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Socket Wrenches and Socket Sets

So you need to buy a socket set? What could be so difficult about that? A socket and ratchet is the more common tools that has some of the largest buying decisions. If you find yourself walking into your local Sear's hardware looking for Craftsman sockets, you'll find yourself in front of an entire wall of shiny metal. Do you buy 1/2" drive, 3/8" drive, or 1/4" drive? What about standard or deep well sockets? 6 point or 12 point?

Sockets are some of the most useful tools whether for auto repair or general home improvement.

Socket Drive Sizes

The drive size of the socket refers the size of the ratchet that drives the socket. The larger the size, the more strength in transfer and the larger sizes of bolts that can be turned. Typically you won't find a large 1 inch socket available to a smaller 1/4" ratchet.

The 3 most popular drive sizes of sockets are 1/2", 3/8" and 1/4". 1/2" are least popular out of the 3 standard sizes for the average homeowner or do-it-yourselfer. The 1/2" drive tends to lean towards heavy automotive repair. Heavy equipment and industrial applications will use even larger drive sizes. It can also be used for some heavier home projects such as tightening carriage bolts while building a deck.

The 3/8" drive socket is probably the most popular and most useful. This size is large enough to support sockets up to and exceeding 1 inch yet small enough to handler smaller jobs too. The 3/8" drive socket also covers the most common sizes of bolts the average user will encounter. Popular tools brands like Craftsman and Snap-on sell a wide variety of sockets and wrenches in this size. Common applications are automotive repair and small engine and machinery work.

The 1/4" drive socket is the smallest of the common sizes and has the second widest array of accessories. These wrenches are more compact and can be handier while working in tight places on cars or small engines. They also work well for various woodworking and home repair projects. Sockets come in 1/4" drive in sizes up to 3/4" or 17mm.

Socket Depths

The next thing to take into consideration when purchasing a socket set is the depth of the socket. Sockets of all drive sizes come in two standard sizes, standard and deep. Some other manufacturers like Matco Tools and Snap-On have some additional sizes which can come in handy for some tough jobs.

The standard size socket as the name implies is the most popular and it typically what you will find more of in most tool boxes. It stand's about an inch tall although this size varies with the diameter of the socket. The advantages to a standard socket are price and greater control. Since the barrel of the socket is shorter, it is easier to keep even pressure directly on the nut or bolt you are turning.

The deep socket is exactly like the standard socket in all dimensions except it is taller. Or more space is between the mouth of the socket and the end that fits the socket wrench. These sockets are indispensable for turning nuts which may have longer bolts extending through the nut. With a standard depth socket, the wrench could never make contact with the nut because of the protruding bolt. The deep socket allows for the extra clearance to reach the fastener. The deep socket is also helpful for reaching into areas where a short extension bar may be needed. The extra length in the socket may be enough to allow the wrench to swing.

6 Point vs 12 Point

The number of points that a socket has refers to the number of angles inside the socket. 90% of bolts that you will encounter have hexagon shape or six angled sides. The 6 point socket or hex socket matches the angles and face of these bolts exactly. Because of the exact match, the 6 point socket provides better torque and control over a 12 pt socket or double hex socket. Because of the firm grasp of the socket, the 6 pt socket is far less likely to strip or damage (round off) a fastener than the 12 pointed counter part. Especially use a 6 pt socket on tightly torqued or rusted nuts.

The 12 point socket or double hex socket has the obvious 12 faces. Each angle is half that of the angle in a 6 point socket. This makes "getting on" a bolt far easier by giving the socket and bolt 6 more chances to meet up. The downside to this configuration is that each face of a 6 point nut or bold is not exactly met by the socket. This can lead to stripping or damaging the nut or bolt. There are 12 point fasteners available which can only be turned using the 12 point socket. While these are not common, they can be found in some automotive repair. Another advantage to the 12 point socket is the ability to fit a square bolt ( a bolt with a square or 4 sided head). While these are somewhat rare, if your application may include square bolts, a 12 point socket set my prove to be quite valuable.

Specialty Sockets

8 point sockets are available although can be somewhat rare. The 8 point socket is designed for square fasteners with 4 or 8 sides. A 4 point or 8 point socket have a similar relationship to that of a 6 point and 12 point socket. 8 pt sockets (Also called star sockets) are availabe both as regular style sockets and impact sockets (Craftsman does make a 8 point socket set). 4 point sockets or square sockets are almost exclusively available as impact driven sockets (for use with an electric impact wrench or a pnuematic impact wrench).

The universal socket is a useful tool to have when all else fails. One of the best universial sockets is called the Gator Grip. The Gator Grip useds steel rods to create a custom fit around any nut, bolt, hex fastener or even some non standard fasteners like hooks or eye bolts.