Toolmanship: How to Use a Screwdriver

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 18, 2010 · 38 comments

in Manly Skills, Toolmanship

Today we return to our series called Toolmanship. The goal of this series is to pass on the basics of tool use to a generation of men who never got around to learning how to be handy.

In this edition, we turn our attention to the  lowly hand screwdriver. We’ll take a look at the different types of screwdrivers, how to use one effectively, and tips on maintaining your screwdrivers so you can pass them down to your grandsons.

Parts of a Screwdriver

The screwdriver consists of four parts: 1) The handle, 2) the shank, 3) the blade, and 4) the tip.

Types of Screwdrivers

Screwdrivers are distinguished from each other based on their tip and what type of screw they drive. The two most common screwdriver tips are 1) the slot head screwdriver, and 2) the Phillips-head screwdriver.

Slot head screwdriver (Flathead/regular screwdriver). A slot head screwdriver consists of a single, flat blade that fits in the single slot of traditional screws. It’s the oldest and most common screwdriver in the world.

Phillips-head Screwdriver. A Phillips-head screwdriver has a four star point at the end that fits into the corresponding screw’s shallow, cross-shaped depression. This design allows a user to apply more torque than is possible with a flathead screwdriver. The depression forces the blades of the Phillips screwdriver to slip out before any damaging over-torquing can occur.

While these are the most common screwdrivers, several other types exist for different jobs. Browse this site to see the different types of screwdrivers.

What Screwdrivers Do You Need in Your Toolbox?

You don’t need too many screwdrivers in your toolbox. Below is a suggested list of screwdrivers that will ensure you can handle any job you might face at home.

  • Heavy-duty square blade. A long, heavy-duty square blade screwdriver will come in handy for those jobs when you need a lot of torque and driving power.
  • Medium and small slot screwdriver.
  • Cabinet Screwdriver. A cabinet screwdriver has a thinner shank than most screwdrivers. The thin shank allows the tip to reach screws in deep holes without damaging the surrounding wood. Additionally, the tip on a cabinet screwdriver is straight as opposed to tapered as on a traditional flathead screwdriver.
  • Medium Phillips screwdriver.
  • Stubby Phillips screwdriver. Use a stubby screwdriver when you don’t have much space to work.
  • Ratchet screwdriver. If you do a lot of screwdriving, you might want to invest in a ratchet screwdriver. Like the name says, this screwdriver has a ratcheting device that locks the shank in place when turning clockwise, but then loosens when turning counter-clockwise. Instead of having to take the screwdriver tip out of the screw every time you make a rotation, you can leave it in the screw and just ratchet back to your starting position.

Select the Correct Screwdriver

The biggest mistake people make when using a screwdriver is using the wrong kind for the job. Consequently, they either strip the screw, making it difficult to remove if they need to, or they damage a perfectly good screwdriver. Avoid these headaches by following these tips.

Slot head screwdrivers for slot screws, Phillips-head screwdrivers for Phillips-head screws. You’d think this would be obvious, but a lot of men will take a flathead screwdriver to a Phillips screw when they don’t have a Phillips-head screwdriver handy. Don’t be that guy. Sure, you might be able to get away with it a few times, but you’re risking stripping the screw or damaging the blade on your screwdriver.

Use the right tip size. The tip of the screwdriver should completely fill the slot of the screw you’re driving or removing. If the tip is too narrow, there will be considerable loss of leverage while driving, which means you’ll have to use more muscle to drive the screw.  Also, you risk stripping the screw and bending the tip of your screwdriver.

If the tip is too wide, you risk damaging the surface you’re screwing into.

If the tip is too thick, the blade won’t fit in the screw slot and will just slip out as you’re driving.

To help you get the right screwdriver for the job, use this screwdriver sizing chart.

