How to Terminate Ethernet Jacks on Cat 5e, Cat 6, and Cat 6A Cable

Probably the most common task that I have performed over the years in networking is terminating Ethernet jacks. Almost every project I have ever worked on has required me to do at least one of them so it is a skill that almost everyone who builds or maintains a network will need to learn sooner or later. The good news is that, while terminating Ethernet jacks can feel intimidating, it really is not that difficult of a thing to do. With the tips and instruction in this article and bit of practice I am confident that you will have no problem at all getting the job done.

Choosing an Ethernet Jack

Before we can get started with terminating the Ethernet jack onto the cable lets take a moment to gather everything that we need to complete the job.

The first thing that we will need is the jack itself. The most important thing to know is that you need to use a jack that is rated to the same or higher rating then your cable you are using if you would like it to perform up to its highest potential. That means you should not, for example, install a Cat 5 jack on a Cat 6A cable. Best case scenario if you do this is that the cable will run with Cat 5 performance. Worst case, the cable will not work properly at all.

The performance rating of a jack is not the only thing to consider when choosing a termination for your cable. Depending on your situation, you may also want to consider using a termination that is a different form factor or has some special feature. To see some of the other styles of terminations that are out there take a look at my article that goes over a hand full of different types of Ethernet Connectors. If you end up choosing a connector that is of the male variety I have a termination guide for that style of connector here.

If you are just looking for a recommendation for the jacks that I like to use, then here are a two good options.

The first jack in this line up is the newer version of the one that I am using in the example pictures. I prefer the CommScope/Systimax line of jacks over almost all others and find myself ordering these ones whenever I can. They are however a bit expensive so if price is a major concern on a project I tend to reach for brands like Leviton and Ortronics. The other jack I recommend here is from Leviton. In my experience, they perform just as well as the CommScope jacks but tend to wear out faster and are a bit more difficult to terminate.

There are a lot of different options out there for Ethernet jacks to choose from. Unfortunately they are not all created equal. Many of the no name jacks you will find out there will clam to preform up to a certain rating but simply are not up to the task. That is why I recommend sticking to the major brands like the ones I listed above.

Gathering Your Tools

Now that we have the jack that we are going to install, lets take a look at the tools that we will be using. The tools that I recommend that everyone have are at least a punch down tool and a good pair of wire snips. You may also want to pick up cable strippers and a termination pick. Here are the tools I will be using today.

In my opinion, a punch down tool is almost completely mandatory for terminating cables as it is the tool that actually connects the wire into the jack and does the final trimming of the cable. While I recommend that everyone who is trying to terminate cables have one of these there are some more difficult techniques that you can try if you are in a pinch and do not have the proper tools. Learn more about them here. If you, like myself, would prefer to use the proper tool for the job, here is my favorite punch down tool. I have personally worn out several of this exact tool and I find that it lasts much longer then even some of the competitors that cost twice as much.

Wire snips or scissors are the very best cutting tool that you can get for various trimming and cutting operations that you need to do when terminating a cable. They can also be used to strip back the cable jacket if you are are careful. If you do not have a pair of snips you can also use a pair of side cutters along with a good sharp knife to get the job done, but I think that even people who do not terminate cable often should have a good pair of snips as they are one of the best cutting tools out there for all kinds of things, not just wire. I am using the much older style of Fluke snips in the example pictures but the new ones are not all that different and I like them as well.

While snips can work to strip back a cable jacket there is a purpose built tool for the job. It takes a bit of practice to strip the cable with snips or a knife and accidentally nicking the wires inside can cause the end product to fail. Because of this, you may want to use a purpose built set of cable strippers as they reduce the risk of damaging the wires in this way and can speed up the process quite a bit for some people. The reason that I tend to carry this stripper over my other ones is because it is easily adjustable so I can go from a job with Cat 6 cable to one using Cat 6A cable and use the same tool on both jobs.

The last tool that you may want to consider is called a termination pick. The wires inside of a cable are very small and some people, especially those with large hands, may find it difficult to manipulate them with fingers alone. Personally I do not use a termination pick when working with Ethernet jacks but I consider it an essential tool when terminating patch panels. This first example is the pick that I like to use. While writing this article I remembered that the punch down tool that I recommended also has a pick built into the handle. I don’t use it because I like the Klein one better but it is a good option if you already have the Paladin punch down tool.

