Buying a good quality set of sockets is not easy. There are hundreds of different sets marketed by dozens of distributors and dealers, so how do you know which one is best for you? The short answer is that there is no single “best” set, regardless of the make or brand. All sockets sets have some drawbacks, and contrary to what you may have heard or read on the Internet, sockets with smooth, shiny finishes are NOT always an indicator of quality. In fact, from the point of view of most professional mechanics, “shiny” almost always equals poor quality.
So how do you know which set to purchase? Again, there is no short, definitive answer, but the price on its own should never be the only determining factor. It depends on what you need a socket set for- for instance, if you only do the occasional repair job around the house, then almost anything on the market will do, but if you are planning on doing all of your own car repairs, you need the best quality tools that are available, as opposed to the best you can afford. So how is the word “quality” defined? Read on, and we will tell you why some socket sets are better than others are.
Socket terminology explained.
If you are not familiar with the terminology that goes with hand tools in general, it can be a daunting task to explain your exact needs to a store assistant. So before you go shopping for the perfect socket set, take a minute to familiarize yourself with some technical terms, and their meanings.
This refers to the dimensions of the square hole in the top of the socket into which the drive nub of the ratchet handles fits, and is not in any way related to the opening in the bottom of the socket that fits onto the fastener. This dimension is measured from side to side, and not from corner to corner, like a TV screen.
Popular drive sizes for most DIY applications are ¼-inch, ⅜-inch, and ½-inch, regardless of the measurement standard of the sockets. Bigger drive sizes, such as ¾-, and 1-inch are also available, but they rarely, if ever, have an application on light vehicles.
This measurement standard refers to the sizes of the heads of fasteners, and hence the socket, in millimeters when measured across flats.
The acronym stands for “Society of Automotive Engineers”, and refers to the sizes of the heads of fasteners in inches when measured across flats. Sizes of tools in the SAE standard increase in 1/16th inch increments.
Extension bars allow the user to reach fasteners that are in places where it would be impossible to swing a wrench or ratchet handle through a wide enough arc to loosen or tighten the fastener. Extension bars come in standard lengths, regardless of the measurement standard of the sockets. In practice, a ½-inch drive extension that came with a metric set will fit a ½-inch drive socket made to the SAE standard, since the drive sizes on both standards are identical.
The connection between a ratchet handle and a socket allows for no deviation from the centre-line of the drive, but by inserting a swivel joint between the socket and the ratchet, it becomes possible to alter the drive angle to suit conditions. However, the more acute the drive angle becomes, the less torque can applied to the fastener, and at angles greater than about 100 it becomes necessary to apply a counter torque to the pivot point to prevent the socket slipping off the fastener.
These adapters make it possible to drive say, a ⅜-inch drive socket with a ½-inch drive ratchet handle. There is number of reasons why a user may want to do this, but it must always remember that by doing this, it becomes easier to break a bolt by a factor of about 4, because of the greater torque that can be applied with the longest ½-inch drive ratchet.
This is simply a long handle to which a socket can be fitted. Breaker bars come in all drive sizes, but in several different lengths, and their purpose is to apply more torque to a fastener than is possible with a ratchet handle. However, a breaker bar must never be substituted for a properly calibrated torque wrench. Typical applications of a breaker bar would include loosening tight suspension nuts and bolts, loosening stubborn wheel nuts, or loosening highly torqued CV-joint retaining nuts.
The ratchet handle is the centre-piece of any socket set. Its ability to apply torque in one direction while allowing free rotation around the drive point in the opposite direction makes it the perfect tool to speed up the process of loosening or tightening of fasteners.
Deep sockets have a longer body than normal sockets to allow them to reach deeply recessed parts and fasteners. Typical applications would be the removal of diesel fuel injectors and cylinder head bolts that are not accessible with normal sockets. Deep sockets are available in all drive sizes and measurement standards.
As the name suggests, impact sockets are intended to be used with pneumatic or electrical impact wrenches. Two distinguishing characteristics of impact sockets are that they ALWAYS have six sides (or “points”) and that they have significantly thicker walls than normal sockets. Typical applications of impact sockets would be the removal of very stubborn wheel nuts on trucks, or the removal of corroded fasteners where normal tolls cannot supply sufficient torque.
Impact tools also reduce the chances of breaking fasteners due to the action of hundreds of high-impact “hammer blows”, instead of a huge, but steady torque that can snap the head of a fastener before the locking action of the threads is overcome.
Impact sockets are often anodized black and have a groove around the top to distinguish them from normal sockets, but this is not always the case. Having six points and a thick wall are more reliable indicators of a particular socket being an impact socket. Impact sockets are available in all measurement standards, as well as in deep socket variations. Drive sizes start at ½-inch.
