Top Tools for Cutting and Fitting Pipes

A key part of maintaining a leak-free system is using the right tools when sizing pipe and putting it together, and that varies depending on the material

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Like anything, the plumbing world is both big and small. You have items like boilers, washing machines, water heaters, point-of-use water filters, and an array of different pipe materials. But the larger and more visible portions of a plumbing system only work properly when you factor in the small end of the plumbing world — the hardware, hand tools, and power tools that are designed to cut, join, and maintain a system. Here’s a rundown of the best tools and fittings for common piping materials. 

PVC Pipe

Best Tool: Hacksaw or powered miter saw

PVC is the plastic of choice for waste and vent piping inside most homes. In typical residential applications, this material has replaced cast-iron pipes. Toilet drains and main vent stacks are usually 3 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter. Smaller PVC pipes are used for waste lines on other fixtures like showers and tubs (usually 2 inches) and kitchen and bath sinks (typically 1 1/2 inches). Working with these pipes is easy. They can be cut to length with a simple hacksaw or a powered miter saw.

Nearly every imaginable fitting for joining this pipe is widely available. They are installed by first wiping both sides of the joint with a cleaning solution. Once it dries, both sides of the joint are covered with adhesive cement and the parts are pushed together. Bonding is almost immediate, and within 10 seconds the joint is permanent.

PVC is an excellent building material. It’s long-lasting and practically impervious to corrosion. Making repairs or adding new fixtures just requires splicing into an existing pipe with new fittings, then adding new pipe to reach your destination. Patches to broken pipes in tight spots can be made with no-hub neoprene couplings that are attached to mating pipes with hose clamps. Joints like these have to remain accessible in case they leak again.

ABS Pipe

Best Tool: Hacksaw or powered miter saw

ABS pipe is another plastic product that competes with PVC. It’s dark gray in color and much more flexible than rigid PVC. Because of this, some installations are quicker because fewer fittings are required to get through (or past) various obstructions in the building’s framing. This material is cut and glued together in the same way as PVC.

Copper Pipe

Best Tools: Tubing cutter, solder, and propane torch

Copper is the top choice for water supply lines. In some commercial applications, copper is also used for waste and drain pipes. Rigid tubing comes in two basic sizes: 1/2- and 3/4-inch diameters. Both sizes feature countless copper fittings to make necessary connections. Copper does not corrode easily or react poorly with other metals, but it is more difficult to work with than plastic because it requires soldered, not glued joints.

Soldering is not difficult for a skilled tradesman, but it does require some practice. Pipes are cut to length with a tubing cutter, not a hacksaw or miter box because the fit on copper joints requires closer tolerances. The water that will eventually go through the pipes is pressurized, and a poor joint will leak immediately and forever. But the cut is not the only important job. The joint is held together with solder, and in order for it to work, the mating surfaces have to be very clean. This means scouring all the parts with steel wool to remove any surface dirt or other impurities and coating the mating parts with soldering flux. Once this is heated, it will finish cleaning the parts and make them compatible with the solder.

To accomplish the cleaned and fluxed joints, the parts are pushed together and the entire joint is heated with a flame from a propane gas torch. Once the solder can be seen flowing from the joint on the side opposite the torch, the joint is done.

PEX Pipe

Best Tool: PEX cutter

Just like when PVC replaced old-school cast-iron pipes for most waste lines, PEX pipe is elbowing into copper’s dominance in the water supply world. It’s flexible, like rubber hose, and inexpensive, especially when compared with copper pipes and fittings. Common diameters are 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch, just like copper supply tubing.

Sections of pipes must be joined with simple fittings that require PEX-specific cutting tools. (A regular tubing cutter or saw won’t give you as clean or straight a cut.) Because this material is more “hose” than “pipe,” it can easily fit through all sorts of framing environments, like floors, walls, ceilings, and attics (in warm climates). Any necessary repairs are simple. Just cut out the damaged or leaking section, then cut a new piece of PEX to length and install it with the appropriate fittings.

Steel Pipe

Best Tool: Steel pipe threading machine

Steel pipe (often called black iron pipe) is extremely durable, and it has to be because typically it’s used for natural and propane gas lines. To prevent gas leaks, steel pipe fitting becomes a very rigorous job. A specialized steel pipe threading machine is required to cut the pipe to length and to cut the threads on both ends to make the joints. While there are scores of fittings to match those found for copper and plastic pipe, turning these threaded fittings onto the pipe ends is a real workout. Each joint is sealed by applying pipe joint compound or Teflon tape to the parts before they are brought together.

About the Author

Steve Willson writes for The Home Depot. He was the home improvement editor for Popular Mechanics magazine for 22 years and owned a carpentry contracting business in Rochester, New York. He has also written three books about home improvement and tools. You can find the saws, pipe cutters and other tools Steve describes in this article at The Home Depot’s website.


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