How to Use Wire Strippers

Electrical Wire Stripping Cutting Pliers
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Found near every electrician, both pro and DIY, a wire stripper is an indispensable tool for electrical work.

A wire stripper is a plier-like device that helps you remove the plastic coating around copper wires.  

Wires need to have coating-free, exposed copper ends so that they can come into contact with terminals or other wiring for projects like wiring receptacles, installing recessed lights, splicing wires, putting in heaters--every single electrical project you can imagine.

A wire stripper is not a cable ripper, a device used to rip away the outer sheathing that binds the wires together.  Once you have ripped away the sheathing, you still need to strip wires.

Wire Strippers Do More Than Strip

Wire strippers perform two actions

  1. Cuts Coating:  The series of holes on the wire stripper fit different sized wires.  When you press the stripper shut, the appropriately sized hole becomes teeth that cut the plastic coating but leaves the core wire intact and undamaged.
  2. Removes Coating:  Continuing the above motion, the user keeps the stripper shut and slides the stripper towards the cut end of the wire, removing and discarding the coating.

Two Types: Normal and Self-Stripping

Normal:  For lack of a better term, normal wire strippers are small, flat, and look like pliers.  These pliers have a head, and when you press shut the handles of the stripper, the head closes up and forms holes.

 They are cheap (around $10, more or less) and simple to use.  When they dull, you can toss them out and replace them with little regret.

Self-Stripping:  Self-stripping wire strippers--Klein Katapult is one such model--strip wires with what they call compound action.  This means that three actions take place when you squeeze the handle:  grip, strip, and remove.

 After you precisely place the wire in the head and press the handle, the stripper grabs onto the wire, cuts and strips it, and completely removes the casing from the wire.  Self-stripping wire strippers are about three times more expensive than normal strippers.

How to Use Wire Strippers

One of the great things about electrical work is predictability. Nothing is left to chance.

It is the same with using wire strippers:  once you know how to use them, nearly every wire will be flawlessly stripped.

  1. Find Wire Gauge:  Identify the gauge of the copper wire to be stripped.  You can find this on the outermost sheathing that binds multiple wires together.  With a number such as 12/2, the first number is wire gauge and the second number (referring to quantity of wires) can be ignored.  The most common wire gauges in household wiring will be limited to:  14 and 12 gauge.  Ten (10) gauge is less commonly found and will be used for high-draw appliances like dryers and air conditioners.
  2. Match Gauges:  Match the gauge with the appropriate hole on the wire stripper. The hole will be marked.  This step is essential.  If you choose a hole that is too big, the coating will not cut and thus the wire will not strip.  If you choose a hole that is too small, both the coating and the wire may entirely sever.  The latter can be a major problem if you are dealing with wires coming out of a box that are already limited in length.
  1. Open and Seat:  Open the wire stripper handles. "Seat" the wire into one side of the hole.
  2. Press:  Slowly press the handles together until they can go no farther.
  3. Twist (Optional): If the coating does not fully cut, you may have to gently rotate the wire within the hole (or the wire stripper around the wire, whichever is easier). You do not have to rotate far: just a quarter turn in one direction and back.
  4. Remove and Discard:  Pull the wire stripper towards the cut end of the wire, like pulling a sock off of a foot.  Discard the casing as it has no further use.

Bottom Line

  • Wire strippers have holes sized to the gauge of the wire. Since the holes are smaller than the diameter of the plastic coating, the cutting edge on the inner part of the holes will slice away the coating.
  • The holes accommodate a mid-range of wire gauges. Wire too thick or too thin cannot be cut with the wire stripper.
  • Wire strippers also come equipped with a wire cutter.  This cuts the wire entirely.
  • Wire strippers can be simple, plier-like devices such as the pictured Klein Wire Stripper.  Or they can be complex devices like Klein's Katapult, which promises to cut and remove the coating in one squeeze of the handle.