If you’ve spent any length of time working on automobiles, you’ve likely come across the benefits an impact wrench offers over a handheld ratchet wrench for loosening lug nuts and stuck-on bolts. Greater torque and power translates into greater tightening and loosening force, allowing you to work on stubborn nuts and bolts with greater speed and reduced manual effort. However, trying to use a standard socket set that’s not designed to withstand these higher levels of torque can easily damage or destroy your precious sockets.
That’s where impact sockets come in. They are made from either chrome-molybdenum or an impact-grade chrome vanadium instead of the less durable chrome vanadium that standard sockets are made with. Then, they’re “carbonized” to make them even more rugged, and it’s this process that gives them their characteristic black color. And their use isn’t limited to just impact wrenches; they can also be used in an impact driver with a socket adapter or in a handheld ratchet wrench—making them incredibly versatile. Read on to learn about the characteristics of the best impact sockets, and discover some of the highest-rated products on the market.
- BEST OVERALL: Neiko 1/2″ Drive Master Impact Socket Set, 65Piece
- RUNNER UP: CASOMAN 3/8″ and 1/2” Drive Impact Socket Set
- BEST DEEP: Neiko 1/2″ Drive Master Impact Socket Set, 35 Piece
- BEST SHALLOW: Neiko 1/2-Inch Drive Shallow Impact Socket Set
Before You Buy Impact Sockets
Just because impact sockets can be used in place of regular sockets doesn’t mean they should be used for every application. For one thing, the steel that impact sockets use is softer than the hardened chrome vanadium that regular sockets use. Impact sockets are designed this way to help absorb the higher forces that impact wrenches generate since conventional chrome vanadium is too brittle and prone to breaking when subjected to these forces. An impact socket’s specifically engineered steel makes them more expensive than regular sockets, and their softer composition makes them wear out faster than regular sockets when used with a handheld ratchet wrench. Impact sockets are also much thicker than regular sockets, making them less suitable for working in confined spaces. Granted, impact sockets are absolutely necessary for impact wrenches, but you might find a standard socket set more useful if you have no need for an impact wrench and will only be using a manual ratchet wrench for your projects.
Before you purchase an impact socket, it’s also important to realize that just because a socket is black doesn’t mean it’s an impact socket. While a regular socket usually has a shiny chrome finish, they sometimes come with a black oxide finish that makes them appear like impact sockets. Many people have mistakenly purchased sockets that had a black-oxide finish only to have them shatter shortly after they’re used with an impact wrench.
Types of Impact Sockets
Impact sockets are available in two varieties: deep and shallow. Since sockets are designed for working on nuts secured onto threaded bolts, the socket you use needs to be long enough to fit over and around the bolt’s exposed threads to access the nut but not so long that it can’t sufficiently grab it. Both deep and shallow sockets specialize in each one of these tasks and have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Learning about the differences between these two varieties is the first step in discovering which type of impact socket will work best for your needs. After exploring the differences, you may also discover that you need both types to perform each of their designated functions.
Deep sockets are designed to reach nuts fastened on bolts with exposed threads that are too long for standard, “shallow” sockets to bypass. To accomplish this, deep sockets are often at least 1 inch long and are capable of slipping over a longer bolt’s exposed threads without bottoming out before reaching the nut.
Deep sockets are commonly used for loosening and tightening lug nuts, and a two-sided variety of deep sockets, called “flip sockets,” is specifically made for working on lug nuts. Flip sockets are equipped with a different-size socket on each end and often come in sets of three (with six socket sizes in total) that contain all the most common lug nut sizes. Having only three sockets that contain the six most common lug nut sizes makes them especially convenient, making them popular with automotive professionals.
A deep socket’s greater length also allows them to reach nuts that are out of reach of shallow sockets, especially when they’re used in conjunction with a socket extension bar that extends the reach of the socket. Deep sockets can also be used in place of a shallow socket in most cases, giving them a wider range of applications. The main disadvantages of deep sockets are that they’re usually more expensive than shallow sockets, and they may not grab onto a nut or bolt’s head as tightly as a shallow socket.
Shallow sockets are the most common type of socket and are considered to be the “standard” socket type. Shallow sockets are designed for working on nuts that are no more than an inch away from the end of the bolt’s shaft. They’re useful for working in tight spaces a deep socket can’t fit into, and for grabbing nuts on shorter bolt shafts without slipping off as easily. Although a deep socket’s greater length can make reaching distant nuts easier, a shallow socket can be attached to a socket extension to extend its reach to otherwise inaccessible bolts.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Impact Sockets
Along with knowing the difference between deep and shallow sockets, there are a few other factors to keep in mind when shopping for impact sockets. For example, it’s important to select an impact socket with the proper drive for your impact wrench and size for your nuts and bolts.
A socket’s size refers to the size of the bolt it’s compatible with. For example, a ⅜-inch socket is made to work on a nut or bolt with a ⅜-inch head. Bolt and socket sizes will either use the SAE (“standard”) or the metric measuring systems. The SAE system uses inches and fractions of an inch and is commonly used with American products, while the metric system uses millimeters and is commonly used with products manufactured outside of the United States. It’s not uncommon for vehicles to have both SAE and metric bolts, so it’s wise to have sockets that accommodate both measurement systems in a comprehensive automotive socket set. When selecting a set, you should ensure that there aren’t any missing sizes that you may need since some sets won’t include certain sizes that aren’t commonly used (like 13/16 inch or 7 mm).
As you’ve already seen, deep and shallow sockets serve two purposes, with some crossover applications. If you’re looking for a socket with the widest range of functions, aren’t planning on working in tight spaces, and aren’t afraid to spend a little extra, a deep socket is probably the best choice. On the other hand, if you’re on a budget, don’t plan on working with long bolts that have less than an inch of exposed thread, and will only be working in open and accessible spaces, a standard shallow socket may be all you need. It’s usually ideal to have both types on hand so you can tackle whatever you may encounter.
