Chances are you’ve seen a wrench, ratchet, and socket in use at some point. But for the beginner, these tools might be overwhelming in nature because it’s not used as frequently or their use isn’t as intuitive as a hammer or screwdriver. Sockets and ratchets perform the same function as wrenches.
However, these basic mechanical tools allow the user to tackle the task of loosening and tightening fasteners in a more efficient manner.
What is Socket Wrench?
A socket wrench (or socket spanner) is a type of spanner or wrench that uses a closed socket format, rather than a typical open wrench/spanner to turn a fastener, typically in the form of a nut or bolt.
The most prevalent form is the ratcheting socket wrench, often informally called a ratchet. A ratchet incorporates a reversible ratcheting mechanism that allows the user to pivot the tool back and forth to turn its socket instead of removing and repositioning a wrench to do so.
Other common methods of driving sockets include pneumatic impact wrenches, hydraulic torque wrenches, torque multipliers, and breaker bars. Some lesser-known hybrid drivers include striking wrench tools with square drive and hydraulic impact wrenches.
What is ratchet?
Ratchet is the informal word used to refer to a ratcheting socket wrench. It consists of a handle and a socket. The handle is the wrench. On the ratchet handle is a mechanism that allows the ratchet to engage and reverse the direction of the ratchet to loosen or tighten fasteners like nuts and bolts.
What is a socket?
Sockets are tools that attach to a rachet, torque, or socket wrench. It’s used mostly for loosening and tightening fasteners such as nuts and bolts. The socket is placed on the square extension or driver of the ratchet. Once it’s secured to the ratchet the user can loosen or tighten a bolt or nut while the socket remains in place by just turning the handle of the ratchet.
What do a ratchet and socket allow you to do?
A ratchet and socket combination allows the user to turn a fastener (a bolt or nut) without having to reposition the tool on the fastener. If you were using a wrench, you would definitely have to reposition it after each turn.
Ratchet and socket make operating in tight corners more manageable because there is little to no space for a wrench to be leveraged. A ratchet socket combination with or without an extension allows the fastener to be tightened or loosened with ease. It’s also less likely to slip like some types of wrenches because the socket fits completely around the fastener.
How do Ratchets and Sockets work?
A ratchet is a handle that snaps into one end of a socket by means of a square-drive connector. The other end of the socket fits over a fastener. A mechanism in the ratchet allows the handle to engage and tighten the fastener when you swing it in a clockwise direction and turn freely when you swing it counterclockwise. A switch on the ratchet reverses the action to loosen the fastener.
Ratchets and Sockets vs. Wrenches
Ratchets and sockets are among the different types of wrenches designed for specific tasks. They perform the same functions as conventional wrench tightening and loosening fasteners. However, there are some tasks that suit a ratchet and socket particularly well.
A ratchet and socket combination (sometimes called a socket wrench) lets you turn a nut or bolt without repositioning the tool on the fastener like you need to do with a wrench when there isn’t enough room to turn it in a full circle.
This can make the work quicker. Also, since a socket fits completely around a fastener, it’s less likely to slip off than some types of wrenches. See the chart below for more details on socket tools and their uses. For more information on wrenches, see The Wrench Guide: Types of Wrenches, Uses, and Features. Make sure the tool you use is suited for the task.
How To Use a Socket Wrench?
A socket wrench or ratchet allows you to turn nuts and bolts with more ease than using a regular wrench. The ratcheting feature allows you to keep the wrench on the bolt eliminating the need to refit the wrench every time you need to make a turn. This is ideal when working in confined spaces where movement is extremely limited.
- Select the right socket for the job.
- All sockets are labelled so if you know the size of nut you want to turn all you need to do is find its corresponding socket in your set.
- If you do not know the size of socket needed, test varying sizes until one fit correctly.
- Do not try and turn a bolt with a socket that is too large. Doing this could strip the bolt and make it impossible to turn.
- Attach the socket to the head of the wrench – you should hear a click when its properly in place.
- Select the direction using the flip switch to decide between loosening and tightening.
- Place the socket on the nut.
- Use it like a regular wrench except do not remove it when you run out of space
- Twist it back in the opposite direction and repeat until the bolt is fully loosened or tightened.
Types of Ratchets, Sockets, and Accessories
Here’s an overview of the available sockets, ratchets, and accessories. They’re often sold individually, but you may prefer a socket set or ratcheting wrench set to be prepared for a variety of jobs.
- A ratchet and a flex-head ratchet.
- Available with different drive sizes, 1/4-inch, 1/2 inch and 3/8 inch, to operate different size sockets.
- Most operate with a geared drive; those with a higher tooth count let you operate the tool with a smaller swinging motion, which is useful when there’s little room to move the handle.
- Gearless models operate with a roller bearing and require smaller movements to turn fasteners than a geared drive.
- Many have a lock that keeps the socket from falling off or sticking on the fastener; a quick-release button disengages the lock.
