Toolmanship: Your Complete Guide to Wrenches

by Brett on March 5, 2013 · 86 comments

in Manly Skills, Toolmanship


It’s been three years since the last post, but welcome back to our Toolmanship series! The goal of this series is to teach the very basics of tool use to those men who never got around to learning how to be handy when they were growing up.

In this edition, we turn our attention to wrenches (or spanners for our readers who use British English). They’re an essential tool to have in your toolbox and are used to tighten and loosen nuts, bolts, screws, and pipes. Below we’ll take a look at the most common kinds of wrenches and how to use them.

General Wrench Use Guidelines

Select the right wrench size for the job. To avoid damaging your fastener or yourself, always select a wrench jaw size that corresponds to the fastener you’re tightening or loosening. Also, make sure your wrench’s jaw is in complete contact with the fastener before applying pressure. These two things will go a long way in preventing your wrench from slipping and you swearing about a bruised knuckle.


When using a wrench, it’s best to pull (see left image). If you do need to push, use the heel of your hand. That way if the wrench slips, you won’t bark a knuckle.

Pull, don’t push. When using a wrench, you typically want to position yourself so that you pull it instead of push it. This ensures you don’t bark a knuckle whenever the wrench slips off the fastener. If you do need to push a wrench, use the heel of your hand, that way if the wrench slips, you won’t hurt yourself.


Don’t use a “cheater bar” to gain more leverage. You risk damaging the tool or injuring yourself. If you need more leverage, get a longer wrench.

Don’t add more leverage with pipe. You may have seen your dad put a longer piece of pipe over his wrench to gain more leverage when tightening a fastener. You should avoid using “cheater bars” for several reasons. First, they can damage your wrench by bending the handle or jacking up the head. Second, because of the added torque you get with the extra leverage, you risk rounding your fastener if you don’t have the right wrench head for the job. Finally, there’s a chance the cheater bar will slip off the wrench’s handle while you’re turning, causing harm to you or others. If you need more leverage, use a longer wrench. If you have a particularly stubborn fastener, apply some penetrating oil (like Liquid Wrench) to the thread, wait a few minutes, and then try loosening.

Don’t hit a wrench with a hammer. Unless you have a special “strike face” wrench that’s designed for being hit with an object, don’t take a hammer to your wrench in order to get more power to turn a stubborn fastener. You risk damaging your wrench.

Don’t use a damaged wrench. If the handle is bent or the jaws look wider than they’re supposed to be, don’t use it.

Buy quality wrenches. Good wrenches last longer; cheap wrenches slip more easily. Personally, I’m a Craftsman fan. They’ve got a lifetime warranty on all their hand tools. If a wrench ever bends or breaks, you can take into a Sears or Ace and they’ll replace it for free, no questions asked (some sales associates might give you guff). I don’t have any affiliation with Craftsman whatsoever — it’s just what I use.

Types of Wrenches and How to Use Them

Adjustable Wrench aka “Crescent Wrench”


This should be your first wrench you buy if you’re just starting your tool collection — one big and one small. An adjustable wrench has one fixed jaw and one adjustable jaw which allows you to use it on a wide variety of fastener sizes. The jaws are typically smooth and flat and designed for gripping square and hex nuts. The head of a crescent wrench is usually angled at 22 1/2 degrees to the handle so that the wrench can be flipped over to provide two different gripping positions in tight spaces.

How to Use a Crescent Wrench

While a crescent wrench is designed so that you can apply pressure on both the fixed and movable jaws, ideally the bulk of your work should be done so that pressure is only applied on the stronger, fixed jaw. Too much pressure on the weaker, adjustable jaw can cause the wrench to break and you to bark a knuckle. When placing the wrench on your nut, the adjustable jaw should be located on the side towards which the rotation is to be performed. This puts the pressure on the fixed jaw. Below is a nice little illustration showcasing this method:


Also, when you place your crescent on a bolt or nut, make sure the adjustable jaw is snugly adjusted to the nut or bolt in order to prevent the wrench from slipping and rounding the nut or bolt.

Open Wrench


An open wrench is a nonadjustable wrench that comes in a variety of sizes. You usually buy them in sets (in both metric and standard SAE sizes), though you can buy them individually if you want. There are a few advantages that open wrenches offer over adjustable wrenches. First, because both jaws are fixed, you don’t have to worry about breaking an adjustable jaw. Second, they’re really handy to have when you’re tightening and loosening a bunch of nuts and bolts of the same size because you don’t have to readjust anything whenever you put wrench to bolt. Makes tightening and loosening much faster than with an adjustable wrench.

How to Use an Open Wrench

Select the right size open wrench for the nut or bolt you’re loosening or tightening. Reposition the wrench on the fastener after each turn.

Box Wrench


A box wrench has an enclosed opening that looks like a ring. The enclosed opening minimizes the risk of damaging your fastener. This kind of wench is typically used on heavy-duty jobs. Box wrenches usually have a six-point or twelve-point recess and are best used on hex-head fasteners. The twelve-point recess allows you to change the position of the wrench on the nut with only a small handle movement. Some box wrenches have an offset handle which allows for knuckle clearance over obstructions on a flat surface. You’ll also find box wrenches with a ratcheting mechanism which allows for more efficient tightening and loosening.

