For installing towel bars, tightening door handles, or assembling IKEA furniture, a home toolbox should have a good selection of hex wrenches (commonly known by the trademarked name Allen wrenches). We had three carpenters test 11 top models, and our favorite set is the TEKTON 25282 26-piece Long Arm Ball Hex Key Wrench Set (about $17).
Beyond this, the TEKTON cases were the only ones that folded open, allowing easy access particularly to the smaller wrenches (which are the most difficult to get out). The TEKTONs have a longer length than normal and a ball-end design, both of which make them particularly useful in tight spots. The set includes a full selection of metric and SAE sizes (13 each) and is backed by a lifetime guarantee.
If the TEKTONs aren’t available, we also like the Bondhus 20199 L-Wrench Double Pack (about $20). These also have a lifetime warranty, and according to the manufacturer they’re made of a proprietary substance called Protanium Steel, which, according to Bondhus, is 20 percent stronger than the Chrome Vanadium that the TEKTONs are made of. After testing, we concluded that this additional durability won’t make a difference during standard around-the-house tasks. The Bondhus cases hold the wrenches in place securely but don’t fold, so the smaller wrenches are more difficult to get out.
For portability, a folding set of hex wrenches is nice to have. Our favorites there are the Bondhus 12522 Gorilla Grips (about $14). They were the least expensive ones we looked at, but they had the most comfortable handle and the most useful features. We liked how the wrenches can also be stopped at 90 degrees from the handle, which helps to quickly loosen or tighten a screw. These are also covered by a lifetime guarantee.
I’ve been using hex wrenches for years. First during a 10-year stint in the trades building high-end homes in the Boston area as a carpenter, foreman, and job supervisor. Secondly, as a tool writer/reviewer who has had articles published in Fine Homebuilding, This Old House, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, The Journal of Light Construction, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor.
For this guide I also consulted with Marc Lyman, editor of HomeFixated.com, a website devoted to tools and home improvement. Lyman has been writing about and reviewing tools for over 10 years.
Through our research, we discovered that the most useful type of hex wrenches to have around are L-shaped, long arm, ball-end wrenches. The long arm models have a better reach than typically found on a hex wrench, and the ball end allows the wrench to engage and spin a fastener at an angle of up to about 25 degrees. As Lyman told us, “these are great when clearance for the tool is minimal.” Folding kits are also useful due to their portability and better ergonomics (you also can’t lose an individual wrench), but they’re typically a little bulkier.
With individual wrenches, we found that the storage system makes a tremendous difference. As Lyman said, “go with [a set] that has a wrench holder with clear size labeling like Bondhus or TEKTON rather than the ‘bag of wrenches’ approach.” Because many hex wrenches are too small to be individually marked for size, it helps when the case has clear size markings and that they stay organized. When stored, the wrenches should be held tightly, but at the same time, they should easily slide out when pulled. I’ve used sets that come in pouches, but they tend to end up disorganized.
As for the specific L-wrench design, the best have a long arm and the ball end. The long arm is just what it sounds like; the wrench is simply longer than normal. Compared to a short arm Elkind Set ($8) that I have, our recommended TEKTONs average about 30 to 40 percent longer, depending on the wrench. As for the ball end, the tip of the long arm ends in a sphere shape that maintains the angles of the hexagonal head at askew angles—the wrench can be inserted into (and turn) a fastener at an angle of up to 25 degrees. These two features make these wrenches ideal for hard-to-reach spots like tightening the setscrew under a toilet paper holder.
Quality sets—containing both metric and SAE with long arms and ball ends—land in the $15-$25 range. There are sets that go higher, like Snap-On ($40, just for metric), PB Swiss ($75, just for metric) and Wiha ($30-$40), but these prices are hard to justify when there are enough quality models with unlimited lifetime warranties in the lower range. We’re looking for quality tools here, but it just doesn’t make sense to shell out almost $80 for two sets of hex keys.
After searching all of the usual places (big box, tool retailers, manufacturer websites), we discovered a fairly limited selection of wrench sets that meet the full criteria of being both long-arm and ball-end. We eliminated any sets that had obvious faults, like these Harbor Freight wrenches ($7) that have impossible-to-read size markings.
