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What is a ratchet and how does it work?

Shop for Hand Drills and Braces

There are two basic parts to a ratchet mechanism the gear and the pawl. When engaged the pawl locks into the gear teeth only allowing the gear to turn in one direction. A ratchet is a mechanical device consisting of a gear and pawl.

A ratchet will allow the tool it is fitted to to turn in a circular motion in one direction but not in the opposite direction.

3 way or reversible ratchets

A 3 way reversible ratchet has 3 settings that can be selected to allow the hand drill only to turn clockwise or anti clockwise or can be set to disengage the ratchet allowing the hand drill to turn in both directions A 3 way ratchet is also called a reversible ratchet as it has three different settings. One setting will disengage the ratchet mechanism, allowing direct drive of the tool in both turning directions.

Another setting will engage the ratchet and allow the tool to turn only clockwise.

The final setting will engage the ratchet and allow the tool only to turn in an anti-clockwise direction.

5 way ratchet mechanisms

The 5 way ratchet mechanism found on some older hand drills has double ratchet and spindle lock settings A 5 way ratchet mechanism is so called because it has five different settings. The first three are the same as on a 3 way ratchet. However it has an additional two settings.
5 way ratchet on a hand drill set in the 4th position which is the double ratchet setting The first of the additional settings is the double ratchet. In this position, the ratchet mechanism works to turn the drill bit in a clockwise direction whether the handle and drive wheel are turned one way or the other.

This allows for quicker drilling than the setting which only allows the drill bit to turn in a clockwise direction, as the drill bit is turned clockwise on both the forward and back strokes of the handle.

5 way ratchet of a hand drill set in the final position which is the spindle lock The final setting on a 5 way ratchet is a spindle lock. In this position, the drill is locked in place and will not turn. This position is useful for when you really need to tighten the chuck up onto a drill bit or if you need to replace the chuck.
Hand drills with a 3 way ratchet mechanisms can be set in 3 different positions whereas hand drills with a 5 way ratchets can be set in 5 different positions.

How to tell the difference between a 3 way and 5 way ratchet

If you do not have a user manual for your hand drill, then the easiest way to tell if the ratchet is a 3 way or 5 way mechanism is to count the number of positions that the ratchet can be set in.

If the ratchet can only be set in 3 positions then it is a 3 way ratchet mechanism, if it can be set in 5 positions then it is a 5 way ratchet mechanism.

For more information on ratchet setting positions see our page: How to alter the ratchet setting of a hand drill or brace

Should I choose a 3 or 5 way ratchet and why?

Choice between a 3 way ratchet and a 5 way ratchet The main advantage in choosing a 5 way ratchet is if you need to drill lots of holes quickly in a confined space that will not allow you to make a complete turn of the turning handle. By using the double ratchet setting, the turning handle can be moved back and forth in the space available to drill into the workpiece.
Hand drills with 3 way ratchets will cost less than those with 5 way ratchets However, hand drills can no longer be purchased new with a 5 way ratchet mechanism, due to the lack of demand for such a specialised tool, especially with electric drills being preferred by most people now.

A hand drill with a 3 way ratchet will be more than adequate in most situations, and due to their greater availability, they are likely to cost far less than an old hand drill with a 5 way ratchet.

What does 12-point mean when talking about ratchets?

The number of points a ratchet is said to have refers to the number of teeth or points on the gear within the ratchet. 12 point ratchets are the most common on hand drills and braces. Many hand drills or braces will be advertised as having a 12-point reversible ratchet. This means that the gear within the ratchet mechanism has 12 teeth. So the pawl will engage the ratchet mechanism every 30 degrees.

The more points or teeth a ratchet has, the more frequently the pawl will engage the ratchet mechanism, allowing it to be used with smaller movements of the handle and so in more confined spaces.

What is the difference between an enclosed and an exposed ratchet?

Better quality braces will feature an enclosed ratchet mechanism instead of the exposed ratchet found on most braces. As the name suggests, an enclosed ratchet has the pawl and gear completely enclosed within a case, whereas an exposed ratchet has part of the gear and pawl exposed.

An exposed ratchet can result in dust, wood shavings and dirt getting into the ratchet mechanism.

This can have several negative effects, including: preventing the drill being turned smoothly, increased wear in the ratchet mechanism or clogging the ratchet altogether.
Good quality enclosed ratchets on braces will have an oil hole to keep them lubricated and reduce wear within the mechanism. Better quality enclosed ratchets will have an oil hole for lubricating the ratchet mechanism, enabling the ratchet to run smoother and minimising the wear within it.

Which ratchet setting should I select?

Hand drill ratchet set to the direct drive position that will turn the chuck in both directions depending on which way the turning handle is rotated. If the job you are doing requires you to drive screws and remove them from a workpiece, you should select the direct drive setting that will allow the chuck to rotate in both directions depending on which way the turning handle or sweep handle is rotated.
Ratchet set to turn the chuck in a clockwise direction only. If you are doing a job that only requires drilling, then you are best selecting the ratchet setting that will only allow the chuck to rotate the drill bit clockwise as you use it. This means the drill bit will always be turning in the right direction to drill into the workpiece.
Ratchet set to only turn the chuck in an anti-clockwise direction for removing screws. If you are doing a job that only requires removing screws, then you are best selecting the ratchet setting that will only allow the chuck to rotate the bit anti-clockwise as you use it. This means the drill bit will always be turning in the right direction to remove the screws from the workpiece.
5 way ratchet on a hand drill set in the 4th position which is the double ratchet setting If you are using a hand drill with a 5 way ratchet to drill holes in a workpiece that is in a confined space, you should select the double ratchet setting. This means you will not have to make a full rotation of the turning handle and can instead drill holes quickly by moving the turning handle back and forth in the space that you have.
5 way ratchet of a hand drill set in the final position which is the spindle lock If have a hand drill with a 5 way ratchet and want to remove the chuck to replace it, you should place the ratchet in the spindle lock position, as this will prevent the drill from turning instead of unscrewing the chuck.

For more information on altering the ratchet setting of a hand drill or brace see our page:How to alter the ratchet setting of a hand drill or brace