How to Use a Box Wrench

Not much to it. Select the right size opening for the nut or bolt and start tightening or loosening. Reposition the wrench on the fastener after each turn.

Combination Wrench


You’ll typically find open and box wrenches on the same tool in the form of a combination wrench. One end will be the open-end wrench; the other end is the box wrench. Both ends generally fit the same size nut and bolt.

Socket Wrench


When you’ve got a lot of fastening to do, it’s time to put aside the crescent or open-end wrench and reach for their more efficient brother, the socket wrench. A socket wrench is a hand tool that has a ratcheting mechanism on the head which attaches to various size sockets via a square nub. You can buy sets of sockets that fit every conceivable fastener size (metric and SAE). If you’re just starting your tool collection, buy a socket wrench with a 3/8-inch-square driving mechanism and a socket set with mostly six-point hex sockets — the twelve-point variety can damage nuts and bolts if you apply too much torque.

The biggest benefit of a socket wrench is the ratcheting device. The ratchet device holds in place when you pull in one direction and releases when pulled in the opposite direction. This allows you to quickly tighten a fastener without having to remove and refit the wrench after each and every turn.

The long ratchet handle provides you some nice leverage so you can get plenty of torque to loosen and tighten a bolt or nut. If you need less torque, use a nut driver (see below).

How to Use a Socket Wrench

Make sure to get the right size socket for your fastener. Because a socket wrench provides so much torque, it’s easy to round-off a nut or bolt if it isn’t the right size.

Nut Driver


A nut driver looks sort of like a screwdriver, but has a socket wrench on the end. They’re typically used when less torque is needed when tightening or loosening a nut or bolt.

Allen Wrench (aka Hex Key)


You’ve probably gathered a nice collection of allen wrenches if you’ve bought furniture from IKEA. They’re those small little hockey stick looking things that come with all the hardware for your bookcase. Allen wrenches are used on screws and bolts with a hexagonal socket in the head. You can buy a set of allen wrenches in a variety of sizes to match any job you may encounter. My set of allen wrenches has come in handy more than I thought it would. I’ve used them to change out rollerblade wheels for Kate and on a bunch of projects for Gus.

Pipe Wrench


Pipe wrenches are used to tighten and loosen threaded pipes as well as for killing unsuspecting socialites in a spooky mansion’s conservatory. A pipe wrench is an adjustable wrench — the top jaw moves up or down — and has toothed jaws for gripping onto pipe. The jaws on a pipe wrench are designed so that the top jaw (aka the hook jaw) rocks a little bit in the frame of the wrench. Whenever you apply forward pressure on the handle, the top and bottom jaws come closer together.

Pipe wrenches come in different sizes and are measured by the length of the handle. A 14″ pipe wrench will suffice for most household plumbing work. RIDGID is known for their quality pipe wrenches.

How to Use a Pipe Wrench


Choose the appropriate size wrench for your job. When placing a pipe wrench on the pipe, you want to maintain a small gap between the pipe and the back of the hook jaw. Allowing the back of the hook jaw to come into contact with the pipe reduces the gripping action of the wrench. A one-half-inch gap between the pipe and the back of the hook jaw will do the trick.

Because of its teeth and strong grip, pipe wrenches can leave marks in whatever you’re tightening or loosening, so don’t use a pipe wrench on your nice plumbing fixtures. Save them for when you’re working under the sink. Also, you shouldn’t use a pipe wrench on nuts and bolts. You’ll damage the fastener.

A Wrench Set That Will Cover Pretty Much All Your Needs


If you’re looking for a wrench set that will cover most of your needs, you can’t go wrong with the Craftsman 154-piece Mechanics Set. My in-laws got me this for Christmas the year we bought our house. It’s a giant, amazing box filled with every conceivable socket you’ll ever need (in both metric and SAE sizes), ratchets in 1/4, 1/2, and 3/8-inch drive sizes, 12 combination wrenches, 21 nut driver bits, and 22 allen wrenches.

This is a great Christmas, groomsman, of housewarming gift for a young man.

Further Reading:
Toolmanship: Screwdriver
Toolmanship: Handsaw
Toolmanship: Hammer

{ 86 comments… read them below or add one }

1 allswagga March 5, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Solid article! — Rule of thumb never buy cheap tools.

2 Nick P. March 5, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Brett, I am happy to see the return of this series! It is amazing how many younger guys are not fortunate enough to grow up in an environment that allows them to learn about tools and how to fix things. The amount of money I have saved through doing some of my own car repairs, maintenance, and around the house stuff is amazing. The best part is the feeling of manly satisfaction that comes from using a great tool to do something with your own hands.

3 Jude March 5, 2013 at 10:25 pm

No mention of torque wrenches! I appreciated reading this, I recently built a wrench collection organically without putting much particular thought into it, which is probably how most people get their tools. If I don’t have the appropriate tool, I’ll get one (or if it’s a one-time thing I’ll come up with something else).

4 Jacob March 5, 2013 at 10:43 pm

damn good article. much appreciated as i’m a big fan of the crescent wrench, not only for its usefulness, but also because my hometown is their hometown, too!

