Best Socket Set for Mechanic & Car Maintenance 2020 – Reviews & Guide
We admit it – we like socket sets. They’re versatile, they can be used on all sorts of equipment, and they’re one of the most self-explanatory tools around. One look at them and it’s immediately obvious what they’re for. Easy peasy.
But choosing the right set for yourself isn’t easy peasy. In fact, it can get downright complicated sometimes. There are a lot of options out there, coming from a whole catalog of manufacturers with prices ranging from ones that are little more than pocket change to the obscenely ridiculous, and everything in between.
It’s not exactly a “jungle out there,” but it is close. The number of different kits, options, warranties, and comparisons is pretty high. You don’t have time to search them out and compare them – you’re trying to get your work done.
It’s our job to simplify the complicated and moderate the outrageous. We’ve reviewed all sorts of socket sets to bring you the top 5 for your consideration and to help you pick the set that meets your needs. After wiping the grease off our hands and cleaning the gunk out from under our fingernails, we sat down and wrote them out for you. Read on!
Our Favorite Sets of 2020
|Best Overall||Stanley STMT71652||
|Best Value||EPAuto 40 Pieces Reversible Ratchet||
|Performance Tool 1950 40 Piece Socket||
The 5 Best Socket Sets for Mechanics
1. Stanley STMT71652 Socket Set – Best Overall
Stanley is one of the leading names in tools, and it’s maintained its well-earned reputation with this 123-piece set. It’s chrome vanadium forged with an anti-corrosion finish to help protect the pieces from the weather, caustic solvents, grease, and other fluids around the garage.
It comes with a nice lifetime warranty and a solid case that holds all the pieces securely. Nothing is going to fly out when you bump or jostle it while it’s perched on the side of your car’s engine compartment. No searching around for lost sockets with this set!
The quick-release switch on the ratchet is a breeze to operate, and the reversible mechanism is equally straightforward to use. You can switch out sockets, tighten them, loosen them, and tighten them again without breaking stride.
We wish Stanley had made the socket size markings on the case a little easier to read, but that’s a minor thing. Unless it falls off a cliff, this could very well be the last socket set you’ll ever need to buy.
2. TEKTON 13101 Socket Set
Tekton really gave Stanley a run for the money with this 45-piece set. It even includes a universal joint and an extra-long 6″ extension that our top pick left out. It made picking the winner harder than we thought it would be.
The case has raised, easy-to-read size markings and metal rods as hinges. Like our top pick, this set is chrome vanadium forged. It has a lifetime warranty, and both shallow and deep lengths on the sockets.
Where it fell behind was the ratchet itself, arguably the most important piece in any socket set. The selector on the ratchet will occasionally switch positions on its own, or fall into neutral with no warning. It doesn’t happen often, but the fact that it happens at all is disappointing. Tekton’s quality control also missed getting all the pieces in the case when it shipped.
It’s a shame because this is a great set with plenty to enjoy for years to come. If Tekton could fix the ratchet problems and reliably make sure all the pieces are in the case, we might have to re-evaluate our rankings, but as it stands, this is the choice for runner-up.
3. EPAuto 40 Pieces Socket Set – Best Value
This is easily our choice for best for the money: chrome vanadium steel alloy, corrosion-resistant, and a good “feel” in your hands. These are much better than most of the “cheap” tools we’ve seen.
This is a great socket set to keep around the house for quick fixes, or in your car for emergencies. It doesn’t have the quality or strength of our first two selections, but they’ll fill the bill in a pinch. This is what this particular kit is best for.
That being said, we have to admit you get what you pay for. The tools were loose in the case, and it simply won’t hold them in place no matter what you do. The size markings in the case are difficult to read as well; it’s a bit of an eye-strain.
We also noticed the sockets don’t always fit the ratchet. Getting them on, then getting them to stay put, took more effort than it should have.
This set won’t ever pose a challenge to our top two socket sets, but for the price, it’s the best one for the money.
4. DEWALT DWMT73804 Socket Set
We discovered that returned sets are being repackaged and sold as new in this offering from DeWalt. Scuff marks on the case and scratches on the sockets and ratchet gave the show away. This kind of behavior is disappointing from DeWalt, and frankly, we expected better.
The case is better than average. The 34-piece set offered a decent selection of tools, but after that, we had nothing but complaints about this set as a whole.
There were missing pieces, the ratcheting action is unusually rough, and the adapter doesn’t fit the 3/8 ratchet.
The worst part was the way the sockets wouldn’t stay on the ratchet. A close examination revealed that the female end on the sockets is too shallow, while the male end on the ratchet is too long. The pieces wouldn’t fit together tightly. They were loose and proved it by falling off when they were being used. What good is a ratchet that won’t hold the socket?
It’s not much good at all, so we put this set in fourth place in our review. If DeWalt fixed the ratchet problems this would be a much better set, but until then, this is where it stays.
5. Performance Tool 40-Piece Socket-Set
In last place is this 40-piece set from Performance. It has some nice extension bars, but frankly, that’s about it.
It was immediately obvious that the case is cheaply made. It breaks easily and quickly. And it certainly won’t last long under normal wear and tear.
The plastic mechanism in the ratchet is equally cheap. It won’t last any more than the case will. It also doesn’t work very well. Switching positions is difficult, and it feels like you’re going to break it every time you pick it up. The handle is unaccountably rough as well.
The set is missing sockets – this seems to be a common problem on the low end of the scale – and the sockets themselves are constructed from very soft metal. They’re too easy to round-out on the inside. This socket set is what people had in mind when they coined the term “el-cheapo.”
