is fine for general cutting.
In most cases, a tool is either spring-loaded or it’s not, but with the Bahco, you can toggle in and out of it based on preference or the task at hand. Tucked in one of the handles is a small metal clip that slides upwards to touch the opposing jaw near the pivot point. When the jaws are closed, the clip is tensioned, so once the handle is released, the clip springs open again, bringing the handle with it. When not in use, the clip easily slides back into the handle.
The Bahco’s handles were the most comfortable of all the tested cutters. They have a slightly different arc on them, which makes it natural to grip toward the end of the handles, rather than the middle, like on most models. This comfortably puts the hand farther from the pivot, increasing the leverage and ease of cut.
We were also impressed with the Bahco’s small, narrow jaws. These made it easier to line up precise cuts and they gave the tool more working room in tight situations, like a crowded outlet box. The Craftsman and Milwaukee came close to the Bahco’s jaw size, but neither were as narrow when looking at the jaws from above. The Bahco jaws also come to a point. Most of the others, including the Channellock, IRWIN, Klein, and Knipex, have a more rounded nose.
These are all great features, but for occasional use, we don’t think they’re necessary. The Bahco pliers typically cost about $30, which is a bit of an investment for a tool that might not see a ton of use, and we feel that most would be happy with the abilities of the more powerful Channellock pliers or the much less expensive offering by IRWIN. But if you plan on reaching for your wire cutters with any regularity, Bacho offers up are a worthy investment.
Heinonen researched a number of available models, even going to Home Depot to try out a few, and he likes the Klein 11054 Wire Stripper-Cutter because “it has a curved handle and feels a bit softer in the hands.” He told us, “The holes are clearly marked, and if you’re stripping a lot, it’s spring-loaded so you don’t have to open them up after.” He continued, “It has a large wire-cutting area and 18/10 gauge covers everything I’d ever do for A/V.”
Other models, like the IRWIN 2078309, “offer a larger range of sizes, but the holes are only marked for solid core wire and not stranded (speaker wire).” Heinonen also told us that on some models, the cutting jaws get “too small if there are too many holes for stripping.”
We also looked at two wire cutters with pivot points designed for increased leverage and power; the Knipex 73 72 180 TwinForce High Performance Diagonal Cutters and the IRWIN Vise-Grip Max Leverage Pliers. IRWIN claims its model offers twice the cutting power at half the effort, and Knipex says its model requires half the force of its standard cutters. These are both very strong tools, but I found that our Channellock recommendation had nearly the same cutting ability. It was only when I tried cutting a 16d framing nail (3/16-inch-thick) that I found a difference. The Channellock pliers couldn’t make the cut, while the IRWIN and Knipex could. It till took considerable hand strength, though.
The drawback with tools of this type is that, because of the unusual pivot mechanisms, the jaws can’t open as wide as on a traditional set of cutters. So with the handles extended to a comfortable one-handed grip, the 12/2 Romex, a common electrical wire, just barely fits between their jaws and can’t tuck all the way back to the pivot point.
At around $30, the Knipex 74 01 180 were the most expensive 7-inch wire cutters we looked at. They’re manufactured in Germany, and they have an excellent look and feel to them. For cutting power, they have less than our Channellock pick and are on a par with the IRWIN cutters, so it’s tough to justify the additional investment, especially for a tool with standard dipped handles.
Knipex also has a version of the tool with padded handles, the 74 02 180 (which we did not test). I’ve used Knipex padded handles in the past and they’re very comfortable, but, again, the cutting ability will likely be less than with the Channellock pliers.
We also tested the DeWalt DWHT 70793 and, like the rest, their cutting ability was inferior to that of our main pick and similar to our IRWIN budget pick. They also lacked the padded handle, so they wore my hand down during repetitive use. Still, they typically hover around $16, and if you’re insisting on not paying more than $20 for a pair of wire cutters, these are a good alternative to the IRWIN pliers. Just know that they’ll abuse the hands a little.
One thing I did like about the DeWalt pliers is that the handles have a second curve to them, splaying out slightly at the ends. All of the others handles just have a single arc that curves inward at the end. I found during testing that the shape of the DeWalt model made it a little easier to grip the tool with one or two fingers on the inside of the handle, a trick that allows you to open and close the cutters with one hand. It’s a small point and the other tools can all be held this way, but the extra curve of the DeWalt is a little more comfortable.
The Klein D228-7 pliers are also very nice, with a cutting head that looks nearly identical to the DeWalt’s. They’re consistently priced in the low $20s, which is more than the IRWIN and DeWalt pliers (for similar cutting power). The handles aren’t padded, so we ultimately prefer the Channellock or IRWIN models, but if you find them priced similarly, they would also be a solid alternative.
The Channellock E337 pliers are identical to our pick, except that they have traditional vinyl-dipped handles. So while these are strong cutters, the thin, unpadded handles are nowhere near as comfortable as those on our main pick. Given that the cost that separates the two is usually only a couple of dollars, we don’t see any reason to go with the dipped handles.
The Milwaukee 48-22-6107 Pliers are designed with slightly larger, padded handles, set farther apart than the rest. Compared with the others, they were a little uncomfortable to hold, particularly while starting a cut. Pro electricians will likely appreciate the crimper at the back end of the pivot and how the nose is designed to ream out a conduit, but the DIYer is less likely to see the benefit of these features.
We looked at two Craftsman models, the 45076 Diagonal Pliers and the 45074 Wide Jaw Diagonal Pliers. Both had a difficult time cutting the 12-gauge Romex. I could do it with one hand, but it was tough. Other cutters more easily popped through the thick wires, but these struggled.
The Stanley 84-108 Pliers had misaligned cutting edges, which made cutting a two-hand operation and left a very ragged edge.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)
Originally published: April 1, 2016