5 ChattyMatty March 5, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Unless you’re working with 4-sided nuts, a crescent wrench’s only REAL use is as a last ditch self-defense weapon-the bigger the better. If you need a certain size wrench once, buy it, you WILL need it again someday.

6 Pedro March 6, 2013 at 2:40 am

It’s worth mentioning that Craftsman hand tools don’t have a lifetime warranty, they have a FOREVER warranty, as in, no need for proof or purchase, if it says Craftsman on it, and it breaks, return it and you get a new one. If you find a broken Craftsman wrench in your Grandpa’s attic or at a yard sale, you can send it in for free replacement.
Power tools and some special /precision tools have a different warranty, but all your standard tools (wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, etc) are covered. That alone put them miles ahead of other brands in my book.

7 Dano March 6, 2013 at 6:16 am

a rule of not using a cheater bar or pipe is absurd. if you’ve ever worked on a car in a region where it snows, there will be nuts and bolts that will come off no other way. buying a 36″ long wrench for one bolt or nut is just asinine. Perhaps you should cover how to safetly and properly use a torque enhancing addition instead of just saying “never”.

8 simonb March 6, 2013 at 6:23 am

Good article. I grew in a single parent family where money was sometimes tight, fixing things yourself was par for the course. It did lead to self-learning a good set of practical skills, such as learning how to use tools by building my own bicycle from a couple of old ones and a box of parts given by a neighbour. Still good to tune up those skills by reading something like this.

9 Patrick March 6, 2013 at 6:34 am

I’d love to see you strip a car down without going for a breaker bar at least once!!

10 Chris March 6, 2013 at 7:14 am

Slight word of warning about the Craftsman tool return policy – not ALL of their hand tools are elligible for the free replacement. My wife wanted a set of screwdrivers for her craft toolbox, so I was looking at some Craftsman with “ergonomic” (read cushy) handles. In vers small print on the card it mentioned that these had a limited warranty. She wound up getting the plain handled drivers with the lifetime warranty. Read the fine print!

11 Ray Corkran March 6, 2013 at 7:20 am

Growing up I was always wrenching on something, pedal bikes, dirt bikes, neighbors go-karts then onto old Jeeps and Air-cooled VW’s. Taking it for granted that everyone knows how to use basic hand tools and some specialty ones. Older and wiser (did I really just say that?) I realize that not everyone had a mechanically handy roll model in their life, such as a father, cool uncle or neighbor to watch and learn from. While this article is basic for many, it’s enlightening to many more… Well done!

12 Kevin March 6, 2013 at 7:24 am

Love reading these types of articles but besides the rule of never using a “cheater” bar, I have one disagreement I feel even more vehemently about. And that is to buy an adjustable or Crescent wrench first. While these are fine for small, around-the-house jobs, they should never be used on anything that requires any amount of torque and they should never be relied upon as a first choice for anything. I have actually thrown them away after seeing people using them for the wrong job. The tool along with its misuse is the prime culprit in rounded nuts and bolts. Money is better spent on a basic set of combination wrenches. Skip the adjustable garbage.

13 Dustin Inkster March 6, 2013 at 7:49 am

I have a Craftsman set similar to the one above, and I’d recommend to anyone who owns one to make it a personal mission to keep up with all the pieces and make sure each is returned to the specific slot where it goes. If, heaven forbid, you lose a piece, immediately purchase a new one to replace it. Make keeping it in order a big priority. It will increase your confidence in your ability to handle tasks if you know that you will have everything you need where you can easily find it.

On the issue of cheater bars, I am inclined to agree that some tasks would be tough without them. Still, I would argue that going for one should only be a last resort after you have completely run out of liquid wrench, PB blaster, and WD 40, and even then, only when you are wiling to potentially sacrifice that tool.

14 Aleks March 6, 2013 at 7:57 am

There are things to cut costs on…… aren’t one of them! Great point.

It’s useful to know how to use a cheater bar, but also know when enough is enough. On the farm I’ve used breaker bars countless times but it’s always to loosen NEVER to tighten.

15 Rich March 6, 2013 at 8:04 am

It should be noted that “Crescent” and “Allen” are brand names that have become synonymous with the tool.
Also, an adjustable wrench – or Crescent wrench – should be your LAST tool of choice. The very nature of the adjustable jaw allows for movement and slippage. It’s a light duty tool, at best, for when the fastener doesn’t require much torque. You’re always better off with a wrench sized specifically for the fastener.

16 Eric March 6, 2013 at 8:04 am

A caution with box-end wrenches: They can “stick” onto the bolt head, especially if you’re fudging the size a bit. I lost a part of a tooth when the wrench suddenly “let go” of the bolt when I was trying to reposition it. If you have to apply a force, think about what will happen if your force is suddenly unopposed. I was pulling a wrench directly toward my face, and shouldn’t have been surprised when it hit me in the mouth.

Another thing, some deep-well sockets in common sizes are handy. I think I’ve run into more situations where I needed a deep-well then situations where I needed to fit a socket into a smaller space.

Finally, a socket adapter for a (second-hand) bit brace is a handy add-on, as is a socket adapter for a power drill.

17 Mike March 6, 2013 at 8:33 am

I was just explaining to someone this weekend about how it’s important to not buy crap tools, because if you take care of them they will last a lifetime. I have a few of my grandfathers tools, which also bare the Craftsman logo. I just wish they were still made in the US, but isn’t that everything these days.

