What Is The Best Torque Wrench for Cars? – 2020 Reviews
Automotive tools grow increasingly specialized every year. While specialized tools make many jobs easier, they can also add a layer of confusion to the tool buying experience.
If you like to work on your car, you probably have no shortage of wrenches. Do you really need a torque wrench, or can you just use a standard wrench?
Every DIY mechanic should own at least one reliable torque wrench. Not only does it make many maintenance and repair tasks far simpler and safer to perform, but it’s also the only way to complete certain specialized jobs.
Fortunately, finding the best torque wrench is easy with our 2020 guide. Here’s our top recommendations, organized by category, plus a complete torque wrench guide:
Quick Picks: The 3 Best Torque Wrench Brands
- Best Overall – Tekton 1/2 inch Drive Click Torque Wrench
- Best Cheap Option – Tooluxe 3/8″ and 1/2″ Dual Drive Beam Torque Wrench
- Best Value for the Money – CDI Torque Wrench with 1/2 inch Drive
- Honorable Mention 1 – Mountain 1/2″ Drive Torque Wrench
- Honorable Mention 2 – AC Delco 1/2″ Digital Torque Wrench
- Factors to Consider When Choosing the Best Torque Wrench
- Certified Accuracy
- Storage Case
- What is a Torque Wrench?
- What are the Benefits?
- Improved Safety
- Increased Part Longevity
- Are Torque Wrenches Different from Socket Wrenches?
- How Do I Use a Torque Wrench?
- Using a Torque Wrench for Automotive Work
- What are the Different Types of Torque Wrenches?
- Click Type
- How Do I Use a Torque Wrench Safely?
- Safe Storage
- What’s the Most Accurate Type of Wrench?
- How Do I Calibrate My Torque Wrench?
- If I Drop My Torque Wrench, Does It Need to be Calibrated?
- How Do I Check the Calibration?
- Final Thoughts
Best Overall – Tekton 1/2 inch Drive Click Torque Wrench
With a sturdy, elegant design and an easy-to-read scale, this torque wrench from Tekton is the best option for all-purpose auto maintenance.
- 100% steel
- Torque setting range from 10 to 150 feet
- Accurate, reliable and easy to use
- No digital display
- Large drops can affect the accuracy
- Requires periodic recalibration
Tekton’s torque wrench ranges from 10 to 150 feet with a margin of error of 4%. The durable, all-steel construction helps ensure a long lifespan even with heavy use.
Adjusting torque is easy with the dual-range, high-contrast scale. Containing no plastic or electronic parts, the simple and straightforward design is easy to maintain.
Overall, this is the torque wrench to choose if you want a reliable, multi-purpose tool to use on your brakes, engine, and other key car components.
Best Cheap Option – Tooluxe 3/8″ and 1/2″ Dual Drive Beam Torque Wrench
Tooluxe’s beam type torque wrench is an affordable, reliable, and classic option.
- Classic (even ancient) design
- The scale is easy to read
- Can be slow to use
- Not considered professional quality
Beam type torque wrenches date back to the 1930s, but they’re still used today. They use two beams to measure torque pressure (the details are explained in the guide below).
Tooluxe’s beam wrench includes both 3/8″ and 1/2 inch anvils plus a 17″ grooved handle. It’s made from a steel alloy with a corrosion-resistant chrome finish. An easy-to-understand torque range scale is calibrated in both directions from zero to 150 ft lb.
Beam wrenches aren’t always the easiest or quickest type to use, but they’re the most inexpensive option available.
Best Value for the Money – CDI Torque Wrench with 1/2 inch Drive
CDI’s torque wrench is ideal if you’re looking for a versatile, easy-to-use option designed to last a lifetime.
- Excellent quality
- Also works as a socket wrench
- The scale is precise and easy to read
- The handle has a comfortable, secure grip
- Doesn’t fit into the case on lowest tension setting
- Scale can be difficult to read in low light
Although the initial cost is higher than the others on our list, CDI’s 1/2″ drive adjustable torque wrench is designed to last a lifetime. The scale is calibrated in dual directions so that you can work at awkward angles without strain. Plus, the handle has an ergonomic grip.
The torque range is between 30 and 250 in/lbs. A laser-marked scale allows for fast, accurate torque readings.
It also doubles as a socket wrench, with quick-release buttons and solid socket retention. Even though you’re paying a bit more up-front, you’re getting two tools which you’ll likely never have to replace.
