Best Ratchet Sets

Updated November 2021
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Buying guide for best ratchet sets

Of all the hand tools you could own, a quality ratchet set is one of the most useful. More versatile than a wrench set — particularly if you do a lot of work in tight spaces — a ratchet set is a necessity for hands-on homeowners or anyone with a never-ending list of DIY projects and repairs. This is especially true for anyone who enjoys tinkering on cars or other machinery around the house.

When shopping for a ratchet set, you’ll quickly discover that they come in a wide range of configurations. This guide can help answer some of the questions you may have when shopping for a ratchet set, such as how many pieces should it have? What should it include? Metric or SAE? How much should a ratchet set cost? 

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One benefit of owning deep sockets is they’re often the only way to tighten or loosen recessed nuts and bolts.

Key considerations

Number of pieces

While some ratchet sets include ratchets, sockets, and other bits — basically everything you need to tighten or loosen a range of fasteners — other sets, such as a sockets-only set, include a limited number of pieces. It’s important to know exactly what you’re buying when you purchase a ratchet set.

Ratchet sets range from around a dozen pieces up to more than 300, depending on the set. The average is typically between 30 and 50 pieces. The more pieces you have, the more you’ll be able to do with your set.

But be careful about overspending for a set with dozens of pieces you’ll never use. Also, remember that the more pieces a set has, the heavier it is. This is something to watch out for if you’re in search of a portable ratchet set.

Metric vs. SAE

There are two primary standards to consider when purchasing a ratchet set: metric and SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). If you want to use your set on the widest variety of projects, consider buying one that includes both standards.

Metric ratchet sets are based on millimeters and are typically used to work on imported cars and other machines from overseas. Some newer US cars also use metric.

SAE ratchet sets are based on inches and are made to work with US automobiles and other domestic goods.

A socket wrench is the combination of a ratchet and socket.

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Features

Materials

Both ratchets and sockets are typically made of chrome-plated steel. While most have a shiny chrome finish, some have black chrome or some other finish such as black phosphate, which improves durability. Any ratchet set you purchase should resist rust and corrosion.

Ratchets

Think of the ratchet as the handle of the socket wrench. One end of a socket snaps onto the ratchet, while the other end goes over the nut or other fastener. Ratchet sizes vary, and the most popular SAE sizes are 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch, and 3/8 inch. You need to use the right size socket with the compatible ratchet or use an adapter between the two.

Some specific features of a ratchet include the following:

Drive: Ratchets include either a geared drive or a roller bearing. Of the two, the roller-bearing ratchet is usually capable of smaller motions, making it a better option for working in tight spaces.

Switch: There should be a switch of some sort on the ratchet so you can change the direction. Flipped one way, you tighten a nut; flip it the other way and you loosen it.

Lock: Most ratchets include a button or similar locking mechanism that keeps the socket on the ratchet until the button is pushed.

Sockets

Sockets fasten to the ratchet using a square-drive connector. Like a ratchet, the connection end is available in several sizes, commonly 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch, and 3/8 inch.

Depth: Sockets are available in shallow, standard, and deep configurations, and the depth of the socket largely depends on how you’re using it. For normal use, standard is the go-to. Tight spaces may require a shallow socket, while you’ll probably want to snap on a deep socket for an area that’s harder to reach.

Size: Sockets may be etched, stamped, or engraved with their sizes, so you can more easily tell them apart at a glance. The interior of sockets also vary to work with different fasteners or in different conditions, with 6-sided and 12-sided sockets the most common (see the FAQ section below for more).

Other components

While you’ll find ratchets and sockets in most ratchet sets, some sets also include a wide range of other bits and tools that vary from set to set. Some common additions include the following:

  • Breaker bar for use with hard-to-loosen fasteners
  • Driver sockets for use with flathead, Phillips, hex, and other screws
  • Spark plug socket for removing spark plugs
  • Socket adapter to use sockets with different sizes of ratchets
  • Torx bit sockets for use with Torx screws
  • U-joint adapter (works like a jointed ratchet) to help you reach tight angles
  • Hex keys
  • Pliers
  • Wrenches

Case

Most ratchet sets include some way to organize the set, usually in the form of a plastic case. The case should be rugged enough to hold up over time and resist denting. All elements of the set should fit within the case and be secured in it so they won’t shift around when you’re transporting the set or fall out when you open it. Any latches, hinges, or other hardware should be durable enough to secure the case and keep it from opening accidentally.