Patrick: Craftsman sells breaker bars, theirs are okay to use!

18 DavisD March 6, 2013 at 8:38 am

Craftsman tools may be a great starting point for someone who is just beginning or for very infrequent home/garage use. They are also one of the most readily available items on craigslist so save some money and don’t buy them new. Everyone has different preferences though. For myself, and perhaps any legitimate garage or industrial application the word “craftsman” doesn’t exist. This could lead to a rather in depth study but I just want beginners to be aware.

19 Nathan March 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

It’s always a great idea to get a breaker bar. If you have a couple of adapters then a breaker bar should serve you well in getting extra leverage you need. It sure makes changing the oil on your car a lot easier.

20 Arlen Payne March 6, 2013 at 8:42 am

We recently had some young men on our property to do some light work that involved taking down a swing set. I was amazed at how many of them did NOT know how to use either a wrench or a screw driver, it was sad to watch. Now, when it came to video games, they all had it down.

I also love craftsman tools, though some of the new ones are not a dependable as the old ones. Can’t beat that warranty for sure.

21 Justin Morken March 6, 2013 at 8:54 am

Good article, but I also came to say that the ‘never’ clause for breaker bars is silly. They have their place. Go to any auto-shop and you’ll find a breaker bar in their arsenal. Some nuts will come off no other way.

22 Wim Boeree March 6, 2013 at 8:55 am

Good article, enjoyed the read, though I was familiar with the wrenches before, since I fix my own bikes and restore motorcycles (as a hobby).

23 Brett McKay March 6, 2013 at 9:11 am

There’s a difference between a breaker bar and cheater bar. Breaker bars are designed for sockets to loosen particularly stubborn nuts and bolts; a cheater bar is just a random pipe you put over the handle of any wrench (adjustable, socket, box) to give you extra leverage. The former is safe; the latter not so much.

24 Arp March 6, 2013 at 9:36 am

ChattyMatty’s got the idea… work, we use a different term for the Crescent wrench – the Universal Nut Rounder! Seriously, though, it does come in handy on very large items, for example 1″ and larger pipe fittings, where you don’t want to break out the monkey wrench.

Re: cheater bars and the Craftsman warranty. Maybe you can see where this is going……..

,,,I was trying to get a smallish bolt out of a vehicle using a 20-inch long breaker bar, and Craftsman 1/2 to 3/8 drive converter. After plenty of PB Blaster, and even a few applications with the torch, I finally opted for a 3 foot long cheater bar. I sheared the drive converter in half. Went back to Sears, and got a new one, and within 5 minutes, I sheared it again. Went back the next morning and got another one. Finally, I borrowed an impact wrench from work, and got the bolt out. Yay Craftsman warranty!

25 Matt "Hype Mann" Herrmann March 6, 2013 at 11:23 am

I have to agree with the rule to never buy cheap tools. Paying the extra money for a great set of tools will save so many headaches over the long run. Along with that, an 18″ breaker bar is essential in any tool box. Especially if you’re working on anything that’s lived for more than five minutes in the “rust belt.”

I do have to disagree with the advice in the “cheater bar” section. Sometimes a cheater bar is a necessary evil, and I’ve had stuck bolts laugh at penetrating oil. The issue is when the nut or bolt has rusted, or the wrench is the wrong size.

How about an article on loosening rusted bolts?!

26 Steve C March 6, 2013 at 11:36 am

I say 6 point box wrenches or a six point socket unless there’s a reason they cannot be used.

Open ended wrenches should only be used where it’s impossible to get a closed head on it.

27 Jim Collins March 6, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Esteemed Readers, Brett, and Kate,

A note on romance: While I was courting my wife she decided I was the guy when I welcomed her to use my tool set. Neither her father nor her first husband would have dreamed of it. She and I share a love of tools of all sorts as an expression of an esthetic value – form proceeds from function.

She looks good greasy and cleans up nice.

Jim Collins

28 Gary March 6, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I think the section on pipe wrenches was a little unclear, though the illustration gets it right. You want to be sure that the back of the hook jaw does come in contact with the pipe as you apply forward pressure. As mentioned, this pressure brings the jaws closer together, effectively squeezing the pipe. If the pipe is not touching the back of the hook jaw, you run the risk of squeezing and deforming the pipe, smashing it into an oval shape. Allowing the pipe to come into contact with the back of the jaw prevents that outward pressure from damaging the round shape of your pipe.

29 Jacob Morgan March 6, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Agree with not buying cheap tools. The best source I’ve found for top notch tools is It is a tool store in St Louis that specializes in high quality tools, especially American made tools. The origin of each product is in the description. They also carry new old stock, closeouts, etc. They sell mail order and the couple of times I’ve bought from them it was a good experience.

Regarding cheater bars, once had to use a five foot gas pipe on the end of a 3/4″ breaker bar. It happens. Just make sure no one is in the way.

30 Captain America March 6, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I’m surprised these kinds of items need to be on the website.

I guess children aren’t being taught this stuff. Why not?

31 Matthew W. March 6, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Thanks for the tip about the crescent wrench and its adjustable jaw. No one ever told me that before.

