This post will teach you everything you need to know when terminating network cabling. Including common mistakes and what to look out for. Pay attention to the details and you will be able to wire a network properly, or inspect a home network before you buy a house, or keep a contractor honest. It is a life skill, like knowing how to change your oil, or fix a faucet, only far easier to learn and do. This isn’t a highly technical post. It’s a friendly “explain like I’m 5” guide to doing it like a pro.
About Copper Network Cables
Standard network cabling of any specification (CAT5/CAT5e/CAT6/CAT6a/CAT7) is 4 pair of old-time phone wire, bundled together in the same wire jacket, with each specification taking into consideration more and more shielding and methods to keep crosstalk down. The better the cabling in this respect, the higher data per second specification you can run along it. This doesn’t mean Cat7 is “faster” than Cat6, if they are both plugged into the same equipment at the same rate. It means Cat7 has a better chance of being able to negotiate higher rate link over a given distance, given equipment that offers that higher rate.
Switches used to be 10/100 (mbps), then 1gb became standard, next 10gb will be standard. Cat5 struggles with 1gb at distance, and 10GB is out of the question. Cat6 can handle 10gb though, so people who put it in when available are already sitting pretty when the equipment becomes cost effective enough to justify the upgrade.
Two Types of Copper wire. Varying diameter.
There are two types of network cabling, and each is better at it’s task.
Solid Cabling is a simple wire of copper, which is better at transmitting data, but if flexed too much and repeatedly, will break inside the wire. It’s best for structured wiring. You run it in the walls, and to wall ports and patch panels where they don’t move again. It’s best suited for that.
Stranded Cabling is braided copper filaments instead of a single solid wire. This allows the cable far more latitude in terms of flexibility, at a cost of slightly worse conductivity over distance, which doesn’t matter because patch cabling (between structured wiring and devices, or devices in the same room) is short range.
People will order 1000ft rolls of Stranded Cabling and wiring a house or office with it. Congrats, you just got worse wires in the walls that won’t flex around anyway because you didn’t read the fine print on the product specs. Don’t be that person. I see stranded in walls far more than I should, and occasionally I see solid cabling being used as a patch cable, bent like pipe cleaners into patch panels.
Wiring comes in various gauges, the thickness of the wire. In the case of network cabling there is AWG23 and AWG24. Lower is thicker gauge wiring. You want AWG23 gauge wiring for at least your structuring wiring, where distance quickly becomes a factor.
So when shopping for Ethernet Cabling.
For in-wall use, you want Solid wiring with a diameter AWG23, For patch cabling, it’s matters far less and usually just a couple feet long.
All Category 5 & 6 types are terminated in one of two ways.
Male RJ-45 connector
As an end user, this is the type of connector that typically comes to mind when you think about Ethernet.
You shouldn’t actually be terminating many of these yourself, if you plan your network correctly though. It’s used for patch cables, and it’s cheaper to just order them for the vast majority of use cases. They are done by machine and tested before they come to you. Making them yourself is only cheaper if you value labor time at basically nothing, or you need it for something special.
I terminate male connections for PoE powered Access points mounted in drop ceilings, or runs through a masonry hole to exterior mountings for PoE Cameras, Point to Point Wireless, or the odd occasional piece of equipment (a scoreboard once). They have to go through holes where the connector can’t already be on, and usually cut to a custom length. And every time I fiddle with getting the wires just right in the connector I wish I could just use a patch cable I bought instead, but the requirements mean I need to terminate onsite.
If you need male connectors for something you can’t otherwise terminate
Female RJ-45 Connectors
These are actually the bread and butter of a well designed network build out. Terminating into a patch panel, or to a fixed network drop, like a wall jack. It’s done with a punchdown tool and is much easier and less fiddly than the male connection termination is.