When fabricating sheet metal or panels you may sometimes need to fasten the workpieces together or hold them in place before attaching them permanently. This is not difficult when working on the bench because you can use regular clamps or locking pliers.
But when working on the actual end product or off the workbench, you need a different set of fasteners. Cleco fasteners are the best alternative to C clamps. These removable panel fasteners are versatile, easy to install and remove, and provide a firm grip on sheet materials. Seasoned sheet metal fabricators, autobody mechanics, and aircraft builders use them to hold panels together temporarily before welding them together or attaching them permanently. Cleco fasteners go along with cleco pliers.
In this article, we take a look at cleco pliers and how to use them with cleco rivets and clamps fasten together panels in your fabrication project.
What are Cleco pliers?
Cleco pliers are a type of sheet metal pliers for attaching and removing cleco fasteners. These pliers are spring-loaded so that the jaws remain open and only close when you squeeze the handles.
Cleco pliers have hollow jaws but the top jaw is sealed on the top side while the lower jaw is an open ring. It looks like an open-end wrench.
The opening on the lower jaw allows you to slide the cleco and grab it by the collar while the top jaw acts as an anvil for pressing the cleco head when you squeeze the handles.
Types of cleco fasteners
There are two types of cleco fasteners: clamps type and rivet type. The clamp type clecos fasten two pieces together using spring-loaded jaws.
To use them, you simply pull apart the jaws with cleco pliers, put a workpiece in between, and release the clamp. The spring mechanism in the clamp will keep the jaws tight on the workpiece.
The only downside of cleco spring clamps is that they attach only to the edge of a workpiece.
On the other hand, cleco rivets hold panels together through a hole. They work the same way as a 2-piece push clip except that they are big, have a steel body construction, and use a spring-enabled plunger.
When you place cleco rivet in cleco pliers and squeeze the handles, the top jaw of the pliers pushes the cleco head downward to extend the barbed tip so that it is narrow enough to fit in a hole. Once you thread the cleco rivet into the hole and release it, the barbed tip retracts and is expanded by a center pin which causes the rivet to lock tightly it in place.
The advantage of cleco rivets is that you can use them anywhere on the panel including at the center and on the edges. The only downside is that cleco rivet clamps are destructive. You must drill a hole into the panel to attach them.
But despite the difference in how the two types of clecos attach to a panel, they use a similar spring mechanism that enables them to lock tightly onto a workpiece. They are also similar in design, which is why you need cleco pliers to operate them.
How to use cleco pliers
Whether you are building the body of an aircraft, repairing the body panel of a car, or just fabricating something with sheet material, this is how you can use cleco pliers and fasteners to hold panels together strongly.
Step 1: Select the type of cleco fastener to use
As I mentioned, there are two types of cleco fasteners and they are used in different circumtances. The rivet style clecos attach through holes whereas clamp style clecos use jaws.
If you don’t want to drill holes into the panel, use clamp clecos. However, these clecos only attach from the edges of the material. If you need to hold pieces together in the middle, you will have to use rivet clecos.
I find both styles of cleco fasteners very useful unless you only want a non-destructive solution.
Step 2: Place the cleco in the pliers
Put the cleco clamp or rivet in the cleco pliers so that the flange on the barrel sits on the lower jaw while the top jaw presses against the cleco head.
Step 3: Set up the panel
Set the panel where you want to hang it. If you are working on the bench, set the two pieces of material you want to clamp together.
Step 4: Install the cleco fastener.
If you are using a cleco clamp, proceed to attach it to the workpiece. With the clamp set properly in the cleco pliers, press the handles to open the clamping jaws of the cleco and attach it to the edge of the workpiece.
If you are using cleco rivets, start by drilling a hole into the panel where you want to attach the rivet. The size of the hole must be the same as size of the cleco rivet. For instance, if you are using a 1/8″ cleco fastener, you need a 1/8″ drill bit.
When the hole is ready, compress the cleco rivet with cleco pliers so that the stem will stick out and fit into the hole. Then release the handles so that the stem will retract and lock in place the temporary fastener.
Put as many fasteners as you need. You can even mix both style of clecos in case there are places on the edge of the panel you don’t want to drill holes.
Warning: Be very careful when using clamp style clecos because the jaws are so tight and could pinch your finger and cause a blood blister.
Step 5: Remove the cleco fastener
Once you are done mounting the panel and you are happy with how it looks, you can proceed to fasten it permanently. Use screws, rivets, or any other permanent fastener of your liking. Alternatively, you can weld the panels together especially if you are dealing sheet metal.