32 Ariel March 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Very useful article!

33 Matt Johnson March 6, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Are there any good American made wrench sets? I’ve been trying my best to avoid buying Chinese made products now for years.


34 Joel M March 6, 2013 at 3:12 pm

I know this is general tool use but I’ve heard from friends who have taught me how to work on my car that you don’t want to use adjustable wrenches because as they get older they loosen up and will round your fasteners. I prefer snap on or matco tools to craftsman.

35 Christopher March 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Best wrenches or spanners (Australia term) is Stahlwille better than Snap on. Used in the aerospace industries.


36 Pat R March 6, 2013 at 4:36 pm

A wise man once told me:
“You buy the tool, the job is free”

It might be nice to get into the pros and cons of 12 point vs 6 point rather than go on about crescent wrenches. That being said, make sure you buy the metric crescent wrench, too ;)

One word on stuck/rusty fasteners: If it ain’t budging, don’t risk rounding it off unless you have the RIGHT tool! If I have a nut that is rusted on and I can feel it about to round off, I’ll reach for the Snap-On before the Craftsman. There is a difference, not much, but it is there.

If you have time, spray some PB Blaster (or true penetrating oil of your choice – NOT WD40) on the nut and let it sit a day or two. Spray a little more on right before you try to bust it off. A little heat doesn’t hurt, either.

When I know I’m starting a big job the next day, I’ll pull a car in and soak the nasty looking bolts in PB Blaster overnight. Makes the disassembly the next day a breeze.

37 zev goldman March 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm

I will not buy Craftsman tools anymore since they are now made predominately in China with some being made in a large number of other countries.
They are not the tools they once were and with Sears Holding Company being forecast as a strong bankruptcy candidate this year the warranty could soon be worthless.

38 Phil March 6, 2013 at 5:31 pm

I’d say that a kit like the one above would be about 95% of everything you need for basic maintenance on most cars.
Motorcycles throw a wrench in things (pardon the pun) by always needing one size larger wrench or socket than your kit (*any* kit – this is a universal truism) came with.

To round out the kit, I would add:
1) a set of T-handle allen/hex keys – these are a LOT faster and easier to use than the L-shaped ones unless there’s no vertical clearance around the screw.
2) a set of Torx and allen/hex socket adapters. Very very handy.
3) the location of your nearest hardware store with bulk fastener bins. Great for replacing the screw you stripped out or the nut that you dropped down the drain.

And as a tip for non-tool-people, the 1/4″ socket will hold all of the interchangeable screwdriver bits that come with your kit (not as tightly as you’d like, but enough to work if you’re careful and patient).

39 Phil March 6, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Also: do not be tempted by cheap hand tools from Harbor Freight.
Those are the tools you buy to lend to your neighbor so they will stop borrowing tools from you.
Those are the tools that you buy because you will need to use them ONCE and do not care nor expect them to survive the use.

Go shop around your local pawn shops some Saturday if you need cheap tools. Sure, they’re probably all stolen from some poor guy’s garage (my dad started engraving all of his to make getting them back from the pawn shops a lot easier), but they’re likely better quality than what HF has.

40 dead_elvis March 6, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Regarding thoroughly stuck/corroded fasteners – give ‘em a shot like you’re trying to tighten them prior to applying your favorite penetrating solvent. A judicious hit with a rubber mallet on the fastener in question can help, too (in the case of screws, a whack on the end of the driver handle works wonders). If all else fails & you haven’t rounded off the head yet, it’s time to break out the heat wrench. Be judicious – you don’t want to ruin the temper of the metal; starting a fire will probably ruin your day, as well as your own temper.

41 Rick March 6, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Sorry to put a fly in the ointment of an otherwise nice article, but the crescent is big no-go in my book. I have 45 years experience with tools. I still have 95% of the Craftsman tool set that I purchased in 1970–many many cars, many machines, many a bruised knuckle, and happily many an expensive repair bill averted.
Rule #1: If you’re doin some serious bolt/nut turning, the Crescent wrench is the LAST wrench you should reach for. Always go box, closed-end, socket, or even pipe wrench or vice-grips before resorting to the Crescent.

42 Tac March 6, 2013 at 9:10 pm

A couple of notes:

1) Cheater Bars are an absolute ‘last resort’, rather than a ‘never’. If you’ve ever tried to take the outer wheels off of a tractor you know that the lug nuts will laugh at even a 3/4″ Socket wrench….that’s when you sometimes have to literally jump on the 4 foot cheater bar to break them loose….but do it very carefully. For most auto uses, the cheater bar comes out because the wrong tool is being used, the user has very little forearm strength, or someone screwed up before. Case in point, you should be able to break your lug nuts loose with a T-handle lug wrench, and your drain plug with a normal-sized 6pt box end wrench (I prefer the box size…and mine’s a 15mm). Of all the nuts on a car, those should be the easiest to deal with, because they’re removed consistently, and the drain plug is lubed up very well every single time you change the oil! The screw up is when someone is either being incompetent, lazy, or enthusiastic….and they put these back on with an air hammer….and ratchet them down to an insane amount of torque. As a final note, since oil changes are the most common PM, Don’t overtighten the drain plug! Most modern cars have an aluminum oil pan, and overtightening it will possibly crack it or strip the threads….and cost you a lot more money.

