A socket wrench is a type of wrench that has a socket on one end for turning fasteners. A ratchet wrench is another term for a socket wrench that you may have heard. It’s a ratcheting tool with a handle that you use to loosen or tighten nuts and bolts by moving the handle as the socket sits tight on the fastener.
Although the phrases ratchet and wrench are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a technical distinction between the two.
A ratchet is a type of wrench, and the most significant part of a ratchet wrench is the socket mechanism, which keeps the handle in position when the user pushes or pulls it. This is not only more convenient, but it also speeds up removing and tightening the fasteners.
In our guide, you can learn how to use a ratchet socket wrench the right way. You’ll know how the parts of a ratchet wrench and how to loosen a bolt with a socket wrench by the end. (Find the Best Ratcheting Wrench Set)
How Do Ratchet Wrenches Work?
Every part of a ratchet wrench is important to its functionality and effectiveness for loosening a fastener to remove it in the job’s limited space.
Check out the parts of a ratchet so you can understand how to use a socket wrench to loosen or tighten.
- Handle: The handle is a major component of functionality for your ratchet as it lets you continually turn the wrench without interruption.
- Low Profile Head: A lower head on a wrench offers clearance when fastening or loosen a nut and bolt.
- Directional Switch: This feature automatically adjusts the turning as you tighten or loosen.
- Socket Release Button: A small control on your wrench can release the socket once you’re done.
- Drive: The size of the drive (1/4”, 3/8” or 1/2”) determines the socket size you can use.
- Socket Retention Ball: A placeholder for the socket when the wrench is not in use.
How to Use a Ratchet Wrench to Loosen a Nut
Learning how to loosen with a socket wrench is one thing we all have a good idea of how to do it. However, here are some extra bits of information to get the best service for your tools. (Read Ratchet Socket Sizes Chart)
Step 1: Select the Right Socket
- Always use the correct size socket for the fastener you’re turning. If you don’t use the correct size, both the fastener and the socket could be damaged.
- If you know what size socket the fastener requires, search for the socket with the correct size marked on it.
- If you’re not sure what socket size to use for a particular fastener, use the socket that seems closest to the size you need and place it on the fastener you want to turn. There’s no need to attach the socket to the ratchet.
- If the socket appears to be too loose on the fastener or is too small to fit the fastener, go up or down a size until you find one that fits snugly.
- You’ll need to use a socket with a drive socket size corresponding to your ratchet’s drive square size.
Step 2: Attach the Socket to the Ratchet
- The drive square of your socket must be the same size as the drive square of your ratchet wrench to attach the socket to the ratchet wrench. You’ll need to use an adapter if this isn’t the case.
- After you’ve chosen the right socket, align the drive socket with the ratchet’s drive square. If the socket has a drive socket side hole rather than an internal notch or groove within the drive socket, it should be lined up with the ball bearing on the turning tool’s drive square.
- A button on the back of the ratchet head releases the ball bearing on the drive square on some ratchets. This may need to be pressed on these ratchets to attach the socket to the drive square.
- Once the socket is lined correctly, press the socket onto the ratchet’s drive square. The ratchet drive square’s ball bearing should snap into place on the drive socket’s side hole or internal notch. After that, make sure the socket is secured to the ratchet.
Step 3: Check the Turning Direction
- Make sure you’re turning the socket in the right direction that services your need. Hold the socket with one hand and move the ratchet handle with your free hand. In one direction you’ll feel resistance while you hear small clicks from the ratchet in the other turning direction of your ratchet.
- As you look down to the ratchet head, turn the socket clockwise to tighten and anti-clockwise to loosen a fastener. Move the lever or dial switch on the back of the ratchet head to the opposite position if the ratchet is turning the socket in a different direction.
Step 4: Place the Socket Onto the Fastener.
- To turn a fastener or nut, align the socket head with the fastener head or nut. To do this, you might have to rotate your socket a little. Place the socket head on the fastener head or nut you want to turn. (Learn How To Measure Socket Drive Size)
Step 5: Turn Your Fastener
- Turn the ratchet handle in the direction you want the fastener to turn. Rotate the ratchet handle in the opposite direction when there is no room to pull the ratchet handle.
- The ratchet mechanism won’t turn the socket or fastener as you do this and enables you to reposition the attached handle, ready to turn the socket and fastener again.
Step 6: Continue Turning.
Repeat step 5 until your fastener has tightened, or you can remove the loosened nut. You do this by repeat swinging of the ratchet handle in a back and forth motion.
