Top-quality craftsmanship in a 3-piece set that is also versatile, thanks to the 5 interchangeable tips that come with each tool. Includes a handy storage case.
The locks can be hard to maneuver when you change the tips, but once in place the tools won't disappoint.
An 8-piece set with 4 internal/4 external pliers with precision tips that are built to hold up to tough jobs. Tools have a durable feel in the hand.
Tips are too large for some tasks and tight spaces. One the most costly on our list, yet doesn't come with a case.
A large set packed with the most popular sizes. Handles are easy to grip. The rugged case has individual slots to keep the tools organized.
Some reports of issues with the tips, including bends and misalignments.
Durable tools with the Craftsman name that is recognized for its quality and the lifetime tool warranty. Convertible to external/internal just like larger sets.
If you need more tools for your shop or garage, this duo probably won't be enough to accomplish all of your jobs. May not work with large snap rings. No case.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
There's nothing like having exactly the right tool for the job. It might be possible to fit snap rings and other retaining clips using nonspecific tools, but if you've ever tried it, you know how difficult and frustrating it can be. It’s easy to break components, and if you're not careful, you can end up hurting yourself, too.
A snap ring pliers set is a simple and cost-effective solution, and there are plenty of these sets to choose from with varying tip angles, changeable heads or tips, and other features that you may or may not need.
We've been assessing the differences so we can bring you properly researched advice to help you choose the right set for your needs. Our recommended products offer something for those on a budget and those looking for a high-quality, durable solution. The following buying guide looks at the subject in more detail.
Snap rings are a type of retaining ring. They have a number of names, including circlips, C-clips, and R-clips. Most are a steel O shape that isn’t quite a fully closed circle — it has a break in it, a small gap for opening and closing. On each of the ends there's a lug with a hole in it. These holes allow the insertion of the ends of the snap ring pliers. Retaining rings are usually flat, but some have beveled edges, which helps with proper location. Sizes range from less than 1/10 inch to over 40 inches (the latter requires special tools — there's no way to make snap ring pliers that big).
In most cases, snap rings are designed to fit into a narrow groove, providing a physical barrier that prevents a component from sliding off a shaft or out from inside a bore. To suit both applications, there are external and internal types. Snap ring pliers either close the O to fit inside a shaft, and the ring then springs open to fix itself securely in the groove, or the pliers open the O a little to place it over the shaft and then “snaps” closed when released.
There are other means of securing things on shafts — using a washer and cotter pin is a fairly common way — but they almost always require more than one component and more than one operation to fit, and they are more expensive to make. Thus, the snap ring is extremely popular.
Be careful — snap rings have a nasty habit of pinging off the pliers if they aren't securely held. Always wear eye protection when fitting them.
Size: This is a major factor. Snap rings can be damaged if overstretched or distorted, so these tools open less than standard general-purpose pliers to prevent this. If you're working with even a small selection of snap rings, you’ll soon end up needing several tools. This is why these pliers are mostly sold in sets. Check sizes carefully when ordering.
Tip angle: This can vary. It's sometimes difficult to get pliers with a straight tip in between components — inside an engine bay, for example — so 45° and 90° options are available.
Changeable heads: If you add up a few sizes and a few different tips, it's easy to see how a snap ring pliers set soon ends up including a half dozen or more tools. Changeable heads are one solution intended to reduce this number. Instead of having lots of different pliers, you just change the head. The problem with this is that a changeable head isn't usually as strong as a fixed head. These are fine for hobbyists who only need to use the tool occasionally, but you're unlikely to find them in the toolbox of a professional.
Changeable tips: These are more robust than changeable heads because only the part that enters the snap ring holes is changed, and these are often made of very tough spring steel. These sets have a variety of angled tips and can also be switched between external and internal operation. The only drawback is the number of small parts you have, both the tips themselves and the retaining screws or clips that hold them in place. They can be fiddly to swap, and if you're not careful, it's all too easy to lose them on a workshop floor.
Locking pin: One of the problems that can occur with both changeable heads and tips is the overextension of the snap ring that we mentioned before. To prevent this, these tools usually have some kind of adjustable stop or locking pin.
Springs: These are often incorporated between the handles, returning the pliers to the “rest” position. This might seem like a minor benefit, but it can make quite a difference to your hand comfort if you're using the pliers all day.
Ratchet: On heavy-duty retaining ring pliers of several types, you'll also find a one-way ratchet. Large automotive and engineering clips require considerable force to open. The ratchet means you don’t have to maintain hand pressure. The user releases the ratchet once the snap ring is in position.
Threaded bar and T-bar: Though not common, some heavy-duty snap ring pliers replace the standard handles with a threaded bar and T-bar (like you find on a bench vise). These allow you to exert a lot of pressure (much more than you could with ordinary pliers) with minimal effort.
Handles: These are often the basic plastic-dipped type, though you can find more comfortable combinations of rubber and plastic. Never assume that these will protect you from electric shocks. They won't. If you work with electrical components, look for a pair with properly insulated handles.
Case or wallet: A case is always a nice addition, giving you a convenient way to store and transport your snap ring pliers set without them getting mixed up with other tools.
Interchangeable tips means you don't need lots of pairs of pliers, but keep an eye on the retaining screws, which are small and easy to lose.
Retaining rings can be easy to distort. Always use the right size pliers to prevent overstretching. Some snap ring pliers have adjustable stops that increase versatility.
With so many different snap ring pliers sets available, there's an answer to every need, and you can usually find a match between the specification you need and your budget. That being the case, the following is some general guidance.
Inexpensive: The cheapest snap ring pliers sets are the mini sets, tools that fit in the palm of your hand and allow you to work on small components in tight spaces. It's possible to buy a set of four for around $10, but quality sets cost $20 to $30.
Mid-range: General-purpose snap ring pliers sets vary enormously. You can find sets of eight or ten tools for $30 to $40, but they can be very poorly made. As a rough guide, we would expect to pay $7 to $12 each for good-quality tools.
Expensive: At the upper end of the price scale you have precision tools with interchangeable tips that cost about $100 for a set of three and large, heavy-duty models supplied in pairs for $75 to $110.
If you're working with small retaining rings or in confined spaces, your job will be made easier with the Neiko 02129A Mini Snap Ring Pliers Set. You get two internal and two external pliers, with straight and 45° tips that are heat-treated for durability. The OTC Tools 4513 Stinger Snap Ring Pliers Set is at the other end of the spectrum. These are heavy-duty tools with capacities of over six inches and ratchets to counteract the tension when fitting snap rings of this size. They come in a nice blow-molded case, with two extra sets of replaceable tips. If you're working with lock rings and horseshoe washers that don't have holes for snap ring pliers, the Stanley Proto J250G Pliers offer a high-quality solution for an often tricky task. User feedback rates them as just about flawless.
Q. Why do some sets have such a large number of pliers?
A. Snap rings come in a huge variety of sizes. They can be internal or external, and you might need an angled tool to get best access. If you know precisely what you need — and only have a few applications — a small set can be an economical option. If you have multiple applications or numerous component sizes, a large set gives you a comprehensive solution.
Q. Are lock rings the same as snap rings?
A. Retaining rings have lots of different names and are sometimes very similar in appearance. We've seen lock rings described as snap rings, but there is one type that doesn't have holes. These are used on transmissions and CV joints. It's important to note that although the tool to change them looks very similar to snap ring pliers, it is not the same.
Q. Can I use needle-nose pliers to do the same job?
A. You might be able to, but needle-nose pliers have tapered tips, so it's difficult to retain the snap ring under the pressure exerted when you expand or compress it. It will have a tendency to slip off — or suddenly fly across the room!
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