You’ll find an Impact wrench in every mechanics tool chest, and it’s one of the best affordable tools every DIY enthusiast should own, whether it’s for working on your car or doing tasks around the house.
While you probably already own some hand wrenches in various sizes, those tools can only get you so far before you need more power and torque. Similar to how we previously explained why everyone should own an impact driver, an impact wrench is equally as important, and you should get one sooner rather than later.
Walk into any hardware store and head to the power tools section, and you’ll quickly be overwhelmed by all the choices. And that’s because most tools serve a specific purpose. Below we’ll go over what you need to know about an impact wrench, how it’s different from a driver, and when to use one.
What is an Impact Wrench?
Impact Wrench vs. Impact Driver: What's The Difference?
When to Use an Impact Wrench?
What Impact Wrench to Buy?
Ryobi ONE+ HP 18V Brushless Cordless Compact 3/8 inch Impact Wrench Kit
DeWALT 20V MAX XR 1/2 inch Impact Wrench Kit
Milwaukee M18 FUEL Brushless Mid-Torque 1/2 inch Cordless Impact Wrench
If you’re a beginner or new to power tools an impact wrench may look similar to a power drill, but they’re entirely different. An impact wrench is a socket wrench power tool designed to deliver high torque output with minimal effort by the user.
Instead of using a wrench and a socket set, you use an impact wrench to handle nuts and bolts. Those can be the lug nuts on a car tire, heavy-duty bolts on a swingset or patio cover, or even house foundation bolts. An impact wrench replaces your hand wrench with a cordless power tool to make jobs quick and easy. And if you ask any mechanic, they’ll probably say to get an air impact wrench.
Additionally, an impact wrench or driver is different from a drill, as it doesn’t just spin a bolt or nut. Instead, it impacts the bolt with far more power and torque, making it capable of handling the toughest jobs.
Impact wrenches have a powerful motor, a spring, a notched hammer, and a bar-shaped anvil. When you engage the trigger, the motor turns just like a drill. However, with something like a tight car lug nut, there is a lot of resistance. An impact wrench feels that resistance and the spring will engage like a clutch and pull back, which rotates the hammer until it turns the anvil, then releases with tons of force.
Instead of just unscrewing the bolt, it twists and “impacts” the hammer and bolt, breaking its tight grip with ease. It’s hard to explain, so here’s a video showing how it works.
You can feel and hear the notched hammer catching and striking during use, which is why impact wrenches are so much louder than a typical drill. All that power and torque is what makes an impact tool so capable.
Several years ago, after I started wrenching on my off-road truck, I quickly realized I needed an impact wrench to do the hard work for me. Once you get one, you won’t be able to imagine doing any job without it.
If it wasn’t clear, an impact wrench and a driver are two completely different tools, even if they look similar. A power drill or impact driver is what you use for driving screws like a Phillips-head screw around the house. These usually can use several different adapters or hex bits for various projects.
And while yes, you can use a socket adapter and a drill for wrench duties on nuts and bolts, it’s not efficient, especially for tough jobs. An impact wrench is specifically for fastening and loosening nuts and bolts, especially big or tight bolts and nuts.
A drill works with screws and drill bits, while an impact driver is for screws. An impact wrench is for nuts and bolts.
Your impact wrench can’t use any of the accessories of a power drill, meaning it can’t drill holes or handle screws. There’s nowhere to add a drill bit or Phillips-head. Instead, they typically come with a 3/8 or 1/2-inch square output shaft (male end) for sockets. Then, you use different sizes of sockets that fit nuts and bolts. You’ll also want a good impact socket that is more durable than hand-tool sockets.
You should probably know exactly when to use an impact wrench. They are useful in any application requiring greater force or when a hand wrench won’t do the job. Anytime you’re dealing with tough nuts and bolts, like the 10mm bolt that’s rusted out on a car, or the nuts on your tire, you’ll want to bust out the impact wrench and use all that power, torque, and “impacts” of the tool to break it loose.
Anytime you’d need a hand wrench can be a good time to use an impact wrench. Make sure it won’t be too powerful, or adjust the power level on your impact wrench to the specific job. My Ryobi impact wrench has three speeds. As a result, I can turn it down for smaller jobs or go full throttle for driving a bolt through a 2×4 in the backyard.
The most common use for an impact wrench is for automotive repairs and removing the lug nuts on a tire. However, the entire automotive industry uses them, not to mention heavy equipment repairs and major construction projects.
For example, a few years ago, I built and installed a slotted wood-covered patio in the backyard and assembled it with durable bolts instead of wood screws. An impact wrench is ideal for making a job like that quicker and easier.
The thicker the bolt and tighter the nut, the more you’ll want to use an impact wrench.
In closing, I wanted to recommend a few solid impact wrenches for all DIY people and at-home mechanics. However, it’s important to mention that most impact wrenches are similar for everyday consumers. You can buy a Ryobi, Bosch, DeWALT, Milwaukee, or any other brand and love all it offers.
Depending on the brand, you may get minor feature differences like built-in LED lights that illuminate as you squeeze the trigger, different motor speeds, etc. However, they will differ in terms of power and torque. Any reputable brand will do if you need an impact wrench for small jobs around the house, but if you’re looking to do serious mechanic work, you’ll want something built to handle the job.
Additionally, if you already own a specific brand of power tool and a few battery packs, you’ll want to stick with that brand. That way, you’re not buying extra battery packs, and you’ll be able to grow your collection without spending extra money.
You’ll also want to decide which size socket head you want on the impact wrench. Most come in 3/8 and 1/2-inch sizes, and depending on the job or the sockets you already own should help you make that decision. I have a powerful 1/2-inch impact wrench, and if I need a smaller 3/8-inch socket, I have an adapter.
Either way, here are a few impact wrench options worth considering:
A great place to start is with this compact Ryobi impact wrench. It comes in a smaller 3/8-inch size that’ll fit most sockets, handles nuts and bolts easily, and is perfect for small jobs. It’s lightweight, compact, affordable, and comes with a battery and charger.
If you already own anything from the Ryobi line and have a battery, buy the tool-only and spend even less.
Ryobi ONE+ 18V Compact 3/8-inch Impact Wrench
This affordable impact wrench kit from Ryobi has everything you need to get to work.
Again, there are countless brands, all with great options. However, DeWALT is one of the best in the business. It’s a well-known manufacturer that offers excellent products, a good warranty, and a slew of different tools that all run off the same battery pack.
While you can certainly find a more affordable 1/2-inch impact wrench from a brand like Ryobi or others, this is a high-powered, high-torque, 20V tool with lots of power.
DeWALT 20V MAX XR 1/2-inch Impact Wrench Kit
If you're looking for more power and a bigger impact wrench, you can't go wrong with the DeWALT 20V Max XR combo.
Another solid option is anything with the Milwaukee name on it. I’m not here to argue which brand is the best, as everyone has a preference. That said, Milwaukee targets the automotive market with many of its products, and they’re built to handle tough, dirty, greasy jobs.
This tool-only impact wrench is perfect if you already own anything from the M18 line. However, if this is your first tool, you’ll also need to buy a battery and a charger.
Milwaukee M18 FUEL Brushless Mid-Torque 1/2 in. Cordless Impact Wrench
While this wrench doesn't come with a battery, Milwaukee is a well-known name in the automotive industry, and this 1/2-inch tool will handle any job.