Slot-headed Screwdrivers and Screws

Blade Size Screw Size
3/32” O and 1
1/8” 2
5/32” 3
3/16” 4 and 5
1/4” 6 and 7
5/16” 8 to 10
3/8” 12 to 14
7/16” 16 to 18
1/2” 18 to 24

Phillips-head Screwdrivers and Screws

Blade Size Screw Size
0 O and 1
1 2 to 4
2 5 to 9
3 10 to 16
4 18 to 24

How to Use a Screwdriver

Create a pilot hole. When driving screws into wood, it’s a good idea to drill a pilot hole first. Without pilot holes, screws tend to follow the grain of the wood, which results in crooked screws. Thus, pilot holes ensure that you drive the screw in straight.

Moreover, pilot holes prevent the wood from splinting as you drive the screw in. For small screws in softwood, make a pilot hole by using a punch hole and an awl. For larger sized screws and all screws in hardwood, drill a pilot hole with a boring tool of some kind.

Start the screw. Place the screw on the driver tip and hold both screw and tip together with the fingers of one hand. Apply very little pressure on the driver while turning in a clockwise direction until the screw engages the wood.

Keep driving. When the screw’s thread engages with the wood, move your fingers that were holding the screw in place to the screwdriver shank. Use these fingers as a guide to hold the tip directly in line with the screw. Apply enough pressure on the driver to keep it in the slot.

Screwdriver Tips From Grandpa

Rub beeswax or soap on screw threads. This makes screws easier to drive, especially in hardwood.

Get more leverage with an adjustable wrench. If you’re driving or removing a particularly stubborn screw, add an adjustable wrench to the equation. Grip the wrench onto the tip of the screwdriver’s blade. As you turn the screwdriver, turn the wrench. This will give you a bit more leverage to move even the most stubborn of screws.

For tough to reach places, use a screw holder. Sometimes you just can’t get your hands into a place to hold a screw as you start driving it. For moments like this, bust out a screw holder. It’s placed on the end of your screwdriver and has a set of jaws that holds the screw in place as you start the driving.

Get more power. For more driving power, use a screwdriver with a shorter shank. Also, try exerting downward pressure on the top of the screwdriver with your free hand.

Maintaining Your Screwdrivers

Use screwdrivers for driving screws only. Screwdrivers do one job: drive and draw screws. They shouldn’t be used as putty knives and wood chisels, for opening paint cans, or stabbling famous cyclists. Using your screwdriver for a purpose it wasn’t meant for will only result in a damaged screwdriver and life in jail.

Keep the tip square (just like your chin). No matter how much care you take with your screwdrivers, they’re bound to get worn or chipped. If you notice your screwdriver’s tip getting a bit rounded or chipped, avoid using it. You risk the screwdriver slipping from the screw and either injuring yourself or the surface that you’re screwing into. To correct any rounding or chipping in your tip, just grind it square with a bench grinder. Avoid overheating the tip. You’ll mess up the metal’s temper if you do.

Oil things up. To avoid rusting, keep your tools stored in a cool, dry place. It also doesn’t hurt to rub the shank down with oil and take some steel wool to your screwdrivers every now and then.

Can’t I Just Use a Power Screwdriver?

I bet many of you are asking, “Can’t I just use a power screwdriver?” Indeed you can. If you plan on driving a ton of screws, an investment in a quality power screwdriver might be worth it. However, be careful when using power screwdrivers or power drills that can be converted to screwdrivers. They often provide more torque and power than you need, which, if you’re not careful, can result in damage to the wood or stripping the screw. Driving a screw by hand prevents that because you can “feel” when the screw is tight enough.

If you don’t plan on doing a ton of screwing (you’re done sewing your wild tool oats), then you can get by with just a set of manual screwdrivers.

Further Reading:
Toolmanship: Wrenches
Toolmanship: Handsaw
Toolmanship: Hammer

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John February 18, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Why no mention of Robertson (square-headed) screwdrivers? They work better than a Phillips, and can usually hold their own screws.

2 Nate @ Practical Manliness February 18, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Thanks for the in-depth article – screwdrivers are more complicated than I thought!

