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Serious socket sets

Guaranteed, sockets break and ratchets bend or bust – or both. Alan Hedge has “three or four” sets of standard and metric sockets in his shop all the time, he says. Some of his favorite sockets have been recycled; some have just disappeared.

He'll buy another set fairly soon. But unlike most of us, he's a professor who teaches hand tool design and ergonomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

A good socket wrench set is one of the most basic items for a toolkit. There are many design choices on the market, but there are few guidelines.

“There's not been a whole lot done on the design of ratchets, from an ergonomic standpoint, given how many people use them,” Hedge says.

Throughout the components of the socket wrench, quality of steel is important. The stronger the steel, the greater the torque it will take when a lug or nut is frozen in place. Hardness is a good measure of the strength, but labels probably won't say a thing about it. That kind of information is treated as a trade secret, rather than a label requirement for discerning consumers.

“There are huge differences in steel. A lot of times, all you're given is the finish when you want to know what it's made of,” Hedge says. “Probably, the weight is the best indicator available. If a piece feels light, chances are it's made of a soft alloy.”

Ratchet handles

For ratchet handles, Hedges says, “Look for the most comfortable handle, something you can hold easily. And look for a material that makes it easy to hold, that's not going to be too cold or too slippery when it's wet or oily. Some handles have a rubber or plastic covering that make them easier to hold.”

For a standard steel ratchet handle that isn't padded, Hedges wants to see some texture to reduce slippage and a grip that's contoured to fit the palm of the hand. A poor handle design – such as being too thin – can lead to compressed nerves and carpal tunnel issues.

Heavy work gloves may be a consideration. If your bare hands need gloves for safety, before making the purchase, test the ratchet handle grip while wearing a work glove.

“The typical thick industrial glove reduces your ability to pick up a socket, and that influences how you hold the ratchet and the kinds of forces you can exert on the ratchet,” he says.

For a smaller ratchet, be sure the handle is long enough to fit your hand comfortably.

“The length of the ratchet handle is important,” Hedges says. “Some ratchets have plenty of length; some don't. The longer the handle, the more torque you can get on the handle.”

Ratchet head

Ergonomics will still be a factor when Hedge is selecting his next ratchet head and set of sockets.

“I'm not aware of any guidelines at all for these design choices,” he says.

The traditional standard has a solid, straight attachment from the handle to a round, flat, hollow head with a sliding thumb switch for changing directions on the internal gearing.

New styles often have a flexible joint between the handle and the ratchet head. Engineers have designed new ways to connect a ratchet head to the socket, too. They have also provided choices for the shape of the head, thickness of the head, the reversing mechanism, the internal gearing, and more.

As an ergonomist, Hedge would like to see ratchet heads equipped with LED lights to light the work area. He also suggests an internal extension for the reversing mechanism so that it can be reversed at the end of the handle.

Socket sets

Sockets also come in many forms: shallow, standard, deep, impact (for air tools), metric, and SAE. They have six, 12, or more points to match the corners on bolt heads or lugs.

Opinions differ on the number of contact points inside. The common point of view seems to say that six points are best; 12 points are more prone to slip and lead to rounding.

“You're better off with more points,” Hedges advises. “The more you have, the more contact you have with the surface. Six points are good, providing the lugs haven't rounded or have become deformed. A tool that will conform to the shape will help more with getting it off.” 

Lettering size may be a factor, too. It isn't an issue in a brightly lit store for someone with 20/20 vision. However, outdoors at dawn or dusk, or in a poorly lit shop, tiny lettering can make it very difficult to read the socket size.

Slight size differences between metric and SAE (inch) sockets make them a constant pain if they're not organized nicely. One socket manufacturer produces one type as a smooth socket and gives the other a textured ring.

Hedge suggests that you may want to color-code one type with a little metal paint.

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