The common pipe wrench really isn’t that common at all. In fact, there are at least six different types of pipe wrenches, and they come in dozens of different sizes. If you are considering the purchase of a pipe wrench, you’ll want to know how to choose the right one and how to use it, too.
Who invented the pipe wrench?
Before the invention of the pipe wrench, plumbers turned to serrated blacksmith tongs whenever they needed to screw two threaded pipes together. The process was time-consuming and cumbersome.
When a steamboat fireman named Daniel C. Stillson presented his prototype wrench to the owner of Walworth heating and piping company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, history was made. Stillson was awarded a patent  for his time-saving, knuckle-sparing wrench on September 18, 1870, and earned approximately $80,000 in royalties over the course of his lifetime, explains The Inventors magazine.
Stillson’s was the third wrench to be patented after Solymon Merrick patented his non-pipe wrench in 1835 and Charles Moncky patented the first “monkey” wrench in 1858. Other patented wrenches include Robert Owen’s 1913 ratchet wrench and a screw-locking ratchets wrench patented by NASA engineer John M. Vranish in 2007.
Types of pipe wrenches
Typically made of aluminum and iron, pipe wrenches range in size from 6 to 60 inches. Types of pipe wrenches include:
- Chain pipe wrench
- Compound leverage pipe wrench
- End pipe wrench
- Offset pipe wrench
- Straight pipe wrench
- Strap wrench
Straight pipe wrenches are the most common and can be used to tighten and loosen threaded pipes of all sorts. A compound leverage wrench delivers a stronger twist and is the right tool for loosening threaded pipe connections that are frozen due to damage or corrosion.
An end pipe wrench has jaws set at more of an angle than a straight pipe wrench and is the right tool to use when working close to a wall. Offset pipe wrenches are best when working in a tight spot or awkward angle.
Chain pipe wrenches replace the hook jaw of a straight wrench with a chain that can loosen and tighten extremely tight threaded pipes, explains Plumber  magazine. A strap pipe wrench is similar to a chain wrench in function but utilizes a strong nylon strap in lieu of a chain. This wrench is right for the polished or plastic-coated pipe.
Selecting your first pipe wrench
If you’re just starting to stock your toolbox, opt for a 14-inch pipe wrench, preferably made of aluminum. This sort of lightweight wrench can handle most residential plumbing jobs and is easy to transport. If you can obtain two wrenches, add an 18-inch straight pipe wrench to your toolbox. It’s the right wrench for tightening and loosening pipes up to 2 1/2″ in diameter.
Additional read: How to use impact wrench
Before you use a pipe wrench
Before you begin, think about the job you’re doing and consider your space limitations. With those factors in mind, choose a wrench with the right diameter range. You’ll know you’ve selected the right wrench when there is around half an inch clearance between the shank of the adjustable jaw of the wrench and the pipe itself.
The reason clearance must be maintained between jaw shank and pipe is simple. This clearance allows the hook teeth and heel teeth to grip the pipe without slippage that can weaken torque or cause the wrench jaws to fail completely. Forget that space between the pipe and the hook jaw, and you could strip the teeth or bend the jaw of your wrench or even damage the pipe you’re working on, explains Popular Mechanics  magazine.
At best, the wrong wrench will lengthen the time it takes to do the job. At worst, the wrong wrench may severely damage your pipes.
Wrench diameter guidelines:
- 6″ wrench: 1/8″ to 3/4″ pipe
- 8″ wrench: 1/4″ to 1″ pipe
- 10″ wrench: 1/4″ to 1 1/2″ pipe
- 12″ wrench: 1/2″ to 2″ pipe
- 14″ wrench: 1/2″ to 2″ pipe
- 18″ wrench: 1″ to 2 1/2″ pipe
- 24″ wrench: 1 1/2″ to 3″ pipe
- 36″ wrench: 2″ to 5″ pipe
- 48″ wrench: 3″ to 6″ pipe
- 60″ wrench: 3″ to 8″ pipe
How to use a pipe wrench
Once you’ve selected the right tool for the job, center the lower and upper jaws of the wrench on the pipe while ensuring proper clearance of the jaw shank hook. Slowly tighten the jaws until a firm grip is achieved. Make sure there is no slippage before loosening or tightening the pipe.
- Always keep a hand on your wrench
- Always wear eye protection when using a pipe wrench
- Apply force only in the direction of rotation
- If greater torque is required, select a larger wrench
- Maintain your balance at all times
How not to use a pipe wrench
Pipe wrenches are designed for one job, and that is working with pipes. Try to use a pipe wrench on anything else, and you risk damage to the item or the wrench. Don’t use a pipe wrench as a hammer, and never use a pipe wrench on hard (non-plumbing) pipes, hex bolts, or lug nuts.
- Do not use excessive force
- Do not use near flame or high heat
- Don’t modify a pipe wrench
- Don’t use handle extensions
- Never hang a wrench on a pipe
- Never overreach when using a pipe wrench
- Never use a wrench on a pipe larger than guidelines recommend
- Never use a wrench with a bent or twisted handle
Maintain your pipe wrench
The better you care for your pipe wrenches, the longer they will last. Be sure to check your wrenches regularly for signs of damage or wear. Do this every time you use your pipe wrench:
Clean the hook teeth and heel teeth with a wire brush to remove any debris that might rust or otherwise damage your wrenches. Ensure proper functioning and rust inhibition by periodically lubricating all non-painted parts of your wrenches, advises Plumber magazine.
Not the DIY type?
Even if you enjoyed learning about pipe wrenches, DIY plumbing projects aren’t for everyone. If you’d rather have a professional bring their own pipe wrench to deal with your plumbing issue, contact a local plumbing company.