What Is A Spanner: A Simple Guide

Most commonly known as a wrench in the United States, a spanner is a metal device most often used for tightening and loosening nuts and bolts. There are a multitude of different types, many of which have specific jobs. In this article, we will look at what a spanner or wrench is, the different types, and their uses.

What is a Spanner Wrench?

What is a Spanner Wrench

A spanner or wrench is a hand tool used to tighten or loosen nuts and bolts. They can also be used to hold objects in place while they are being worked on. 

Wrenches are almost always made from metal. Some are fixed in shape, while others have two jaws that compress together around the item being manipulated.

What is the Difference Between a Spanner and a Wrench?

Spanner is a British name for a wrench. Typically a spanner has two usable ends that are used for turning a nut or bolt. 

A wrench does a similar job, but some types of wrench can be used on other objects such as pipes or for particular jobs we will look at later. 

The word “spanner” is believed to come from a German word used in the late 18th century – “Spannen,” which means to twist. 

The word “wrench” is from the Old English word “wrencan,” which also means to twist. It actually dates back as far as the Norman Conquest of 1066!

This means that “spanner” is a far more modern word, relatively speaking, and was not in use in England before the first settlers had emigrated to the Americas. This is why the older word wrench is used in the US. 

Spanner is also the more common term in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.

What is a Spanner Used for?

Spanners/wrenches are generally used to tighten and loosen nuts and bolts or temporarily hold things in position. 

Traditionally a spanner has a series of flat planes that correspond to the shape of a nut or bolt, fitting over it perfectly so it can be tightened or released. 

How Do You Use a Spanner?

There are various ways of using a spanner, depending on the type of spanner and what you are using it for. Mostly they are fitted over the component that needs to be either tightened or loosened and are moved in the appropriate direction, which places leverage on the joint, allowing it to move.

In the section below titled “Are there different types of wrench?” You can learn about some of the most common wrenches and how they work. 

Are There Different Types of Wrench?

There are a multitude of different wrenches, often with specific jobs. In the list below, I have given a brief description of 10 common types of wrenches that will usually be found in the average toolbox.

  • Combination Wrench / Spanner
  • Adjustable Wrench
  • Monkey Wrench
  • Pliers
  • Socket (set) Wrench
  • Plumbers Wrench
  • Pipe Wrench
  • Basin Wrench
  • Ratcheting Wrench
  • Chain Wrench

1. Combination Wrench / Spanner

A combination wrench or spanner has two ends. One end is an open C or U-shape that has equally spaced flat surfaces around the inside. The other end is a closed loop in the form of a hexagon on the inside.

Either end can be fit around a nut of the correct size. The open end is useful for nuts in a confined space, and the closed end is for the easier turning of nuts. 

Generally, they are sold in sets, so you have plenty of different sizes to choose from. They are probably the most common and recognizable kind of wrench.

2. Adjustable Wrench

The adjustable wrench, or adjustable spanner, has two jaws that are open-sided at the end of a handle. 

The top jaw is a fixed part on the molded body of the tool, while the bottom jaw can be moved up and down by turning a spiral screw. 

The tool is also sometimes called a crescent wrench or open-ended wrench. 

Because it can be adjusted to fit a wide range of bolts, it’s a useful tool to have, avoiding the need to carry a large set of combination wrenches. The only downside is that the large head can be tricky to fit in small spaces.

3. Monkey Wrench

Rather similar to the adjustable wrench, a monkey wrench is larger in size. The screw for making the size variable has a different configuration, being below the bottom movable jaw of the tool. Larger versions of this tool are often known as a “King Dick” in the UK. 

4. Pliers 

Pliers have a multitude of uses, not just for tightening and loosening nuts but for gripping objects and stripping, shaping, or cutting wire. 

Pliers can come in a large variety of shapes and sizes. They work by using a scissor-type action as each of the two gripping/cutting ends is a part of its opposing handle. 

The pliers can be opened and closed easily, just like opening and closing the blades on some scissors. This makes them useful for using on different types and sizes of nuts and bolts.

Usually, rather than tightening a nut, the pliers are used to hold the bolt in place to make tightening the nut with another type of wrench easier and prevent it from turning. 

5. Socket Wrench

Also often called a socket set. This type of wrench comprises a handle with an end piece at a right angle to it. This fits into different sized ends. The set will come with a multitude of end pieces to fit many sizes of nuts or bolts.

Socket sets are often used by vehicle mechanics for working on engines and for removing and tightening wheel nuts.

Socket wrenches usually have a ratchet action, which means you only need to turn the wrench part of the way around before returning back to your starting point. This is helpful when working inside cramped vehicle engines or other tight jobs. 

6. Plumbers Wrench

The plumbers’ wrench works on a fulcrum, just like pliers. Each of the two heads is attached to its opposite handle. The heads themselves form two parts of a hexagon and have small ridged teeth for added grip inside. 

The upper head can slide along a range of notches around the fulcrum to adjust the gap between the two heads, making it useful for a wide range of different sized nuts and bolts and pipe fittings for which it was designed. 

7. Pipe Wrench

Another wrench often used for plumbing purposes is a pipe wrench. It’s useful for tightening and unfastening pipes from fixings. 

The head has an open U shape, and the jaws on the two gripping surfaces are wide and flat with small serrated teeth to aid grip. 

Just like an adjustable wrench, the gap between the jaws can be made larger or smaller as required. 

It is the top head that moves on a pipe wrench by turning a screw either up or down at the back of the wenches handle. 

The bottom jaw is fixed in place and is a molded part of the long handle.

8. Basin Wrench

A basin wrench, or faucet wrench, has only one job; to install and remove faucets.

Faucets are often fitted using low-profile nuts that are mounted in such a way that they are extremely difficult to access. 

Regular wrenches or pliers aren’t designed to do the job because they simply cannot be manipulated well enough in such a confined space and because usually, they are too short.

A basin wrench has a pivoting head at the end of a long thin handle that grips the nut. This is especially useful when trying to access the tiny nuts that hold flexible water supply tubes in place.

The head can be swiveled 108° in each direction, and the T-bar at the end of the shaft gives the user the leverage needed to tighten or loosen nuts as required.

Although not such a common toolkit component, anyone who does plumbing work, or even DIY, should have one.

Here’s how to use a basin wrench:

9. Ratcheting Wrench

This wrench is rather like the closed end of a combination wrench and a socket wrench together in a single tool. 

As you will have deduced from the name, it has a ratcheting action which is achieved by the way the device is made. This allows it to tighten and loosen nuts and bolts when only a tiny amount of space is available by using a small back and forth action. 

10. Chain Wrench

When the need to firmly grip pipes or other components of different diameters tightly is required, then a chain wrench can be a helpful tool. 

The jointed chain, which in appearance is not dissimilar to a chain you’d find on a bicycle, fits around the pipe and is tightened to give a firm grip. The teeth or links are connected via a rivet. 

What are Wrenches Made From?

Wrenches can be made from many materials, including steel, steel alloys, and chromium-vanadium alloy. They need to combine strength and a light weight, while also being rust-proof.


Whichever name you use, wrench or spanner, this type of tool comes in a bunch of different shapes and sizes. Although spanners are a specific type of wrench. 

Having the proper wrench for the job you’re doing can be very important, as many are specifically adapted to make working easier for that use. 

Even the most basic of toolboxes should at least contain an adjustable wrench and a set of pliers, which can both achieve a multitude of jobs. 

To find out about other tools, or a myriad of useful farmstead topics, take a closer look at our website.

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