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DID YOU KNOW?
Stamped or engraved markings on sockets tend to last longer than laser-etched markings.
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Ratchet set prices

Inexpensive: At the lowest price points, from less than $15 to around $20, you can find simple sets that include a ratchet and a few SAE or metric sockets. These sets tend to be lower quality with fewer pieces and are geared toward people who only need to use it occasionally.

Mid-range: At $20 to $40, you can find a better build quality with an increasing number of pieces included. Sets in the average price range usually offer a greater range of socket sizes, with some including both SAE and metric. Additionally, you start to find more extras such as driver sockets and socket adapters in this price range.

Expensive: Spend $40 to $70 up to as high as $100 and you’ll find socket sets that either offer exceptional quality or a large number of pieces that include enough tools and add-ons to tackle a wide range of projects. These sets also typically include a limited lifetime warranty on all parts.

Some sockets have color-coded strips, so you can easily tell the difference between metric and SAE sizes.

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Tips

  • Go for the known quantity. If your ratchet set options come down to choosing between a name brand set and a company you’ve never heard of, choose the name brand. Brands are well known and popular for a reason.
  • Check the tooth count. Geared-drive ratchets are made up of a number of teeth, and this number varies from ratchet to ratchet. For better performance in tight spaces, go with a ratchet that has a higher tooth count.
  • Try a jointed ratchet. If you do most of your ratchet work in tight spaces, such as under the hood of a car, consider going with a jointed, or flexible-head, ratchet, which can pivot to provide a variety of head angles for hard-to-reach spots.
  • Try a pass-through ratchet. It’s a special type of socket wrench that features a hole in the middle of the ratchet for the socket to fit into. For use with both shallow- and deep-profile bolts, a pass-through wrench eliminates the need to own sockets of various depths.
  • Start with an inexpensive set. If you’re just starting out, consider picking up a cheap, basic ratchet set that contains various sizes of both metric and SAE sockets. With this, you’ll be able to tackle a wide range of projects, and you can always add more specialized pieces, such as breaker bars and U-joint adapters, as the need arises.
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Ratchet sets that include additional tools such as wrenches or pliers are usually designed for use by mechanics.

FAQ

Q. What’s the difference between wrenches and ratchets?

A. While both are valuable hand tools, ratchets have a couple of advantages.

First, a ratchet is the go-to tightening and loosening tool for working in tight spaces. While a wrench may also be able to reach into an area, it needs to be removed from the nut or other fastener and repositioned over and over. A ratchet doesn’t, which can save you a considerable amount of time per nut.

Second, a wrench can easily slip off the nut you’re trying to tighten or loosen, which can lead to frustration and bruised knuckles. Because a ratchet fits completely around the nut, it has much less chance of slipping off.

Q. Are impact sockets the same as regular sockets?

A. Impact sockets are a more rugged type of socket for use with pneumatic or cordless impact wrenches. Impact sockets usually have thicker walls and a more durable build, allowing them to handle more force. While they’re available in both low and deep configurations like traditional sockets, they’re usually a deeper color than regular sockets.

Q. What’s the difference between a 6-sided and a 12-sided socket?

A. The two most common types of sockets in terms of internal configuration are 6-sided and 12-sided. If you compare them, you can clearly see that one has 6 sides on the inside while the other has 12.

The 12-sided sockets can fit a nut or bolt in any of 12 different ways, making them easier to slide on. A 6-sided socket gives more contact with the sides of a nut, providing a better hold when you’re tightening or loosening it. If you’re only doing light jobs, a 12-sided socket is more convenient. For larger and harder jobs, use a 6-sided socket.

 

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