It may be possible to use normal sockets with impact tools, and while some brands of the socket will survive this abuse for years, the danger of a normal socket shattering should be enough to dissuade any user from the practice of using normal sockets with impact tools.
Cr-V, or CR-V:
Many manufacturers of sockets choose to engrave either of the two sets of letters on their products, which letters refer to the materials added to the base metal to provide additional strength and protection against corrosion. “Cr”, or “CR” refers to the presence of Chromium to protect against corrosion, and “V” refers to the presence of Vanadium to add strength.
How to choose a ratchet.
Now that we know what the technical terms mean, we will know what to look for in a high-quality socket set, so let us begin with the heart of the set, the ratchet handle.
What to look for…
As the name suggests, a ratchet works by allowing the teeth on a ratchet wheel to engage with a toggle that locks the mechanism in one direction at a time, but the number of teeth on the ratchet wheel plays a crucial role in how well a ratchet performs.
As a rule of thumb, the more expensive a ratchet handle is the more teeth the ratchet wheel has, which means that the angle required to move the handle decreases before the teeth on the toggle engage with new teeth on the ratchet wheel. Cheaper brands have as few as 32 teeth on the ratchet wheel, which means that the angle required to engage new teeth can be as big as 150, and sometimes even more. This makes it very difficult to use such a ratchet in confined spaces because of the large arc required to swing the ratchet to move a fastener through more than a few degrees at a time.
In contrast, high-quality, expensive ratchets have as many as 72 teeth on their ratchet wheels, which translates into a movement of only 50, or sometimes less, before new teeth engage. This is a very big advantage in confined spaces since a fastener can be moved through large angles with small movements of the ratchet handle. Even though the teeth on expensive ratchet handles have a small pitch, they are extremely durable and will last a lifetime. But there are other equally important aspects to a ratchet handle, so let us look at the three other most important things to look for…
Get a grip…
It is very important that the ratchet does not slip from your hand when working in confined spaces because the large forces involved when working with stubborn fasteners can break your fingers if the tool does slip.
Some manufacturers of even high-quality tools offer ratchet handles that do not have ergonomically designed grips. In fact, some ratchet handles have smoothly polished grips that may look good on an Internet review, but the truth is that if your hands are dirty or oily, this type of tool is almost certain to injure you because it is very difficult to maintain a positive grip on it, and especially so if you are wearing gloves while working.
Always choose a ratchet handle that has a rubber grip that fits comfortably in your hand. Also look for a guarantee from the manufacturer that the material the grip is made of is oil resistant. Some cheap ratchet handles have very comfortable grips, but they almost always dissolve the first time they come into contact with oil or grease.
Nowadays, almost all ratchet handles have a small toggle switch with which to change the direction of the ratchet mechanism. However, this switch should have a positive action, meaning that when it is moved, it should stay in the selected position by means of a positive locking action.
On a high-quality ratchet, the toggle switch will move freely from side to side, but it will lock into place in both positions, so check for this. On a cheap tool, the toggle switch can move to the neutral position unexpectedly (and often), and especially when the mechanism is under a heavy load. When this happens, the user is almost certain to suffer injuries that can vary from skinned knuckles, to broken fingers, to broken wrists, and in some cases, even serious facial injuries when the socket suddenly slips off the fastener, and the ratchet hits the user in the face as a result of the ratchet suddenly disengaging.
And avoid kinks in the handle.
No high-quality ratchet handle will ever have an offset between the pivot point and the grip to appear “kinked” when viewed from the side. This is a favorite design feature of cheaper brands, but the truth is that this offset vastly increases the chances of a socket slipping off a fastener.
In effect, the offset causes the torque to be applied in a plane that is far above the plane in which the fastener head will rotate, which means that part of the rotational plane is converted into a lateral force that increases in direct proportion to the torque applied. Thus the higher the load, the bigger the chance that the socket will be pulled off the fastener, with injuries following almost as a matter of course.
What to look for in sockets.
One sure sign to look for in high quality sockets is a difference in the diameter of the body of the socket, and the upper part into which the drive nub fits. This feature has nothing to do with increasing the torque that can be applied, but it has everything to do with the overall strength of the socket.
Since high quality sockets have relatively thin walls, the radius that “connects” the upper and lower parts serves as reinforcing on the one hand, and as a mechanism to absorb the forces that act on a socket under heavy loads on the other.
