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Tool review: ICON 3/8” ratchet

by | May 4, 2023

Disclaimer: I purchased this tool at full retail price at my own expense, with no compensation to write about the item.

About a year ago, I was reefing on some fastener, and my trusty old Armstrong ratchet let go and spun free. It did it again a few bolts later, and at that point I set the tool down before I got hurt.

I had purchased a few 3/8” ratchets years earlier after some junkers broke. In a previous search for a rebuild kit, I learned Armstrong had been acquired, sold, and finally put out to pasture. Long story short: I was using them one at a time and tossing them since my older ratchets increasingly cannot be repaired; the rebuild kits just don’t exist anymore. I needed to go shopping.

Ugh.

What I prefer in a ratchet

I think it would be fair to both the tool manufacturer and our readers to preface this review by explaining my predilections and peccadilloes. The perfect hand tool for me might be miserable for someone else. A ratchet is a go-to tool for me more than it is for most mechanics: I simply don’t use air or electric tools unless removing a stuck fastener. I don’t get paid flat-rate anymore, and most of my victims are antiques or specialty vehicles with hard-to-replace bits. Saving parts beats saving time nowadays.

I generally am not one to really beat the tar out of my everyday ratchets. I don’t really put my 3/8” ratchets through hell. If I can’t get a nut or bolt loose with much more than a grunt, a half-inch breaker bar comes out next, and I will put the spurs to that. Same thing for tightening—I’m not putting lug nuts on with this thing, so it should come as no surprise I usually opt for 8” handles or shorter. I’m not a particularly abusive ratchet operator, but I do reach for mine more often than most mechanics will. Because it spends a lot of time in my hand instead of an air ratchet, I’m a little picky about how they’re designed.

I’m not a high tooth-count nerd, nor do I have a desire for exotic handle lengths or shapes; I can adapt to most handles pretty happily. I don’t like flexible or swivel heads, and I don’t care for ratchets that don’t allow me to reverse direction one-handed. This means ninety-nine percent of the time I’m locked into a pear-head. Quick-release is a feature I prefer, but I can do without it on ratchets that have a nice strong ball detent. Something like a Snap-on FR80 is right up my alley with the exception of the fairly high tooth count. I have an old F720 (20 teeth!) that I reach for often, so 80 teeth certainly seems posh.

To be honest, when I’m slumming it, an 8” Craftsman raised panel twenty-four- or thirty-six-tooth ratchet does me just fine. I have a few in service, but since the brand has changed hands, distributors, and country of origin over the years, rebuild kits are drying up rapidly. My last one cost me fifty dollars! Since things seemed precarious and I am not trying to spend my life figuring out how to warranty my tools, I shied away from another Craftsman.

I have a couple Milwaukee 3/8” ratchets that I like in varying degrees. (I love their wrenches, but that’s another review for another time.) My Armstrongs were fine. I have a SATA kicking around, too. I decided to try out an ICON standard 3/8” ratchet, figuring it would either be a great value or good enough to limp along with until I found something I liked better.

ratchets

Photo: Lemmy

First impressions

The box is dang nice. It had a lovely matte finish and the ratchet came in a lovely tray within the box. I threw that away and just chucked the ratchet in its drawer, but you may want to keep it in there if you’ve got lots of room in your box.

It also came with a microfiber towel, presumably to shine up the chrome. That’s not something I prize, but it does lend sort of a primo feel to the tool in the box. However, I do have to ask how much the fancy box and the tray and the classy rag add to the cost. Could I have gotten a better ratchet with less marketing bushwah? The thought definitely entered my mind. I have no idea what the answer is, but this is almost too nice a package.

The box claims this is a low-profile ratchet, but it’s no great shakes so far as I can see in terms of besting Snap-on’s “ferret” design that’s been in use for about a jillion years.

Before I get farther along, I do want to mention something of note: you may have seen the flex-head version of this ratchet at some point. Apparently the first batch was prone to all sorts of breaking, and Harbor Freight recalled them all. The new ones are supposedly better, but the head design is not the same between the two. Be aware of that if you are picking up a flex-head ratchet in this size—the internet has many poor things to say about it.

The 56193, though, seems pretty close to something I should like. That not-remarkably-low-profile head is indeed a pear head. It does allow one-handed direction reversal, and the tooth count is certainly acceptable. The handle is…well, eerily similar to the Snappy model F80 Harbor Freight keeps anchoring to as the competition. If you like how a Snap-on ratchet handle feels in your hand, you’re probably gonna like the feel of an ICON.

One notable option is the gold-plated version of this piece. If you’re looking to either look like a total baller or want to give a neat present to someone who likes working on stuff, the 56907 is the same ratchet but two inches longer, like a Snappy FL80. More notably, it is plated in an alarming shade of gold, which is completely ostentatious.

To be clear, I still am unsure if I regret not buying one for myself in spite of the fact it nearly doubles the price of the tool. On the one hand, it’s a different tool. On the other hand, it’s a…gold ratchet.

