How to Use Locking Pliers (Vise Grips)

Perhaps the most useful tool in the DIYers arsenal, it’s hard to overstate the utility of a pair of humble vise grips. Whether it’s extracting broken fasteners, loosening stubborn nuts, bending and shaping metals, or even temporarily replacing a car’s manual window winder, a pair of locking pliers is an invaluable addition to any toolbox.

Locking pliers (often called vise grips) come in a variety of different designs, but the basic design principle is a hybrid between a regular pair of pliers and a bench vice. In fact, the inventor of locking pliers, William Peterson, was a blacksmith who became frustrated with the limitations of these two tools and wanted something that fused the best of both tools.

The resulting tool has jaws that lock in place and provide a level of grip that would be impossible to reproduce with typical pliers.

I’ll break down how locking pliers work, how to use them, and briefly go over some of their common uses.

How Locking Pliers Work

locking pliers diagram

Locking pliers differ somewhat in their design, but they all share most of the same basic features. A small adjusting bolt on the bottom of the pliers handle serves to adjust the movable jaw – which opens and closes the tool’s jaws.

To unlock the pliers you depress the release lever built into the movable handle. Locking the pliers shut is done by simply squeezing the handles shut until you hear a distinctive sounding ‘click’ noise.

How to Use Locking Pliers (Vise Grips)

Step 1: Test Jaw Fit

First up, you’ll want to test that your pliers jaws fit around whatever you plan to clamp or rotate. Place the jaws around the object and close the pliers by squeezing the handles.

If the jaws are too tight, then you won’t be able to lock the jaws shut no matter how hard you squeeze. If you’re working with something delicate, then avoid squeezing the handles too hard as you can damage the work surface.

Alternatively, if the jaws are too loose, then the pliers will snap shut but the jaws won’t have any grip on whatever you’re trying to grasp.

Step 2: Fine-Tune the Adjustment Bolt

Unless you got lucky with a perfect fit the first time you closed the pliers, you’ll need to fine-tune the adjustment bolt. The adjustment bolt is located on the bottom of the fixed handle and serves to open/close the jaws.

fine tuning the adjusting bolt
Fine tuning the adjusting bolt.

Rotate the adjustment bolt clockwise to narrow the jaws and counterclockwise to widen them.

Once you’ve fine-tuned the jaws, place them around the object once again and test the fit one more time. Repeat this process until the handles click together when you squeeze them and you’ve got a nice snug hold.

Step 3: Rotate or Pull Object

Now you can rotate, pull, or bend whatever object you’re gripping with the vise grips.

locking pliers removing screw
Removing screw with vice grips.

Step 4: Unclamp Vise Grips

When you’re finished using the pliers, press the release lever located in the base of the movable handle. You’ll hear a loud ‘click’ noise when the jaws open – freeing you up to use your pliers for whatever the next job is!

Locking Pliers Uses

Locking pliers are incredibly versatile tools, and for my money, you’d be hard-pressed to name a more useful tool to have around the house when something breaks. You’re probably already aware of their usefulness at removing broken fasteners or loosening frozen nuts, but you may not be aware of some of the more creative uses for these pliers.


Vise grips make an excellent clamp for a variety of different projects, including woodworking jigs, metalworking, and holding materials together while the glue dries. There are even specialty-designed C-clamp vise grips with flat pads for clamping delicate surfaces without damaging them.

Removing Broken Fasteners & Drill Bits

Removing broken screws, bolts, and even broken drill bits is the bread and butter of locking pliers. If a fastener snaps in half while driving it, then you’re typically left with a headless screw or bolt that’s a major pain to extract.

Vise grips make quick work of these broken fasteners by allowing you to grip the threaded body and rotate with enough force to extract the broken screw.

Removing Rounded Bolt Heads

Another area where locking pliers really shine is removing bolts with rounded heads. Once a bolt head becomes damaged to the point where you can’t grip it with a wrench or normal pair of pliers, vice grips come to the rescue by allowing you to grip onto the smooth bolt head and extract it.

Repairing Plumbing Leaks

Unless you’re a plumber, HVAC technician, or mechanic, you’re probably not familiar with using locking pliers for sealing off leaking or damaged pipes or tubing. There are several specialized pinch-off locking pliers designed for this task typically featuring flat scissor-looking jaws.

Replacing Broken Levers or Handles

If a lever, handle, or other control knob breaks off from the shaft beneath it then you’re left with a small nub that can be difficult or impossible to turn by hand. A vise grip makes an excellent temporary replacement for your broken handle, allowing you to quickly return your mechanism to a functional state.

Some people have even used vice grips as a temporary replacement steering wheel after the regular one has broken off.

Bending and Shaping Metal

This won’t work for heavy-duty thick metal, but if you need to bend and shape some thinner metal, vise grips can work fairly well. The locking mechanism gives you superior purchase on the material so you can apply more force than you would be able to with a normal pair of pliers.

Denis Gardner

I've loved tinkering and fixing things for as long as I can remember. So, naturally, I gravitated towards DIY and home improvement when I bought my first home. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or messing around with my newest tool!

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