Recommended Hand Tool List for the Apprentice Electrician
Quality and the Electrician's Hand Tools
While someone just becoming an electrician most likely has a severely limited budget, the set of electrician's hand tools is not the place to cut cost by buying cheap tools. Cheap tools will not last and are much more difficult to use; a simple rubber handle on a screwdriver can make a large difference if you have to use it all day. Make sure that high-quality tools fill the new electrician's tool bag.
The same basic tool may come in many different brands with many different prices, so I will recommend brands as well as the actual tool where applicable. Klein makes high-quality electrician tools, as do Knipex, Ideal and Greenlee. Milwauke, Dewalt, and Bosch make professional quality power tools.
Below I'm going to discuss some very specific recommendations, with some links to places you can look at them and buy them.
Pliers: Primary Electrician's Tools
There are dozens of different styles of pliers available and the well-equipped electrician's tool bag will contain several of them.
A good set of needle-nose pliers is indispensable for the electrician. Klein and Knipex both make a very good set, with built-in wire cutters, and even a stripping hole for #12 wire, both of which are handy options. Needle-nose pliers for the electrician should always have the wire-cutter option. The Knipex set also includes crimpers for ferrules. Personally, I prefer the pliers. Klein J203-8N
A good heavy set of lineman's pliers will often be needed. Again, Klein makes a very good set with an optional fish-tape-pulling arrangement on the side of them: a very handy option for the electrician. The arrangement on the side is far preferable to the same type of option where the fish tape fits between the handles; it is far too easy to receive a very nasty pinch with that style.
Side-Cutting Pliers (Dikes)
Side-cutting pliers, or "dikes" are common to every electricians tool set. These are used to not only cut wire, but nails, staples, MC cable, and other items. Make sure that the jaws are specially hardened for such use, not merely intended for cutting copper or aluminum wire. Klein makes two different sets; one with red handles and one (see below) with blue handles and hardened jaws. Knipex also makes a good set of side-cutting pliers. These pliers should be in the 8" - 10" length.
Commonly called channellock pliers (a trade name) a 8" or 10" pair of slip-joint pliers will be required. Recommended here are the Knipex Cobra 10" pliers, or even the three-piece set of 7", 10" and 12" lengths.
Although not truly pliers, a pair of wire strippers is a necessary item in the electricians tool belt. Wire strippers are available for Romex wire, but far more common are simple strippers for #10 and smaller solid (not stranded) wire. Ability to strip #8 and #6 wire is a plus, where available. Recommended are either Ideal or Klein strippers; Ideal is usually a little cheaper, though Klein is more comfortable to use. Recommended is the Klein 11055 wire stripper.
Don't buy the automatic style of wire stripper, just a simple pair of wire strippers for several sizes of solid wire. GB offers a set of wire strippers with a built-in voltage tester, but they cost considerably more. As wire strippers are considered a "throw-away" tool (they wear out frequently) the extra cost really isn't worth it.
In addition to wire strippers, get a razor knife. One of its many uses is cutting the sheath on the NMC wire used in residential. Using wire strippers for this will sooner or later damage a wire.
Drivers as Electrician's Hand Tools
Included in this section are screwdrivers, nut drivers, and similar tightening tools for the electrician.
A top quality set of screwdrivers will be in every electrician's tool bag. You need to include a cabinet tip flat blade, a larger flat blade, a #2 Phillips, a #1 Phillips, and a #2 square tip. Klein is recommended, but Ideal also makes an acceptable screwdriver set.
You will want a good set of nut drivers, from 1/4" to at least 7/16". I recommend Klein, in the medium length shaft. The Klein set with long hollow shafts is useful in some circumstances, but not worth the extra trouble of carrying the long handles in the electrician's tool belt.
Allen Wrenches (Hex Keys)
Allen wrenches are a must. Electricians typically prefer sets of Allen wrenches, such as those Klein makes; they use both large and small sets, in SAE sizes. Very occasionally it would be nice to have individual allen wrenches, but it is not worth the extra trouble and cost, and individual wrenches are often forgotten and lost.
An electrician will use a socket set, unless he/she is a strictly residential electrician. This is not a high-use item, nor is it used to tighten to extremes. Deep sockets are more valuable than shallow, and both 1/4" and 3/8" ratchets are useful. A Craftsman brand set or the equivalent is sufficient here, but be sure it has a good selection of deep sockets.
A couple of adjustable wrenches, of perhaps 8" and 10" length, will be found in the electrician's tool set. Again, absolutely top quality is not needed as they will get light duty only; brands like Craftsman are quite adequate.
Sometimes a pipe wrench is invaluable; Ridgid makes a good pipe wrench in about the 10" size that will work well. A second wrench of the same size is advisable for working with rigid conduit.
Although not strictly a screwdriver, a conduit-reaming tool is necessary for any electrician running conduit. Klein is recommended with its dedicated tool. Reamers are available for square-shank screwdrivers, but they do not work nearly as well, as the long screwdriver blade prevents the reamer tool from entering a conduit that has a bend near the end of the conduit.
Important Safety Tools for Electricians
Electrical Meters and Testers
Every electrician's tool bag needs to include several meters and testers.
You need a multimeter capable of reading up to 600 volts; it should also be able to detect continuity. A clamp-on style of multimeter with amperage capability is preferable. Fluke is the preferred brand, although cheaper brands are available and will be adequate for the apprentice who is just becoming an electrician. The Fluke 322 AC Clamp Meter is a good choice for the beginning electrician.
