Socket Wrench Versus Conventional Wrench

The ratcheting socket wrench with interchangeable sockets has been around since the 1860s, a relative newcomer compared to more conventional wrenches such as box-end and open-end wrenches. However, both types of wrenches have their advantages and won’t be going away anytime soon. Here’s how these tools stack up against each other.

Socket Wrench

A socket wrench has interchangeable heads called sockets that snap onto a square-shaped fitting on the handle. The tool typically comes in a socket set with a number of sockets to accommodate a variety of different-sized, nuts, bolts and other fasteners.

Many socket wrenches have a ratcheting handle, called a ratchet, making reversing possible in confined spaces without removing the socket from the head of the nut or bolt. The ratchet also provides the mechanical leverage to turn the socket – the longer the ratchet, the greater the leverage.

Conventional Wrench

The two most commonly used conventional wrenches are box-end and open-end wrenches. Each wrench has a solid steel handle with a head on one or both ends. Much like a socket, the head on a box wrench fits entirely around the fastener. With an open-end wrench, the head only contacts the fastener on two sides.

Features and Accessories

Socket wrenches come in a few different head sizes with 1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/2″ being the most common. Sockets are available with 6, 8 and 12 point faces in various depths including short, standard, and deep.

A number of socket wrench accessories are available for getting at fasteners in hard-to-reach locations. These include flex handles, speeder handles, extensions, universal joints, and other pivoting mechanisms.


One big advantage of a socket set is that it effectively provides the same functionality as multiple conventional wrenches in a fairly compact bundle. Instead of needing a separate wrench for each size fastener, only a separate socket is needed.

The ratcheting mechanism of a socket wrench makes the task of tightening or loosening nuts faster and easier compared to a conventional wrench. This feature is particularly advantageous when working in cramped spaces. With a conventional wrench, it is often necessary to repeatedly reposition the tool during use.

Deep sockets are extremely useful in accessing recessed fittings such as spark plugs that would be very difficult or impossible to reach with a conventional wrench.

An advantage of an open-end wrench relative to a box or socket wrench is that it allows sliding the wrench into position from the side of the nut or bolt. This is very helpful in situations where there is insufficient room to slide the wrench in from the top.

Fastener and Tool Damage

There is a greater likelihood of rounding a nut or bolt with an open-end wrench compared to a socket wrench. To minimize the chances of this occurrence, it is important to use a wrench that fits exactly.

A deep offset box wrench is often a better choice than a socket wrench for removing rusty nuts and bolts because you can apply a lot of torque without destroying the tool. A socket wrench is not the best choice in such high torque situations because of the potential for stripping the ratchet.