2) Adjustable Wrenches are the B**tard stepchildren of the toolbox. They’re always around, and always not wanted. I find that they’re good to keep in the kitchen drawer for that one nut you need to deal with and you don’t want to go out to the garage to get the proper tool, or if you’ve got a motorcycle they’re good for the tool bag as they cover a variety of options in an emergency. Certainly you should have one around….an 8″ adjustable wrench is like a pair of 10″ channel locks (or the 16″ ones that dad always keeps in his toolbox beside the 22oz ball peen hammer just in case something needs a bit more ‘engineering’)…..sometimes you just need it, but most of the time proper tools will take its place.

43 Willy March 6, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Never buy a tool you can make,
(I’m a blacksmith.)
I use a Crescent wrench for … well I can’t find the dang thing, probably gave it away.
Cheater-bars have a place in the “off ” never the ” on ” function, as noted by another poster. Fire is my favorite tool.

44 Marius March 6, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Torque wrenches aren’t mentioned much in the article, but should be — especially if someone is planning to do work on a car.

I’ll note that torque wrenches from Craftsmen do not carry the normal Craftsmen warranty. Also, torque wrenches should be stored backed out to their minimum/lowest torque setting.

45 logan March 7, 2013 at 2:13 am

i only use MADE IN USA tools, if you want a quality wrench DONT buy chinese made.

46 BillDerberg March 7, 2013 at 8:00 am

Cheater Bar:
A longer extension of the standard ratchet wrench is called a “Breaker Bar” which is a cheater bar. Sometimes these are definitely necessary!

47 Dallas Storms March 7, 2013 at 8:02 am

great article, though i also use the old cheater bar from time to time, especially recently, I’ve had shops tighten lug nuts so tight that i cant get them off with my impact (325 lb-ft) unfortunately, it can round stuff off, most recently a lug nut that i had to cut off the vehicle with an angle grinder. picked one up from harbor freight for $9.99 that lasted exactly long enough to do THAT job, then quit on me, which was perfect. one note on box end and combo wrenches, if you’ve got a nut or bolt that is tight, go for six pt. rather than 12 pt. 12 pt. is really good for rounding off heads. as for penetrants, skip the PB blaster and WD-40, and order some Aero-Kroil from amazon or Kano labs. I got some from Rolls Royce, here in Indy and it is hands down the best penetrant I have ever used. smells though, like the stuff they used to pour on vomit in elementary school to dry it up. Happy wrenching!

48 Matt March 7, 2013 at 8:29 am

One of the first things I learned about my first two big and small adjustable wrenches, while convenient, is that they can be very sloppy. They will round off nuts if used improperly or for prolonged periods of time, due to their propensity to slip. This can result in bloody knuckles. A six-point box end is always the best choice for safety if the situation allows it, usually eliminates any chance of stripped nuts.

Also, the round end of the ratchet wrench is not a hammer.

49 Hjalmar March 7, 2013 at 8:59 am

Marius is right. Get a torque wrench. Tighten by the numbers. Add thread-locker to ensure grip stability. My preference is blue Loc-Tite.

Do it right. Do it once.

50 Phillip the Bruce March 7, 2013 at 9:56 am

If one is on a very limited budget, the adjustable wrench will work on both metric and SAE (‘murrican) sizes.
Fine for light duty if used with caution – i.e., keep it adjusted. I often keep a bit of pressure on the spiral gear with my thumb.
Another legitimate use, if your project is at a distance from your tool box, and you don’t want to lug the box or make several trips to find the right ‘real’ wrench, take the crescent and use it to measure the nut, then compare with the proper open end wrench.
Also agree with Kroil – a true penetrator.

51 Jacob Morgan March 7, 2013 at 10:03 am

Wilde tool is an American company that still makes tools here. They used to make the stuff that Craftsman and other companies rebranded. Now with all of them chasing cheap crap from China, Wilde is starting to sell tools under their own brand. They don’t make open end or ratchet wrenches, but they make pipe wrenches, all types of pliers, screw drivers, etc. is their site. is an on-line distributer.

52 skoobie March 7, 2013 at 11:40 am

Wow, so much strident dogmatic opposition to adjustable wrenches!

1.) Not every project involves high-torque automotive fasteners.
2.) Not every project happens in the garage, right next to your 36-drawer deluxe tool chest.

Like every tool, the adjustable wrench is right for some jobs and wrong for others.

53 Rob March 7, 2013 at 11:59 am

Wrench sets are great to have, I use a socket wrench whenever i can because i love the ease ratcheting provides. My father bought me a full craftsman set while I was in college and started cycling frequently.

While I love my socket wrench set the hex wrench set stays in the kit most of the time because I have to allen key multitools. Having a whole set in one folding tool is really handy and sees more use than any other tool in my house with the execption of box cutter. Making adjustments on a bike or compound bow, putting together furnitrure, etc.

