Plumbing Tools

Mark Ramuz goes through the essential first and second fix plumbing tools
by Mark Ramuz
26th November 2012

The only experience most people have of plumbing is struggling under sinks trying to repair old pipe-work. But don’t despair – installing new pipe-work yourself is cleaner, easier and much more satisfying. Obviously, it should only be tackled if you are confident of your ability, but knowing which tools you’ll need will make any job go smoothly.

All hard or bimetal?

Bimetal blades have hardened high-speed steel (HSS) teeth bonded to a flexible steel back. They are hard enough to cut through steels, alloys and plastics. The flexible back makes it a good choice for cutting tough materials freehand or shaping cuts.
Best for: General-purpose cutting

An all-hard blade is made entirely from HSS and will give a dead straight cut every time. It will cut through steels, alloys and plastics but can be vulnerable to snapping, so ensure the work is well supported and the blade is taut in the frame. Wear safety goggles.
Best for: Accurate work

Cutting action

Hacksaws are a critical element of any plumber’s toolbox, and will be in use every day, whether cutting pipes, conduit or plastic trunking. Choosing the right blade and frame combination will make the job faster, easier and safer. Coarse blades (14 or 18 teeth per inch, or tpi) are best for material that’s thicker than about 10mm. Choose a medium blade (24tpi) for material between 3mm and 10mm thick, and a fine 32tpi blade for material less than 3mm thick. Coarser blades give a faster but rougher cut, while finer blades cut more slowly but give a cleaner finish. As a rule of thumb, there should always be three blade teeth in contact with the work as you cut.

For comfort, choose between an open pistol grip and traditional closed handle. Make sure the frame feels balanced and rigid when tense and that you can reposition the blade at an angle for flush cutting. Frames with soft grips at the front will be more comfortable for prolonged use. The blade can be installed to cut on either the push or pull stroke.

Pipe cutters

In restricted areas, it’s often impossible to work with even a junior hacksaw. In this case, a small 15mm or 22mm pipe cutter is the answer. These tools, which twist around the pipe to create a neat cut, only cost a few pounds but are an essential piece of kit. Larger pipe cutters work in the same way but are used for larger-bore pipe-work – these are a specialist item and can be hired.

Bending copper pipe

If you don’t want to use modern plastic pipe runs, you’ll need to be able to bend the copper piping. The cheapest method is a simple pipe spring. You can buy external- and internal- fitting versions, with internal being the most common. Slide the spring into the pipe and gently bend it.

The technique can be a bit hit and miss, however. You may create too tight a bend that will restrict the flow (not good for a shower feed), and creating several bends close together can be very awkward.

A much better investment is a tube bender. These hand tools come with a couple of fixed curve formers to give the optimum radius, and have straight formers to support the adjacent pipe as the bend is being made.

Plumber’s spanners

A lot of plumbers have their favourite spanner brands and sizes, but unlike most hand tools, even a fairly cheap tool will cope with most jobs. You don’t need to buy a comprehensive set – half a dozen metric sizes should be enough, although for some renovation projects in older buildings you may need some imperial sizes as well.

For really corroded fixings, a box spanner is a useful tool as it can be fitted with a tommy bar to exert a bit more pressure. For larger nuts and compression fittings, a couple of adjustable spanners are essential. Stillson wrenches, also known as pipe wrenches, look like an adjustable wrench, but the jaws tighten on to the pipe or fitting as a turning force is applied. Plier wrenches feature a small locking device at the base of the handle – turn the screw to lock the pliers on to pipes or damaged fixings.

To cope with the larger diameters of waste pipes, you can buy or hire a chain wrench – these grip the pipe and automatically tighten when the handle is pulled towards you. Some wrenches may only get used for a few minutes at the end of a project, but nothing else will do, so they’re important to have. Cranked wrenches, with an offset jaw, and basin wrenches, with a pivoting head, are still essential for tightening taps and fittings under baths and basins.

Soldering fittings

Of course, if you want the economy and reliability of soldered joints, a small gas torch is vital. Large professional models have auto switching and a large gas bottle, but for £25 to £40 you can buy a reasonable hand-held unit that has an adjustable flame and a working time of up to 50 minutes.

Wall chasers

These tools are used to cut neat channels in masonry to recess pipes and wiring. A motor drives two diamond cutting discs, that can make a channel up to 30mm deep, enclosed in a metal shroud that protects the user and channels the dust into the extraction outlet. Wall chasers can be hired if you’re only tackling a limited number of jobs on a restoration project, but you can buy one for less than £150, admittedly with limited adjustable cutting widths and depth. They come with 125-150mm diamond discs, but inferior quality discs are worth upgrading to branded names for heavy-duty work. Check that the handle position allows you to hold the tool comfortably against a wall and that the dust extraction nozzle doesn’t interfere with your line of sight.

What should I hire?

There are a handful of machines and testers that just aren’t economical to buy for a single build. Here are some that the self-builder may find helpful.

Central heating flushing unit: These de-scaling units are a good way to clean out a domestic system without resorting to commercial flushing equipment, although you must only use these units if you are fully confident of fitting the connections. The flusher takes out harmful iron oxide deposits, which can cause radiator cold spots and blockages, to make your boiler more efficient and last longer. Kits come with connectors for 0.5in pipes.

Soil pipe cutter: These giant cutters are ideal for chopping through cement, clay and even cast iron pipes. The handles can be aligned with the pipe so you can use them in a narrow trench. Press fit machine A new addition to the plumbers’ toolkit, this nifty piece of kit can make press fit connections on pipes from 10-35mm. It’s even cordless, so you don’t have to worry about snagging trailing leads.

Pipe freezing kit: These compressor units rapidly cool a section of straight pipe, forming a core of ice, and so isolating an area of pipe ready for you carry out any work. It’s handy for older pipe-work but you do have to wait for up to 15 minutes to get up to working temperature.

Pressure test kit: Check a new or old drainage system with a pressure test kit. These testers need drain stoppers to plug up sections of drain as you test.

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