Adjustable Wrench Versus Pipe Wrench

The adjustable wrench and the pipe wrench are tools that are designed for different purposes although they do have certain features in common (such as adjustability) and can sometimes be used interchangeably. Here's how they compare to each other.

Adjustable Wrench

An adjustable wrench is an open-ended wrench with a movable jaw that enables it to be used with nuts and bolts of varying sizes. The movable jaw is adjusted via a worm gear mechanism that is turned forward or backward with the thumb.

An adjustable wrench is also referred to as an adjustable end wrench, an adjustable spanner, a shifter or a Crescent wrench. The term "Crescent" derives from the Crescent Tool Company which invented the modern adjustable end wrench in the early 1900's. An infamous nickname for the adjustable wrench is the "Knucklebuster", due to the propensity for the jaws to suddenly break loose from the fastener causing one's knuckles to slam into the nearest hard surface.

Pipe Wrench

A pipe wrench is a plumber's tool used to connect and disconnect iron pipes and fittings. It consists of a heavy metal handle and two serrated jaws, one of which is fixed in position, and the other adjustable. The distance between the two jaws is controlled by turning a knurled knob that connects to threads on the adjustable jaw, moving the top of the wrench up or down. The metal teeth are angled so that they dig into the pipe or fitting as the wrench is turned. The jaws are also angled so the distance between them is smaller towards the back of the wrench, providing some flexibility in getting the right fit.

Some plumbers call a pipe wrench a "Stillson", which is a reference to the tool invented by Daniel Stillson in the 1860's. His design is the basis of most modern pipe wrenches.

Wrench Sizes

Pipe wrenches are sold in a variety of sizes based on the length of the handle. Sizes typically range from 10 to 48 inches. There are also different styles related to the offset between the handle and the jaws. Pipe wrenches are generally heavier than adjustable wrenches for wrenches of comparable length. Adjustable wrenches generally range in size from 4 to 12 inches.

Fastener Damage

The teeth on a pipe wrench can leave score marks on the pipe or fastener. An adjustable wrench does not leave score marks but it does have a tendency to round nuts especially if the nut is tight and the wrench is slightly loose. Note: If damaging the nut is not a concern, a pipe wrench can sometimes be used in place of an adjustable wrench to loosen hard to remove nuts.

Other Considerations

The adjustable wrench differs from a monkey wrench (an older type of adjustable wrench) in that the faces of the jaws are typically canted 15 degrees relative to the tool's handle. This is beneficial when using the tool in tight quarters. With a monkey wrench, the jaws are oriented perpendicular to the handle.

An adjustable wrench is a handy tool to keep in the toolbox because it can be used with fasteners of many different sizes. It's often used in situations where one uses wrenches infrequently such as in an emergency toolkit.