The past decade has been a period of significant change for professional plumbers. Expanded material options have meant more and different tools, plus new learning curves and the usual new product jitters. 

And as anyone driving around can see, Americans have “super-sized” their housing orders. The average single-family dwelling today is nearly twice as large as it was 30 years ago, and today’s big homes are gigantic. We joke about “starter castles,” but by today’s standards, Graceland is a starter home. From the plumber’s perspective, single-stack homes are rapidly going the way of the dodo. 

Low mortgage rates and easier loan qualification have allowed consumers to get more house for their money, which is good, but bigger homes are more complicated, with more equipment and more potential problems. And it’s still a competitive marketplace. Plumbers are under the same pressures as before to get in and get out quickly, to do a first rate job in a hurry.

When the dust settles, plumbing is still largely about cutting and fitting pipe.  The pipes may be longer, larger and made of plastic, but plumbers still need to fly to make money installing them. This is where the correct hand tools can really make a difference, especially tubing cutters, because piping is changing quickly. 

Many jurisdictions now allow professionally installed PEX pipe, and with today’s copper prices, the rest will likely follow. When plumbers have to delay installing copper lines in new houses, just to keep them from being stolen, something is likely to give. This all goes to the issue of affordable-housing, which is important. 

Of course, copper will always be with us, in commercial applications, in remodels and in jurisdictions where PEX is allowed throughout the house, but not between the meter and water heater. Many jobs will be plumbed in a combination of copper and plastic for some time to come.  

In these situations, an alternative might be a multi-layer tubing, which is PEX tubing that contains an aluminum core and holds its shape when bent, often called PEX-AL-PEX. And finally, CPVC will likely remain popular, so house plumbers can expect to see it all; hard and soft copper, PEX, multi-layer (PEX-AL-PEX), CPVC, galvanized iron, you name it. Commercial plumbers will also encounter aluminum, brass and stainless steel. 

This usually means plumbers must carry cutters and reamers for various materials, often in several sizes. The costs can add up, really straining tool budgets, especially for young guys starting out and for established plumbers hoping to add new trucks and crews. One way to trim costs is to choose tubing cutters that can do double or triple duty. 

Many cutters made for metal pipe work well on plastic, too, though typically not right out of the box. You’ll usually want to swap out the cutting wheel. Tubing cutters don’t so much cut pipe, as displace the material in both directions along a V-shaped central line. Plastic, which displaces easily, cuts better with a larger, thinner wheel.  When used on plastic, cutting wheels made specifically for metal may not be large enough in diameter to cut through thick-walled plastic material, which could cause binding or bottoming out. Special wheels are also available for stainless steel tubing, which means that a single cutter can now do triple duty.

The catch here has always been that changing out the wheels on most cutters is a hassle, enough that plumbers usually end up buying a second cutter when they do enough of both types of work. This improves convenience, but it doubles the cost and increases the weight of the tool box. 

Recognizing this problem, some manufactures now make cutters with an extra cutting wheel stored in the knob and with quick change wheel pins, which allow you to switch out wheels in a few seconds. These pins hold securely, but pop out at the press of a finger. Wheel change-outs really are that quick and easy.

If you don’t need a special wheel for plastics or stainless, then the knob can simply carry a placement wheel. This will allow the job to keep moving when your new apprentice breaks the original wheel, which you know he’s going to do.

What else should you look for in a cutter? It depends on the job. For new construction and large remodels, where you can work mostly in the open, a larger cutter with a good sized, ergonomically designed knob will give you better torque, allowing faster cuts. A quick-acting, push-to-fit sizing mechanism can also save a lot of time.  These latch-spring mechanisms allow rapid adjustment to a variety of pipe sizes. You just push ‘til the handle stops. For remodel work, or for tight spaces generally, a size reduction is usually in order. Some miniature cutters can rotate around a 3/4-inch pipe with less than 1-1/2 inches of clearance. The best of these now have oblong knobs for a much easier thumb grip. 

Tubing cutters with a spring-loaded design also make things easier, by eliminating the need to stop and retighten the knob every couple of rotations. With these cutters, you insert the tube in the cutter and tighten the knob two quick rotations to load the spring then just rotate the cutter until the cut is complete.

Miniature cutters can be real job savers, with geometry that is tough for frequent cutting, especially if you have a little more working room. In these cases, a constant swing (radius) tubing cutter works even better. Unlike standard cutters, where the feed screw and handle extend outward to accommodate larger pipes, the knobs on constant swing cutters stay put. Only the enclosed screw and wheel travel in and out.  And because the screw is concealed, it’s less likely to clog and bind with construction debris.

In other words, a constant swing cutter is always the same size, which is an advantage in close work. But these cutters are also big enough to allow larger knobs, which improve comfort and increase speed. If you do a lot of work with PEX, or sprinkler system poly-pipe, the quickest cuts to be made are with scissor-style cutters.   There are now three distinct styles of plastic cutters - scissor-type, single-stroke scissor-type and ratcheting. The scissor-type is a lightweight, affordable cutter with decent leverage. These cut squarely, when you’re careful, and without leaving a burr or deforming the end of the pipe. Lightweight scissor-type cutters can slice through softer plastics including PEX and poly-pipe, ranging in size between 1/8 to 1-5/8 inches O.D capacity. It can cut PVC, but it’s not the best tool for this material. These tools usually require some rotation and rocking the cutter back and forth - especially on harder plastics - which can be a problem in tight spaces. The body of these tools are normally constructed of plastic, so they are not ideal for heavy-duty use.

For rigorous use and larger and harder pipes, up to 2-3/8-inch PVC, a scissor cutter with a ratchet mechanism in the grip is a better choice. These range in price from $13 to $100, with quality keyed to price. One cautionary note: Make sure the tool you buy has a replaceable blade. Ratcheting cutters rely on a compound leverage mechanism to power through hard and soft plastic pipes, including two-inch PVC. These tools reduce the amount of hand force needed to make the cut, but can take up to 13 ratchets to finish a cut. The best of these are pro tools, and will last a long time.

But perhaps the best cutter for professional use is a single-stroke scissor cutter, a relatively new addition to the market. Some of these have an advanced blade design that can slice through up to 1.375 O.D. hard PVC in a single stroke. A built-in cam mechanism helps maintain a mechanical advantage throughout the cut stroke. The result is more cuts with less effort, which is what every plumber wants.