John wrote in with a doozy of a good question. From the sounds of it, he’s looking to build up his tool collection with wrenches and a socket set. He’s probably not interested in ultra-premium quality, or entry-level gimmicks. I addressed his question as best as possible, and am counting on seeing some great reader advice in the comments section.
I’m looking for your insights about sockets and wrenches. I have a few open-end (which I never seem to use) and adjustable wrenches, plus an old, incomplete socket set in a lousy case (where I have a hard time locating the size I need, and the etched-on size markings are hard to read).
I’m looking to upgrade these tools to a good set, but I’m confused about all the new-fangled tools (ratcheting wrenches; universal wrenches that claim to grab on to any size and shape fastener; standard, long and ‘open end’ sockets; etc.) Do you have an article that gives your advice on outfitting a home workshop with the most useful and best performing tools in this category? (If not, maybe you would address this in an upcoming post).
A few years ago, the answer would be easy. Craftsman’s Professional line of tools were affordably priced, well-featured, and made in the USA. Now, the Professional tools are gone and in their place are new imported tools with different designs. There’s not much to differentiate the new Craftsman tools from competitors’ offerings.
To start, combination wrenches offer the most versatility, and those with 12pt box ends are generally preferred. There are a couple of affordable USA brands to consider, and if those prices are too high, Gearwrench is a decent quality import brand. Actually, some of my Gearwrench combo wrenches are better built and finished than my USA-made Craftsman Pro and Armstrong wrenches.
Dewalt wrenches are another option, but Gearwrench offers more set configurations. 8-10 fractional and the same number of metric wrenches are good to start off with.
If you can still find them, Craftsman’s USA-made “raised panel” wrenches, now found under Craftsman Industrial branding, are very affordable and great to start building a better tool set with. Even if you cannot find the USA-made versions, it’s hard to argue with the sale prices of these wrenches – $10 for 8pc sets, $20 for 9pc and even sometimes 12pc sets.
Ratcheting wrenches help to speed up work and are especially useful when a wrench’s swinging arc is small, such as when there are a lot of obstructions. I prefer reversible ratcheting wrenches, then flex-end ones, in that order. Sometimes an application calls for flex-end wrenches, but it can be hard to justify purchasing multiple ratcheting wrench sets at once. Ratcheting wrenches are a convenience, but their box ends are often larger and bulkier than non-ratcheting wrenches. Ratcheting wrenches typically cost more than non-ratcheting combo wrenches.
Gearwrench is a great mid-level brand.
Personally, I don’t like zero-offset ratcheting wrenches. I bought Gearwrench X-Beam ratcheting wrenches when they were on sale, and it was a mistake.
Universal and Spline Wrenches
Universal and spline wrenches have box ends shaped to fit spline fasteners, but they also fit common 6pt hex nuts and bolts. They are said to fit rounded or damaged fasteners better than wrenches with 12pt box ends. A lot of the time this is a gimmick found on entry-level wrenches so that brands can tout “6-in-1” compatibility, or similar.
I checked out Proto’s spline ratcheting wrenches a while back and recently bought a few for ToolGuyd workshop use. They’re very good wrenches, but also very pricey.
Generally, regular combination wrenches will handle most needs home, hobbyist, and weekend warrior needs. “Universal” wrenches often advertise compatibility with fasteners that DIYers and homeowners will never ever come across. In those cases the universal aspect is marketing fluff.
One thing to avoid are wrenches that fit both fractional and metric fasteners. Ideally, one fastener size per wrench is the better way to go.
With sockets, there are standard, deep, and crowfoot (open end) options. Craftsman still offers the greatest bang for the buck, but there are plenty of good sets by competing brands as well. Some Craftsman sockets still have etched size markings instead of engraved ones, others are dual-marked with both styles of markings.
Stanley and Gearwrench are also good brands with plenty of options. Professional and industrial-grade USA brands, such as Proto, Williams, and SK Hand Tool have reasonably affordable sets, but be mindful that Williams has both imported and USA-made options.
Crowfoot aren’t necessary unless you can get them on sale, you know you’ll need them, or you run into a situation where nothing else will fit. I have a set of inexpensive Craftsman fractional crowfoot sockets and use them a few times a year.
Standard/shallow sockets are what you’ll want to start with. 6pt sockets are typically the best way to go. If you find that you need 12pt, you can always get them later.
Deep sockets can be helpful when working with nuts on threaded rod or long bolts. There are also pass-through sockets. You can always pick up an inexpensive set of pass-thru sockets.
For a homeowner set, a sub-$100 Craftsman or Gearwrench set with 1/4″ and 3/8″ sockets should suffice. I would also look at Dewalt, Husky, and Stanley for a basic set. Expect to pay a lot more for USA-made industrial brands’ offerings.
You can always add accessories, such as breaker bars, straight and wobble extensions, and adapters, later on, as needed or when on sale.
You might also want to budget for an upgraded ratchet, or one with a different head shape or style. Socket sets often come with basic ratchets. I have found that a fine-tooth ratchet with 6pt sockets usually makes 12pt sockets unnecessary.
You can buy basic wrench sets and a socket set with inch and metric sizes for about $100. Increasing the budget to $200 opens your options by quite a bit, and a budget of $250 allows for even greater purchasing flexibility.
These are just a few ideas for consideration.
If these tools aren’t being purchased for particular uses, but will be used as projects come up, it’s a good idea to start off with a smaller budget. Once you know what you use most often, you can plan out upgrades with greater cost efficiency. For instance, there’s no point in spending $300 to $1200 or more for a complete socket set when you use wrenches 95% of the time.
Socket Set: Craftsman 94pc set or 108pc set (via Sears). Both are ~$50 when on sale, but have different tools and socket marking styles. The 108pc set has 3/8″ deep sockets while the 94pc set doesn’t.
Stanley’s black chrome set ($60 via Amazon) seems to be highly regarded.
If you want more complete sets, there are quite a few Gearwrench options (via Amazon). Their 3/8″ set ($107 via Amazon) has a more complete range of sizes than the Craftsman sets, and it comes with a 120XP ratchet. But if you want a 1/4″ set as well, you’ll have to spend extra ($55 via Amazon). Note that there are two versions of these socket sets. The 120XP version of the 3/8″ set (80550P) has the better ratchet for a few bucks more than the standard set (80550), while the standard version of the 1/4″ set (80300) is nearly $40 cheaper than the 120XP version of the set (80300P).
Wrench Sets: Craftsman 12pc inch and metric sets (also via Sears). Both sets are $20 each when on sale. There are also 8pc wrench sets for $10 each during certain times of the year. These are not the greatest wrenches, and they’re a bit on the short side. If you find yourself wanting longer and stronger full-polish wrenched, Williams SuperCombo are decent, and there are many other premium brands to choose from as well.
Ratcheting wrenches can be incredibly useful, but can be pricey. Gearwrench reversible ratcheting wrenches start at ~$50 each for 8pc inch and metric sets. Some retailers’ sets have “cap stop” box ends that some users love, others hate.
My recommendation would be to start off with non-ratcheting combination wrenches and to look at ratcheting wrenches later on when the need arises or there’s a good sale.
What would you recommend that a homeowner, hobbyist, or new weekend warrior consider for a good basic-but-versatile set of wrenches and sockets?