54 dave March 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm

growing up on a dairy farm and operating the same one today I find the ignorance of tools a disgrace, I’m self taught, have overhauled diesel tractors and do all my own repairs a must to survive. Yes it is Manly but it is also a necessity, if your going to have all you work done by “professionals” you will be broke and feel stupid to boot.
how about a riff on welders and cutting torches?
no disparagement to professionals, boy do we need them

55 Ron Swanson March 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Good basic article on tools. A tool is like a woman. You can associate with cheap sleazy ones that bring temporary enjoyment, and don’t cost much. Or you can invest in a good solid relationship that gives you lasting satisfaction. So it is with your tools. The choice is up to you.

56 Ed March 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Normally I fully agree with everything you guys post, but you got something wrong–pulling vs. pushing a wrench. You are NEVER supposed to pull a wrench, it will knock out your teeth. Pushing it–you might scrape a knuckle–but you have your teeth still.

57 Brent March 7, 2013 at 4:47 pm

The only tools that I will use while working on an engine is a Snap-On. Though they are costly, the qualtiy surpasses Craftsman by at least 20 times. If you ever get a chance, talk to a Snap-On rep and demo a screwdriver with a grease covered handle compared to a regular screwdriver with no grease. You will get about a half turn more with the Snap-On.

58 Tim March 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Richard Trethewey on This Old House mentioned on one show that when using a pipe wrench you should get a “three point bite” with the pipe touching the back of the jaw so it isn’t forced out of round.

Also, when working on most engines etc. the first thing I use is liquid wrench by spraying the fasteners I think I’ll be removing before I start working. This gives it a head start on soaking in and if I don’t remove all the fasteners I thought then worst case it will be easier next time.

59 GDS March 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Ha, ha! Don’t use a cheater bar… Because there’s some risk involved? I think your inner attorney must have reared its ugly head for a moment, Brett. The manly approach to a cheater bar (or a knife, fire, automobile, etc.) is to be aware of the risks involved, don’t be reckless, and learn to do it properly. Have quality tools. Use the right size wrench for the job. Use a pipe not too much wider than the wrench handle. Apply force to the pipe close to the wrench at first, and gradually move outward.

60 minuteman March 7, 2013 at 9:58 pm

I would agree with the anti crescent wrench comments, but it depends on application. I am a professional technician in a power plant and for the type of work I do a top quality adjustable wrench is a most useful tool. I can fix most problems I encounter with a few screw drivers and an adjustable wrench I carry around in my pockets. If I can’t do it with those few things I have a big honkin’ rolling tool box and the tool crib to fall back on. This is, however usually low torque stuff like pneumatics and control stuff. In automotive type apps, I agree that adjustables should be avoided.

61 JeffC March 7, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Yes, it is sad that young men don’t know how to use simple tools. The reason? Mostly, it’s fatherlessness.

62 mm March 8, 2013 at 6:04 am

Nothing wrong with cheater bars,or using adjustable or crescent wrench, there is always a better tool for the job but you don’t have it.

63 Nick March 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

Hey Brett great article, but you need to add if possible it is always better to use the open side of a combo wrench, due to the better surface area on the fastener. Also I have the same craftsman set you recommend, but mine have developed spots of surface rust on all of the wrenches and sockets. Any advice on how to get rid of it?

64 Travis March 8, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Something I learned from my father, an auto mechanic, was to use 12-point box wrenches or sockets if you come across a sticky nut/bolt. That way, if you happen to round the corners, you might still be able to get it loose with a 6-point. Speaking from experience, I found this to be especially handy info when when it came to removing spark plugs during a DIY tune-up.

65 mrriden March 9, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I am horrified! There is a “right” tool for every job abs it is NEVER an adjustable wrench! NEVER!

66 John Bennett March 9, 2013 at 8:45 pm

A wiser person told me when I was frustrated with of all things a copy machine. ‘” A poor craftsman blames his tools.” Has always stuck with me. Hey, whatever tool works, use it!

67 ChattyMatty March 10, 2013 at 12:57 am

Pat R… I checked my local tool shop and asked for the metric Crescent wrench but they didn’t have one. He tried to sell me the Whitworth version!

68 Gareth March 10, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Thank you for the straightforward, practical advice and helpful illustrations. .

69 Jordan March 11, 2013 at 11:30 am

I just bought a whole bunch of wrenches, hex-key set and socket set to work on my car. I was able to save hundreds of dollars by buying some tools, and the parts I needed to replace from O’Reilly’s. Also, I need several wrenches on film shoots for professional tripods and lighting equipment, etc. Every man should have a good set of wrenches.

70 Ian March 11, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Not a Snap-on vendor. Buy Snap-on wrenches if you do more than just assemble and install your ceiling fan.

Story time: as a mechanic, I used Craftsman wrenches. I came across a hex nut that was rusted to an alternator assembly. “No problem,” I thought as I grabbed my trusty Craftsman 15mm, which I then proceeded to destroy because of the rusted nut. I grabbed our Master Tech’s Snap-on 15mm, and within seconds the nut was loose (and replaced). I bought Snap-on from that day forward.

71 EricV March 12, 2013 at 9:12 am

Its worth mentioning that 12 point sockets are pretty much more trouble than they are worth. Easily twice as likely to strip nuts as 6 pointers, with the only benefit being they can be used on square heads which are pretty uncommon these days (usually only seen on transmission/differential drain/fills). Kobalt from Lowes also carries an exchange warranty similar to Craftsman with tools that are comparable quality these days. Snap-on 80 tooth ratchets are an amazing creation though.

