Every DIYer needs a socket set, but sorting through the myriad of different sets can be confusing. At first glance, they all look alike, with the only difference being the total number of pieces. Then, when you take a closer look, you find that there are differences in ratchet, socket and case features. So we examined the contents, quality and performance of the major brands and came up with the winners.
You can buy sets with about 25 sockets (about $40) and as many as 128 ($200). We chose sets in the $44 to $80 range because we found them well suited to the intermediate DIYer who also does some car care. If you opt for a bigger or smaller set, our brand recommendations still apply. You get the same quality and features regardless of the size of the set.
All the ratchets we tried worked well and should give you a lifetime of service. But some have features that make the job easier. Here are the key considerations.
The gear mechanism inside the ratchet head is invisible and easy to ignore. But in terms of convenience, the tooth count on those inner gears is critical. A higher number of teeth is better because more (and therefore smaller) teeth allows for a shorter backswing. That’s especially important when you’re working in tight quarters, where you don’t have a lot of room to swing the handle back to get the next “bite” on the nut or bolt.
And, since fine-tooth ratchets have less internal resistance, they’re less likely to unscrew a loose nut or bolt on the return stroke. The tooth count on the 3/8-in.-drive ratchets varied among the brands, from 36 to 72 teeth. The coarsest ratchet required a 10-degree movement; the ratchet with the finest teeth, only 5 degrees.
Are fine-tooth ratchets less durable?
We reviewed socket sets in the Sept. '12 issue (p. 48) and liked the 72-tooth ratchets because they required only a 5-degree swing arc to grab the next tooth. We got letters from readers saying that fine-tooth ratchets aren't as strong as coarse-tooth ratchets and that we should have warned readers about that weakness.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) sets standards for ratchet strength. All 3/8-in. ratchets must withstand a minimum torque of 1,800 in.-lbs., regardless of the number of teeth. Both the ratchets shown meet the minimum standard. In fact, this new fine-tooth 3-degree 120-position ratchet from Gear Wrench exceeds ASME standards by 80 percent. As long as a ratchet meets ASME standards, its tooth count doesn't determine its strength.
Four of the five brands have a “quick release” such that you press a button and the socket falls off. The quick release also locks the socket in place so it doesn’t stick on a bolt head and become a permanent part of the engine. Without that feature, you have to yank the socket off the ratchet—not so fun with greasy hands.
Four of the five ratchets had a fully polished finish with rounded edges in the palm area. The Craftsman ratchet has a textured finish and a more squared-off profile. We prefer the fully polished versions because they're easier to clean. All it took was a simple wipe with a cloth. The textured ratchet caught crud in the sharper edges.
Most of the ratchets had a lever-activated reversing mechanism as opposed to a dial design. If you're working in an open area, either design works fine. But in tight spaces, the lever is much easier to use.
We expected that some of the sockets would be better manufactured than others, forming a more precise fit over nuts and bolts. So we randomly checked the sockets in all five sets with test nuts and a feeler gauge. To our surprise, we found all brands to be nearly identical and all within an acceptable tolerance. So spending more doesn’t get you a more accurate socket, just different features.
The difference in socket markings
Most DIYers find the right size socket by trial and error, so clear socket markings aren’t as important in the “doing” phase of the project. But they’re important when it’s time to put the sockets back in the case. Laser marking is the newest trend, and when you look at the photo above, you can see why. It’s much easier to read. However, the embossed markings work well as long as they’re large enough. Kobalt sockets have laser markings that are also color-coded—red for fractional and blue for metric.
Six-Point or Twelve-Point Sockets?
“Twelve-point sockets work great for most household repairs and projects,” says TFH resident gearhead Rick Muscoplat. “But for vehicle, mower or motorcycle repairs, I always use six-point sockets. They have thicker walls and apply force to the flat shoulder of the hex bolt/nut instead of the corners. So I can apply more torque without rounding off shoulder corners.”
The number of points refers to the number of angles cut into the socket. Most modern fasteners have a hexagonal shape (six sides). But 12-point sockets do offer some advantages for the average homeowner. The biggest plus of a 12-point socket is that it gives you twice the number of starting positions. So you only need to rotate the socket a maximum of 30 degrees before it slips onto the fastener (as opposed to 60 degrees for a six-point socket). That’s an important feature when you’re working in tight spaces or hard-to-see locations—like inside an appliance.
“It’s not a bad idea to have 12-point tools around,” says Muscoplat. “But if I had to choose only one type, I’d go with the six-pointers.”
The cases for all five sets are made of plastic. But some are better constructed than others. For example, the Husky and Stanley brands have hinges and snap latches made from flexible plastic. The other cases use draw-bolt latches, and snaps and hinges with pins that stand up better under heavy use.
We also found that Husky and Stanley sockets were difficult to remove from their cases. The cases of the other brands were better engineered and required less effort to remove and replace the components.
