Impact sockets vs regular sockets
DIY enthusiasts typically fall into two categories: those who prefer hand tools, and those who prefer power tools. It’s no surprise that the latter group has many more options than the former does. For example, you can’t drive screws with hammers – or so you’d think! Believe it or not, there are different types of hammers for driving in both nails and screws.
There are also multiple versions of “impact sockets” available on today’s market. Is one better than the other? Let’s take a closer look…
Impact sockets, as their name suggests, provide a high-impact method for removing broken fasteners from drilled holes. You can use them to reach nuts and bolts up to 1/2″ in diameter, and since they’re made from a copper alloy, they won’t slip or mar the surface of whatever you’re working on.
Impact sockets come in two basic types: standard (or “mixed”) sockets and deep (or “impact”) sockets.
- Standard impact sockets are sized like standard or mixed impact tools – you’ll see a series designation printed somewhere on the base of each socket which tells you what series it belongs to (see below for examples).
- Deep impact sockets don’t have the same markings printed on them, which means that you’ll need to know in advance what size you’re looking for in order to buy the correct socket.
Both deep and standard sockets are also “shallow” when compared with standard sockets. This is because they can’t fit over long fasteners like drill bits or extension bars – they only make contact with the nut/bolt head itself, which limits how much torque they can apply to it.
For this reason, standard impact tools should not be used in place of regular socket wrenches… even if their designations look similar. Standard impact tools have a tendency to slip off of deeply recessed bolts and nuts
Best Impact socket sets:
As we mentioned before, you should always check your tool’s user manual before buying new sockets! However, if you don’t have one or simply can’t find it, here are our top 3 best impact socket sets:
- SK 4 Piece 1/2″ Drive Impact Socket Set (SAE)
- GearWrench 4807D 7 Pc. 1/2″ Drive Deep Impact Socket Set (SAE)
- Cornwell 38 pc. 3/8″ Dr. Air Impact Socket Set (SAE)
You’ll definitely want to explore all of the options and different brands that we’ve listed above – just because these three brands made our top picks doesn’t mean they’re right for everyone!
Impact sockets advantages:
- They can help to prevent rounding of the fastener head.
- They are actually stronger than regular, non-impacted sockets.
- Since they have a square shape at the base of the bolt, they won’t slip under high torque levels as easily as standard sockets would.
Impact sockets disadvantages:
- More expensive.
- The square base prevents them from working in tight spaces, and doesn’t fit as well in recessed areas.
Regular sockets are much more common than impact sockets, and they’re used for much more than just removing stubborn nuts and bolts. You can use them to tighten fasteners as well! Standard sockets don’t have the same high torque capacity that impact sockets do though… so you need to be careful when trying to remove a stuck bolt with a regular socket set.
Best regular socket sets:
- K 4 Pc. 1/2″ Drive SAE Standard Socket Set
- Cornwell 22 pc. 1/2″ Drive Metric Standard Socket Set
Regular sockets advantages:
- Less expensive.
Regular sockets disadvantages:
- They can slip under high torque, which makes them dangerous to use on fasteners that are really stuck! If you’re trying to remove a broken bolt or stud, always use impact sockets for the job instead – they won’t slip as easily.
As we mentioned before, you shouldn’t mix up impact sockets and standard sockets! It’s a bad idea for several reasons:
Impact sockets are made from a slightly different alloy of steel, which means that regular tools can damage or destroy them if used incorrectly.
Regular sockets don’t have the same high torque capacity that impact types do – so it’s dangerous to use regular tools on really stuck fasteners. If you’re trying to remove a broken bolt or stud, always use an impact socket instead!
Impact tools spin faster than regular hand tools… so they generate a lot of heat. Regular sockets aren’t built to withstand this type of heat, which is why it’s never a good idea to mix the two.
Impact sockets are deeply stamped with markings that indicate their size, which regular tools can’t read. This means that when you’re working with impact sockets, you need to keep them in a separate tray or box away from your standard socket set. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea what size the tool is when it’s time to put it back!
Regular tools can slip off of impact sockets if they try to spin them… so always use an impact wrench when removing stuck nuts and bolts.
When in doubt about whether or not an impact socket should be used in place of a standard socket in your tool kit, remember this simple rule: If the fastener is really stuck (and you’ve already tried loosening it by hand), use an impact socket!