Folding hex kits offer easy portability, and because the body becomes a handle, you can put more oomph behind a turn. If you own only one kit, the L-wrenches are more versatile (folding kits have a hard time with towel bars and TP holders), but a folding kit is nice to have, too. We narrowed down the field by only looking at folding kits with composite handles from reputable manufacturers. The metal ones, like these Elkinds ($5), are inexpensive but terrible on hands.
For specific testing, I enlisted the aid of two other veteran carpenters; Aaron Goff, with 12 years of experience in high-end remodeling, and Mark Piersma, with 14 years experience. The three of us analyzed the selected kits and used them in a shop setting. When we decided on the ones we liked the best (which ended up not being too difficult, given the case of the TEKTONs and the handles of the Bondhuses) I used them around the house for about eight months as I wrapped up a full gut-and-remodel of my 100-year-old farmhouse. I hung towel bars and TP holders, adjusted door hardware and put together ready-to-assemble. I also fussed with the kids’ bikes, fixed their toys, and a hundred other little things that hex wrenches are used for.
There are a number of nice hex sets in the $10-$20 range and there is honestly very little difference between the wrenches themselves, so what really sets the TEKTON apart is the case. Like the others, it is made of a rubbery material with the wrench sizes clearly printed on it, but the TEKTON cases were the only ones that can fold open like a book, the small wrenches on one side and the larger ones on the other. This makes it very easy to remove a specific wrench. Also, with most of the other cases, you either have to fight to get them out or they just fall out on their own (which is really annoying). The TEKTON wrenches are held firmly in place while stowed, but when it’s time to use them, they pull out easily. The TEKTON holder also has a small loop for hooking the set on a pegboard (most don’t have this feature).
The customer feedback at Amazon is very positive as well with 4.7 stars (out of five) from 65 reviews (with three stars being the lowest rating). Both pros and DIYers have left comments and they’re generally impressed with the overall quality of the wrenches and the usefulness of the ball ends.
We also tested the Eastwood 26-piece set ($9 plus $5 S&H) and found it to be the exact same as the TEKTON set. While it is currently $2 less than the Tekton, the Eastwood site lists a full price of $20, with a sale bringing it down to $9. The Eastwood set is currently the better deal, but due to the stability of the pricing, we feel more confident with the TEKTON set for our recommendation.
The TEKTON wrenches are made of chrome vanadium steel, but there are others, like our Bondhus runner-up set, that are made of a more durable material (at least according to the manufacturer). We used moderate force to try to break the TEKTONs and couldn’t. This added durability may possibly make a difference in an industrial setting where the tools are being used daily in high torque situations, but for someone working on their house, even an aggressive DIYer, the difference will never be felt. With the excellent case coupled with the lifetime guarantee, we feel that the TEKTON is the right choice (at the right price) for home use.
Another flaw that isn’t specific to the TEKTONs but rather all L-shaped hex wrenches is that to use them you need to take them out of the case, which can lead to them getting mixed up or lost. The smallest nine wrenches are not marked with the size, so five SAE and four metric items in this set are very easy to confuse for one another.
If the TEKTONs aren’t available, we like the Bondhus 20199 L-Wrench Double Pack (about $20). These are also backed by a lifetime guarantee, but have a weaker case. Without the ability to fold open, it’s not as easy to remove an individual wrench, particularly the smaller ones. That said, the Bondhus wrenches never bound up in the case or fell out. It’s a nice case; it just doesn’t fold open. Otherwise, we were impressed with the durability and value of this set. Like the TEKTONs, the Bondhus wrenches have an excellent feedback rating at Amazon: 4.8 stars (out of five) over 125 reviews.
The Bondhus wrenches have an added level of durability. They’re made of a proprietary substance called Protanium Steel, and according to Bondhus, they are 20 percent stronger than Chrome Vanadium tools like the TEKTONs. It’s certainly comforting to know how strong these wrenches are, but added strength isn’t likely to make a difference for standard around the house use.
We also tested the Bondhus 20399 ($25), which appear to be identical to the 20199 set, but they’re color-coded with the metric wrenches in gold and the SAE silver. They’re a few dollars more, pushing what we feel is a high price to pay. But if you want the added level of organization that the color coding provides, these are very nice wrenches.