Step 7: Remove the Socket Once Done
- How you remove the socket from the ratchet is determined by the type of ratchet you have. You may take the socket off the ratchet drive square with certain less priced ratchets.
- The spring-loaded ball bearing in the ratchet drive square may require a minor force to overcome.
- A button on the back of the ratchet head is found on other ratchets. When pressed, the spring from the ball bearing inside the ratchet drive square is released, allowing the socket to slip off the ratchet drive square.
Before you look at how to use a ratchet tool, it’s good to know the different types of what you are looking for when buying, as it can make the job easier or harder.
Here you can see the areas to focus on in your search, and then you can get on with learning how to loosen a nut with a socket wrench.
A ratchet is a handle with a square drive connector that snaps into one end of a socket. The socket’s other end fits over a fastener.
When you rotate the ratchet clockwise, the handle engages and tightens the fastener, and when you turn it counterclockwise, the handle turns freely. A ratchet direction switch reverses the action of the ratchet if you want the ratchet to loosen the fastening.
Ratchets and sockets are types of wrenches that are used for certain applications. They tighten and loosen fasteners as a traditional wrench does. However, a ratchet and socket are particularly well suited to certain jobs.
When there isn’t enough room to turn a nut or bolt in a full circle, a ratchet and socket combination, also known as a socket wrench, allows you to turn it without repositioning the tool on the fastener.
When you use a socket wrench, this can speed up the process. A socket is also less likely to slip off a fastener than some types of wrenches because it fits entirely around it.
Types of Ratchets and Sockets
Here you can find the parts of your ratchet and sockets. It’s possible to buy pieces individually, or you can purchase a socket set or ratcheting wrench for certain tasks.
Available with different drive sizes — 1/4-inch, 1/2 inch and 3/8 inch — to operate different size sockets.
Most operate with a geared drive; those with a higher tooth count let you operate the tool with a smaller swinging motion, which is useful when there’s little room to move the handle.
Gearless models operate with a roller bearing and require smaller movements to turn fasteners than a geared drive. Many have a lock that keeps the socket from falling off or sticking on the fastener; a quick-release button disengages the lock. (Read Can You Screw Into Concrete)
Jointed or flexible-head ratchets allow you to adjust the angle of the handle to work in tight areas. Ratchet handle use is much the same regardless of the type; it delivers torque to the socket and has the switch for the socket wrench loosen direction or to tighten. The length can vary, and they can be used with a breaker bar if needed.
- Standard (SAE) and metric sizes are both available; some are color-coded to help you distinguish between the two.
- Smaller sizes fit smaller fasteners, whereas bigger fasteners require sockets with larger drive sizes.
- Shallow, low-profile sockets are fit for tight places with little clearance above the fastener’s head.
- Deep sockets allow you to reach the nut on a longer, threaded bolt as well as recessed fasteners.
- 6-point and 12-point sockets fit various fastener heads, whereas universal sockets operate with a wider range of fastener types, such as spline, star, and square.
- A built-in joint in flex or flexible sockets allows you to use the handle at various angles, which is a valuable feature in tight areas.
- A pass-through socket and ratchet are used to turn a nut on a longer threaded bolt while allowing the bolt to pass through the socket and ratchet. (Read Socket Sizes Guide)
A shallow impact socket and a deep impact socket work with pneumatic or cordless impact wrenches. A standard socket usually has a thicker wall to prevent breakage.
You can use drive adapters to fit a socket to a ratchet handle with a different drive size.
Impact drivers and drill/drivers use hex-shank adapters to connect a square drive socket to a hex drive.
Adapter with a U-Joint
A U-joint socket adapter joins a socket to a ratchet, allowing the ratchet to be used at various angles relative to the fastener.
Allows you to turn fasteners in places where a typical ratchet/socket combination could not swing back and forth.
Extension for sockets and ratchets Extension bars for bar sockets Connects a socket to a ratchet to extend the socket’s reach and turn recessed fasteners.
A torque wrench minimizes over-tightening, as the torque wrench turns sockets to tighten nuts and bolts to a specific amount of torque.
A breaker bar gives you more leverage to release nuts and bolts, but it lacks a ratcheting function. (Read Wrench Sizes Chart)
Tool and Socket Sets
Ratchets and socket sets come in a variety of socket sizes and ratchets. Mechanics toolsets include socket and ratchet sets, as well as tools like wrenches and pliers.