Terminating Ethernet Jacks, A Step By Step Guide

Step 1: Stripping the cable Jacket

In this step, we will be removing all of the pieces of the Ethernet cable that will not be inserted into the back of the Ethernet jack itself. The outer jacket will be removed first. Then all of the rest of the inner components other then the eight colored wires (and the grounding conductor in the case of shielded cable) will need to be taken out. Some cables will only have the jacket while others will have quite a bit of extra material that will need to be removed.

No matter what tool you have chosen to use to strip the cable, the important thing to look out for is damage to the plastic coating of the inner wires. While a small scratch, like those found in the picture bellow, on one or two of the conductor’s jackets may not seem like a big deal, this small defect can cause the entire cable to not work properly. Make sure to take a moment after stripping the outer jacket to insure that the inner wires are still flawless.

I recommend that people strip away at least two inches of the jacket when they are first starting to learn. The amount can be reduced later on as you get more confident and I strip back about an inch and a quarter when I am terminating. Exposing more wire may make the next step take a bit longer but it makes the whole process much easier.

After the jacket has been removed. Cut out any material that is not one of the eight colored wires or a grounding element in the case of a shielded connector. These grounding elements may be a bare wire, a foil shield, or both. If you are using a shielded connector, these pieces will need to be folded over the jacket and out of the way where they will be squeezed into place by metal crimping element on the shielded jack. Though it is not completely necessary. I also like to trim the shielding to length at this stage. It should be long enough that it just peaks out of the crimping element when the jack is fully assembled.

Some cables do not have anything else to remove while others do. Some of the things that you may need to remove depending on your cable are the following.

  • Water Proof Gel (Sometimes called Icky Pick)
  • Kevlar thread
  • Plastic or paper separators
  • Foil Jacket (when not part of a shielding system with a shielded connector)

Once you are left with nothing but the conductive elements of the cable you are ready to move on to the next step.

Step 2: Orient Your Cable So The Wires Will Line Up Correctly

The following advice is valid for almost every brand and style of Ethernet jack that I have ever worked with. There are however some jacks (mostly no name cheap jacks with questionable quality) that do not follow the layout that most of the major players do. If things do not line up as well for you as they do for me in the pictures you can still try to terminate the cable but you may not get the performance you are expecting if you find yourself in a situation where you have to cross pairs of wires.

To find the best way to orient your cable as it goes into the jack start finding where in the jack each of the wires will eventually terminate. Most jacks have stickers that show what color of wire goes where for both the TIA/EIA 568 A and B color codes. If you do not know which color code to use take a look at my article on the subject. In the example photographs I am terminating to the TIA/EIA 568 B standard. When using the B standard with this particular jack the green and brown wires will terminate in the back and the orange and blue wires will terminate in the front.

Depending on what direction the wire was ran in when it was first installed either the orange and blue wires will run on top of the brown and green or vise versa. If you, like me, are terminating the end of the cable that came out of the box first, rotate it so that the green and brown are on the bottom and the orange and blue are on the top. If you are terminating the end off the cable that came out of the box last, reverse it so that the orange and blue are on the bottom.

Next bend the green and brown wires out to the left and the right. At this point, all four pairs of wires should be lined up with the location where it will be terminated, none of the pairs of wires should be crossing over any of the other pairs, and you should be ready to move on to the next step . If any of the wires do not line up with the correct color or the pairs of wires are crossed, either the Ethernet jack you are using is not designed with a standard pin out or something got mixed up along the way.

Step 3: Set The Wires Into Place

There are two major things to look out for while setting the individual wires into place. The first is that you should try to maintain the twist of the pairs of wires as closely as you can to how it came from the factory. The second is that you need to look out for is that the cable jacket ends close enough to the back of the jack.

The most important thing to remember while completing this step of the process is that the twists that are in the wires are important and removing more twists then you absolutely need to, or tightening any of the twists can effect the performance of the cable. The goal here is to unwind each pair of wires so that the individual wires can be terminated in their proper place and as many twists as possible remain completely unchanged from how they looked when the cable jacket was first stripped off.

You can save a bit of time here by starting to untwist the wires right where you need them separated so that you do not need to untwist the entirety of the wire. Most people do this relatively soon after first learning to terminate but I do recommend that you start at the tip of the pair and unwind them from there for at least your first few terminations as this is just a little bit easier.

In the three pictures below I have provided examples of terminations where the wires have been unwound too much (first), where the wires are perfect (second), and where the wires are wound too tightly (third).