Tick Tester (Non-Contact Voltage Detector)
Every electrician should be equipped with a non-contact tester ("tick tester"), and many have a spare tester in the truck as well as one in their pocket. Testers that use ordinary AAA batteries are preferable. Fluke again makes a good tester.
A plug tester with a built-in GFI tester is necessary and fairly inexpensive. Nearly any brand will work just fine here.
Specialized Voltage Tester
These are simple testers that will test for the presence of various specific voltages as well as continuity. They make an excellent replacement for a true multimeter, and most electricians will have one in their tool bag whether they have a multimeter or not. If funds are available, either the Fluke T+PRO Tester or the is a good addition to the tool kit. Klein ET200
A good cordless drill kit is a necessity. As cordless tools have increased in popularity, the sawzall has become almost a requirement for an electrician, although an ordinary hacksaw will still suffice.
Recommended drill kits are either the Milwaukee or Dewalt drill and sawzall kits. The kit's battery should produce at least 18 volts, and the kit should contain at least two batteries, though three are very handy. A one-battery charger is sufficient for most people, although dual battery chargers are available. If possible, get a kit with a flashlight.
The new lithium batteries are a major plus, and far superior to the older nicad batteries if you have the money. Purchased separately they are expensive and require a special charger, so they should be purchased with the kit if at all possible.
Avoid cheaper brands for drill kits if possible, as their lifespan is limited, their batteries are generally lower quality, and the charge doesn't last as long. Cheaper kits such as Ryobi and Makita are an option, if you keep this limitation in mind, but the new electrician needs to realize that they will need replacement in only a year or so.
The newer cordless impact drivers are a very, very nice addition to the tool bag, and again should be considered if funding is available. If possible, the drill itself should be a hammer drill, as the electrician is often required to drill masonry or concrete.
If an electrician is expecting to work in the commercial or industrial field, they will need conduit benders in ½" and ¾" sizes and perhaps 1" as well. These are not common tools found in every household. It may take some time to learn to bend conduit properly, but it is time well spent.
A good torpedo level is an absolute necessity; don't get the cheapest one. Strong earth magnets to hold the level onto conduit or other metal surfaces will delay the occasion when you drop the level and have to replace it. A plastic case will loosen over time and result in poor readings: make sure your level has a metal case. A level with a 30º vial can be very useful, so consider paying a few more dollars for that feature. Checkpoint brand is recommended, and the 300PL is a reasonable choice in that brand.
A good quality measuring tape in either a 25' or 30' length is mandatory. Get a tape measure at least one inch wide: less width means less strength, which means the tape will not extend as far out without bending (standout length). Stanley makes a very good tape measure (their series) that I recommend "fat max"
Tool Belt and Bag
You can see that an electrician will need a tool belt, to keep some of the items above. There are many styles of tool belt for different trades. An electrician's tool belt should have several pockets on one side for small parts and supplies, and pockets on the other side for hand tools. It should include a place to hang electrical tape and a loop for a hammer.
Too many pockets, however, can become a hindrance. The more tools and parts are added, the heavier the belt and the more work it is to wear it all day. Many electricians use a tool belt with only a couple of pockets for parts, though three are four pockets can be handy to keep parts from getting mixed up. Several pockets will be needed for hand tools, with loops on both the inside and outside for pliers. For specialty work, such as installing large numbers of switches or plugs, a small sheath for just a screwdriver and a pair of pliers can be very handy, to pare down the weight on days when the electrician knows they will need only a few hand tools.
Consider a set of suspenders for the belt, as they distribute the weight to the shoulders and make carrying the belt an easier job. They are spendy, however, and can wait if necessary.
Whether your tool belt is leather or nylon is a matter of personal taste. Do make sure, however, that the belt buckle is adjustable and long enough to accommodate winter clothing. A tool belt constructed with heavy-duty stitching and rivets should last for years. An electrician's tool belt should be available at your local home improvement store such as Home Depot, and they are widely available online, including at Amazon.
A tool bag is also quite desirable, to transport tools into the job site each morning and remove them in the evening. Theft of tools is quite common at job sites during night hours and most electricians won't risk losing their precious hand tools. The electrician's tool bag is one place, however, where some money can be saved: many use nothing more elaborate than a five-gallon bucket, although a nylon tool bag has the advantage of pockets inside and/or outside for smaller tools.
Other Hand Tools for the Electrician
A whole host of tools are useful to the electrician, but the tools above are the primary tools every electrician needs. Some suggestions for the future might include a tubing cutter of the type plumbers use as it is useful for removing conduit from around wire without harming the wire. Ratcheting cable cutters are nice but very spendy (nearly as much as the required drill kit). More and more work is being done with MC cable, so cutters and strippers for it are useful as well. A cheap calculator is nice, but most cell phones now have enough capability for most electricians. Additions to the cordless drill package such as a circular saw or a peanut grinder can be handy, but can be added later and are of only limited use in any case. Most electricians will eventually own a 100' roll-type measuring tape.
The list can, and will, go on and on. You will need pencils and sharpies (indelible markers), some kind of knife (razor knife, box cutter or large pocket knife), and other common household items. As you progress towards the journeyman level, you will need more exotic tools unfortunately often more expensive ones. But the tools listed above should start the apprentice just becoming an electrician down the road they need to follow, well stocked with electrician's hand tools.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
My son has put cobra grips on his Christmas list. Is a set of 3 best or would some of them not get used?
They definitely have different uses, and if he does a lot of work with pliers he will certainly have a use for all three. I find the larger pair to be the least used, but they can be invaluable when needed and it is quite possible that your son would find the largest pair to be the most used. It just depends on what he is using them for. If it is in the budget I would suggest the set of three.
© 2010 Dan Harmon