My Lineman's Pliers

Serving 173 for more than 20 years!

I know it seems odd to write about something so commonplace and seemingly insignificant as a pair of pliers, but you know me - sometimes I see the significance in the insignificance.  But don't confuse that with making big things out of little things, totally different connotation.  That said, here's the story of my Lineman's pliers.

First, what is a Lineman?

Lineman’s pliers are named after the tradesfolk who work on electrical and telecommunications lines. The linesman occupation began in the 1840s at the advent of telegraph in the 1840s, followed soon thereafter by telephone lines in the 1870s and by electrical wires in the 1890s. Apparently, being a Linesman was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world up to the 1930s, as up to a third of linesmen died from electrocution.  Personally, I think that job would scare me to death!  Oh, and do you remember the Norman Rockwell painting of a Lineman?  I could be wrong, but I think the first time I saw this painting was in one of my dad's Popular Mechanics magazines or books when I was a kid.  Whenever it was, it left an impression on me, so much so that when I saw this at the Norman Rockwell Museum I was instantly ushered back to my youth.  

In spirit, and spirit only, because it seems like I was scared of everything when I was a kid, this would have been a more accurate depiction of me and the kids on the block of 812 - the Home.  

Like most kids, we were curious about everything, especially if a stranger was on the block.  Both of these are typical of Rockwell's ability to find significance in the seemingly insignificant.  I think the only time we really think about a Lineman is when the power goes out, or when traffic is snarled while they do their tightrope dance high above.   

A brief history of the pliers

I mentioned that being a Linesman was the most dangerous job in the world until the 1930s.  Then, some significant safety standards were implemented for linemen and included creation and use of the proper tools.  Backing up a little, the "first linesman pliers were created in 1857 by Mathias Klein, a German immigrant in Chicago. A telegraph lineman brought a broken pair of side-cutting pliers to Klein’s forge shop. Klein forged a new half to repair the broken tool, only to have the lineman return soon after to have the now broken original part remade," (Vampire Tools).  Klein, and his company would go on to become maybe the premier maker of Linesman pliers, although mine aren't Kleins - but we'll get to that.  I'm thinking this picture from the T&D World website predates those safety standards!

My Lineman pliers

Back when I was a kid in my early 20s I worked for an electrician for a little while.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot of stuff that would be useful to me in countless situations.  But you want to know my clearest, dearest memory of that time?  Of course you do - otherwise you wouldn't still be reading.  The thing that stuck in my mind the most was my Klein Lineman's pliers.  They were so solid and heavy, and they had these really thick maroon grips on the handles that made them feel so secure in the hand.  

I never forgot that feeling.  So, when it came time to buy some pliers for electrical work here at 173 back in '97 or '98, I most assuredly didn't get Kleins.  No.  You see, they cost maybe $30 or $40 back then and quite frankly, I just didn't have that kind of money.  Instead I picked up a set of non-Klein Lineman's pliers, needle nose pliers and channel-style pliers for about $25 at the old Builder's Square.  And here they are:

Kind of unremarkable - I get it.  But here's the deal, these pliers are my pliers!  I know, I know - aye aye Captain Obvious!  But what I mean by that is that they've done countless jobs here at 173 over the last 20 plus years and I've become so used to their feel that the few times I tested out some Kleins, they felt almost unwieldy.  Most assuredly I could buy Kleins now, but I wouldn't even give the idea a serious thought now!  Much like my hammer and my baseball glove, these no-name pliers are familiar and comfortable!

Many people like the "idea" of being a lineman until it comes time to do lineman stuff in the rain. - Anonymous

Nonetheless - time for a change

No - I'm not getting new pliers!  A couple weeks ago I talked about the fact that I have found watching videos of tool restorations to be not only educational but also relaxing and oddly satisfying.  And as you can tell by the pictures, my pliers are starting to show their age, so I thought I'd give them a facelift.   

I started out by oiling the pivot rivet to get the inside all cleaned out.  Even as much as I use these pliers, I was surprised at how long it took to get all the surface rust out of the rivet seems!  Then I moved to the wire wheel on the bench grinder...

Then went to work on shining it up on the belt sander.  I'm still learning the most efficient and effective methods on this tool, and believe it or not, it really is an art.

After shining up the jaws and face, I was a little dissatisfied at the idea of leaving the handles in their old state. So, the next step was the Rubicon - absolutely no turning back.  I had made the decision to remove the handle grips!  I thought the grips would give me at least a bit of a struggle, but one quick swipe with the razor and they peeled away like an overripe banana.  And just like that, the deed was done.

Lesson learned

All was going pretty good, but as I continued to shine the face of the pliers, I noticed a little something...

Do you see it?  You might be thinking there are shadows on the face of the wrench, but I doubt you are.  Let me point it out so there is no confusion...

That is not a shadow.  At first I couldn't figure it out, and I kept sanding trying to get it all to shine up nicely, but eventually I stopped because I didn't want to remove too much steel.  The only thing I could figure was that the oil I used in the beginning maybe somehow got ground right into the steel.  I know, that make no sense at all, but I just can't figure it out!  Nonetheless, I decided to stop. My lesson?  Save the oiling for the end of the project!

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us. - Marshall McLuhan

New handle grips

I thought about those pliers of mine from the '80s a bunch of times over the years, and even searched for some just like them on the internet, but it was a no-go.  Now, with the handles of my Lineman's pliers bare, it became necessary to find new grips.  Amazingly, when I looked in Amazon, there they were!!

Oh hello my long lost friend!  Okay, maybe I'm going a bit far, but you know the feeling right?  An ounce of excitement, an ounce of satisfaction and on with the task at hand.  There'll be time to admire later.

The tragedy

Alas - there was no joy in Mudville.  Here's how it goes - first, because the grips are really stiff, they need to be warmed to make them flexible enough to go on the plier handles.  The reviews on Amazon ranged from heating them in hot water straight from the tap, to boiling them for a few minutes.  But I'm smarter than the average bear (or so I always think to myself) and went with a few seconds in the microwave.  Out of the microwave I worked fast, and had to tap them on using my chisel mallet.  The problem is, I was so excited that I put them on backwards.  As soon as I noticed this, with a mighty struggle I pulled them off.  They soaked in hot water from the tap for a couple minutes then I went to pushing and tapping again.  Man, they were stiff.  Suddenly - the tragedy:

That's right kids!  I think the heating in the microwave coupled with actual cooling in the hot water had made the grips brittle.  Look at that would ya?  Here's a closer look, just in case you missed it...

The fix

Well, really there was no fixing this.  They simply had to come off.  There would be no happy testing of the pliers that night!  Back to Amazon and time to wait those interminable hours for a new pair to arrive.

The good thing was, cutting the Klein-Koats off wasn't nearly as easy as the soft grips originally on my pliers.  I like that.  Really, it only took a day and a half for the new grips to arrive!

Doing it right

This time, I followed everyone's advice and soaked them in near-boiling water for a couple minutes.  Not only that, I paid attention to how they were being positioned.  Brilliant right? And...drum roll please!  Here are my newly restored Lineman's pliers...

Imperfect with the oil smudge, but shinier than they have been in probably nearly 20 years...

And finally with the feel I recall from more than 40 years ago!  I even had an opportunity to use them helping a buddy put in a new light.  Without hyperbole - oh the comfort!

And that is the story of my cheap, no-name, lifetime Lineman's pliers. 

Thanks for sticking around to the end!
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