Torque wrenches are an integral part of an automotive mechanic’s tool kit, allowing nuts and bolts to be tightened to exact specifications. Their unique construction, consisting of threaded fasteners, allow users to apply the correct amount of force, load, and tension to tighten correctly without damaging your engine or other internal parts.
To work, torque wrenches use a ratchet mechanism combined with a set of gears to rotate the wrench handle backward while the fastener stays in one place, tightening and loosening bolts to the correct torque. The best torque wrenches make accurate torque readings (expressed as foot-pounds), have a durable construction, are American-made, and come in four available sizes: 1/4-inch drive, 3/8-inch drive, 1/2-inch drive, and 3/4-inch drive.
Keep reading below to learn our recommendations for best torque wrenches, along with a primer on torque wrenches and best practices.
Why Buy a Torque Wrench
- Get accurate measurements. Since many automotive parts require a proper level of torque to be safe and secure, a torque wrench offers a precise way to get the right torque specs the first time. This makes it easy to hit the manufacturer recommended levels each and every time. This is especially important for different parts like lug nuts.
- Preserve components. The main reason torque wrenches are so important is a matter of safety. Too much or too little torque on parts is dangerous. In addition to the danger of parts coming loose, too much torque can also damage parts.
Types of Torque Wrenches
Click-type torque wrenches are the most popular type of torque wrench. They use a clicking mechanism to indicate that the correct amount of torque has been applied. More or less torque can be applied within a specified range, with gauges indicating force expressed in inch-pounds, foot-pounds, or Newton meters. Simply pull the click wrench to the desired torque setting and a small level inside the wrench locks as soon as it makes contact with the inside of the wrench handle wall, letting you know when it is time to release.
Today, click-type torque wrenches come with manually adjustable settings or in digital form, each with ratchet heads available in four sizes: 1/4-inch drive, 3/8-inch drive, 1/2-inch drive, and 3/4-inch drive.
Consider beam wrenches the visual version of a torque wrench. Beam wrenches use a torque scale and digital pointer to indicate the amount of torque being given. As the wrench is rotated, the beam moves the indicator. These typically come with very large gauge faces for easy readings, albeit offering a bit less accuracy as everything is done by eye versus torque wrenches. Expect beam wrenches to be cheaper than torque wrenches as well.
Electronic torque wrenches substitute the click-type mechanism for digital readouts to let you know when the desired amount of torque has been reached. Consider electronic torque wrenches a hybrid of click-type and beam style torque wrenches, merging a readout and an automatic notification.
Note: electronic torque wrenches come at a higher cost than click-type and beam wrenches. If you are looking for convenience and accuracy, electronic torque wrenches are hard to beat.
Based in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tekton produces a wide range of hand tools that are popular on construction sites and in garages alike. The company focuses on producing higher-quality products than most budget-friendly options offer. As a result, options like its Tekton 24320 wrench have been known to last much longer than competitors.
For 40 years, Gorilla Automotive Products has produced a large range of automotive accessories and tools to make vehicle maintenance as easy as possible. Dependability is a big value for the company. In most cases, a customer ought to purchase just a single set of tools that will last for years. Check out the company’s TW705 Wrench for a look at the level of quality they produce.
Founded in 1968, CDI is one of the few companies focused primarily on torque products. Making both mechanical and electronic tools, the company’s products are designed for use in a variety of settings, including professional automotive garages and scientific labs. The CDI Torque 2503MFRPH is one of the few affordable wrenches that has a high level of reliability and precision.
Torque Wrench Pricing
- Under $50: This is the price range of more limited torque wrenches in terms of performance and durability. Options here are good for basic fastening tasks, but many will be limited for automotive parts that require a high degree of torque. Most wrenches here are on par with basic hardware store varieties.
- $50 to $100: Sandwiched between true budget options and professional-grade options, torque wrenches in the midrange tend to offer higher-quality designs and builds. In use, however, these wrenches are still fairly limited and basic. A torque range of up to 250 foot-pounds is common here.
- $100 and up: Above $100, options can quickly rise in price. This range is home to a lot of professional-grade options that include Snap-On attachments, digital readouts, higher torque ranges, and an increase in build quality.
Size and Torque Range
Nuts and bolts used in automotive work come in all shapes and sizes. Each of them requires a different torque range, expressed in pound-feet or inch-pounds.
Torque wrenches come in four sizes: 1/4-inch drive, 3/8-inch drive, 1/2-inch drive, and 3/4-inch drive. The larger the size, the greater the amount of torque applied.
The 1/4-inch drive torque wrenches work with tiny nuts and bolts with a max torque range of 50 to 250-inch pounds. The 3/8-inch drive ones work with the most common nut and bolt sizes used in mechanics shops everywhere, working a range from 15 to 75 foot-pounds. The 1/2-inch drive and 3/4-inch drive torque wrenches are used for larger internal components such as engine mounts, transmission mounts, and center-lug wheels with a range of 30 foot-pounds or greater.
As a general rule, opt for torque wrenches obtaining certification guaranteeing an accuracy of 5 percent or better. To earn bonus points, look for an ISO 6789 accuracy certification, which guarantees an accuracy rating of plus or minus 4 percent for up to 25,000 cycles. Even the slightest deviation from the intended amount of torque applied can cause some engine parts to break.
