Launch Slideshow

A Trip to the Socket Factory

A Trip to the Socket Factory

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    David Frane

    The new SK plant in Sycamore, Illinois is only a couple of years old. The 100,000 square foot building has a showroom and offices in front and a factory in back—where ratchets are assembled, and sockets, extensions, and adapters are manufactured.

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    David Frane

    The machines in this photo turn steel into sockets, not by machining or drilling, but by pressing the metal with a series of dies that form it to the shape of a socket. It takes a tremendous amount of force to do this.

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    David Frane

    The material for sockets arrives at the plant as coiled steel. Here it is being fed into a machine that will straighten it and then cut it into short slugs or billets.

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    David Frane

    Steel billets are fed into a machine that through a series of punching operations will turn them into sockets. Click here to see video of the machine in action.

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    David Frane

    This is the machine from the previous photo with the door open so you can see more of the mechanism. Billets feed in from above and are held in fixtures while dies push in from the right. After each pressing operation the spring-loaded jaws on the left grab the pieces and move them down to the fixture below for the next operation. At the end of this process the roughly formed sockets fall onto a conveyor below.

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    David Frane

    This is what 12 point sockets look like at various stages of forming. It’s important to note that no metal is removed during these particular processes; the change in shape (and length) is due entirely to the displacement of metal. From left to right the pieces are: billet as it enters the machine, after pressing from both ends, after the openings for nuts and bolts have been formed, after the socket is punched deeper, and after the square hole for the ratchet drive has been formed at the opposite end. The shiny piece on the right has been punched and then lightly machined, so it contains slightly less material than the pieces to the left of it.

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    David Frane

    These sockets have been formed to shape and their exteriors lightly machined. If you look closely you’ll see that openings don’t go all the way through. The center will be drilled out in a later operation.

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    David Frane

    Sockets are being fed into a computer-controlled machine that will smooth sharp edges and slightly chamfer the openings. The chamfer makes it easier to fit the stem of the ratchet into the socket and the end of the socket over a bolt.

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    David Frane

    The file-like rod on the right is a broaching tool. It fits inside of a machine that pushes it through the center of the socket to size and finish (smooth) the square hole for the ratchet drive.

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    David Frane

    These 6 point sockets are at an intermediate point of processing. When the machining is complete they will be sent out for hardening and plating, and then returned to the plant for packaging and shipping.

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    David Frane

    To distinguish them from standard sockets, impact sockets receive a rust resistant coating but are not chrome plated. They have thicker walls and are made from a more ductile material to prevent them from shattering when subject to the action of an impact wrench.

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    David Frane

    Unfinished parts are stored in surplus army ammo boxes. These boxes came from the old SK plant in Chicago and were brought to the new plant in Sycamore. I’ve seen ammo boxes used in more than one factory—probably because they are cheap, durable, and easy to get.

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    David Frane

    The retention bearing on the stem of this drive adapter has been placed over a spring in a hole. A press fitting tool will be used to push the bearing into the piece and deform the edges of the hole so it won’t fall out. The spring-loaded bearing will then be used to hold sockets in place on the adapter.

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    David Frane

    Ratchets are assembled at the Sycamore plant with parts produced in other factories. Click here for a video of ratchets going together.

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    David Frane

    Finished pieces are stored in bins until they are needed—to be packaged separately or in blow-molded kit cases with ratchets and additional sockets and accessories.

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    David Frane

    This is the shipping area. I wish I’d been able to shoot video of it in operation because the mechanism is kind of cool. It works like the clothes storage rack at a dry cleaner: When the operator needs a particular item he calls it up on a terminal, the rack rotates, and that item moves to the front where it’s easy to get at. The operator can then package the item and ship it out.

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    David Frane

    When SK built the new factory it left room for expansion; this area is empty now but will likely someday be filled with machines. The plant currently contains a mix of old (from the Chicago factory) and new equipment (purchased after the move to Sycamore).

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    David Frane

    A Big Tool—the wrench, not the guy in the photo. This oversize wrench bears the SK label but was likely produced by sister-company Western Forge, at its plant in Colorado. Wrenches and sockets this size and larger are typically used in the oils and gas industry at wells, pipelines, refineries, and the like.

During a recent trip to the Midwest I managed to tour several tool factories—one of the most interesting being SK's new plant in Sycamore, Illinois. The SK brand will be familiar to anyone who uses automotive tools.

Like many tool companies that have been around for a while, SK has a long and complicated history. Founded in Chicago in the early 1900s by Mason H. Sherman and Roger Klove, it was originally known as Sherman-Klove and specialized in screw machine products—items produced on automatic metalworking lathes. During the 1920s the company produced sockets for the Hinsdale Socket and Wrench Company. Hinsdale went broke during the depression and Sherman-Klove was left with a large inventory of sockets and wrenches it needed to sell. It changed its name to SK Tools and after receiving a patent for a round-head ratchet in 1934 came to be known for that kind of tool.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, the company was owned for a time by Facom Tools.  After going bankrupt in 2010 the company was purchased by IDEAL Industries, which closed SK's Chicago factory and moved its operations to a new plant a few miles down the road from IDEAL's's headquarters in Sycamore, Illinois.

It was this new SK factory that I toured over the summer. All manner of sockets, impact sockets, socket adapters, flex sockets, extensions, and swivel impact sockets are produced in this plant. And items such as ratchets are assembled there. Not everything bearing the SK label is made in Sycamore; some items are produced in Colorado by Western Forge-which like SK, is a subsidiary of IDEAL.

The slideshow on the left contains photos from my tour of the factory. The captions will explain what everything is. Be sure to look for the video links in some of the captions.