A socket’s drive is the square slot that slides over and attaches to the impact wrench’s anvil and is located on the bottom portion of the socket—directly opposite the socket head that the bolts fit into. An impact wrench’s drive anvil can range from ¼ inch to 1 inch, with the most common sizes being ⅜ inch and ½ inch. Since the size of your wrench’s anvil will dictate the drive size of the impact sockets it can use, it’s important that you select a socket size with the proper-size drive. However, you can also acquire drive adapters that will increase or reduce your impact wrench’s drive size by having one side the size of the wrench’s anvil (i.e., ½ inch) and the other side the size of the socket’s drive (i.e., ⅜ inch).
Aside from their characteristic black color, one of the primary and most distinguishing characteristics of an impact socket is its wall thickness. The wall thickness of an impact socket is considerably greater (up to three times in some cases) than standard sockets—and for good reason. Since an impact socket is made of a softer steel than regular sockets, it has to compensate with thicker walls to enhance its durability. The increased mass from the thicker walls helps the impact socket absorb the repeated blasts of torque from the impact wrench without deforming or breaking the socket.
Our Top Picks
Even with knowing the various components and features that make up an impact socket, you may still be overwhelmed by the plethora of options available on the market. Consider the following top-rated picks to help simplify your purchase decision.
For a fully complete impact socket set that includes both shallow and deep sockets in SAE and metric sizes, Neiko’s 65-piece set has you covered for whatever nuts and bolts you may encounter. Each socket has a ½-inch drive head that’s compatible with most impact wrenches, but the set also comes with a ½-inch to ⅜-inch drive adapter to use with multiple wrenches. The kit includes 14 deep and shallow SAE sockets with sizes ranging from ⅜ to 1¼ inches and contains 15 metric sockets with sizes ranging from 10 mm to 24 mm. Neiko also includes 3-inch, 5-inch, and 10-inch extension bars for accessing hard-to-reach places. Finally, it comes with a handheld ratchet wrench for increased versatility. All of these pieces are made with an impact-grade chrome vanadium steel and are coated with a black phosphate coating for maximum dependability. All of this is housed in a sturdy organizational, storage, and carrying case to keep your sockets safely stored and organized. The only disadvantage is that this set is more expensive than those with fewer pieces, and the extra cost may be hard to justify for most tool buyers who are planning to use them only occasionally.
CASOMAN’s 38-piece impact socket features a wide range of sockets for accomplishing a variety of applications without breaking the bank. It contains sockets with both ⅜-inch and ½-inch drives for maximum versatility and contains both deep and shallow sockets with SAE and metric sizes. The SAE sizes range from ⅜ inch to 1¼ inches, and the metric sizes range from 10 mm to 24 mm. CASOMAN’s kit also includes two 3-inch extensions, one with a ⅜-inch drive and the other with a ½-inch drive. It even includes a ⅜- to ½-inch drive adapter. All of these sockets are contained in a durable storage and organizational case to keep the sockets protected and make them easy to transport. These features make CASOMAN’s complete set an incredible value.
Since deep sockets are considered to be the most versatile, one of these may be all you need to tackle the widest range of applications. Neiko’s 35-piece set contains all the components needed in a general-purpose set, including sockets sized in both SAE and metric, a handheld ratchet wrench, socket extensions, and drive adapters.
The 14 SAE sizes range from ⅜ inch to 1¼ inches, and the 14 metric sizes range from 10 to 32 millimeters. Neiko also included a 3-inch, 5-inch, and 10-inch extension bar; a ⅜-inch to ½-inch adapter; and a ½-inch to ⅜-inch adapter. All of this is made with an impact-grade chrome vanadium steel with a black phosphate finish and neatly organized in a sturdy storage case.
For working on bolts in tight spaces, you need a good shallow socket set. Neiko’s 32-piece ½-inch drive shallow socket set has everything you need to work on a wide assortment of bolts, including those with SAE and metric sizes. Neiko’s shallow socket set has 13 SAE sockets from ⅜ inch to 1¼ inches and 15 metric sockets from 10 millimeters to 32 millimeters. It also comes with a 3-inch and 5-inch extension bar for greater reach and a ½-inch to ⅜-inch adapter for using the sockets with a wrench equipped with a ⅜-inch drive. All of these are made with impact-grade chrome vanadium steel and corrosion-resistant chrome phosphate finish for increased durability. Finally, all of these components are housed in a robust storage and organizational case.
FAQs About Impact Sockets
Still have some unanswered questions about impact sockets? Consider the answers to the following frequently asked questions to see if they offer some clarity.
Q. What is the difference between impact sockets and regular sockets?
Impact sockets are made with a material that can withstand the greater stress imposed by an impact wrench, which is either an impact-grade chrome vanadium steel or chrome molybdenum steel. Regular sockets, on the other hand, are typically made with a hard and brittle chrome vanadium steel that’s prone to breaking if used with an impact wrench. Impact sockets are also “carbonized” and usually either have a black oxide or black phosphate finish, which gives it a black color instead of the shiny chrome finish regular sockets have.
Q. How do I know which drive size to get?
It’s best to get impact sockets with the same drive size as your impact wrench, but you can also acquire drive adapters that allow you to use your impact wrench with various socket drive sizes.
Q. How long do impact sockets last?
An impact socket’s longevity will largely depend on the quality of its construction, how often it’s used, and whether or not it’s used for its intended purpose. Generally speaking, you can expect your impact sockets to last anywhere from one to six years.