Honorable Mention 1 – Mountain 1/2″ Drive Torque Wrench
A solid, reliable wrench with a long handle and incredible accuracy.
- All-metal click wrench
- Precisely calibrated
- 26 inches long
- The extra-long handle can be awkward to use
The Mountain 16250 torque wrench is a solid choice if you’re looking for a reliable and accurate click wrench. It has a torque range between 30 ft/lbs to 210 ft/lbs. Plus, it has a pretty amazing 2% margin of error.
At 26 inches, it’s also much longer than many other torque wrenches. The extra length helps increase torque range and add leverage to stubborn fasteners, although it can be awkward to use, too.
The set includes a blow-molded case for easy, secure storage.
Honorable Mention 2 – AC Delco 1/2″ Digital Torque Wrench
An easy-to-read digital torque wrench with a guaranteed accuracy torque range between two and three percent.
- Feature-filled digital wrench
- Highly accurate
- Indicates torque level with light and sounds
- The battery holder can be loose
- More expensive than many click wrenches
Precision is the main feature here. ACDelco’s digital torque wrench has a margin of error of 2% clockwise and 3% counterclockwise. The clear, bright LCD toggles between kg/cm, N/m, in/lbs, and ft/lbs.
It measures a torque range between four and 99 ft/lbs. A flashing light and buzzer signal when the best torque setting is reached. It’s highly accurate and easy to read, although the price increase can be substantial compared to a click wrench.
Factors to Consider When Choosing the Best Torque Wrench
You’ll most likely want either a click or digital torque wrench. Click wrenches are durable, reliable, and affordable. Digital wrenches are often more expensive but include LED displays and the ability to download data.
Accurate measurements are the cornerstone of an effective torque wrench. Quality brands typically certify the accuracy of the calibrations. You’ll also need to re-calibrate the wrench from time to time. Make sure the wrench includes calibration instructions which are clear and easy to follow.
LCDs on digital wrenches are the easiest to read. However, click wrenches typically aren’t incredibly difficult to read, and they’re often more affordable. Both digital and click wrenches have a variety of display styles. Be sure and select one with a display which won’t strain your eyes.
Look for handles with a comfortable, secure grip. The best handles have either rubberized or plastic grips, or deep ridges in the metal. Keep in mind your engine is filled with slick fluids, so the handle must be easy to grip even when wet.
Also, handle length makes a difference. Most automotive work requires a one-foot handle, although different sizes can also be useful. (We cover the details below.)
Ideally, the wrench should be made entirely, or at least almost entirely, from metal. Plastic parts can’t withstand long-term, heavy-duty use. Although all-metal torque wrenches can cost more initially, they last much longer than other types.
Torque wrenches are a bit more delicate than other standard wrenches. If they’re knocked around too severely, calibration can be thrown off. Don’t store a torque wrench loose in a toolbox with other tools. Instead, store it separately in a storage case.
Many torque wrenches include a hard plastic case or something similar. Storing your wrench in its case helps prevent damage, improve its accuracy, and extend its lifespan.
What is a Torque Wrench?
All wrenches allow you to grip and apply torque to turn an object, usually a nut or a bolt. At the same time, wrenches can also grip and hold an object in place, such as a nut, bolt or even a hose or wire. (Objects manipulated by wrenches are often called fasteners.)
In order to understand what makes a torque wrench different, let’s first take a look at what torque is. All mechanics are familiar with the word in a general sense. It has… something to do with power, right?
In a way. Torque is a twisting force which causes rotation.
Sounds simple enough. But don’t all wrenches do that? Yes, all wrenches create a twisting force. However, a torque wrench allows for more precision and control when applying torque to a fastener.
A torque wrench applies a specific amount of torque. While standard wrenches require guesswork, torque wrenches have special mechanisms which allow the user to adjust the amount of pressure applied.
The torque wrench was originally invented in 1918 by a man named Conrad Bahr. He worked for the New York City Water Department. He designed the wrench out of necessity. It prevented the bolts on the water mains and steam pipes from overheating – which can be a potentially dangerous situation.
In 1935, Bahr and another man named George Pfefferle patented the “adjustable ratcheting torque wrench,” which became the precursor to today’s modern torque wrench.
