Cool Tool Tuesday #1: Ratcheting into gear

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Hi, my name is Dave and I have a tool shopping problem. 

I know many people say they are tool addicts, tool nerds or the like, but I really have a tool problem. I’ve spent far too much on tools for well over a decade now. And it was quite a few years ago that I just started buying duplicates and overlapping tools out of simple curiosity. 

I started posting up cool, useful, unknown, and sometimes useless tools on my personal Instagram page under the hashtag of #cooltooltuesday back in January 2017. I’ve barely missed a week since that first hashtag. Going a further three years back, my first ever Instagram post was of a Beta 951 T-handle hex key, around the time when I had a tool- and maintenance-related column at a previous cycling publication.

For me, these ramblings have always been about tools that do a job better, faster, or simply with more joy. Since then, ToolBoxWars has become a thing, many new boutique tool brands (and resellers) have launched, and most recently a pandemic has resulted in many cyclists finding the joy in using quality tools themselves. 

And so here we are, the first Cool Tool Tuesday, CyclingTips-edition (or as I like to call it, CT’T). I procrastinated for months about what a CyclingTips version of this looks like and how to start it. Honestly, I’m still not sure. And I think it’s safe to say that the exact format will vary, but the general theme will always be related to tools for servicing and maintaining bikes, better. 

Things like a torque wrench that only clicks at 40 Nm or a small comparison between two high-end pipe cutters for trimming alloy steerers are a little too esoteric, or so James Huang tells me. Instead, I hope to find a balance between tool nerdery, discovery, and usefulness. Useful uselessness if you will.

Perhaps sometimes that balance won’t fit your preferences, needs, or budget, but hopefully, you’ll learn something in the process. And please, always remember that tool selection can be (and more than often is) as personal as sock selection – what works for one could be the cause of blisters for another. 

And so with all of that said, let me tell you a little bit about my love for small 1/4″ ratchets. 

An intro to small ratchets

Designed to drive in one direction and coast in the other, a ratchet is the freehub of tools. It can be a real time-saver, or at least, a wrist-saver. If you come across a bolt obstructed by a bottle cage, seatpost, or frame stay then a ratchet will let you quickly drive it in or out without having to reset the tool back in place multiple times over. Ratchets are commonly found in the most-used drawers of automotive and motorcycle mechanics, yet weirdly, they’re somewhat rarely used in the bicycle mechanic world.

Referring to the size of the drive interface, 1/4″ ratchets come in many shapes and sizes, but fundamentally there are two broad categories: 1/4″ square drive (aka “Male Drive” in some industries), and 1/4″ bit ratchet (aka 1/4″ hex ratchet or “Female Drive”).

Both of these small ratchets (made by Wera) are the same with the exception of the drive type. The closest in the shot is the 1/4″ square drive, behind it is the 1/4″ bit ratchet.
Another angle of the two ratchets. The bit-ratchet design allows for a more compact tool height.

Most common in the cycling world are 1/4″ bit ratchets which take common 1/4″ hex-shaped bits. The 1/4″ hex bits are used in bit-based multi-tools, drill bit sets, and are what most impact drivers use. These 1/4″ bit ratchets are typically the smallest and lowest-profile option, and the bits they use are cheap to buy. 

Then there’s the 1/4″ square drive (male variant). The 1/4″ drive size is the smallest common option you’ll find in the toolboxes of automotive mechanics and is typically designed for smaller sockets ranging from 4 through to about 14 mm in size. Smaller sockets mean lower torque. And lower torque means a shorter handle and more compact profile on the tool. 

The drive type is the biggest thing to know, but beyond that ratchets also come in multiple different styles and shapes. Pictured are three common types of 1/4″ square drive ratchet. Pictured from top to bottom is a swivel head (aka Roto ratchet, which allows the whole thing to pivot and be used as a screwdriver), a flex head (which allows the handle to be swung around obstacles), and my personal preference, the regular old “fixed head”.

What I use

Personally, I use multiples of both types, with a few permanently set up with common-sized bits (because of course I do). Having dedicated ratchets with dedicated bits is a time-saver, and truthfully, I wouldn’t use ratchets nearly as much if I had to constantly swap sockets or bits.