Note, your torque wrenches accuracy may deviate if dropped or experienced heavy wear and tear. As a result, it is very important to calibrate it from time to time and store it properly to ensure accuracy. There are many resources available online with step-by-step instructions on how to calibrate a torque wrench.
Also referred to as torque range, our recommendation is to look for a torque wrench that offers 150-foot pounds or more of range, which is more than adequate in tightening automotive lug nuts. Some are even capable of 500 foot-pounds of force, which is necessary for more intensive applications. Anything below 100 foot-pounds is best reserved for light work (e.g. bicycles and scooters)
Comfort and Auxiliary Features
Exerting a heavy amount of pressure under hoods or in dark areas places a premium on ergonomics. If a torque wrench is not optimized for comfort, wrist or joint pain can result. Many of today’s torque wrenches come with rubberized, knurled handles or steel handles with a raised grip. Some also come with flexible heads (as much as 15 degrees), which allow them to sneak under places that are hard to reach.
Other auxiliary features focus on visibility. Many torque wrenches come equipped with LED lights that illuminate a certain color as soon as the required force is reached. Some even emit alarm sounds.
Do not forget readability. Scales should be very easy to read. A quick glance should be enough to read the current torque level. Click-type torque and beam wrenches use handle-mounted scales to indicate the torque amount. Digital torque wrenches use a digital scale, which is the most straightforward of them all. Only slip-style torque wrenches do not use scales.
Do not underestimate a good carrying case for your torque wrench. Repeated wear and tear or repeated knocking in your tool kit could cause it to lose sensitivity and accuracy over time. Look for torque wrenches with a protective storage case that contains plenty of padding.
- Accuracy. In order to get the best results, a torque wrench needs to be as accurate as possible. Accuracy partly depends on the calibration and precision of the instrument itself. For example, the beam needs to be aligned correctly on a beam torque wrench. Accuracy also depends on the readout of the wrench. Better results are common with electronic and click-type wrenches because of the digital readout and/or sound notification.
- Comfort. Since all torque wrenches require force from the user to work, comfort and usability are two important considerations in terms of overall ergonomics. The size, length, and grip of the shaft, for example, influence the overall comfort of the wrench. More leverage makes it easier to apply higher amounts of torque without extra effort. A grip makes it easier to maintain a secure hold on the wrench, even if your hands are slippery from engine oil or automotive grease.
- Ratchet Design. A ratcheting head is a simple way to maintain a precise level of torque as you increase the overall amount. Beam torque wrenches, for example, force you to apply the torque all at once in a single rotation. Wrenches with a ratchet, however, hold the current level of torque as you rotate the handle to apply more force. A ratchet tends to be common with electronic and click-type torque wrenches. Other good design traits include steel construction, a reversible ratchet function, quick release buttons, and a good chrome finish.
Best Torque Wrenches Reviews & Recommendations 2021
- If you only need one torque wrench, use a 1/2-inch drive size, which offers enough torqueing power for most automotive applications such as adjusting brake rotors or tightening fasteners on major powertrain components.
- Go for torque wrenches that have protective cases. Repeated knocks against your toolbox or tool drawer could cause calibration to knock and become out of whack. Look to calibrate your torque wrench at least once a year or as needed based on usage. It can be done on your own or with an experienced mechanic.
- Torque wrench thread can become clogged with debris and rust over time. Be sure to clean them before your torque a fastener down or risk under or overextending the amount of torque. Even a -/+ 2 percent deviation could make a difference.
- Be sure to use the proper torque as recommended by the parts manufacturer.
Q: What is a torque wrench?
A torque wrench allows a nut or bolt to be tightened to a specific torque level per the manufacturer’s recommendations. There are five main types of torque wrenches: click-type, beam, slip, micrometer, and digital. On click-type, beam, and digital torque wrenches, a small scale indicates the amount of torque applied, expressed as newton-meters, foot-pounds, inch-pounds, kilogram force meters, and/or kilogram-force per square centimeter.
Q: What happens if a nut or bolt is over-torqued?
If a nut or bolt becomes over-torqued, it can easily break. Applying a torque level above the manufacturer’s recommendation is rarely a cause for concern. However, we recommend erring on the safe side, as a broken nut or bolt could fall under sensitive parts such as your engine bay and be hard to retrieve.
Q: Do I really need a torque wrench?
Torque wrenches are absolutely essential if you plan on working on your engine or other powertrain components. These systems carry nuts and bolts of all shapes and sizes, such as cylinder-head bolts and exhaust manifold bolts that need to be tightened according to specs. Any over tightening could create stress on the system (e.g. distorted brake rotors) and cause parts to leak (e.g. coolant). Also, if a fastener is not tightened enough, it could become loose over time.
Q: Can you change a tire without a torque wrench?
Torque wrenches are not necessary for tire changes. Most cars come equipped with a spare jack and tire iron that are good enough to do the job by themselves. They are capable of fastening lug nuts anywhere from 80 to 100 pound-feet.
Q: How is torque calculated?
Torque is a measurement of rotational force that is expressed in foot-pounds. For example, applying 100 pounds of force using a 2-foot long wrench means you are applying 200 foot-pounds of force. Be sure to apply the correct amount of torque per manufacturers’ specifications or run the risk of compressing, bending, or causing your fasteners to loosen prematurely.