Buyer’s Guide: Ratchet Wrenches

To find the best ratchet for your needs and budget, continue ahead for top tips and recommendations—and don't miss our top picks!

The Best Ratchet Option

Photo: depositphotos.com

If you’ll be doing repairs around the house or on your car, you’re likely going to need a ratchet—a wrench with a fastener component used to tighten or loosen nuts and bolts. A ratchet has a rotating gear inside its head and two levers (known as pawls) that catch the gear’s teeth. One pawl, when engaged, tightens the nut or bolt, while the other pawl is used to loosen a fastener, as the user turns the handle.

Basic as these hand tools may be, they’re definitely not one size fits all, so a DIYer will want to reach for the ratchet (aka socket wrench) most appropriate for the task at hand. Plus, as any professional builder or mechanic will tell you, there’s a big difference between a high-end ratchet and a low-quality model. This shopping guide will give you the lowdown on these essential tools and detail why the models here are our top favorites among the best ratchet tools available.

  1. TOP PICK: DEWALT Ratchet
  2. BEST VALUE: ARES 3/8-Inch Drive 90-Tooth Ratchet
  3. MOST VERSATILE: Neiko 3/8-Inch Drive Extendable Ratchet
  4. HEAVY-DUTY PICK: ARES 1/2-Inch Drive 90-Tooth Ratchet
  5. HONORABLE MENTION: ACDelco Power Cordless Ratchet Wrench
The Best Ratchet Option

Photo: depositphotos.com

What to Look for When Buying a Ratchet

While most ratchets follow a very similar exterior design, things do differ in internal design. Consider different sizes, materials, and convenience features, and you’ll soon see that not all ratchets are built to the same standards.

Drive Size

Drive size refers to the size of the sockets that fit on the ratchet’s drive square (the square head that sockets snap onto). Socket size refers to the size of the nut or bolt that a particular socket was intended for. The three common drive sizes that most DIYers will become familiar with over time are ¼-inch, ⅜-inch, and ½-inch (those larger than ½-inch are more common for boilermakers and pipefitters than DIYers). The smaller the drive size, the lighter the duty that the ratchet was intended for. So if you only buy one of these tools, make it a ⅜-inch drive ratchet with compatible sockets, which will be small enough to fit in tight places, like alongside an engine block or the underside of a dishwasher, but robust enough to withstand quite a bit of force.

Tooth Count

Tooth count refers to the number of notches in the ratcheting gear inside the ratchet’s head—a number that makes a big difference depending on usage situation. A ratchet with a high tooth count (72 teeth and up) means that less handle movement is required for progress, while a lower tooth count (as few as 32 teeth) requires a lot more room to manipulate the ratchet handle and turn the fastener. You’ll appreciate a high tooth count in tight scenarios where your range of motion is limited, like inside your car’s wheel well during a brake job. The ratchet can be twisted in smaller increments to make progress on the fastener, whether tightening or loosening.

Socket Release

Most ratchets on the market today include a quick-release button on the backside of the ratchet head. This button releases the socket from the face of the tool, making for a convenient way to swap sockets for differently sized fasteners without pulling the socket off by hand.

Without this feature, you’d have to pull the socket off with your free hand—and in tight quarters, like while working under a car, you run the risk of smashing your hand into something when the socket pops loose. What’s more, greasy hands simply make socket removal frustrating. Even sockets with non-slip textures can be a challenge to remove with just a little oil on their surface.

Quick-release ratchets are safer and easier to use. It’s a good idea to oil them regularly to keep them working smoothly.

Length and Weight

The longer the ratchet handle, the easier it will be to apply torque to a fastener. While this can release a bolt with less effort, it can also quickly overpower the fastener’s strength—which can lead to stripping or tearing the head off of the fastener. Most ratchet handles are designed for optimum torque application—long enough to apply leverage and loosen a bolt, but not so long that they destroy the fastener with marginal effort. Another consideration in length is whether you’ll be able to manipulate the ratchet in a given position. A long-handled ratchet can be near useless under the hood of a car.

In terms of weight, heavier ratchets will obviously fatigue the user faster. Keep in mind that when working above your head, such as driving lag screws through a deck’s ledger board, even a lightweight ratchet can feel heavy and cumbersome. So it’s generally wise to purchase a high-quality, lightweight model that can get the job done without tiring you out.