The 1/4″ bit-style ratchets are the superior option when space around the bolt is limited – think seatposts or poorly designed disc brake frames. They’re also great for a compact toolset or if you’re wanting to cover a large range of fastener sizes on a budget.

A bit ratchet (left), a square drive ratchet (right) and a regular L-shaped hex key (behind). Bit-ratchets can often fit into tight spots where regular hex keys struggle. Of course you also can get a stubby or short-reach hex key, but I’ll save that for another Tuesday.

Meanwhile, I reach for 1/4″ square-drive ratchets for most other tasks. While there are always exceptions to everything, these commonly offer the benefit of a larger and more comfortable tool handle, a larger direction switch, and a securely held socket. Compared to a smaller bit ratchet I find them more comfortable with repeated use. 

Furthering the brilliance and usability of a 1/4″ square drive ratchet is something called a quick spinner. This little disc sits between the ratchet head and the socket and lets you use your fingers to quickly spin the socket when the fastener has little to no resistance to it. It’s so good I no longer like using smaller-sized ratchets without a quick spinner. 

A quick spinner is a lesser-known add-on for ratchets. I loooovvveee them in this smaller drive size.

The quick spinner fits between the ratchet and socket. It lets you use your fingers to quickly start and drive loose fasteners.

My favourite ratchets all feature a comfortable handle and an easy-to-use direction switch that can be used with the same hand that’s holding the tool. I prefer ratchets with a higher tooth count which means there’s less of a dead spot when ratcheting (the exact same concept as faster-engaging freehubs on bikes). And perhaps most importantly, I choose ratchets that have an ultimately low back drag which means there’s less resistance in the ratcheting (coasting) motion of the tool. This means you’re not accidentally moving the bolt in the opposite direction while ratcheting the tool. 

As already covered in my most loved products of 2021, my absolute favourite 1/4″ ratchet is the 90-tooth long handle from Nepros, the premium range of tools from the Japanese tool company KTC. And of course, I combine that with Nepros’s rubber grip quick spinner. This combo ticks all the boxes above and does so with a world-class chrome. Who doesn’t like shiny things? 

You’ll typically find that the bicycle mechanics who use ratchets will have multiples in play to avoid having to constantly switch out the bits or sockets. This photo is also proof of just how much I like the Nepros ratchets.

Of course, a luxurious ratchet from a once-famous sword-making city of Japan isn’t going to appeal to all. Similarly, the closely comparable Snap-On F80 range is going to offend the budgets of most (including mine). Thankfully there are countless great ratchets on the market available for a fraction of the price, and while almost certainly all of them will have more back drag when ratcheting, they’ll still get the job done (more on this in the gallery below).  

Don’t forget the bits and sockets

Of course, a ratchet is a rather useless fidget spinner without a socket to drive the fastener in question. For square drive ratchets the most affordable path is a 1/4″ square to 1/4″ hex adapter combined with whatever 1/4″ hex bits you like (I like Wera and PB Swiss). Or you can do what the tool crazed (e.g. me) do and get dedicated bit sockets that combine the drive bit and square drive socket into one. 

1/4″ hex bits are easy to source and cheap to buy. By comparison, 1/4″ bit sockets are a bit more of a specialist tool.

Bit sockets have been a weird obsession for me and I continue to search for the holy grail (which I’m convinced is an impossible ask). Some fit into fasteners more snugly than others. Some fit too snugly and get stuck. Some fit loosely and dig into soft fasteners at high torques (Shimano crank pinch bolts anyone?). Some wear out or break quickly. And some wear in. Personally, I use a mix of bit sockets from PB Swiss, Hazet, Gedore, Wera, and Nepros. The PB Swiss, Nepros, and Gedore get used the most and spark joy in various ways. 

So there you have it. The first look of many into what’s in my toolbox and why. The first edition of Cool Tool Tuesday on CyclingTips. And the first time someone in the comments of CyclingTips will complain that I just wrote 1,300 words about ratchets before I admitted that I still regularly use simple L-shaped (and T-handle) hex keys that remain more useful and far more important to first own before getting into the ratchet game. Maybe I should have led with that?

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