Bending metal wire is a common task in the crafts, whether you are working on jewelry, electronics or household decoration. While some wire-bending work can be even done by hand, the number one tool category for bending wire is pliers.
But which type of pliers to use? The challenge is that there are tens of different types of pliers that you could potentially use for bending wire. Essentially, any pair of gripping pliers is a valid candidate, and it may not be obvious which ones are best suited for each job.
In this article, I give a quick overview of the best general-purpose gripping pliers for wire bending, and answer which type of bending they are best suited for. In short, crude bending of heavy-gauge steel wire is best accomplished using high-leverage combination or Lineman’s pliers, while medium to fine wire is better bent with long-nose, round-nose or needle-nose pliers. The choice of the exact model will depend on the wire thickness, the desired tightness of the bent, the angle of the bend, and the delicacy of the task.
Below, we start by going through the different pliers that can be used to bend wire, roughly in the order from strongest to finest. Although some highly specialized pliers types exist for specific wire bending tasks, this article focuses on common general-purpose gripping pliers types that may be used in bending wire. The reason is that these pliers have more general utility and better availability, and you might actually already own some of them.
After looking at the pliers types, we will then address some more specific application questions in wire bending with pliers, take a quick look at other means of bending wire, and finish with a summary. If you are wondering which pliers would be most suited for your wire-bending, this article should help you out!
Pliers types for wire bending
1 Lineman’s pliers
Lineman’s pliers are heavy-duty gripping pliers with cutting edges and many special features for electricians. At over 9” long, their high leverage and wide jaws allows very a strong grip and application of high forces and bending moments. Many models also have a special recess which allows you to pull wire without damaging it.
Lineman’s pliers are best suited for rough bending of stiff, heavy-gauge wire, which is above the capacity of smaller pliers. They can bend wire through angles up to 90 or 180 degrees, depending on the bending radius.
However, the width and the rectangular cross section of the pliers jaws do not allow the bending radius to be accurately controlled, or bends through more than 180 degrees. Further, the jaws of Lineman’s pliers are always serrated, and will leave marks on the wire.
2 Combination pliers
Combination pliers are similar to Lineman’s pliers, but typically smaller and come with a slightly different set of features.
In bending wire, they have an application profile similar to Lineman’s pliers: crude high-force bending. They also come with the same limitations, namely they will not allow very controlled, continuous, or tight bends, and will mark the wire.
3 Long nose pliers
Long nose pliers, also known as snipe nose pliers, have long tapering jaws with flat gripping surfaces and rounded backs, and may be either straight or bent (‘angled’).
Long nose pliers are suited for medium-to-light-duty wire bending: while not as strong as Lineman’s or combination pliers, long nose pliers still have plenty of leverage.
The tapering of the jaws makes long nose pliers very versatile wire benders: the root of the jaws have high leverage and a strong grip, and can be used for rough work; the tip is fine and narrow, allowing very tight bends and an excellent reach.
Drawbacks of long nose pliers in wire bending are that the most models have a gripping flat gripping surface and only half-round jaw cross section. This means that the control over the bending radius will always be less than perfect, and continuous bends through more than 180 will never be exactly round.
Moreover, the length and slenderness of the jaws make them quite flexible, so that the gripping and bending forces near the tips will be limited, preventing you from using them for very tight continuous bends to stiff, heavy-gauge wire.
Nevertheless, long-nose pliers can actually be considered as a whole category of related pliers types. Some of the rarer subtypes of long nose pliers have properties that compensate some of the mentioned deficiencies in wire bending. Two deserve particular mention:
- Chain nose pliers are long-nose pliers with shorter jaws, no cutters, and often smooth gripping surfaces. They offer better stiffness and leverage near the tip and do not scratch the wire.
- Flat nose pliers have a flattened rectangular jaw cross section instead of a semi-circular one, which allows you to bend very tight 180 degree turns into wire. The gripping surfaces may smooth or serrated.
4 Round-nose pliers
Round-nose pliers are gripping pliers with short tapered jaws of completely round cross section, and are specifically intended for bending wire. The pliers are relatively compact, with typical lengths between 5” and 7”, but provide high gripping leverage, since they omit the cutting jaws and have the gripping jaws placed closer to the joint.