Avoid sockets that have a uniform diameter, since they rely on this feature to compensate for their lack of inherent strength, regardless of how prominently the letters “Cr-V” are engraved on them. In fact, some high quality brands do not even have the letters “Cr-V” anywhere on them, since their manufacturers assume that the knowledge user will know how to identify a high quality socket. In many cases, the letters “Cr-V” are present on cheap brands merely as a sales gimmick, and the proof of this can be seen in the differences between the wall thicknesses of cheap and expensive sockets. Cheap sockets will always have thicker walls than expensive sockets, so use wall thickness as a means to gauge quality.
NOTE: Many impact sockets have uniform diameters, as well as thicker walls than normal sockets, but not always. Really high-quality impact sockets will have the words “Impact”, or “For Use With Impact Tools” engraved on them, so look out for this feature when purchasing impact sockets.
Look for the name…
It often happens that cheap sockets do not have a brand name on them, and rely on a highly polished surface, a laser-etched number, and a pretty carry case to attract unwary buyers. Sockets without brand names on them can never be trusted; who will buy a car, or any other product without knowing who made it?
In contrast, high quality sockets will always have the brand name and size engraved prominently. Laser-etched sizes may serve as a positive point of reviewing sites, but in the real world, they are easily obscured by dirt and grime during repair work on cars and machinery. Always look for the sockets that have their sizes engraved on them, as opposed to laser-etched, to keep them legible under the most demanding of conditions.
And check their fit.
All sockets feature indentations on the inside of the square drive hole; however, the shape, depth, and angles of these indentations determine how well a socket fits (and stays) on a drive nub. In high quality sockets, the indentations are made to correspond closely to the radius of the retaining ball on the drive nub, which means that when the release mechanism in the centre of the ratchet is depressed, the socket will fall of the drive nub under its’ own weight.
On cheaper tools, the indentations are sometimes not deep enough, which means the socket comes off the drive nub too easily, or too deep, which means that the socket sometimes has to be pried off the nub with a screwdriver. The test of a good socket is the ease with which it can be fitted to, and removed from a drive- the easier, the better. Look for the sockets that have a slight bevel to the outside edge of the drive hole- this makes it easier for the retaining ball to enter the hole. Cheap sockets almost never have this bevel, so be careful not to be fooled by a shiny finish and laser-etched markings.
On high quality tools, it should be somewhat difficult to remove a socket from a drive without depressing the release mechanism, but depressing the mechanism should cause the socket to fall off under its own weight. Moreover, on high quality tools there will be no sideways movement between the socket and the drive nub when any amount of force is applied. The drive and the socket should form a solid unit, with no rattling, or free play whatsoever.
How many points?
How many internal points or sides a socket must have largely depended on what you want to use the socket for. For instance, six-sided sockets offer the best grip, with almost no chance of rounding off the corners on a fastener, but then again, a high quality socket with 12, or even 24 sides will also loosen almost any fastener without damaging it. Six-sided sockets are sometimes difficult to use in confined spaces because it can be difficult to fit them over a fastener; 12-, or 24-sided sockets, on the other hand, can be fitted over that same fastener with no trouble at all, which makes their use a better option in some cases.
Something to bear in mind is that six-sided sockets are cheaper to manufacture, which is why cheap socket sets almost invariably contain only six sided sockets. If the manufacturer of your chosen six-sided socket set does not offer sockets with 12 or 24 sides, it is almost certain that the set will not survive in a professional environment for any length of time.
On the other hand, reputable manufacturers offer sockets in all possible configurations, which gives you bigger choice, and the assurance that all their products conform to the highest possible standards of quality, durability, and ease of use.
A final thought…
From a professional mechanic’s point of view, there is a direct correlation between the poor quality of sockets and the prettiness of the plastic carry-case. The nicer the case, the worse the tools inside it- regardless of the opinions of any number of reviewers.
High quality socket sets also have carry cases, but almost invariably made from steel or aluminum. Moreover, a high quality set will have the brand name on the case, which is hardly ever the case with tools offered for sale on the Internet, and especially on eBay and Amazon.
In closing, it must be stated that not every person needs the best possible tools all of the time, but that does not mean that everyone should be satisfied with the poor quality offered by many manufacturers. Tools are expensive, so if you do not need a 110-piece socket set, do not buy one merely because it looks nice and shiny.
Instead, buy a smaller set, but of better quality, and add to it as required by buying pieces separately. You also do not have to stick to one brand either; you can collect the best products from different manufacturers, and you get a lifetime warranty on each piece. You do not have to buy a set to get a warranty, so if a dealer does not warrant a single piece, move on, and get it from a dealer that will replace it if it breaks or fails- no questions asked.