What is a Socket Wrench?

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

A socket wrench is a helpful addition to any toolbox. This type of wrench, sometimes referred to as a ratchet wrench, uses separate and removable sockets to help tighten many different sizes of nuts and bolts. A socket wrench is a tightening tool that looks like a short pipe with a removable or integral handle and either a square of hexagonal shaped hole.

Mechanics and some industrial workers may use air-powered socket wrenches.
Mechanics and some industrial workers may use air-powered socket wrenches.

Speed is the primary advantage of using a socket wrench, especially in repetitive bolt-off or bolt-on work. Socket wrenches are also useful tools because they can be used at almost any angle. Some socket wrenches even have a ratchet handle that makes it possible to reverse the tightening tool in cramped spaces.

If you choose a quality set of socket wrenches, you will be able to use your purchase for many years. Generally, a top quality socket wrench should be hardened and tempered for long life. The wrench should also be forged from fine-grade tool steel and machined to close tolerances. Some of the high-end manufacturers, such as Snap-on or Mac Tools, may provide "semi-deep" sockets for cases in which a slight depth is desirable.

The most important factor to consider when looking for a socket wrench is size. Choosing the proper size wrench for the job at hand is crucial, since using a socket wrench with too large a reach will damage the points of the tool. Socket wrenches are sold in four common sizes or drives: 1/4 inch, 3/8 inch, 1/2 inch, and 3/4 inch. When looking for American socket wrenches, remember that the 8 point sockets fit only square heads while 12 point sockets fit both hexagonal and square heads. Wrenches with 6 point sockets are the most secure, but these are typically the choice of professional mechanics.

When looking for a socket wrench, there are also different accessories you may wish to purchase to make your project easier to complete. For example, extensions allow access to nuts that would be otherwise hard to reach. This is a very helpful feature to have when working on automotive applications. Adapters that make it possible to use sockets of one drive size with wrenches of another drive size are also quite popular. Adapters consist of a male drive fitting of one size that is attached to a female drive fitting of the second size, such as a 1/4 inch to 3/8 inch adapter that makes it possible to use sockets with 1/4 inch drive holes attached to 3/8 inch wrenches.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the wiseGEEK team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

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Discussion Comments


One very cool maneuver I’ve seen my husband use before when using a socket wrench set on his truck is to use a mirror to see hard to reach places.

For example, he was changing all of the plugs in the motor, and there was one he could barely reach; but he couldn’t see the thing at all.

So he gets an extension to put on the wrench and tries that. He still had no luck. He thought a few minutes then went and got my hand mirror out of the bathroom (thanks, honey) and had me hold it so he could see what he was doing.

And his wife was thoroughly impressed with those common sense brains of his!


My father had four, count ‘em, four daughters. No sons. Over time he developed some rules that he thought all women should live by as he began to see the differences in the ways the genders are typically treated.

He taught us all how to fight and defend ourselves, he taught us all how to shoot a gun and he made sure that we all knew how to use all of the basic tools.

The socket wrench was definitely a biggie, because you needed to know how to use these bad boys to work on your car.

That’s right, gents! You’re looking at a girl who can change all four tires, the oil and put in a new heater coil if she needs to. Look out for me and my tools; I’ve got a metric and a standard socket wrench set. And, I know how to use them!

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