Material

Almost all ratchets on the market today are built from chrome vanadium steel, but quality varies. Chrome vanadium is an alloy—a combination of metals designed to deliver particular attributes, such as shock resistance, strength, weight, and other characteristics, as well as cost savings. As these alloys are essentially the result of a metallurgic recipe, they vary in quality depending on the amounts of materials combined.

Our Top Picks

The Best Ratchet Option: DEWALT ⅜-Inch Quick-Release Ratchet

Photo: amazon.com

1. TOP PICK: DEWALT Ratchet

This 3/8-inch ratchet from DEWALT is a rock-solid hand tool. It features a quality chrome vanadium body, 72 tooth count gearing, and a smooth quick-release button on the rear of the head to make socket swaps simple. The comfortable ergonomic handle has non-slip grooves but no additional texture, like ribs or knurling, so greasy hands may find it challenging to get a solid grip—the only drawback to an otherwise excellent ratchet.

The Best Ratchet Option: ARES ⅜-Inch Drive Ratchet

Photo: amazon.com

2. BEST VALUE: ARES 3/8-Inch Drive 90-Tooth Ratchet

If you don’t want to spend a lot on a high-quality ratchet, this model from ARES is pretty impressive for the price. It’s made from chrome vanadium tool steel to be strong, durable, and easy to clean, and it features a large quick-release button as well. This ratchet has a 90-tooth count, helping you maintain progress on a fastener in even the tightest of situations. But while the smooth, round handle is comfortable to hold, it’s bound to be slippery under anything but the driest conditions.

The Best Ratchet Option: Neiko ⅜-Inch Drive Extendable Ratchet

Photo: amazon.com

3. MOST VERSATILE: Neiko 3/8-Inch Drive Extendable Ratchet

While its chrome vanadium body, 72 teeth, ratchet action, and rubber handle are impressive, this Neiko’s finest asset is a telescoping handle that lets you maximize torque and increase leverage in tight spots. Simply pull back on the handle’s collar and extend to the desired length; the locking collar, when released, will maintain the length of the handle. The handle’s rubber grip is comfortable, keeps your hand secure, and also requires smaller ratchet increments—important when the handle is extended to reduce unnecessary movement. The telescoping feature and rubber handle make for a heavier-than-average ratchet, however.

The Best Ratchet Option: ARES ½-Inch Drive Ratchet

Photo: amazon.com

4. HEAVY-DUTY PICK: ARES 1/2-Inch Drive 90-Tooth Ratchet

For heavy-duty jobs, consider the ARES ½-inch drive ratchet. This ratchet accepts ½-inch sockets and is built to withstand some serious torque. It’s got a chrome vanadium body and longer handle yet also retains some of the convenience of smaller models, such as a 90 tooth count and quick-release button. The smooth and slippery grip, however, is a real issue with a heavy-duty ratchet: Applying a lot of torque with greasy hands may be a real challenge, and can even lead to a hand injury.

The Best Ratchet Option: ACDelco Power 12V ⅜-Inch Cordless Ratchet

Photo: amazon.com

5. HONORABLE MENTION: ACDelco Power Cordless Ratchet Wrench

If you’re okay with spending more for added convenience, the ACDelco Power 12V 3/8-inch cordless ratchet is well worth a look. This power ratchet is handy for tightening bolts in tight locations or for dealing with multiple fasteners over the course of a project. Alone, it provides 45 pounds of torque—more than enough to snug a bolt initially—and users can then apply up to 100 pounds of torque by hand to tighten the bolt all the way. Since 100 pounds is its maximum torque output, the ratchet is fine for lawnmowers, bikes, and regular shop use but won’t cut the mustard for heavy-duty work on trucks, trailers, or professional applications.

FAQs About Your New Ratchet Wrench

You’re up on the different types and styles of ratchets but may still have some questions on usage and size. Most of these questions apply to all models, but you can also contact the manufacturer with any questions that aren’t covered here.

Q. How does a ratchet work?

Ratchets have a rotating gear inside their heads and two levers (known as pawls) that catch the gear’s teeth. One pawl engages, determining which direction the gear can spin freely.

Q. What size ratchet should I buy?

Your best bet may be to pick up a 3/8-drive model. They’re small enough for tight clearances but robust enough to handle some torque and pressure.