Guide written by:
Arnold, Researcher / handyman, Birmingham
Mario fan? Then you probably think plumbers drive round in go-karts and eat mushrooms... And why not! A plumber's tools are varied: pipe cutters, socket wrenches, all manner of pliers; and their uses are many, from repairing to unblocking... Read our guide to save you the waterworks!
- Pipe cutters
- Plastic pipe fitting clamp
- Flaring pliers
- Pipe benders
- Lapping tool
- Welding torch
- Soldering lamp
- Bung wrench
- Drain cleaner
Essential plumbing tools
Like any craftsman, plumbers have certain tools that are specific to their trade. Each tool has its own function. To start off with, here's a list of the most common tools any good handyman needs to deal with plumbing problems:
The pipe cutter is specifically designed to cut copper pipe, since lead piping stopped being used for health reasons (ever played Cluedo?...) Nowadays you'll find as many models and sizes of pipe cutter as there are pipes. First off there are several diameters depending on the diameter of the pipe you want to cut. It's important to remember that a pipe cutter should only be used on the appropriate type of pipe. It gives a clean, precise and burr-free cut to ensure a sound plumbing assembly (fittings, welds, etc.).
Pipe cutters are also available for steel and iron pipe. These are much more effective than a hacksaw since they don't deform the pipe, leaving a perfectly round section.
Plastic pipe shears
These are essentially a form of pipe cutter formaterials such as PVC and PEX. It looks like a big pair of pruning shears. Don't try to use this on copper pipe (or vice versa with a pipe cutter).
Bung wrenches are used to install and remove sink bungs and for screwing in certain types of sink fittings. Adapter heads for shower bungs are available.
Plastic pipe crimping tool
The plastic pipe crimping tool is used to insert and seal fittings on PEX (plastic) pipes. Different attachments are used according to pipe and fitting diameter.
Pipe benders are used to bend copper pipes when assembling plumbing circuits. Their size varies according to the diameter of the pipe. You can get manual, electric or hydraulic crimping pliers to suit any type of pipe. Manual crimping pliers can bend annealed copper. More substantial bending jobs can be done on a bench crimper.
Lapping tools are used to repair the base of taps which have begun to leak over time through the development of limescale.
A deburrer lets you remove any burrs from a copper pipe after cutting.
The drain cleaner is used to unclog blocked pipes. You can get manual models, also called ferrets (like using a ferret to dislodge certain smaller animals from their burrows...) These are only used for small diameter pipes. Spray gun nozzles can generate much higher pressures for larger diameter pipes (particularly wastewater pipes). Vacuum pumps which operate by suction are often used for unblocking toilets. Classic plungers should only be used for small blockages.
Coming in a range of sizes and lengths, the adjustable wrench can be adapted to any nut by twisting a knob to adjust its two jaws. Probably the handiest tool in anyone's toolbox!
Torches are reserved for high-temperature welding of steel and brazing of copper. Caution - using a welding torch safely requires a certain amount of experience and precautions must be taken. The torch consists of two cylinders of gas (one oxygen and one acetylene), pressure gauges to control the gas pressures and a regulator which delivers the gas to the torch via a hose. The gas mixture needs a spark to ignite.
The soldering lamp is designed for low-temperature welding, i.e. lead or tin. Easier to handle than a welding torch, it still requires certain precautions as it's easy to burn yourself.
Siphon joint pliers
These are for tightening and loosening siphon joints.
On the same principle as the adjustable wrench, the claw wrench can be used to hold any rounded component even without being gripped. It comes in a range of sizes.
These pliers are effectively an adjustable clamp that can hold or tighten / loosen. Along with the adjustable wrench, this is an indispensable tool for its sheer versatility!
There are many other specific plumbing tools, but they're only likely to be needed by professionals who have regular specialist jobs to carry out. Of course, a plumber also uses standard tools such as screwdrivers, drills, perforators...
Taps, shower, water heater: jobs for a plumber?
A plumber's activities are varied and extend from complete domestic water installations to the simple change of a seal on a tap head:
- Cold and hot water supply, including installation of storage water heaters;
- Installation of shower cubicles, walk-in showers and baths;
- Kitchen and bathroom sink installation;
- Installation and repair of all types of toilets;
- Replacement of taps etc.