It’s totally possible to get by with a single kit of long-arm, ball-end wrenches like the TEKTONs, but some people including Lyman and myself also like to have a folding kit on hand. On these, the wrenches are attached to a handle and can pivot out individually like the blade of a Swiss Army Knife. As Lyman told us, “individual L wrenches work in more places, but the folding kits give more leverage and are more ergonomic to use than having a tiny wrench dig into your fingers as you attempt to loosen a stubborn bolt.” After testing three popular kits, we like the 12522 Bondhus Gorilla Grips (about $14). We found that the Gorilla Grips were the easiest to use and the most comfortable in the hand. They’re also backed by a full lifetime guarantee. In addition, they have a feature that stabilizes the wrench at a 90-degree angle from the body, which makes it easy to quickly loosen or tighten a fastener.
A high point of the Gorilla Grips for our testers is the simplicity of the handle. There’s nothing fancy about the smooth rounded-over plastic. The handle makes them the most comfortable to hold; they easily slid in and out of a back pocket. Other kits had rubber padding on them, which made them needlessly bulky.
Like we said, the wrenches can be positioned 90 degrees from the handle. They don’t actually lock in place—the handle prohibits them from moving any further. This does a couple of things. First, if wrenches from the opposite side of the case are opened and set, the second one acts as a handle (see the image here). Secondly, it increases the efficiency of the “turn and flip” method of using a folding hex wrench (see the image here). This last point is useful if the wrench is prohibited from turning in one direction.
As for pricing, the Gorilla Grips are a good deal for around $14 for both metric and SAE sizes. The Stanleys that we looked at actually offer less function and are $13 for just the metric and $9 for the SAE sizes.
One flaw with the Gorilla Grips is that, over time, the nut and bolt that secures the wrenches to the body tends to loosen a little. This can cause the wrenches to flop to the open position. What’s nice, though, is that the SAE set can tighten the bolt on the metric set and vice versa, so it’s a quick fix when it happens. Personally, I prefer the wrenches to have a decent resistance when I pull them out, so in the eight months I’ve been using them, I’ve had to snug them up maybe twice. I also found the other hex sets need similar maintenance.
The Gorilla Grips also don’t have any hard stops, so you can’t lock the wrenches in at a specific angle. This is most useful to position a wrench in line with the handle (like a screwdriver). We found that as long as the pivot is kept snug, the wrenches can be positioned how you like them; it just takes a little more care not to shift them while they’re turning. Also, having that kind of locking mechanism takes up space and leads to a larger, more expensive tool.
We dismissed most of the other long-arm, ball-end wrenches we tested based on the quality of the cases, since the actual wrenches we tested had such a similar quality level. The Allen ball-end wrenches ($15 metric, $18 SAE) alternated between falling out of the holder and needing a pair of pliers to get them out. They’re also expensive, totaling $33 for the entire set. The Elkind combo pack ($20) have a standard holder, like the Bondhus, but are more expensive than the TEKTONs.
The Craftsman wrenches ($30) were nearly impossible to pull out of the case and didn’t offer anything additional to justify the high price.
The strangest kit we looked at was the Husky 51207, which has since been discontinued. To release a wrench, the case twists open in a tiered pattern. It’s a fussy system and way too complex. As Goff said, “I think they put a little too much mustard on these.” After testing it, we’re not surprised that it’s no longer available. It has since been replaced with a more traditional kit for $20 that has so-so reviews and no folding case.
As for folding kits, we tested the Stanley STHT71839 ($13), which was priced about the same as the Bondhus and had a bulkier, slightly awkward case. The heavy duty DeWalt sets ($13 for SAE, $12 for metric) have a high price and are loaded with pro features unnecessary (and awkward) for the home user, such as multiple stops and a locking button. The DeWalts are also huge compared to the rest; they struggle to fit in a back pocket.
We didn’t look at any of the T-handle hex wrenches like the TEKTON 2546 ($15). These are bulky, difficult to store, and impossible to use in tight spots.
Tip: The proper way to use a L-shaped hex wrench to loosen a fastener is to start with the short leg in the fastener. This puts the longer leg in your hand, which offers better leverage (more torque) and is easier to hold. Once the fastener has loosened enough to spin freely, switch ends and twirl the screw free with the thumb and forefinger. The opposite is true for installing a fastener, start with the long end to quickly set the screw, then switch over to the small end for the real tightening.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)
Originally published: August 19, 2015