72 Edward March 13, 2013 at 10:58 pm

There should be an article for special tools and practices on the removal of broken fasteners or studs I.e. using heat, easy outs, double nutting, welding a nut, etc. I’m a diesel mechanic and resort to these methods and tools. It’s a good thing to know when your in a bind

73 Rob Roy May 6, 2013 at 3:57 am

Great article! My dad is awesome with any kind of tools. He do almost all the repairs at his mansion, backyard and garden by himself. Too bad he had never “forced” me to get his knowledge as a kid so I haven’t grew up with this.
But what man is a man without knowledge of simple crafting or the most basic tools? So I very appreciate this one.

Knowing the Crescent Wrench could have spared me an hour of searching and buying different wrenches at the hardware shop. (I needed to loose a nut of my computers motherboard, which was very small and hard to grab, this very tool gave me the right leaverage even in small and inconvenient areas).

This article goes right to my bookmarks for future reference!

74 harlan May 17, 2013 at 5:51 pm

i have an old cresent wrench that is at least 3 ft long. it was used to tighten down forms that would incase cement pipe. The pipes would be from 12 ft to 18 ft.

Is it worth anything.


75 Tim May 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Kobalt tools are manufactured by the same company as Craftsman and also carry a lifetime warranty. They are much more reasonably priced than Craftsman.

76 Fred June 3, 2013 at 12:40 pm

First my disclaimer: I am a safety professional in the oil and gas industry. Cheater pipes are a big battle that I face with the employees. There are 2 reasons why that are not allowed to be used. 1.) It violates OSHA’s general duty clause, and the OSHA inspector WILL get you for the modification of a tool. 2.) It violates the manufacturer’s warranty.
With that being said, the lever is one of man’s oldest inventions. There are instances where you need increased torque, but the head of a 36″ pipe wrench may be too big to fit on the equipment. This is where the challenge lies. Why haven’t any tool companies engineered a device to add leverage to a pipe wrench or a crescent wrench? These companies would gain a lot of money, but I have a feeling they’re worried about the liability of a cracked skull should something fail.

77 Mike June 19, 2013 at 12:14 pm

A word on using crescent wrenches I got from my earliest practical teacher, a factory engineer I worked alongside in my holidays; I learned a mass of practical skills from him.

Use it with the fixed jaw facing the direction you are turning it. This puts the greater stress on the fixed jaw, and helps it last longer, and be less likely to slip. The picture above is showing the wrong way.. No big deal nowaday with modern alloys, but it does make a difference.

78 Mike June 25, 2013 at 9:10 pm

As an industrial electrician and crane mechanic, my 8″ crescent wrench has a place in my Klien Tools backpack. I also have a few ratcheting combination wrenches in there, but my Crescent brand metric adjustable wrench is my go-to wrench. The newer ones are built to tighter tolerances and even include a laser etched scale to indicate size.

Also, you don’t need a cheater bar. The box end of a combination wrench will hook nicely over the open end of a smaller combination wrench to give you all of the illicit leverage that you need to break stuff.

79 Deep Inya June 29, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I maintain large flying cranes for a living (CH54B) I regularly use crescent wrenches. I also use cheater bars that are 4-5 long. You can’t break a 600 ft-lb nut without a cheater bar.

80 Deep Inya June 29, 2013 at 4:12 pm

edit – unless you have a sweeney tool.

81 Rob September 3, 2013 at 5:28 pm

I would like to point out that most of what you have posted about as ”wrenches” are actually spanners. In most parts of the world your adjustable or crescent wrench is actually a shifting or adjustable spanner or “shifter”colloquially. As are all your open and closed end spanners…. yanks ;)

82 Liam September 12, 2013 at 8:04 am

Bret I just want to thank you for referring to these “wrenches” as spanners at least once. As a Brit it’s rather annoying to have Americans use English as a language and then go on to incorrectly spell words or use the wrong word entirely, colour for example, without at least acknowledging that in England that’s not how it’s spelt or said. However you Bret have acknowledged our islands language, so once again thank you.

83 Kyle September 17, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Cool article, but I would like to point out a couple things. Being that I have done demo work in industrial facilities, I have found cheater bars to be necessary to persuade doggedly stubborn bolts. Also, some wrenches can have special round tapered pointy handles used for lining bolt holes up. These are called Spud wrenches. Spud wrenches can be open end or crescent.

84 Eli October 29, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Those that are disparaging the crescent wrench have never worked in the oilfield. Those that disagree about not using a cheater bar have never been a “safety man.”

85 Sean December 5, 2013 at 1:50 am

Taking a Craftsman (or Proto, Snap-on, et al) tool back for ‘warranty replacement’ was always regarded as the ultimate walk of shame when I was growing up; if you were working a tool hard enough to damage it, then you likely had the wrong tool for the job or needed to reevaluate your approach. Obviously it’s different for professionals who use their gear to the fullest on a daily basis, but for the rest of us it’s just another great excuse to expand the ‘ol tool inventory – and when is that ever a bad thing?

86 Ray Brunt February 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

I only came on to check how I would work out how to put 80 lbs onto a bolt. I have forgot what I was taught at Tech 55 years ago. Nice site.

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