All five brands offer a limited lifetime warranty. Craftsman, Kobalt and Harbor Freight replace broken sockets with an over-the-counter exchange right in the store. Husky and Stanley require you to mail in the broken socket to get a free replacement. Kobalt offers an interesting extra warranty feature. If you register the set when you buy it, Kobalt will replace any lost sockets (you pay just shipping and handling).
A standard socket set is fine for most jobs, but sooner or later (most likely sooner) you’ll need to work in tight spaces. To save yourself some cursing, consider buying some accessories when you buy a socket set. These three accessories shown in this photo series can get the socket into the right spot and turn a bear of a job into a piece of cake.
The Kobalt (Lowe’s brand) 93-piece set has 39 sockets and a 3/8-in. drive, 3-in.-long extension bar. Each socket is laser-etched and color-coded to differentiate between fractional and metric. The ratchets are fully polished and include quick-release and lever-reverse features. The ratchet has the largest tooth count (72 teeth), requiring only 5 degrees of movement to engage the next tooth. And the case is the best of the bunch, with draw-bolt latches, metal hinge pins, and socket retainers, which are easy to remove and replace. Plus, the Kobalt warranty goes one step further: For just the cost of shipping and handling, it replaces lost sockets—something that happens far more often than breakage.
Cost about $75
This 94-piece Craftsman (Sears brand) set has 52 sockets and a 3/8-in.-drive, 6-in.-long extension bar arranged in a generously sized and well-constructed case that can accommodate extra accessories. The laser-etched sockets are well marked, and each one rests face up in the case so you can see the socket opening. That helps when you’re selecting sockets by trial and error. The ratchets have quick release and a lever-reverse mechanism. But neither has a full polish finish, making them harder to clean. The tooth count (36) is the coarsest of the five brands, requiring a 10-degree movement to engage the next tooth.
Cost about $80
This Harbor Freight 64-piece set isn’t an exact comparison with the other sets, but it’s the closest we could find in the store. It contains 59 sockets in three drive sizes: 1/4, 3/8 and 1/2 in., and a 3-in. extension bar for each of the two smaller drive sizes. The socket markings are embossed. All three ratchets are fully polished. However, none have the quick-release feature or a lever-reverse mechanism. The dial reverse design can be harder to operate in tight spaces. The case is well designed with snap latches and a hinged lid.
Cost about $50
The Husky (Home Depot brand) 100-piece set has 71 sockets, one 3/8-in.-drive, 6-in.-long extension bar and one 3-in.-long 1/4-in. extension bar. This set offers the largest socket assortment for the price. You’ll give up laser etching, and the stamped markings are small. But the ratchets have a full polish finish and quick-release and lever-reverse mechanisms. The ratchet tooth count (54) requires a 6.6-degree movement. Our biggest complaint about this set is the case—the sockets are difficult to remove.
Cost about $55
This Stanley 85-piece set has 69 sockets and three extension bars (3-in.-long and 6-in.-long 1/2-in. drives and one 3-in.-long 3/8-in. drive). The Stanley ratchets have the same tooth count (54) and construction as those in the Husky set above. The set costs less and will work fine for home repair projects. But it’s missing some of the socket sizes commonly used for auto repair.
Cost about $44
Look Beyond the Total Piece Count
All mechanic’s tool sets tout the huge number of pieces in the box. But many sets include tools you will rarely use or may already own, like hex wrenches or screwdriver bits. So rather than look at total piece count in a socket set, concentrate on the number of sockets (metric and fractional) and the range of sizes in the set.
Shopping Tip: Buy socket sets on sale. The prices shown here are normal retail prices. But all these sets go on sale often, and often at a substantial discount. You can save 25 to 40 percent.
Best Features: Kobalt #85179
The Kobalt (Lowe’s brand) 93-piece set has 39 sockets and a 3/8-in. drive, 3-in.-long extension bar. Each socket is laser-etched and color-coded to differentiate between fractional and metric. The ratchets are fully polished and include quick-release and lever-reverse features. The ratchet has the largest tooth count of those we tested (72 teeth), requiring only 5 degrees of movement to engage the next tooth. And the case is the best of the bunch, with draw-bolt latches, metal hinge pins, and socket retainers, which are easy to remove and replace. Plus, the Kobalt warranty goes one step further: For just the cost of shipping and handling, it replaces lost sockets—something that happens far more often than breakage.
Best Value: Husky #69026
The Husky (Home Depot brand) 100-piece set has 71 sockets, one 3/8-in.-drive, 6-in.-long extension bar and one 3-in.-long 1/4-in. extension bar. This set offers the largest socket assortment for the price. The ratchets have a full polish finish and quick-release and lever-reverse mechanisms. The ratchet tooth count (54) requires only a 6.6-degree movement to engage. All at a low price.
Best Value: Stanley #94-375
This Stanley 85-piece set has 69 sockets and three extension bars (3-in.-long and 6-in.-long 1/2-in. drives and one 3-in.-long 3/8-in. drive). The ratchets have a full polish finish and quick-release and lever-reverse mechanisms. The ratchet tooth count (54) requires only a 6.6-degree movement to engage. The set costs less than the others and will work well for home repair projects.