Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Your Guide to Wrenches for the Workshop

No matter whether your're a mechanic or a woodworker, there's no way your workshop could possibly be complete without assorted wrenches. The obvious problem is that there are boatloads of different wrenches out there for you to choose from. Which of them are a necessity, which would be nice to own, and which will end up being just another dust-catcher? The answer is, pretty much "It depends." Here, however are a few guidelines that might help you decide on how to begin stocking your toolbox.

An Adjustable wrench is a Good Place to Start

The best selling point of an adjustable wrench is that it makes no difference whether a nut is SAE or metric. These tools come in sizes from tiny to monsters the size of a kid's baseball bat. The wise choice is to start out in the middle, since little ones aren't big enough for common nuts and bolts, around 1/2 inch, and really big ones are too bulky. My favorites are six to eight inches long,  although there are also 4-, 10-, 12-, and 15-inch wrenches in my tool chest.

When shopping, look for a wrench with drop-forged steel construction and a handle with non-slip features. A classic design with a worm-gear drive for the jaws can last forever (I have my Dad's Crescent brand, which is 70-plus years old). Somehow, I don't expect the newfangled "quick-adjust" designs to hold up under heavy use, but they're probably OK for weekend warriors.

Hand Wrenches in Many Designs

There must be a hundred different hand wrench designs out there, not to mention the myriad sizes. Let me briefly introduce you to the most common wrench designs.

  • Open-end wrenches slide onto a nut or bolt head from the side, so they're best for reaching into narrow spaces. Most come with different size heads on the two ends.
  • A box wrench completely encloses the nut, so it must be fitted on from above. Box wrenches are available in 6- and 12-point configuration. Six-point wrenches have hexagonal openings that only fit the nut in one position; 12-point wrenches fit in two positions but are slightly weaker and perhaps more prone to rounding corners off a nut. Box wrenches also come with different sizes on the ends.
  • A combination ("combo") wrench is an open-end wrench on one end and a box, either 6- or 12-point, of the same size on the other.  This way a user gets the best of both: open-ends are easier to get on, but it's easier to slide a box wrench, especially 12-point, on at the right angle.
  • A gear wrench makes a box wrench into a ratchet, so that once it's on the nut you can keep turning without repositioning the wrench. Good brands will be guaranteed for life; inexpensive ones won't.

Hand Wrench Considerations

  • Metric or Imperial (SAE)? Unfortunately, probably both. 
  • Lengths? As a rule, the smaller the size, the shorter and thinner the wrench. Bigger sizes are sold in "shorty" versions, while small sizes are available with long handles.
  • Sets? Any size and configuration of wrench you want is probably available in a set. There's almost always a price break if you get hand wrenches in a set, so it's usually a good idea.

The Wide World of Sockets

What can you say about socket wrenches? Tons and tons...

  • Socket wrenches are referred to by their drive size. The heart of a socket set is the ratchet driver: all the sockets and accessories snap on the driver's square shaft. The three common drive sizes are 1/4-, 3/8-, and 1/2-inch. A 3/8-inch drive is probably best for everyday use, although those who work on heavy equipment will want a 1/2-inch drive instead. If you really go big, there are 3/4-inch drive sets as well. Ratchets are available in regular and stubby versions. 
  • Every set should also be equipped with a flex handle, or breaker bar, as well.
  • Sockets are made in many varieties. Like a box wrench, there are 6- and 12-point varieties, with the same strength reduction for 12-point configurations.
  • There are also standard and deep styles. A deep-well socket gives you an inch or so of additional reach and also simplifies removing nuts found well down on their bolts.
  • You can use one size driver to turn a socket made for a different drive size by connecting them with an adapter. The adapters are somewhat bulky and clumsy, but for occasional user they prove more economical than buying a second ratchet. They're available in both step-up and step-down, but seem to work better for driving a socket for a smaller ratchet than the other way around.
  • An extension is essential to reaching into tight spots where a ratchet won't fit. You can get them - and will eventually need them -  in several lengths, so pick up an assortment. 

More on Sockets

  • Accessories are not essential, but tend to be handy. This includes universal adapters, slider bars, and speed handles.
  • Metric or SAE? See above: you will likely need both.
  • Keep all your sockets orderly with socket racks. Buy a rack for each configuration: metric, SAE, deep well, 6-point, 12-point... you get it.

"Allan" or "Allen"?

You must have Allen wrenches. Sometimes called "hex wrenches" or "hex keys," these remove screws with hexagonal indentations instead of hexagonal outlines. They are sold in either metric and SAE sizes; buy sets of both. The best ones have a ball-end design that makes them easier to slot in. Another variety is the T-Handle wrench, which gives you longer reach and improved torque.

More Wrenches You Probably Can't Do Without

These wrenches, or something like them, belong in just about every household:

  • Nut drivers look like screwdrivers, but have small hexagonal sockets on their ends. A 1/4-inch size fits those hex-cap screws on just about any electronics you have.
  • A pipe wrench lets you take disassemble the sink drain to find lost jewelry or get at a clog. Twenty bucks is a much less than an hour of a plumber's time.
  • If you maintain your own car, pick up an oil filter wrench. Make certain it's flexible enough to reach the oil filter that, in many modern cars, seems to have been installed before the engine was dropped into the body
  • There should be a four-point "star" lug wrench in the trunk of any car with a spare tire; unless you're carrying around a mechanic with his impact wrench.

About those 1,000-piece sets BigBox stores advertises at Christmas or Father's Day? I'd avoid them: perhaps 30-40% of those "pieces" are weird little bits you will never use. Instead, I'd put my hard-earned dollars into qualty tools in the most common sizes. If you buy the right brands, you'll never have to replace them and if you do, they'll be covered under warranty. It's also likely that you'll have all the tools you'll ever need with the right, smaller sets.

There you go: my guide to the wrench basics.

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