PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson
April 9, 2019

There’s something to be said (and I know I’ve said it before) for having a large and diverse collection of hand tools in your tool shed. Hobby farmers pride themselves on being can-do, DIY-types, and it’s certainly easier to tackle any project if you have a wide variety of tools to back you up.

In the past, I’ve covered handy and well-used tools such as the portable electric drill and the ratchet and socket set. This week I cover one more tool you’ll find useful on the farm: a pipe wrench.

At first glance, a pipe wrench might not look that much different than a big crescent wrench, but let me assure you that this is a completely different tool. The pipe wrench is not a precision instrument meant to be used on standard hexagonal nuts and bolts—that much should be readily apparent to anyone who has ever laid their eyes on a large pipe wrench.

Instead, pipe wrenches are designed for gripping objects that lack an obvious area to be gripped—namely, rounded objects such as pipes. The design of the pipe wrench is remarkably clever: The two adjustable, serrated jaws are constructed so that the upper jaw can wiggle back and forth a little bit, meaning that it’s not always parallel with the lower jaw.

The reason for this is simple—when you place a pipe wrench on a pipe and apply a turning force, the wiggling jaws bite down hard on the pipe, tightly locking into place and providing a remarkably firm grip on the rounded surface.

The benefits of such a tool should be obvious if you have any interest in improving (or establishing) your DIY plumbing skills. I have a couple of pipe wrenches that I keep in a shed near a finicky water hydrant on my farm; whenever the hydrant acts up, I use one pipe wrench to hold the water pipe in place and the other to grip the head of the hydrant and unscrew it from the pipe for repairs.

I mention this because, in order to prevent leaks, the hydrant head is screwed on to the pipe as tightly as possible. It takes two people to work the wrenches, so I can’t imagine trying to unscrew the hydrant head with any other tools. Pipe wrenches are built specifically for tasks like this, and their specialty design allows them to perform these jobs efficiently and easily.

Also, aside from their practical uses, I must admit that the heft and size of a large pipe wrench is appealing if you’re a fan of well-crafted tools. If you can get your hands on an old one, made entirely of steel, you’ll be impressed by its weight and strength. It makes you feel like you can tackle any project, and if it’s a really big one with a two-foot or even three-foot handle, you’re looking at a tool that’s practically worthy of being a decorative item.

I’ll leave you with just one word of warning—pipe wrenches are powerful tools, so check that you have the diameter of the jaws set correctly (not too tight), and make sure you attempt to turn any given pipe in the proper direction. You don’t want to squish, break, or otherwise destroy a perfectly good pipe.

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