The typical homeowner’s first toolkit contains a pair of pliers, a hammer and an old table knife; at least until he or she starts that first project. That’s when a tape measure joins the mix and the knife is replaced by a couple of screwdrivers. After the next Father’s Day (or in this day and age, Mother’s Day) or two, it’s a good bet there’ll be a cordless drill in there; about everything the average utility drawer can hold. If you really want to be serious, though, about this DIY thing, you’re going to need a wrench and some sockets – but where do you start?
Basics of Socket Wrenches
Beginners don’t typically buy just one “socket wrench,” because you always need at least two parts to do any job, a socket and a handle to turn it. Sockets are the shiny metal cylinders that fit onto the heads of nuts or bolts. At the opposite end you find a square hole that matches a square projection on one of the handles. You have to have both pieces: the handle provides leverage to turn a bolt or nut, but a handle doesn’t fit a hexagonal nut.
There are many sizes of bolts and nuts, so sockets are also available in an equally large array of sizes. In addition, the handle systems are also available in different sizes or “drives,” from the quarter-inch drive for light use to half-inch drive for heavy duty-jobs. Most DIY-ers split the difference with a three eighths-inch set.
Besides a handle and some sockets, there’s a boatload of accessories and adapters in every size. More on that below.
Ratchet handles are at the heart of most sets. A typical ratchet is a shaped handle about eight inches long that ends in round or oval head. The head contains a square projection sitting at a right angle to the handle. The square projection plugs into a socket and the right angle provides the torque needed to loosen or tighten nuts and bolts. The handle’s head contains gears that lock in either direction, allowing the handle to rotate free when turned one way and engage the socket when turned in the opposite direction. That way, you can to fit a socket onto a nut and tighten or loosen it without disengaging, even in tight spaces. Ratchet heads have small levers or switches to select the direction of rotation.
Larger socket sets often include a breaker bar in addition to a ratchet. A breaker bar has a long handle attached to a “naked” drive via a universal joint, allowing application of greater torque. Not having the ratcheting gears makes them stronger; able to withstand forces that could damage a ratchet’s inner workings. Some breaker bars have a hole at the end of the handle that takes a cross bar or screwdriver handle. If necessary, a breaker bar can act as an extra-long extension.
There are two kinds of basic set, in metric and SAE or Imperial units. Both sets include ten to a dozen socket sizes, a ratchet, and typically an extension and an adapter. A what and a what? Later…
Most DIYers start with an SAE set, unless they plan to work on European or Asian cars. Once you’ve chosen a starter set, you can pick up sockets in the other measurement system as a set or pick them up one by one as needed. Fortunately, driver handles and accessories are the same whether the socket is metric or SAE. Sockets are considerably less expensive than a quality ratchet.
Sockets in a 3/8-inch drive metric set will span about 5 to 19mm; while those in an SAE set will range from 1/4 to ¾ inches. Quarter-inch drive sets start smaller an overlap the low end, while half-inch drive sets stop at larger sockets, often up to about 1-1/2 inches. Socket in these ranges will fit almost any nut and bolt you encounter in normal work. A good set will also contain extension bars that plug onto a drive handle, creating a large L shape that extends your reach. Many 3/8-inch sets come with an adapter that lets the handle drive quarter-inch sockets, though not normally one to adapt to half-inch sockets.
A basic socket is about an inch tall and cylindrical. There’s a hexagonal opening at one end that fits the six-sided nuts and bolts. This is called a six-point design. Manufacturers also make twelve-point designs, which are slightly easier to slip onto a nut. When held by a twelve-point socket, a nut doesn’t contact as much of the socket’s surface, so mechanics believe a twelve-point is more likely to round off the corners. In a pinch, a twelve-point socket will fit on a square nut, but poorly, increasing the chances of rounding off the corners. You should use an eight-point socket if have one, or an open-end or adjustable wrench if you don’t.
After buying a starter set, most tool geeks add deep-well sockets. Deep-well sockets are two to three times as long as a standard version. This length adds reach, and allows you to reach a nut even if a bolt projects an inch or more. Deep-well sockets are sold in metric and SAE sizes, in six- and twelve-point designs. They’re often sold in sets like standard sockets.
A ratchet and some regular and deep-well sockets are only the beginning. You’ll also need a range of extensions, from two to ten inches in length, and adapters that allow the ratchet to fit larger and smaller drive sizes. If you’ll often work in tight spaces (e.g., modern cars), you’ll want some articulating universal joints, “double-jointed” adapters that can put a socket on a hard-to-reach nut. High-end socket sets some with articulating sockets, which offer a better fit and more compact design than a U-joint adapter.
Complete sets also include tools for screws with hex and Torx drives. These are bolts or machine screws with a cap that has a hexagonal (hex) or star-shaped (Torx) indentation. Sets of hex and/or Torx drivers that fit your driver are available from high-end tool suppliers, as are crowfoot wrenches, open-end wrenches that fit a ratchet or breaker bar.
An important consideration for socket sets is storage. Even basic sets include twenty or more pieces, and a larger set often exceeds 100. Toolboxes and other storage are essential, especially when the socket or adapter you’re looking for is small. It’s a good idea to keep metric and SAE sockets separated so you don’t find yourself trying to fit a 12mm socket on a 1/2-inch nut or vice versa.
Around the holidays you invariably find mechanic’s tool sets with what seems to be 2,000 pieces sold at “bargain” prices. Sure, the prices look good, but you’re paying for dozens of pieces that you’ll probably never use. Instead of picking up a huge set with all three drive sizes and hundreds of small parts, you’re wise to choose a starter set with the basics: a ratchet, sets of standard and deep-well sockets, some extensions and adapters, and a carrying case. Instead of quantity, think quality. Parts should be high-quality steel with chrome plating to inhibit rust. Labels should be large and easily read, preferably etched or molded, not stamped: stamped sizes are often a giveaway that the tool is made of low-quality steel.
Large, inexpensive sets that can get you through most projects are available for a few tens of dollars. At the far end of the scale are individual ratchets that you can buy from a dealer in a the big white truck that cost about the same as a 200-piece set from the dollar store. You probably don’t need a seventy-dollar ratchet unless you’re a professional, but it’s always wise to spend what necessary to get durable, well-designed tools that last. Many DIYers swear by the Craftsman brand, many of which have a lifetime, no-questions-asked guarantee. BigBox stores sell house brands (Husky and Kobalt, for instance) that are also better than what you can get from the dollar store; Stanley tools are available in many hardware stores.
The Bottom Line: When it comes to tools, you almost always get what you pay for: cheap tools don’t last, good ones do or the manufacturer makes it right. I’m still using my father’s half-inch drive socket wrenches (Snap-On brand) more than seventy years after he bought them!