It’s pretty much a given that when you buy anything from Ikea, it always comes with a bent, hex-shaped piece of metal that’s needed to make the screws fit. These tools are hex keys, although you may know them better as Allen wrenches and they can be found pretty much everywhere these days.
Unlike traditional Philips and straight heads, hex head fasteners are far less prone to stripping and are easier to secure. The keys are also more easily accessible than Torx bits. As a result they’ve become the preferred fastener type in many industries.
- Skip To: Allen Wrench Sizes Chart
Common Hex Key Uses
As already mentioned, hex keys are used in most modern furniture where some assembly (and hair pulling) is required. Bed frames, dressers, tables, chairs, TV stands, and bookcases are just a few common pieces of furniture where hex keys are needed for assembly.
Allen keys are needed for many components on vehicles due to their ability to apply high torque without the risk of stripping the fastener. Fluid lines and brake calipers are just two of the many places you’ll need to use a key.
Electrical and Plumbing
From handheld devices to your kitchen faucet and garbage disposal, the compact head of a hex-shaped fastener make it easy to use when more traditional fasteners would be a tight fit.
Pretty much all of the fasteners used on bicycles these days are actually designed for use with a hex key.
Allen Wrench vs Hex Key
Chances are, when you’re hunting for the best Allen wrench set, you’ll find some are specifically labelled Allen wrench and some are specified as hex keys. The difference is literally just in the name.
The phrase “Allen wrench” is actually trademarked and belongs to the company which invented them. Meanwhile, “hex key” is the generic term for the tool itself. It’s similar to how “Shop-Vac” is simply a specific brand of wet/dry vacuum.
Can You Use Something In Place of an Allen Wrench?
There are two common substitutes for when you’re missing the appropriate Allen key.
- Find a flat head screwdriver that will fit between two opposing points of the hex head. So long as you are gentle but firm, you can usually loosen the screw but may risk stripping the head.
- Alternately, you can try using a Torx bit that fits snugly into the hole. This can also strip the head, if you aren’t careful.
Short Arm vs Long Arm
Hex keys are surprisingly well-designed, despite being so simplistic in appearance. However, these little pieces of metal actually carry a secret if using one for the first time.
When you need superior leverage and torque, use the short end on the fastener. Need even more leverage? Use a long-arm hex key which essentially acts as a miniature breaker bar.
For areas that require a smaller turning arc, use a standard short-arm hex key and use the long end of the tool on the fastener. If you have limited space and require more torque, place a 10mm (or smaller) box end wrench over the short end of the hex to get better leverage.
Flat End vs Ball End
Most hex keys will be flat at both ends, but some will actually have a ball shape on one end. The ball end allows you to get into tighter spaces as they don’t need to go straight into the hole.
Once loosened, you can switch to the flat end to finish unscrewing the fitting.
T-Handle Hex Wrench Benefits
There are several variations on hex keys, from the aforementioned ball end to folding key sets that resemble Swiss army knives. However, the T-handle is perhaps the most useful variation out there.
These sets are T-shaped with the short end protruding from one side of the crossbeam. The intersection itself is larger and easy to grip, and is often made of insulating material to help reduce physical or electrical shock.
Because they’re easier to grip, they provide more torque than a regular hex key. Because of their length, you’ll need plenty of clearance above the fastener to use a T-handle hex.
Allen Wrench Sizes Chart
|SAE Size||Metric Size||Inches Decimal||Note|
|0.7mm||0.023||0.028" and 0.7mm are|
|0.035"||0.035||0.035" and 0.9mm are|
|0.050"||0.050||0.05" and 1.3mm are|
|5/64"||0.078||5/64" and 2mm are|
|5/32"||0.156||5/32" and 4mm are|
|5/16"||0.313||5/16" and 8mm are|
|11mm||0.433||7/16" and 11mm are|
|15/32"||0.469||15/32" and 12mm are|
|15mm||0.591||15mm and 19/32" are|
|5/8"||0.625||5/8" and 16mm are|
|19mm||0.748||19mm and 3/4" are|
|23mm||0.906||23mm and 29/32" are|