In 1931, a man named John H. Sharp patented a “torque wrench,” although today that tool would be considered an “indicating torque wrench.” It’s a torque wrench with a certain type of dial (we’ll go over the details later). Although Sharp’s contribution is important, the true inventor of the torque wrench is Bahr.
What are the Benefits?
We’ve established torque wrenches are different than other wrenches. But why is being able to control the pressure of the wrench so important? Torque wrenches have the following benefits:
- Improved Safety
- Increased Part Longevity
Nuts, bolts, and other fasteners have specific pressure recommendations based on their type and location.
Torque wrenches allow for proper tension adjustment on every specific part – and that can make a big difference in overall engine performance.
With a regular wrench, you have to take your best guess as to how much pressure to apply on a fastener. In some cases, a “guesstimate” isn’t a major problem.
For example, you don’t need to be super-precise when attaching a new lock to your glove compartment or attaching a new radio antenna.
But many vehicle components require more precision. For instance, the nuts and bolts which keep the tires on the vehicle, or the braking system operational, are too important for guesswork.
Your owner’s manual lists a best torque setting for practically every nut and bolt. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for best operation. Also, consult the specs recommended by the manufacturer of any specific aftermarket parts. (You’ll rarely find differences but, if you do, go with the manufacturer’s advice.)
Increased Part Longevity
Here’s the thing about tightening components with a traditional wrench: Folks rarely leave fasteners too loose. Instead, people almost always overtighten.
Of course, overtightening makes sense. You want to err on the side of parts staying on your vehicle. But, eventually, bolt threads wear down. Their lifespan shortens while the chances of unexpected failure increase.
Are Torque Wrenches Different from Socket Wrenches?
Yes! Although torque wrenches and socket wrenches look alike, they’re different tools with different purposes. Socket wrenches, or ratchets, don’t feature adjustable torque setting. Instead, you tighten components to what’s usually referred to as “hand tight.”
How Do I Use a Torque Wrench?
Torque values vary by wrench size:
- Wrenches with a head size of a half-inch or larger measure torque range in feet per pound or Newton-meters.
- Wrenches with a head size under half an inch measure torque range in inches per pound.
The amount of torque applied depends on two factors:
- The amount of force applied to the handle
- The length of the wrench
Force x Length = Torque
Take an average foot-long torque wrench. Apply 30 pounds of force to the handle. Thirty pounds of force multiplied by a one-foot handle length equals a torque range of 30 feet per pound (ft/lbs) which is applied to the fastener.
Wrenches with longer handles allow you to apply more torque by applying the same amount of force. For example, if the wrench handle is two feet long, applying 30 pounds of force creates a torque of 60 feet per pound.
Using a Torque Wrench for Automotive Work
Generally, automotive work requires a foot-pound torque wrench. Many engine components require torque range of 200 foot pounds to 250 foot pounds. In metric, this is 150 Nm or 200 Nm. Of course, that’s just an estimate across all vehicles. Always consult your owner’s manual for specifics.
Avoid lubrication when tightening automotive components. Oil and other lubricants reduce the friction on the fastener, which in turn increases the weight of the load applied to it. The bolt can potentially overload and break, expand or otherwise malfunction.
However, there is an important exception. Cylinder head bolts are usually oiled with 10W-30.
Most mechanics use both a regular wrench and torque wrench when tightening fasteners. Use the regular wrench to tighten the fastener somewhat snug, although still allow it some give. Then use the torque wrench for the final tightening.
Using two wrenches is usually the easier option. With a regular wrench, you can quickly screw in a fastener in an awkward location. You don’t have to worry about dropping or banging the torque wrench. (Excessive damage can potentially damage the wrench’s calibration, an issue we’ll explain in just in a few.)
What are the Different Types of Torque Wrenches?
There are a few different types of torque wrenches:
- Electronic (Digital)
Probably the most popular type, click type wrenches are simple, straight-forward, and reliable. You set the desired torque then apply and twist. The wrench won’t slip until it reaches the appropriate torque. They’re also called mechanical wrenches.
Not only will you hear a distinct click, but you’ll feel a slight bend at the wrench head. The noise and vibration signals that the bolt is now set to the exact force required.
Plus, it doesn’t require line-of-sight operation, which is handy when working deep within the recesses of your car’s engine.
- Easy to use
- Simple design leads to a long lifespan
- Over tightening can potentially occur (be sure to stop at the click)
- Requires occasional calibration
Also called electronic torque wrenches, digital wrenches feature an LED or LCD screen which displays the current level of torque applied. Plus, many models have a built-in speaker which buzzes when the set torque has been reached.