Patience is the key to buying a good socket set. Sales come and go regularly. If you missed the sale this week, just wait a little while – there will be another one before long. You’ll have to check back every day or two, but if you’re not in a hurry you may be able to save 10, 20, or even 30% off the regular price. That would be enough to pay for any extras or options you might want to get along with the socket set.
Another technique is to play both ends against the middle. Clint Eastwood gave us a demonstration of this in his movie “A Fistful of Dollars” where he played two rival groups against each other in a small town. You can do the same thing if you’re willing to invest a little time and effort in finding obscure sites that might have your dream socket set on sale but charge ridiculous amounts for shipping. Take the price to companies that offer free shipping and challenge them to match it. You’d be surprised how often this pays dividends.
Important considerations when finding the right socket set
If all you need is something to handle the occasional loose bolt, you don’t need to spend a fortune for the top pick. It would be wasted sitting in the garage.
If you’re a mechanic, work with your hands, or spend a lot of free time tinkering, obviously the lower quality tools won’t be up to your standards or the daily abuse they’ll be put through.
Consider the range of bolts you’ll be working on. A narrow size range won’t require a large kit with dozens of sockets. Many socket kits don’t have 5mm or small sockets. If you’re working with small engines, lawnmowers, or sewing machines, you’ll definitely need small sockets.
What makes a good ratchet?
Steel is the indispensable ingredient for good sockets and ratchets. Chrome finishes are nice and we all like pretty things, but strength is what you need on those stubborn bolts, and strength comes from steel. If a manufacturer tries to sell you anything else, run, don’t walk, away from there.
Ratchet teeth are another factor. The more teeth a ratchet has, the smaller the area you need to get bolts to move. A 72-tooth ratchet can move bolts even when the handle can only rotate five degrees. The fewer teeth it has, the larger the arc you’ll have to rotate the handle through for it to advance. Engineers have a penchant for designing knuckle busters, so the tighter the space your ratchet can move in, and the smaller the angle it has to move through to do its work, the better.
What makes a good socket?
The sockets themselves are important too. There are two types of sockets: flat wall sockets and curved sockets. The curved ones, which have curved internal walls, go by several names depending on the manufacturer: “Hip-Grip,” “Anti-slip drive,” “OGV,” “Opti-Torque,” “OZAT,” and “AF.”
Flat wall sockets have flat internal walls. This means the turning force (or torque) is mainly being applied to the corners or points of the bolt heads. This leads to “rounding” or “stripping” of the heads, resulting in a bolt you can’t get a grip on and can’t remove. Avoid these inferior quality sockets.
Curved sockets are better quality and put their force on the flat sides of the bolt head. This results in more force being applied to a larger area and reduces the chances of stripping. Unless price is your main consideration, these are worth spending a little extra on.
Tips when buying
Our top two picks came with a lifetime manufacturer’s warranty, but after that, it was a little murkier. There were exceptions and exemptions galore. It quickly became confusing trying to figure out what was covered and what wasn’t. Don’t make assumptions when it comes to warranties or you might discover that your trust has been misplaced. If it’s not clear, assume the worst and proceed accordingly. You might not be covered, but at least you won’t go into it assuming you are, only to be disappointed later on.
Shipping, if you’re buying online, is often free if you purchase a certain minimum amount. Make sure you find out though. Heavy metal tools could easily surpass the shipper’s weight limits for free shipping, leaving you with a bad case of sticker shock.
Another item connected with shipping is availability. Is the socket kit in stock? Is it being shipped from the United States, or drop-shipped from somewhere overseas? For instance, Tekton, our number two pick, is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you’re considering some other set, where is it coming from?
If you’ve got a deadline for next week, and your new sockets are coming on a slow boat from China, you might find yourself having to spend more money to get another socket set from your local hardware store. Take an extra minute or two to find out where they’re coming from – you’ll be glad you did.
One of the most common options, or add-ons if you prefer, are extensions. 3″ extensions come with many kits, leaving you to get longer ones on your own. See if you can get them at the same time as the kit to save on shipping.
Another common option is getting universal joints. These often come in three-piece sets. The most popular sizes are 1/2″, 3/8″, and 1/4″. Again, most manufacturers offer them one way or another.
The next thing you might think about, if you can find it, is an upgraded or improved carrying case. One of the biggest complaints about any socket set is the case. It either doesn’t hold the pieces tightly enough, or holds them so tightly you have to pry them out with a screwdriver. If a better case is available from the manufacturer, it might be a good idea to spend the extra money on it.
The final option to consider is oil for the ratchet and sockets. A drop or two of oil on the ratchet mechanism each month can do wonders to extend the useful life of your tools, especially the low-end ones. Don’t forget cleaning cloths to keep them clean to avoid sticky build-ups.
Our reviews of these socket sets revealed the good, the bad, and the ugly. Coming in at number one was our top pick, the Stanley STMT71652 123-piece set. It was great to work with, the case holds everything securely in place, and it’s exactly what you’d expect to get from a brand-name leader in the industry.
The winner of our best for the money position is the EPAuto 40 Pieces ST-003-1 set. It’s compact and convenient for small jobs and emergencies. It’s not top-two quality of course, but for the price, you get a great deal. This is money well spent.
We started admitting that choosing the right socket set isn’t easy peasy. There’s more to it than simply grabbing a set off the shelf and taking it home, or ordering it online and waiting for it to show up on your doorstep. Evaluate the whole package before pulling out your wallet.
Make the manufacturers earn your business by offering solid tools that work the way they should, and last longer than you expected. These reviews should help you decide who did the best job of earning your trust and your business.
- Our Favorite Sets of 2020
- The 5 Best Socket Sets for Mechanics
- Buyer’s Guide