Unfastening Tools

Gain some knowledge on the tools that will help with demolition and nail removal.

By Bob Vila | Updated Nov 10, 2013 7:55 PM

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Pry bars, crowbars, pinch bars, flat bars, and cat’s-paws; those are the names of some of the sturdy steel tools that pull nails, pry boards, and perform other demolition tasks. One manufacturer goes so far as to call its crowbar a “Renovator’s Bar.”

Several of these tools belong in the fully equipped toolbox. They save wear and tear on the claw hammer when pulling large nails, as well as on the muscles of the arm and back. The leverage a wrecking bar provides makes a number of demolition jobs seem possible, and sometimes easy. When used with care, some of them (in particular, the flat bar) can remove quite delicate wood pieces intact, allowing for res­toration and reconstruction.

Flat Bar. The pry bar or wonder bar, as this tool is also known, is made of flat steel. Typically two inches wide and fifteen inches long, the flat bar is an invaluable tool for separating wooden elements that have been nailed to one another.

Unlike the pinch bar (which, given its bulk and shape, is a brute and difficult to wield gently), the flat bar can, when used with care and patience, help dismantle delicate woodwork while causing a min­imum of damage. Its ends are beveled and notched, and can be driven between clapboards, for example, and then be used to pry them apart. Nails can be removed using either of the notches or the teardrop-shaped hole cast in the middle of the bar. 

Wrecking Bar. Made of steel that is octagonal in section, the wrecking bar has a flattened blade at one end and a hook-and-claw shape at the other. Though sold in several sizes from one to four feet in length, none of its incarnations is this a gentle or fragile tool.

The pinch bar, as it is also commonly known, is for wrecking. It’s designed so the hooked end can be hammered, driving the blade at the other between wooden elements. The length of the bar then provides leverage to pry the wood apart. The claw at the curved end can also be used to remove nails; again, the length of the tool offers sufficient leverage to make removing even large nails a relatively easy matter.

The wrecking bar belongs in the toolboxes of almost all carpenters, even if the plan is only to attempt new construction. As any experienced carpenter will tell you, mistakes get made even by veterans; and the wrecking bar comes in very handy for undoing rough framing, or for small, medium or large demolition jobs. Along with its cousin the flat bar, the wrecking bar is a tool that doesn’t seem essential—until it’s the only one that will do. Like a crowbar (a larger-scale wrecking tool with no hook on its end), the wrecking bar can also be used as a lever to lift heavy objects like stones or machinery. For most purposes, a 24-inch wrecking bar will prove adequate.

Nail Puller. In our time, these practical tools are known as nail-pullers, but your grandfather’s grandfather would have known them as carpenter’s pincers. Made of steel (or, in the case of antique nail- pullers, of iron), the flat head of the tool is positioned flush to a wood surface in order to remove nails, tacks, or even screws clamped in its straight jaws.

Nail-pullers are especially handy in tight spaces or angles where a claw hammer hasn’t room to work. The nail-puller is a multipurpose tool, as it can also be used to drive nails, using the flattened exterior of its head. Nail-pullers are found in several sizes, typically from about six to ten inches in length.

A related tool, called end-cutting pliers, closely resembles nail- pullers except that the jaws are sharpened for cutting nails, wire, or other metal items.

Cat’s-Paw. If the pry bar is the bulldog of the demolition tools, then this is one tough tomcat. It’s a smaller pry bar, and designed for pulling nails (hence, one of its nicknames, the nail-puller). Some varieties have a handle on one end, others have a thin, flat prying surface, a more delicate version of the hook on a flat bar. Still others have claws at both ends, one aligned with the shaft of the tool, the other at a 90-degree angle to it. The claws on a cat’s-paw are usually spoon-shaped.