Round-nose pliers excel at making precise smooth bends into light-to-medium gauge wire. The round jaw cross section allows very good control of the bending radius and essentially unlimited bending angles, making these pliers the best choice for applications where high bending precision is desirable either for technical or aesthetic reasons.
The bending precision of the round-nose pliers is thanks to the fact that the round jaws that act as bending guides: when bending with these pliers, you are essentially pushing the wire against the round jaw surface and copying the jaw radius into the wire.
The can control the bending radius by varying the wire position along the tapering jaws. The roots of the jaws have a large radius, around .15” in standard models, and allow you to make large-radius turns or loops into wire; the tip radius determines the tightest loop or turn, and is around .06” in large models, but can be also much smaller.
Unlike in most pliers, the jaws of round nose pliers are not serrated but instead perfectly smooth. This means that they will usually not scratch the wire surface or tear any possible coating. However, due to the round jaw profile they may leave a smooth dent into soft wires if you grip very hard.
5 Needle nose pliers
Needle nose pliers are similar to long nose pliers, but of lighter construction. The differences most important in wire bending are:
- the jaws are much more slender throughout, ending in a almost needle sharp tip
- the gripping surfaces are smooth, not serrated
Needle nose pliers are best suited for detailed light-gauge wire bending work. The long and slender tips allow you to make very tight loops into wire and reach to spots that may not be accessible with other pliers types. Thanks to the smooth gripping surfaces, they will also not scratch your work.
Needle nose pliers have some limitations in wire bending, though. First, they do not provide an easy mechanism for controlling the bending radius, as round nose pliers do. Second, because of the length and slenderness of the jaws, the tips can exert much less force into the wire than those of long nose or round nose pliers, so bending thicker wire into tight loops using the tips is not possible.
Specialty bending pliers types
All of the pliers types above are more or less general-purpose pliers, that can be used for many kinds of gripping tasks, or at least all kinds of wire-bending tasks.
However, there are many more specialized pliers types intended for very specific wire-bending tasks, such as bending to a specific fixed radius or through a fixed angle. While these may be excellent in this one task, their use case is probably a bit too narrow for most hobbyists to justify the investment.
The pliers descriptions above allow you to see which types of pliers would suit your wire bending work. As an example, let us still take a moment to tackle a few of the most common questions on the topic and give a more specific answer on which pliers are the best for wire bending in a given application field.
Which pliers for wire looping?
In making wire loops, you have to bend the wire through at least 360 degrees, or a full circle. If you are not planning to use a mandrel but instead bend with the pliers only, you will have to get one of the relatively thin-nosed types so that one jaw will actually fit inside the loop.
The best pliers for most wire looping tasks are round nose pliers. Their jaws fit into the tiniest of loops, do not scratch and can handle relatively heavy-gauge wire for their size. Their special feature is bending radius control, which allows you to make very smooth and symmetric small-radius loops.
Long nose and needle nose pliers also have thin noses, and lend themselves to wire looping. Long nose pliers have more leverage and can loop medium-gauge wire, but their serrated gripping surfaces may leave scratches. Needle nose pliers, on the other hand, are suited for light-gauge wire only, but allow very tight loops. Neither pliers type offers a mechanism for bending radius control, though, so making very smooth loops calls for more skill than with round nose pliers.
Which bending pliers for jewelry?
The wire bending tasks in jewelry are mostly fine and delicate. The wires are light-to-medium gauge, and of relatively soft materials such as aluminum, copper, gold, silver, nickel, or stainless steel. Many of the wires may also be coated. Aesthetics is a natural priority here, and the bends should be smooth and free of nicks, dents or scratches.
Round nose pliers fit the requirements perfectly, and are the best choice for wire bending in jewelry. Their round smooth jaws allow you to make smooth, controlled-radius turns, loops and spirals, do not scratch the wire or tear coatings, and have sufficient capacity for practically all jewelry wire.
Jewelry makers are best served by small-sized round nose pliers between 4½” and 5” in length. Often called ”Jeweller’s pliers”, these pliers have short polished jaws tapering to a very small diameter at the tip, and allow you to make very tight turns into thin wire.
