Ask the Builder

The Tools and Tricks of the Plumbing Trade

The right tools can help take some of the mystery out of do-it-yourself plumbing.
The right tools can help take some of the mystery out of do-it-yourself plumbing. (By Tim Carter -- Tribune Media Services)
  Enlarge Photo    

By Tim Carter
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Q: DEAR TIM: You may not like this, but I am about to attempt some do-it-yourself plumbing. I have all sorts of plumbing questions, and I need help selecting plumbing tools. What are the most important tools I should buy? The primary plumbing supplies I will be using are copper tubing for water lines and PVC for drain lines. What plumbing tools have served you well in your career? -- Barbara D., Baltimore

A: DEAR BARBARA: I have no issues with do-it-yourself plumbing. Even licensed master plumbers like myself had to solder their first copper fitting and weld their first PVC joint. But you will learn quickly that plumbing is a true craft and that you will not learn how to do it from watching TV shows. What's more, you need to respect the way plumbing work is done, as your family's health can be endangered if you fail to do everything in strict accordance with all plumbing codes.

Let's talk about some of the basic tools you need to work with copper tubing. First, you must have a high-quality tubing cutter. This plumbing tool has a hardened-steel wheel that rotates around the copper tube. As you tighten the tool, the cutting wheel cuts into the copper with each revolution. The cutter makes precise cuts that are free from burrs, which you will get if you try to use a hacksaw to cut the tube.

To melt the solder that is used to make leak-free joints, you can get by with a propane torch. If you are thinking about doing lots of solder joints, an acetylene torch will serve you well, as it burns hotter than propane. You will also need some small circular wire brushes and abrasive paper; these are things that wear out and must be replaced regularly.

You will undoubtedly need an assortment of wrenches to round out your plumbing-tool collection. A 14-inch pipe wrench is a great beginner size that will work well in many situations. I would buy an adjustable wrench that will work well on compression nuts and toilet bolts. From time to time, you might need an adjustable set of pliers.

I assume that you already own different types and sizes of screwdrivers. You will need these for sure. The same is true of a hammer, tape measure, different levels and all personal safety equipment.

You will thank your lucky stars if you can afford a power mitre-box saw, a regular power drill and a right-angle drill. The powerful right-angle drill is made to accept boring bits that make the large holes for PVC pipes to penetrate wall studs, wall plates and floors.

A power reciprocating saw is a must-have plumbing tool. This saw allows you to make any number of cuts when you are installing pipes before the walls, floors and ceilings are finished.

There are many more specialized tools used by plumbers. I have so many that I sometimes marvel at the investment made over the years. For example, I have a handheld flaring tool made just for 3/4 -inch soft copper. The tool is used when you connect a primary water line to a water meter, the municipal water valve or an interior shut-off valve in a home.

Then there are all of the pipe-threading dies I use to thread black-iron pipe for gas line work. The dies, ratchet, pipe vise, cutting tool and so forth are all made to work with pipe that must be custom-fabricated in each home.

Other plumbers could easily expand this plumbing-tool list. There are all sorts of tools you will buy if you enjoy this work. I find plumbing to be some of the most satisfying work I do. There is something special about soldering 50 or more copper fittings over several hours, letting them cool, and then turning on the water and seeing that there is not one leak.

Tim Carter can be contacted via his Web site,

Copyright 2008 Tribune Media Services

© 2008 The Washington Post Company