The best way to find the right size of impact socket for your needs is to refer to your tool’s user manual. Most manufacturers include a detailed description of how and when their tool should be used, as well as a list of all compatible sockets and adapters that can be used with it.
There are four measurements to pay attention to when buying sockets:
- Socket size (6 pt. vs 12 pt.)
- Drive size (standard, deep, or impact)
- Length (measured from the underside of the socket opening to the end of the drive; 5 inches is standard for most 1/2″ drive socket sets)
Weight (measured in ounces; lighter is better):
As you can see, impact sockets and standard sockets serve very different purposes – so you shouldn’t mix them up! If you don’t already own a socket set, we recommend buying a 1/2″ drive impact socket set to get started. They’re extremely useful around any home or garage.
Usage of each type of socket:
Regular sockets can be used for a wide variety of tasks, including the removal of stuck nuts and bolts.
Impact sockets are designed to break free rusted or corroded fasteners that regular sockets just can’t budge. They’re great for both DIY projects and professional jobs!
Quality of sockets:
Regular sockets should be high quality… but impact sockets should always be extremely durable. They need to stand up to a lot of torque! That’s why you should never use regular sockets with impact tools – the risk of slippage is too great.
Brands that we think make great, high-quality socket sets include SK, Matco, GearWrench, and Cornwell.
Regular sockets should always have markings on the base of each socket that read “SAE” and “AF” along with a number or letter combination.
Impact sockets also need to be marked, but you’ll only find numbers and series letters on them… no SAE/AF markings at all! As we mentioned before, these types of sockets are extremely durable so they don’t need to be as thick as standard sockets do.
Please note: even though we’ve stated several times throughout this article that impact sockets are made from a copper alloy, you won’t actually see “copper” printed anywhere on the tool itself. Impact tools are actually made out of steel first, then dipped in a non-conductive copper alloy to keep them from rusting!
All impact sockets are given a “series” designation, which designates the size of the opening in each socket. These series numbers range from 1 through 24… but you’ll only ever need to know about three of them:
- 1/2″ drive (which is what 99% of all impact socket sets use)
- 3/4″ drive (which is very common with larger tools like rotary hammers and large pneumatic ratchets)
- 1″ drive (if you happen to find one, it’s probably part of a massive tool kit that requires two hands to lift!)
What if I Need Something in Between?
Sometimes you need the best of both worlds – most DIY enthusiasts work with screws and bolts frequently enough so that purchasing two different sets of tools will probably be cost-prohibitive. Fortunately, there are “universal” impact extensions available that have an adapter with a square hole at one end so they’ll fit into standard sockets and an impact-friendly socket at the other end. These universal adapters also have a hex opening in the middle so they can be attached to standard 1/2″ drive ratchets.
Impact sockets are designed for heavy-duty applications, and should only be used with impact tools – never with regular hand tools! If you plan on using impact sockets very frequently, we would recommend buying an impact-rated socket set made from a nickel-chrome molybdenum steel alloy. It’s not as tough or durable as true industrial alloy steel, but it will stand up to just about anything you throw at it. The heaviest duty and longest-lasting impact sockets available today are manufactured by Sunex and SnapOn – these brands offer sets that use “ToughMuth” alloy steel that will literally last a lifetime!
Impact sockets are very tough, durable tools. If you need to get a stuck bolt or nut out from time to time, this is one tool you don’t want to go cheap on. The best impact sockets available will also be fully guaranteed by their manufacturer – so look for warranties that cover any defects or damage caused by “user abuse”. Regular socket sets can be purchased from your local hardware store for as little as $20… but if you plan on using them a lot, we would recommend paying a bit more and buying a quality set from a reputable brand. You’ll save yourself money in the long run!
We have found that Amazon has some of the lowest prices around on socket sets and accessories – including impact adapters with square drive ends.
Regular sockets are designed for hand tools, while impact sockets are intended to be used with impact drivers.
Impact sockets require much thicker walls than regular sockets do because they’re sized according to tolerances that can range up to +/- 3%, which is well within the “slop” factor required for impact drivers.
As we’ve said in this article, impact sockets are designed for heavy-duty applications. If you plan on using them very often (multiple times per day), you should definitely consider buying a set that uses ToughMuth alloy steel or another heavy-duty material that will stand up to years of regular use. Just keep in mind that the highest quality tools always come with a higher price tag – it’s usually worth spending a few extra bucks if you know you’re going to get serious use out of them!