ManMade Essential Toolbox: The Best Adjustable Wrench for Everyday Use

Each week in 2015, ManMade is sharing our picks for the essential tools we think every creative guy and DIYer needs. We’ve selected useful, long-lasting tools to help you accomplish a variety of projects, solve problems, and live a hands-on lifestyle that allows you to interact with and make the things you use every day. 

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Real mechanics have a full fleet of designated wrenches in high-grade steel: open ends and box ends, standard and metric, each increasing by the millimeter and every sixteenth inch, accompanied by specialty items like pin and hook spanners, cone wrenches for bearing systems, and other exacting, designated tools.

And if you do a lot of work on cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and the like, you probably should have them, too. But for most homeowners, DIYers, tinkers, and woodworkers, a simple set of mechanical tools will work just fine.   

You definitely want a full socket set (more on that in a future post), but for general tightening and loosing of hardware, you can get by with a set of adjustable wrenches for a good 90% of tasks. If you own anything that moves or is made of metal, you need an adjustable wrench. 

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The adjustable wrench, often called a Crescent wrench thanks to the Crescent Tool Company’s original design, features adjustable jaws offset at an angle for use in small spaces without a lot of clearance. (And helps save your knuckles). It does what wrenches do, and since you’re a clever ManMade reader, I won’t condescend to tell you how to use a wrench. 

What to Look for in an Adjustable Wrench?

A few things. A comfortable handle, for sure, and quality moving jaw with a smooth motion. The highest grade steel you can afford will ensure it lasts for a long time; many home center options are much too soft, softer than the hardware they’re designed to move.

 Since the jaws are flexible here, you need to make sure you practice good technique to avoid rounding over the edges of fastener’s head. First, open the jaws to the right size, and place them squarely on the hardware. Make sure the fixed jaw is placed such that it puts the most pressure on the hardware, rather than the adjustable jaw. So, when tightening clockwise (righty-tighty), the fixed jaw should be follow the direction of the handle in the clockwise direction, rather than the handle following the fixed jaw.  Then, tighten the jaws just a bit more to ensure a snug fit. 

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Tools featuring a readable scale (metric on one side and standard on the other) will help determine hardware size if you need to replace, or figure out which socket head you need. In this fashion, they’re basically functioning like a measuring tool, or caliper. Cool, right?

For most common tasks, you’ll want three basic sizes: 6″, 8″, and 10″ This will not only accommodate most standard hardware, but allow you to access hard to reach spaces and tight corners. If you work on small items regularly (musical instruments, kids toys, bikes, etc) a 4″ will be helpful, and if you need to mess with large hex-headed hardware (like a trailer or truck hitch) a 12″ or 14″ would make for a good complement. 

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Which Ones to Buy?

Many professional mechanics prefer Snap-On tools, which are made from the highest quality steel still used these days. They’re nice, but pricey, and if you do the kind of work that professional mechanics do, they might be worth it. For the rest of us, Crescent wrenches are still nice (they invented them, after all), and I like nearly all the hand tools made by Channel Lock. Stanley’s current set of wrenches have a nice balance of quality and price, and beat the pants off the generic hardware store brand I was using for years. 

You could mix and match as well – buy a nicer 8″ for the majority of tasks, then get other sizes in a less expensive tool. You can get nice tools for $6.00… just not for $3.00. It’s also true that the nice wrenches have a wider adjustability in their jaw size; you could accomplish more with the ChannelLock 8″ than the Stanley, for example, which might make it a better all-around option to keep in your toolbox. 

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Remember: righty-tighty; lefty-loosey.