A plumber, depending on specialization, can cover a wide range of areas of the house. They might specialize in the installation of solar or thermodynamic water heaters, or they might stick to general installation, repair and breakdown work (fixing leaks, unblocking drains, etc).
Copper, PEX, PVC: water supply and drainage
As always, choice of materials depends on what needs to be achieved. As we've seen already, some tools are specific to a certain material.
Copper has now fully replaced lead, which is toxic (lead poisoning). It is a metal that can be welded and tapped. Copper pipes are used for domestic water as well as gas supply. Its durability is unbeatable, and its price continues to increase on the world market. It can be bought in bars of different lengths and diameters, and can be hardened or annealed. It can be put under tens of bars of pressure.
Known for its resistance to microoganism growth, it can oxidize on contact with the air, giving a greenish blue colour if unprotected by a paint or coating. Copper is susceptible to limescale but very physically stable (little or no expansion). A copper pipe network may be noisy if the collars ("atlas collars") connecting the pipes are inadequately insulated or secured.
PVC is the material used for wastewater disposal pipes. Assembly is usually achieved by cold gluing or lip joint connection (in toilets, for example). Available in a range of diameters, its deterioration is accelerated when exposed to light and especially UV. This can make it brittle in the long term. It's easily recognizable by its light grey color. A variant exists for outdoor use, known as rigid or pressure PVC. This variety is more resistant to high pressures and frost, and is dark grey in colour.
PEX (or crosslinked polyethylene) is another synthetic material that is increasingly used instead of copper in private dwellings. Here there's no need for welding or pipe benders, but rather plastic pipe shears and pipe crimpers. The material's impressive ease of use allows less experienced plumbers to carry out their own domestic water installations. It's also available in a range of diameters and colours (typically blue for cold and red for hot water). The convenience of not needing to weld is leading to a great increase in use.
It must be effectively protected from UV rays because they cause it to become porous, creating a risk of leakage. PEX is used both for water supply and for heating applications. It is susceptible to expansion, which must be taken into account during installation when calculating the lengths required.
Multilayer is a composite material that offers the convenience of PEX without the drawback of expansion. It can also be used for hot water, cold water and heating just like copper and PEX. It has a similar resistance to limescale as PEX. However, its cost is high and it requires a whole arsenal of specialized tools to work with. Its durability has yet to be proven over the long term, as it's only been in use for about 15 years.
Common plumbing jobs
Now that we've done the rounds on tools and materials, let's see what kinds of jobs you might get up to!
Repairing a leak
Often you just need to replace afaulty seal. If you've actually got a leaky pipe, you might have to replace part or all of the pipe. For this you're looking at either welded or bicone ("olive") fittings.
Installing or replacing a tap
For this, you might need a specialized screwdriver because tap nuts can be very difficult to access. If you're lucky, you might be able to manage with a pipe wrench, a flat wrench or a pair of pliers but don't take it for granted!
Installing a shower, toilet or sink
You'll need specific tools geared towards the chosen material, as well as a range of other generic tools such as a drill, a perforator, screwdrivers, flat wrenches... and consumables such as fixtures etc.
Unblocking a pipe
If you don't take regular preventive action (empty siphons, install a grille on the shower drain, use cleaning products), you may have to turn to the last resort of mechanical unclogging. Trust me, this can be unpleasant if not downright disgusting...
Finally, before attempting to repair a leaky tap or interfering with your water pipes, make sure you turn off the water supply and have a backup plan ready in case of accidental deluge!
Learn more about plumbing...
To find out more about plumbing, check out our editors' other guides:
Guide written by:
Arnold, Researcher / handyman, Birmingham, 10 guides
A chemist by training and a self-taught handyman, I work in the pharmaceutical industry. As a young dad of 36 years, tinkering is like breathing to me: in short, I am a jack-of-all-trades. To my credit, I have already completed 5 kitchen installs, a renovated apartment, and an extension on my own house (for financial reasons, my wife and I have chosen the closed-cover option for wooden house extension). Over the last three years I have done everything: insulation, plasterboard, electrical, patching, painting, parquet, dressing, bathroom, tile...in short, 60 m2, made entirely with my own two hands. Fortunately, I have my own personal decorator. I don’t worry about styles and colors. As they say: happy wife, happy life. My motto: good tools and good products are half the work, the rest is patience and meticulousness. To your keyboards. The good advice is here.