Remove cleco fasteners one by one as you permanently attach the panel. To take out a cleco fastener from the workpiece, simply slide the cleco pliers onto the fastener to grab it. Then squeeze the handles of the pliers to compress the cleco and release it from the panel.
Tip: If you are using screws or rivets to attach the panel permanently, use the same holes you drilled for attaching the temporary fasteners. This will ensure that your panel will not have too many unused holes. If the holes are too small for your permanent fasteners, you can expand them to the right size with a bigger drill bit.
Which are the best cleco pliers sets?
Unless you want to replace your cleco pliers, it is a better idea to get cleco pliers as a kit with a good number of both types of cleco fasteners. This is particularly important if you are getting started in sheet metal fabircation. In the future, you can add more clamps and rivets as you need them.
These are are some of the best cleco sets on the market.
HC Pacific Cleco Fastener Deluxe Kit – Best Overall
- Includes sizes 20 pieces 3/32″, 1/8″, 5/32″, and 3/16″ cleco rivets
- Grip range: 0 – 1/4″
- 6 side grip cleco clamps
- Cleco pliers have plastic coated handles
The Deluxe cleco kit from HC Pacific is one of the best sets you will get at an affordable price. The kit includes 20 pieces of 4 different sizes of rivet style clecos, a few side grip clamps, and of course cleco pliers. They are all solid and the spring mechanism on each fastener ensures a tight grip on the panel.
The rivet style clecos have a rivet depth of 1/4″ while side grip clamps can grip 1/2″ and 1″ workpieces.
The clecos are all the common sizes you would need in a project and they are standard sizes. This means you can use them with other cleco pliers although the set of pliers that comes with this kit is good enough. It opens and closes very well and feels sturdy in the hand.
This is the perfect cleco set for a hobbyist fabricator or an autobody mechanic. You get so many fasteners to play with and you won’t have to break the bank. If you are building a project car, these fasteners would be more than enough to hold replacement panels in place while test fitting. It would also be a great toolset for welding when you can’t use regular clamps and there is no one to hold the sheet metals together for you.
The only downside with this set is that it does not come with a carry case. I think with all these fasteners, it would be nice to include a pouch in the kit. It is a nice wholesome kit, nonetheless.
And if 86 fasteners are too many for you, HC Pacific offers a smaller cleco set with 22 fasteners and pliers. It has 5 rivet clecos of 4 different sizes and 2 clamps style clecos of different depths. The kit goes for less than $30.
MRO Tools Cleco Fasteners – Best for Mechanics
- Cleco sizes: 25 pieces 1/8″, and 3/16″
- Grip range: 0 – 1/4″
- 6 side grip cleco clamps
- Cleco pliers have vinyl grip handles
- Includes a zippable pouch
MRO Tools is a household name amongst professional autobody mechanics and aircraft mechanics. This US company makes some of the best cleco pliers and fasteners.
The MRO clecos are perfectly built and color coded. The spring mechanism on each cleco is strong enough to generate the tension needed to hold panels firmly.
This kit offers cleco pliers and 50 pieces of the most popular sizes of clecos (1/8″ and 3/16″), 25 each. These are enough fasteners to get you through a car project. The pliers are well-built, have a good grip, and fit well in the hand. And to top it all off, you get a nice zippered branded pouch for carrying the whole set and keeping everything together in the toolbox.
Unfortunately, this kit does not include the clamp style clecos. Also, you only get the two sizes of rivet clecos (1/8 & 3/16) but these are the only sizes that matter to professional mechanics.
ALL18220 Cleco Pliers
Work with 1/8 in. or 3/16 in. pins
If you happen to misplace your trusty pair of cleco pliers and are looking for a good replacement to get you through a project, Allstar cleco pliers would be a perfect choice.
They are not an aerospace-grade tool but they are solid enough to remove and install clecos of standard sizes including 1/8″ and 3/16″. However, you may notice a little play in the pivot. The pliers also don’t have the best finish but the grips are soft and very comfortable in the hands.
I also like that Allstar cleco pliers are inexpensive. You can keep a pair in the toolkit just in case you misplace your professional-grade cleco pliers.
Frequently Asked Questions
The common sizes and colors of rivet-style clecos are:
3/32 ” Spring Cleco (Silver)
1/8″ Spring Cleco (Copper)
5/32″ Spring Cleco (Black)
3/16″ Spring Cleco (Brass)
1/4″ Spring Cleco (Copper)