- Jointed or flexible-head ratchets (bottom image) allow you to adjust the angle of the handle to work in tight areas.
The socket is attached to a ratchet to tighten and loosen nuts and bolts. Also works with torque wrenches and breaker bars. 6-point sockets (left image) and 12-point sockets (right image) are available to fit a variety of fastener heads; universal sockets work with more fastener types, including spline, star, and square.
Less frequently used shapes include the square 4-point, triple square 12-point (not to be confused with 12-point double hexagon), octagonal 8-point (not to be confused with the more common 8-point double square shape).
These less common shapes are typically found in special applications or particular industries such as aircraft, PVC plumbing fittings, or German and UK-made automobiles. With rail cars, valve adjustment screws, and pipe plugs, the 4-point square-shaped driver can still be found in wide use in both male and female configurations.
Nuts and bolt heads are also produced in 12-point double hexagon shapes and various types of splines, more common to aircraft and aerospace applications.
When working with common 6-point hexagonal fasteners, the 12-point shaped socket offers double the number of starting points or possible positions by which to put the socket on the nut, and so allows alignment every 30 degrees, rather than every 60 degrees of angle.
Most manufacturers of sockets for larger hexagonal bolts produce them in 6-point (hexagonal) and limited sizes of 12-point (double-hexagonal) configurations.
Some specialized sockets are made with a specialized “6 flute” etc. socket that attaches to damaged bolts of both metric and fractional inch sizes for removal. Some specialized sockets are made to fit specific specialized applications and are designed and sized for that specific application. Spark plug sockets, oxygen sensor sockets, ball joint sockets, axle nut sockets, etc. fit in this category.
1. Pass-Through Socket
- A pass-through socket and ratchet.
- Turns a nut on a longer, threaded bolt, allowing the bolt to extend through the socket and ratchet.
- Has a low-profile design.
- Reduces the need to have both low-profile and deep sockets.
- Works only with specially designed ratchets.
2. Driver Socket
- Philips’s driver socket and flathead driver socket.
- Tightens/loosens fasteners, such as flathead, Phillips, hex or star-head screws.
- Available in sets with standard sockets.
3. Spark Plug Socket
- A Kobalt spark plug socket.
- Has a deep socket design to fit over the body of a spark plug.
- Lined with a rubber insert that grips the plug, helping you pull it out once loosened.
4. Impact Socket
- A shallow impact socket and a deep impact socket.
- Designed to work with pneumatic or cordless impact wrenches.
- Made with a material that can handle the impact action without breaking.
- Darker finish distinguishes them from standard chrome sockets.
- Typically has a thicker wall than a standard socket.
- Available in low-profile and deep designs.
These are some of the common accessories that are used with 1⁄4-inch, 3⁄8-inch, 1⁄2-inch (and so on) socket wrenches:
- Extensions, sometimes called “extender arms”, attach to a socket on one end and a ratchet on the other end of the extension. These “extend” the length of the socket and allow access to nuts or bolts that are difficult to reach. Extensions are typically 1⁄2 to 20 inches (15 to 510 mm) in length in roughly 1-to-3-inch (25 to 75 mm) increments. They are sometimes attached together to get a needed length extension, and often have a knurled section for added grip.
- Wobble extensions have their socket attachment ends ground to allow the socket-extension interface to bend up to about 15 degrees. This additional flexibility often makes using a socket plus extension in a cramped location easier. A 1-to-1+1⁄2-inch-long (25 to 38 mm) wobble extension added to the end of any extension will convert it to a slightly longer “wobble” extension.
- Extension Grip Collars are collars with indents that fit on the back of most extensions preventing it from easily rolling away and allow one to easily grip extension and finger tighten or loosen nuts and bolts by turning extension + socket with or without ratchet.
- Ratchet spinners are short (about 1+1⁄2 inches (38 mm)) extensions that have a knurled attachments on them for easy hand tightening or loosening without the ratchet handle.
- Size adapters allow sockets of one drive size to be used with ratchets of another drive size. They consist of a male drive fitting of one size attached to a female drive fitting of another size. They are typically about 1 inch (25 mm) long. For example, a 1⁄4-inch to 3⁄8-inch adapter allows sockets with 1⁄4-inch drive holes to attach to a 3⁄8-inch ratchet, and so on.
- Universal joints are two articulated socket joints (about 1 inch (25 mm) long) combined at a right angle, that allow a bend in the turning axis of the wrench and socket. They are used with extensions and ratchets for turning a bolt or nut at a difficult to access location. Wobble extensions may be substituted for some universal joint applications and have the advantage of not wobbling so much.
- Crow’s foot adapters, sometimes called crowfoot adapters, feature an open end similar to a spanner along with a square hole for a ratchet or breaker bar. They are used to reach otherwise inaccessible fastenings or to hold a tensioning nut at a specific torque whilst allowing access to a locking nut that would be inaccessible with a standard socket.