Performance

First, I fed this thing some oil. I make a habit of oiling ratchets often, and that does include a shot at the time of purchase. This ICON had some oil in there, which I was happy to see. I gave it a little more. Better safe than sorry.

The back of the ICON ratchet is totally sealed. The front plate is thick and held in place with a plate and two bolts, kind of like a Snappy ratchet; it doesn’t have the cheaper stamped front plate held in place with a snap ring, which I appreciate quite a bit. Unlike a Snappy, the screws have Torx heads, not hex.

After the oil, I put it to work, and it’s been an uneventful ownership experience. The high tooth count is a nice little feature across all modern ratchets, and this one is no exception. Feel is excellent.

A high point is the ratchet direction selector.

Some lower-cost ratchets have ‘em backwards from the “normal” setup—selector-to-the-left for righty-tightening. That’s pretty much standard across any ratchets I’ve ever owned that aren’t total junk, and to be honest, I am not sure if I could deal with a ratchet that bucked that convention.

I had heard complaints about the high backdrag on these, but I can’t say it was too problematic for me. Given my propensity for lower tooth counts, I may not be a particularly hard-to-please customer. That said, back drag to me was nothing inappropriate; solidly middle-of-the-pack relative to the other stuff in my drawers, and I’m sure it will improve a bit with wear.

So far I’ve got about a year’s worth of work on this ratchet, and it’s been acceptable. Perfectly satisfactory. I really have no complaints about this tool. It works better than those old Craftsmans I have, but it hasn’t lasted as long. We’ll see if it goes the distance, I guess.

But I wouldn’t buy another.

How come?

Well, because I can get something better or something worse. Look, the F80 isn’t exactly my cup of tea, right? But it is a very, very good ratchet, and it’s made in the United States, which is increasingly becoming a rarity. It was—and is—a tool-truck quality tool that will be rebuilt over and over and if something should happen where that couldn’t occur, it will be warrantied promptly with no questions asked. I also can look to Snap-on for a ratchet in the configuration I do want.

Snap-on ratchet PDP

For the price Snap-on asks, that’s simply an expectation. The ability to rebuild a ratchet is also a vanishingly possible prospect, so there might be some added value there, too, if you’re not into discarding broken tools. Let’s also not forget the ratchet (and subsequent rebuild bits) will be delivered to your bay, and likely the ratchet will be purchased on credit, an option not offered by most tool sellers. That includes Harbor Freight; I’ve never had them offer to carry the note on a tool for me.

But ICON? I don’t see rebuild kits available from Harbor Freight. So instead of buying one and keeping it in my box to put a ratchet back into service immediately, I have to wait until it busts and interrupt my job if I didn’t own another ratchet. I’m sure some other rebuild kit fits it, but I don’t really feel like taking on the project of figuring out what it might be; that was my whole reason behind needing a new ratchet!

ICON ratchet PDP Harbor Freight

I’ll have to go to HF to get the ratchet serviced. I’ve already lost my receipt, which is a problem. Harbor Freight, in my experience, has touted a great warranty, but getting them to ever honor it is like pulling teeth. Admittedly, that hasn’t happened yet, but like every other item with moving parts, the day will come, and I am not confident it will go smoothly. Yes, this ICON is a fraction of the cost of the Snap-on they have in their sights, I will grant that. I could have 3 of these ICONs for the cost of one F80.

But it doesn’t have quick release.

And you may be thinking, boy, he’s really dinging them hard on that. But that lack of socket release is exactly why ICON can’t be Snap-on. In this review, we’ve discussed Snap-on’s F80, FR80, and FL80, all subtle variations on the same general pear-head ratchet. ICON has fewer variations. There is no QR-version of the ICON. If you prefer a longer handle, you better prefer gold. If you want a socket release, you’re up a creek. Snap-on makes an eye-popping array of variants. All are available on the tool truck. It is still possible today to match up even very old ratchets to currently available rebuild kits. They cater to pros, and it’s noticeable.

And if I wanted something cheaper? On a whim, a few years back I bought a SATA pear-head ratchet. It’s got a slightly lower tooth count at seventy-two, but is very similar to these two socket-spinners. It wasn’t made in the USA, but it was $11.92, and it had all the features I wanted from my ratchet. While the ICON is significantly less than a comparable-ish Snap-on ratchet, if I am buying a foreign ratchet with questionable rebuildability and warranty support, why not minimize exposure? Much like the ICON relative to the F80, I could just pick up 3 SATAs for the cost of the ICON. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Sata ratchet PDP Amazon

If not being able to overhaul a tool doesn’t matter, though, and taking a trip to Harbor Freight doesn’t bug you, this tool may have few downsides. It could be great for a traveling mechanic who needs warranty coverage far from home, and it might also be good for the tech who really is in love with an F80 but isn’t in love with the price.

The ICON has a place in someone’s toolbox. Heck, it has a place in mine right now. But to me, this ratchet occupies a space in the market where I‘d rather spend quite a bit less or quite a bit more.

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