Tongs, Pincers, and Pliers

By Joseph A. McGeough

Tongs, pincers, tweezers, and pliers have the common task of holding or gripping objects so that they may be handled more easily. The early use of fire created a new problem, that of handling hot coals. Two sticks probably served as the first uncertain holders, but bronze bars may have replaced wooden tongs as early as 3000 BCE. An Egyptian wall painting of about 1450 BCE shows a crucible supported between two bow-shaped metal bars. The same painting shows a craftsperson, blowpipe in mouth, holding a small object over a fire with a tweezer like instrument about 20 to 25 cm (8 to 10 inches) long. Bronze loops capable of handling large and heavy crucibles also appeared at this time.

Spring-back, or tweezer like, tongs were the model used by the early ironsmith. The change to the mechanically more effective hinged tongs was slow, and it was not until 500 BCE that they became common in the Greek blacksmith’s kit. Pivoted tongs, with short jaws and a long handle, have quite a mechanical advantage over tweezer-like tongs. A pair of 51-cm (20-inch) pivoted tongs is capable of exerting a gripping force of nearly 135 kg (300 pounds) with only an 18-kg (40-pound) squeeze from the smith’s hand. Such tongs were constructed with one handle slightly shorter than the other so that an oval ring could be slipped over the two to help secure the grip.

Small tongs, often called pliers or forceps, were particularly valuable to the early craftsperson. who put them to many and varied uses. The Romans sharpened the jaws of tongs to create cutters and pincers. The pincers were useful for pulling bent nails because of the leverage they were capable of exerting. Although they were originally a carpenter’s tool, pincers became a principal tool of the farrier because old nails had to be pulled from horses’ hooves before new shoes could be fitted and nailed on.

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