Too Loose
Just Right
Too Tight

While I have seen failed terminations as bad as both of the examples above in the wild, most of the time, many of the wires line up perfectly and it is clear to see which turn to stop unwinding at. The problem usually comes up with a single pair that lands completely upside down from where it needs to be and the installer has to choose between what feels like unwinding too much and adding a little extra twist. In these situations just unwind all of the twists that you need to and stop there. It is okay if one of the pairs is a little looser then you would like. The performance problems that come from adding twist is far worse then those that can arise from the wires twist being a little loose.

One last thing to consider while completing this step is where the end of the cable jacket is located in relation to the Ethernet jack. Ideally the jacket should end just after it enters into the back of the jack. You want to avoid having bare wires exposed between the end of the cable jacket and the back of the jack. You can, however, place the end of the jacket too far into the jack. If this happens then the back two pairs of wires will not be able to cleanly exit the cable jacket and turn into their termination locations. If the back pairs of wires need to bend more then ninety degrees the jacket is too far into the jack and needs to be moved.

Too Much Wire Showing
Just Right
Jacket in Too Far

Now that each of the individual wires are unwound and lined up where it needs to be you can simply press each wire down into its termination using a fingernail or a termination pick. You do not need to press hard here. The goal is to set the wires so that they will not move and nothing more. You do however, need to be a little bit careful that you do not damage the insulation on any of the wires on the inside of the jack. It is okay if you mark up the wires after they leave the jack as this part of the wire will be cut off soon.

Before completing the termination many people choose to twist together the loose ends of each wire so that they stay together while being trimmed. This is not necessary but does make clean up q bit easier.

Step 4: Protecting The Wall or Other Work Surface From Damage

While using the punch down tool it is important to pay attention to the surface that the jack is sitting against while it is being terminated. The tool snaps down with enough force that the back of the jack will damage softer materials such as dry wall.

To prevent this damage you can hold the jack in your hand or against you knee. This is something that I do in a pinch but it is far from ideal. Not only can it be a bit painful but if you slip, or the side of the jack breaks under the force of the tool, the cutting edge can and will take a good chunk out of your skin. I have a nice scar on the side of my thumb to prove it.

The best way that I have found to prevent damage against softer surfaces while still keeping my fingers out of the way of the business end of the punch down tool is to use what is called a “Punch Down Buddy.” These cheep little tools clip onto the back of a jack and create a larger surface area that is safer on freshly painted walls and hands alike.

For my first few years of networking I did not know that there was a special tool that you could buy for this and everyone that I worked with just used small squares of carpet instead. Both work fine but I tend to reach for the purpose built tools unless I’m terminating a weird jack that does not fit well into any of the punch down buddies that I own. In the example photos I am using a bit of carpet because the punch down buddy made it harder to get good pictures of the termination process.

Step 5: Using a Punch Down Tool to Terminate the Cable

Now that your work surface is protected and everything is lined up properly it is time to use your punch down tool to finish the termination. It is possible, though not recommended by me, to complete this step without the proper tool. If you are interested in learning how it is done, take a look at this article.

In the photo below, I show the two tool heads that come with my recommended punch down tool. The 110 style head is the one on the top. Both heads have a cutting side and a non-cutting side. Install the 110 head into the punch down tool so that you can see the cutting end.

Next line up the tool head with the first wire that you would like to terminate. One side of the tool head has a small blade on it. Make sure that this blade lines up with the outside of the termination. If the blade is on the wrong side it will cut the wire before it goes into the jack and ruin the termination.

Actuate the tool by applying even constant pressure until it goes off with a snap. Keep the tool as straight and even as you can during this process. If you punch down at to much of an angle you may end up with an incomplete termination, an uncut wire, or even a damaged jack.

If the termination does not go all of the way in or the wire does not cut all of the way, you can turn up the force on most punch down tools using a dial on the grip. You can also try snapping each wire two or three times on a lower setting if you find the stiffer settings difficult to use.

If all goes well you should be left with a perfectly terminated wire that has been trimmed flush to the outside of the jack. If that is the case you can do all eight of the wires in the same way and you are almost finished with the termination process.

Step 6: Install the Dust Cover

Now that the wires are all punched down, the cable should work as intended but there is one fine step that needs to happen before you can close up the termination behind a face plate and move on. The dust cover may seem trivial but it is an important piece. Not only does it protect the termination from dust and humidity but it actually snaps into place and holds everything firmly together. Terminations that have had the dust cover omitted can work loose over time and will randomly stop working well.

Once the dust cover is installed the job is complete and you are ready to use the cable. You may want to test the cable at this point, you can learn more about how to do that by reading this article (article coming soon).