A bad tool can destroy a project. A good tool won't save a project but it can stretch your tolerance budget to let you tackle the hard problems. If you work near electronics you'll notice there are a number of different types of wire strippers, but there isn't a whole lot of information on what the differences mean. Some cost more, some less. They're different shapes. Some have red handles, some have yellow, some blue. But does any of that matter? Do you even need such a specialized tool? Can't you just use something else?
This isn't a buying guide, its to help you pick the right kind of tool that you need. Within the families below there are a lot of different options. Price and performance don't relate much to each other, so do your homework and check reviews before you buy.If you can recommend a specific midel that outperforms, by all means suggest it in comments.
When you do choose one, pay attention to whether your strippers are calibrated for solid core or stranded wire. (If applicable). Stranded wire is a bit larger than solid core of the same gauge. It's common (though far from standard) that strippers calibrated for stranded wire have yellow handles, solid core have red.
Bite the wire, pull, spit.
Pros: Most people have these on their person at all times
Cons: Chipped tooth enamel. Dental bills that are cost more than the most expensive wire stripper. Not terribly reliable
Lay the wire on a flat surface, lay the knife on the wire, roll it one full revolution. Pull off the severed insulation with your fingers. Scissors also can work if you're desperate.
Pros: You probably have one.
Cons: Slow. Easy to nick the wire or even cut all the way through, especially stranded wire. Dulls your knife and, if you're like me, occasionally makes your fingers bleed.
Verdict: Works in a pinch, but if you need to strip more than a few wires you'll want to graduate to something built for the purpose.
Cheapo Adjustable Wire Stripper
These are basically scissors with a little notch cut out. There is a stop screw that you can adjust back and forth which keeps it from closing too far. You adjust the screw so that it will close and cut through the insulation but not the wire. The "good" ones have a spring to pop them open again after using.
Pros: As little as $1.25. Works with with just about any gauge or type of wire. The cutting edge can be sharpened.
Cons: Hard to adjust correctly. If it slips out of adjustment it will damage the wire. A real pain to adjust to different gauges.
Verdict: If your wire stripper budget is less than $1.50, this is your choice. Everyone else steer clear. They're not awful but they're not great and for a few dollars more you can get something much better. If the set screw is 0.5mm too far one direction you'll only mangle the insulation, 0.5mm in the other direction you'll damage the wire. Any time you change wire gauges you need to painstakingly adjust the thing again. (There are gauge marks on the slot to help calibrate, but I've found them to be more aspirational than helpful.) That said, if run an electronics workshop and need a dozen, this is not an awful choice. Once you have it adjusted correctly put some thread lock on it to keep it from slipping to a smaller gauge.
Probably the most common kind of wire stripper you'll see. It's a good balance of price and performance. This kind of stripper is like a pair of pliers with with precise bladed holes for specific gauges of wire. Place the wire in the correct slot, close and pull.
Pros: Cheap. Nothing to adjust. Many models have a crimper and/or cutter built-in.
Cons: Only works with specific gauges (ex: 10-22 gauge in 2 gauge increments) so you might need more than one. A bit fiddly to use. Can damage the wire if you're not careful to pull straight. Can't replace or sharpen the blades.
Verdict: There is a reason they're the most common. They're affordable and they work well enough. I personally I don't like them because I have a hard time keeping the wire in the right slot when I close them. I don't even own a pair at the moment so this photo comes from an Evil Mad Scientist article about tools they love. And Windell says this is the one he'd want on a desert island. So there!
Self Adjusting Automatic Wire Stripper
These sound like a dream. According to the ad copy you put any wire in the mouth of the thing, squeeze the handle and you get a perfectly stripped wire. When they work well they're hard to beat. When they fail they're worse than worthless. There are a number of different models but they all work the same way, and seem to all succeed or fail in the same circumstances.
Pros: Super fast and easy to use. Most models have an adjustable depth gauge so you'll always remove the same length of insulation from the end of the wire. Some models have cutters or crimpers built in.
Cons: More expensive than most other types of stripper. ($20+) Leaves a nick in the wire at the beginning of the strip point. Simply doesn't work on certain types of wire.
Verdit: Fantastic, but don't let it be your only wire stripper. I reach for this one first when I need quick wires for a non-critical project. Squeeze the trigger and you're done. You can do it with your eyes closed. However they nick the wire right where it cuts the insulation. That leads to weak points so I'm hesitant to use it when I'm working on a project I need to last. There are some types of wire it simply cuts straight through. I haven't been able to predict this, it seems independent of gauge or wire composition. Other times it shreds the insulation. This appears to happen most with Teflon and Kynar coated wire and wire with multilayer insulation.
Gauged Automatic Wire Stripper
This one is a combination of a gauged stripper and a self adjusting stripper. Like the gauged one it has sized slots for each gauge it can work with. Place the wire in the right spot and squeeze. In one movement it grabs the wire, closes the stripping jaws and then pulls the insulation free. A spring pulls everything back to the start.
Pros: Easy and fast to use. Cutting jaws can be replaced when dull. Least likely to damage the wire. Fun to use.
Cons: More expensive than most other strippers. ($35+) You still have to futz with the wire to get it in the right slot. Only works on a few different gauges without changing cutting jaws (or buying two).
Verdict: These are my favorite, but I suspect most people will find them overkill. They always work, they never nick the wire and they last for ever. The cutting jaws are made of better steel than any other type I've used, and you can replace just them without replacing the whole thing. And most importantly they have an interesting multi-step mechanical movement that's fun to watch. My only gripe is that you still have to be a bit careful about placing the wire in the right place, but I have much less problem keeping it there than I do with plain gauged strippers. If you look closely you can see that I made an adjustable gauge for mine to help place the wire correctly.
Specialty/Professional wire Strippers There are other options if you're working with unusual wires, especially coaxial cable, or stripping thousands of wires a day. If you need one of those you probably know it and probably didn't even read this far.Did I leave out something important? Let me know in comments.
Update: James Williamson (Jayefuu) writes in to share his method of stripping wires with a pair of sharp side cutters. I played with it for a bit and it's by far the best of the "no specialized tools" methods. How well it will work for you depends on how sharp your cutters are and how dextrous your hands are.
This article first appeared at grathio.com