Needle nose pliers are a good second choice for wire bending in jewelry. While they do not help you in controlling the bending radius as round nose pliers do, they have better reach and finesse. Thanks to the flat and smooth gripping surfaces, they may actually be gentler on the wire surface than even the round nose pliers are.
While some use can certainly be made also of long nose pliers, their serrated gripping surfaces are often hard on jewelry wire and restrict their utility in this application field. Smooth-jawed variants of these pliers called chain nose pliers obviate the issue, and are well-suited to the heavier bending tasks in jewelry, although they are not always easy to come by.
In addition to the more common general-purpose pliers discussed, there exists a host of rarer and more specialized pliers for jewelry work, but are not discussed here further.
Wire bending pliers for lure making?
Similar to jewelry, wire bending in lure making is fine and detailed and mostly with light-to-medium gauge wire. However, the common wire materials now extend to harder stainless steel alloys, and aesthetics of the bends and loops are now perhaps slightly less critical.
Lure makers are best served by a relatively similar kit of wire bending pliers as jewelry makers. Round nose pliers are still an excellent first choice for forming smooth loops for the rings and eyes. However, long nose or chain nose pliers are preferable to needle nose pliers in lure making due to the slightly heavier gauge and harder material.
Other methods of bending wire
The general-purpose gripping or wire bending pliers are by no means the only tools that can be used to bend wire. Wire can also be bent using a variety of jigs, mandrels or bending machines, and we will next take a quick look at these options.
Wrapping around a mandrel is perhaps the simplest way to bend wire. Almost any cylindrical object, such as a pen, a screw or a length of rod, can serve as a mandrel, and wrapping can often be accomplished just by using your bare hands.
The manual wrapping method does not require any tools and is usually also quite efficient for making a few loops or a short coil into the wire. However, it does have some limitations: first, wrapping is convenient only if you have a significant length of free wire which to pull from; second, the bending angle control is not very good, so doing low-angle turns like a 45 degree bend accurately may not be easy.
2 Bending jig
Bending jigs are purpose-made fixtures, and exist in a number of forms. They are an extension from the idea of a mandrel, adding to it two or more pins or rollers, the motion of which executes the bend by wrapping the wire around the mandrel.
Bending jigs offer very good control over both the bending angle and the bend radius, and produce very repeatable results. In terms of bending accuracy, they are clearly superior to all pliers and manual bending against a mandrel. Bending jig versions exist with capacity for practically all wire gauges, but are best suited for medium to large bending radii and wire gauges.
The downsides to the more mechanized bending arrangement in bending jigs is that setup and adjustments take more time than with pliers. Further, bending up to 360 degrees or beyond may be tricky or not possible at all.
Wire bending in a jig has also been automated in wire bending machines, which may be programmed to produce highly complex and accurate wire works.
3 Pipe bending pliers
Pipe or tube bending pliers are a handheld version of a bending jig. Although intended for bending pipes, they may also be used for rough wire-bending work.
Tube bending pliers offer plenty of leverage and more than enough capacity for most wire work. Most of these pliers use a fixed mandrel with a radius of 1” or more, and may bend up to 90 or 180 degrees, depending on the model. They will produce only large-radius bends and are not usually capable of making a full 360 degree loop. Tube bending pliers are therefore suited mainly for large-scale work with thick wires.
We have seen that there are many general-purpose pliers models that can be used for bending wire. Each pliers type has its own strengths and weaknesses, and a corresponding preferred application profile.
The consideration of pliers for a certain wire bending work can be summarized to five factors:
- Bending resistance: How thick and hard is the wire?
- Bending radius: How tight should the bend be? Should the bending radius be accurately controllable?
- Bending angle: Through how large an angle are you bending?
- Reach: Is to bend to be made into a tight, difficult-to-reach spot in the work?
- Surface finish: is the wire soft or coated, and are scratches left by pliers jaws prohibited?
The performance of the five general-purpose pliers types that can be used for bending wire are indicated in the table below.
|Lineman’s pliers||high||large||manual||90…180||short||may scratch|
|Combination pliers||high||large||manual||90…180||short||may scratch|
|Long nose pliers||medium||medium||manual||360||long||may scratch|
|Round nose pliers||medium||small||good||360||medium||good|
|Needle nose pliers||low||small||manual||360||long||good|