The go-to tool for tightening and loosening fasteners is the common ratchet.  Everyone has at least one, but most have lots more. I myself have over a dozen. But like any other tool, you need to use the ratchet for the task at hand. It’s really not the best idea to use a big 1/2-inch drive ratchet on something like a 1/4-inch fastener.  You just know there’s a mistake sitting there waiting to happen.

The most common automotive ratchets drive sizes are 1/4-inch, 3/8-inch drive, and 1/2-inch. There are larger drives available but most of those are reserved for bigger machinery. If you’re using a 3/4- or one-inch drive ratchet in an automotive application, it’s like swatting flies with a sledgehammer.

The size of the drive is typically in proportion to the size of the socket used. Typically, a 1/4-inch drive will find use in electrical, small panel and interior work. A 1/2-inch drive is perfect for suspension and internal engine use. The 3/8-inch drive is useful for just about everything else.

The tooth count in the ratchet head is important too. Tooth count refers to the number of teeth on the drive gear. With more teeth in the drive gear, the less you have to move the handle in order to engage the next tooth.  This means a ratchet with more teeth requires less swing to operate.

Sometimes a ratchet sticks or jams up and won’t operate. The trouble here can be caused by dirt, shop debris, or even corrosion getting into the mechanism. The fix is to disassemble the ratchet and clean any dirt or debris. Lubricating ratchets is important too. Some folks use a light general purpose machine oil such as 3-In-1 while others use ATF, moly lube or even engine assembly lube. Most pros will tell you to use a lubricant that won’t attract dirt and dust.  And don’t over-lube, either. That will only attract more dirt which in turn starts the jamming cycle over again.

Ratchet mechanisms do fail. Sometimes it’s the gear in the ratchet head.  Other times, it’s the pawl.  These are the small teeth inside the ratchet head that engage with the gear. If they’re worn heavily, the ratchet might skip. There are usually repair kits available for the higher-quality ratchets.

With conventional ratchets, you simply pull the socket off the mechanism. If it’s tight, a small flat blade screwdriver can be used to pop off the socket. Some ratchets have quick release mechanisms. They have a button on the top of the mechanism that releases the internal ball detent that secures the socket. What’s the best setup?  Your choice. I personally don’t use ratchets with quick release buttons simply because you can accidently release the socket or socket and extension at the worst possible time.

Straight handle ratchets are available with various handle lengths. The length does affect how much torque you can apply to a fastener. A stubby handle ratchet is easier to swing in close quarters but won’t apply as much torque as one with a longer handle.  

Some straight handle ratchets have flex head that allow you to adjust its angle. Some simply swivel. Others use what’s often called a “roto head”. Roto heads provide roughly 270 degrees of head rotation. That allows you to get the ratchet into really tight spots and still get a decent amount of swing to the tool. 

One version of the flex head configuration is the dedicated spark plug ratchet. It has a handle with a serious curve in it to help you reach difficult-to-access spark plug locations.

Finger or palm ratchets are another variety. Here the ratchet handle is round. It allows you to get into tight spots and turn the fastener with either the palm of your hand or your fingers. Most of these ratchets have a 1/4-inch drive.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to ratchets than first meets the eye. For a closer look, check out the accompanying photos.

Selection of Ratchets
No one needs a dozen different ratchets, but I have to confess it’s great having choices in my tool cabinet. Included in my mix are 1/4-, 3/8-, and 3/4-inch drive ratchets. (Image/Wayne Scraba)
Closeup of Ratchet Mechanism Levers
These ratchets feature two styles of levers to change a ratchet drive from tightening to loosening. The bottom one is probably more convenient but the one at the top feels more secure to me. (Image/Wayne Scraba)
Ratchet Handles
Here are three different 3/8-inch drive flex head ratchets in my collection. The lower is an older bent handle Champion spark plug ratchet. The bent handle is convenient when removing plugs in tight spaces. (Image/Wayne Scraba)
Flex Head Ratchet Pivot Joint
This joint is the most likely weak spot on a flex head ratchet, particularly if the head is at a steep angle. (Image/Wayne Scraba)
1/2-Inch Drive Ratchet Handle Lengths
These 1/2-inch drive ratchets have standard length handles. 3/8-inch drive ratchets are slightly shorter, and 1/4-inch drive ratchets shorter still. The longer the handle, the more leverage you have to tighten or loosen a fastener. (Image/Wayne Scraba)
Ratchet Socket Detent
Ratchets have ball detents to secure and release the sockets. Some ratchets have buttons to release the ball detent. (Image/Wayne Scraba)
Removing Ratchet with Screwdriver
Should you encounter a ratchet with a stiff ball detent, removing the socket is easy with something like a flat blade pocket screwdriver. Watch for grime jamming up the detent. (Image/Wayne Scraba)
Titan Tools extendable handle ratchet
This Titan Tools 1/2-inch drive ratchet is an example of an extendable handle ratchet. It can be extended from 12 to 17 inches in six increments. (Image/Summit Racing)
Milwaukee Tool stubby ¼-inch drive ratchet
Summit Racing sells this Milwaukee Tool stubby 1/4-inch drive ratchet. It has a short 3-inch handle length and a 90-tooth gear drive that provides four degrees of arc swing. That makes it perfect for use in cramped spaces. (Image/Summit Racing)
Milwaukee Tool 1/2-inch drive ratchet
Need some leverage for stubborn fasteners? This Milwaukee Tool 1/2-inch drive ratchet has a handle that’s a whopping 18 inches long. It too has a 90-tooth gear drive with a four-degree arc swing for use in tight spaces. (Image/Summit Racing)
Titan 3/8-inch finger ratchet
Summit Racing sells Titan Tools finger ratchets in 1/4-, 3/8-, and 1/2-inch drive. They have color-coded handles—green for 1/4-inch, red for 3/8-inch, and blue for 1/2-inch—so you can easily identify the size. (Image/Summit Racing)
Wera Tools Ratchet Repair Kit
This is a repair kit for a Wera Tools Click-Torque 1/2-inch drive ratchet. Summit Racing offers repair kits for other Wera ratchets plus ratchets from Titan, OEM Tools, Sunex, and Wright Tools. (Image/Summit Racing)

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Author: Wayne Scraba

Wayne Scraba is a diehard car guy and regular contributor to OnAllCylinders. He’s owned his own speed shop, built race cars, street rods, and custom motorcycles, and restored muscle cars. He’s authored five how-to books and written over 4,500 tech articles that have appeared in sixty different high performance automotive, motorcycle and aviation magazines worldwide.