Digital models are ideal for fragile, worn, or old bolts. The display lets you precisely control the speed of the pressure increase. You’ll have an easier time avoiding sudden pressure surges.
- Accurate, clear readings
- Able to download data
- Includes audible alarm
- Ideal for fragile, weaker bolts
- Usually more expensive than Click wrenches
- Not well-suited for heavy-duty bolts
Beam torque wrenches were originally created in 1931 by John H. Sharp – and they haven’t changed much since.
They use two beams. The first beam is both a handle and a lever which applies torque. The second beam is attached to the head of the wrench. It moves to adjust the amount of torque.
Beam torque wrenches aren’t used very often these days. Chances are you can find a click wrench in the same price range which is far easier to use and more reliable. However, beam wrenches are affordable and accurate.
- Lowest priced option
- Reliable and accurate
- Complicated to operate
- No significant advantages over clink wrenches
How Do I Use a Torque Wrench Safely?
Torque wrenches are fairly safe to use.
The biggest potential problem is failing to properly attach the wrench to a fastener, which can cause it to fly loose from your hands. Always wear safety glasses and gloves to help prevent accidental injuries.
Also, avoid placing too much strain on the wrench. Each model will have a maximum rating as determined by the manufacturer. Give yourself a cushion which stays within 25% of the max. Regularly pushing the limits of the wrench will strain it and cause damage over time.
Unwind your click wrench before storing it. Typically, this is called “unloading” the wrench. If the interior spring remains compressed for a long time, it’ll eventually weaken. Always store it unwound to the lowest setting.
What’s the Most Accurate Type of Wrench?
Digital wrenches are the most accurate. Click wrenches use either a ball or a beam to measure torque – and while they’re accurate, they do fall short compared to digital. Mechanical wrenches measure torque range in one-pound increments. However, many digital wrenches can measure a tenth of a pound of torque.
How Do I Calibrate My Torque Wrench?
If your torque wrench isn’t precisely calibrated, then it’s not particularly useful. Most certified wrenches have a margin of error under 4%. However, most professionals recommend calibration when the margin of error exceeds 5%. (That’s right – the margin of error has a small margin of error.)
Calibrate your torque wrench:
- Every six months with occasional use
- After every 3,000 uses with frequent use
Calibrating a torque wrench properly can be tough. For the best and most accurate results, have your wrenches calibrated by a professional. However, with a bit of practice, calibration can be a DIY project. Here’s how to do it:
Identify the center of wrench’s drive. Make a mark on the back of the wrench at the center. This is point A. Next, make a mark on the wrench where the top of your hand grips the handle. This is point B. Measure the distance between A and B.
Now you want to place the wrench head into a bench vise. Make sure only the wrench head touches the vase. Move the handle so it’s horizontal. Set the torque value to 20 pounds.
Next, you need a 20-pound weight. Use a single object weighing precisely 20 pounds (that is, don’t collect a bunch of random objects which weigh about 20 pounds). Hang the weight from points A and B.
The wrench will click continuously. Grab the weight by hand. Slowly raise it upwards towards the wrench. Stop moving the weight when the clicking stops. Mark the wrench at the spot where the clicking stops.
The distance from the wrench’s head and the weight’s final resting spot (where the clicking stops) is a key measurement called the “moment arm.”
As you can see, calibration can be complicated. If you want to skip it entirely, choose a digital wrench.
If I Drop My Torque Wrench, Does It Need to be Calibrated?
“Dropping your wrench is a surefire way to damage its accuracy!” Ever heard something like that before? It’s a common belief in many garages.
Fortunately, it’s not true. A standard torque wrench is tough enough to handle a drop or two onto the garage floor. However, it can become damaged if dropped frequently (as in, several times a week for many weeks).
How Do I Check the Calibration?
To check a wrench’s calibration, you’ll need a second wrench which is calibrated correctly. First, torque a fastener with the correctly-calibrated wrench. Then torque it again with the suspect wrench. If the second wrench needs calibration, it’ll bring the fastener down further than the first.
Every at-home mechanic needs at least one trusty torque wrench. They’re the only way to apply a precise amount of torque to many fasteners throughout your vehicle. Regular use of a torque wrench helps keeps all components operating at maximum safety and efficiency. It’s a valuable part of any home garage.