Toolsday: Screwdrivers

You need a few screwdrivers.

Most everything in your house is held together with screws. Almost all of them are probably Phillips-head screws.

Philips screwdrivers come in numbered sizes. You probably need a #1 and a #2 to start with. Use a too-small driver and you can wreck the screw. Use a too-large driver and it probably won’t fit into the screw and if it does you’ll wreck the screw. Phillips screws and drivers are designed so that if you are in danger of stripping out the screw the driver will slip out of the hole instead. If you lean on it to get more leverage, you defeat that safety feature. And probably wreck the screw.

Despite their ubiquity, I kind of hate Phillips screws. The default almost always seems to be “wreck the screw”, and I too often seem to find myself with a screw that is half-in the wood and won’t go in or out. But they are everywhere, and you need to deal with them. Get a #1 and a #2 Phillips driver.

You’ll probably need a slotted (“flat”, “regular”, etc.) screwdriver, especially if you live in an older house or are doing electrical work: The screws that hold a switch or outlet into the box, and the screws that hold the cover plate on, and the screws that hold the wires to those devices, are almost always slotted.

I find I can get most slotted-screw work done with a 3/16″ screwdriver (coincidentally exactly the size of electrical plate screws). For much larger screws of course you need a larger one and for very small work you need a smaller one. Careful: it’s much easier with slotted screwdrivers to apply too much force and wreck the screw, and using a comically-wrong-sized driver will wreck the screw in an instant.

Some thoughts about screwdrivers in general:

The handle should be comfortable in your hand. large enough to naturally fill your fist. It should not be smooth and round; it should have sides, so the palm of your hand has something to work against to apply leverage.

The part the touches the screw should be carefully-made, and of metal hard enough that you will wreck the screw, not the screwdriver. Most screwdrivers (both slotted and Phillips) flare out a bit from the end that goes into the screw. Partly this is to provide better strength, and partly because of the way the tool is made: if you mash a round bar flat to make a blade, the extra metal is going to flare out. But if you need to get the screw out of the bottom of a hole, you need one that isn’t flared. these are called “cabinet tip”.

Maybe another day I’ll go into detail on the zillions of other screw/screwdriver types (Torx, Robertson, Pozidrive, Mortorq, etc.). For instance there are three or four types that look almost exactly like Philips. Each has advantages and disadvantages over Phillips, and all of them can be worked with a Phillips screwdriver (although their own special driver will work better). And I haven’t touched on mechanical screwdrivers, powered screw drivers, etc.

But that’s the basics of screwdrivers. Go forth and screw things up!


A guy in his 40s, living more or less alone in a 90-year-old house, trying to keep it all together.

Posted in Tools
7 comments on “Toolsday: Screwdrivers
  1. workwizard says:

    The fundamental problem with screws is that they always seem to be made out of the cheapest, crappiest, softest metal that will hold the shape of a screw for long enough to be installed once.

    There’s a strong case to be made for replacing screws you know you will need to mess with more than once with screws that can actually tolerate being messed with. I am not any sort of expert on screws, but a discussion of the screws one can buy at the hardware store and why one might choose one over another could be an interesting future blog post, if you felt like imparting that sort of wisdom to the world.

  2. Karen B. says:

    I would only add that it can be helpful to choose screwdrivers that have nonconducting handles….

    • Erik says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a screwdriver with a conductive handle.

      • Karen B. says:

        I’ve seen plastic handles where it wasn’t specified. I also know that that’s why my grandfather’s screwdrivers had wood handles or rubber-coated something. Maybe they also saw screwdrivers like this one?

      • Sam Paris says:

        I own several, but their basic design predates Edison by a fair chunk. I love old tools.

        Now, what can be very useful indeed is a screwdriver with a non-conductive, or rather, insulated shank. To get one, you either hie on over to MenLowe Depot’s electricians’ tools department and pay through the nose, or you get yourself a roll of electrical tape and wrap the shank in a spiral wrap, starting near the point and working up towards the handle. Try to overlap about half the width of the tape with each pass. Not the same as a pro’s tool, but a cheap and dirty way to keep an accidental dead short from ruining you day.

  3. Sam Paris says:

    One reason Phillips-head screws tend to cam out (besides using the wrong size) is that screwdriver bits wear out and fail to grip. The bits made for electric screwdrivers are nice in that once they start to slip, you can toss and replace them pretty cheaply. Non-motorized handles that accept them are easy to find and are usually cheap.

    If your budget runs to them, the motorized one are the bee’s knees.

    • Erik says:

      We disagree about motorized screwdrivers. I have never seen one worth buying for less than the cost of a workable cordless drill. Most of them are crap. I’d rather buy a cordless drill that can go slow and use it to drive screws.

      But I will be making a post soon about mechanical screwdrivers. I have one I want buried with me.

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