When it comes to plumbing and machinery, there are seemingly endless tools available. What is a pipe cutter, and how does it differ from other tools?

As the name implies, a pipe cutter is used to cut pipes. This tool has advantages over a hacksaw because it tends to create clean cuts in a faster time frame. Overall, it’s a more convenient tool than a hacksaw. But depending on what type of metal the pipe is made out of, it might not always be the right tool for a job.

What Is a Pipe Cutter Used For?

A pipe cutter is used by plumbers who need to cut through pipes. They have certain distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Pipe cutters give you clean cuts around the surface of a pipe. They are less likely to leave sharp or ragged edges, though this is still a possibility. Because of their clean cuts, they work well for plumbers who are resizing pipes.

The size of the cutters needs to be taken into account, however. Some pipe cutters, like plastic shears, can only be used on very thin pipes. Thicker jobs will require a pipe cutter with a cutting wheel. You won’t find a cutter that can saw through very thick metal pipes.

Pipe Cutter or Hacksaw?

Whether a pipe cutter or hacksaw is better for your job depends.

Hacksaws are excellent for plastic and metal of basically any size. You don’t need to worry about the thickness or the diameter of the piping like you do with pipe cutters.

However, if you want the exterior of the tube to have a clean-cut, you’ll want the pipe cutters. Keep in mind that the inside of the tube might still have a burr. If you’re working with electrical conduits, you’ll need to make sure to clean that burr so the wires don’t have their insulation stripped away.

The same is true when you use a pipe cutter for a liquid pipe. If there are sharp burrs inside the pipe, the liquid might have a restricted flow. This can lead to damage in worst-case scenarios.

How Does a Pipe Cutter Work?

Plastic pipe cutters work similarly to pruning shears. They simply snip through very thin wires and pipes.

Most models use a cutting wheel instead, though. As you work, the cutting wheel makes a clean cut through the pipe until it is severed.

Using the tool is relatively simple. You’ll attach it to the pipe. Then you’ll use the handle to rotate the wheel 360 degrees around that pipe. It takes several rotations to cut all the way through the pipe.

The harder the metal, the more rotations you’ll need. The wheel will wear into the groove that you’ve already cut to create a clean circle. Soft materials like aluminum and copper will be sheared through easily, while thick steel or iron pipe will require far more rotations.

If you have an adjustable pipe cutter, you can change the size of the clamp. That allows you to cut through quite a few different pipe sizes. But you’ll need to turn the handle every few rotations so that the wheel is pressed properly against the pipe.

It’s important to use ample pressure as you turn the wheel. If you’re not using enough of your own strength, the wheel will score the metal without cutting it.

Manual pipe cutters use your strength and patience for the rotation. For tougher jobs, there are electric-powered cutters. These run on batteries. Their motors move the wheel around the pipe so you don’t have to, doing an entire job in seconds. You’re more likely to benefit from this kind of model if you’re a professional who often cuts through different materials.

Types of Pipe Cutters

Different pipe cutting tools are optimized for different materials, sizes, and thickness levels. As a general rule, cutters that cut through heavy-duty metals will be more expensive than those that can only handle soft materials.

A copper tubing cutter is one of the most common models. You can find them in sizes built for both small and large pipes. With these, you grip a pipe between two rollers and the cutting wheel. Then you rotate the wheel around the pipe.

Though these are rated for use with copper, they can also be used with a variety of hard plastics along with electric metal tubing. Keep in mind, though, that tougher metals will dull your blade.

If you’re a professional plumber, you’ll probably want a few different copper cutters in your toolbox.

One type is small, about the size of your thumb. This is perfect for when you’re working with pipes in difficult locations. You want to have enough room to move the tool around the pipe. Keep in mind that these tools only handle pipes about an inch in diameter, and you have to use more effort.

You’ll also want a standard set of cutters. These are outfitted with an easy-grip handle and larger construction. It’s easy to rotate the wheel around the pipe for faster cutting. There are also multiple models that include reaming tools, so you can smooth the pipe edges prior to doing any fitting work.

Another option is an auto-cutter. These automatically tighten on each rotation, so you don’t have to worry about manual tightening.

A PVC pipe cutter is designed for PVC pipe. These ratcheting cutters are built for plastic tubing, and they look similar to shears. As you squeeze the handles, the ratchet moves the blade little by little to cut through PVC and CPVC pipes.

These models are built to handle pipes with diameters of two inches or less. They are super affordable if you’re working with small PVC pipes and don’t need any stronger materials. However, they aren’t the best choice for ABS plastics.

Final Thoughts

Pipe cutters are important hand tools for plumbers who want to cleanly and efficiently cut through pipes. Copper pipe cutters work best for most jobs. Just keep in mind that if you’re dealing with heavy-duty stainless steel or cast iron pipes, you’ll probably want a steel pipe cutters or a hacksaw instead.