I particularly agree with your point about the importance of pre-drilling holes in wood. I have often tried to “save time” by skipping the step of drilling holes. Most of the time, I end up breaking the wood and actually spending more time!

Avoid the “shortcuts” and do it right the first time.

3 Angus February 18, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Technically, a longer screwdriver doesn’t give you more leverage or torque. To apply torque (force in a circular coordinate system) you need more leverage, which can only be accomplished by applying the same amount of force further from the center of rotation. A screwdriver with a wider handle would accomplish that, as would somehow getting a better grip on it. The wrench idea accomplishes both, which is why it works, but lengthening the shaft has no effect on how much force you can generate.

4 Jesse February 18, 2010 at 11:39 pm

No mention of Torx head screwdrivers and screws? Much like their 12-point fastener cousins (designed to take full advantage of 12-point sockets), they distribute torque over more surface area and are much less prone to rounding off.

5 Jesse February 18, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Angus is right. A longer shank on a screwdriver technically reduces torque by absorbing it, just like a torsion bar suspension on a vehicle.

6 Brett McKay February 19, 2010 at 12:03 am

You’re correct the longer shank itself doesn’t increase torque, but usually the longer screwdrivers have larger handles, which, as mentioned, does help you get more driving power. Bob Villa and some dude at the University of Illinois Physics Department back me up: http://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=294

7 David C. February 19, 2010 at 2:15 am

Good post. I’ve obviously used a screwdriver before, but I definitely learned some good tips!

I’m one of those guys who is ashamed to admit to not being handy and having much knowledge of tools. So I appreciate this series.

8 Christopher Arroyo February 19, 2010 at 3:37 am

I have to confess to opening paint cans with flathead screwdrivers. most of my (actually my father’s) screw drivers are missing and I have been wanting to get a new set.

9 Matti February 19, 2010 at 4:00 am

I suggest everyone to start using Torx screws. Especially Slot head screws are very hard to unscrew once they’ve beein in place for years. Philips screws’ heads then again tend to break when they are stuck and you try to screw/unscrew them forcefully. Torx head distributes the used force more equally and won’t break the screw even under heavy pressure.

10 Steve February 19, 2010 at 5:15 am

I’d like to add a tip here: If you end up wrecking a screw hole (usually by screwing and unscrewing too much), and the hole won’t hold a screw anymore, you can just break up some match sticks, shove them in the hole and then screw it in again. The additional friction will usually be enough to hold the screw there.

When moving and replacing doors, I found this trick very useful, I hope someone else will too.

11 Jason February 19, 2010 at 7:27 am

I thought the slot head was called a “minus” (-)screwdriver, and the Phillips was called a “plus”(+) screwdriver?? :)
Just a little joke, and useful when you have young kids helping you. .

12 Stephen Clay McGehee February 19, 2010 at 8:43 am

When doing any kind of gunsmithing work – even if it’s just a complete breakdown for some serious cleaning – the correct size HOLLOW-GROUND screwdriver is an absolute must. You can buy a decent set of gunsmithing screwdrivers at a reasonable price. They are hollow-ground so that they fit the screw snugly on all surfaces so they cannot twist out of the slot like a regular tapered bit driver can. The first time you put a nasty gouge in the finish of a nice gun, you’ll understand why you should have gotten a set of gunsmithing screwdrivers before you started.

13 Bob February 19, 2010 at 8:55 am

To John – Re Robertson Screws — you are definitely correct that the robertson screw is far superior to either the flat head or phillips, they are not widely used in the US. Robertson was a Canadian invention in the early 1900 and he got “screwed” on a licensing deal with a company in Great Britain and after that refused to license anyone else to make the screw – this (and the fact that they weren’t invented in the US) prevented them from getting widely adopted. Ford was thinking of using Robertson screws because he felt they would improve the speed of car production but because he couldn’t get a licence from robertson – he felt the supply could not be guaranteed.

14 Will February 19, 2010 at 9:20 am

Good stuff, Brett.

15 Aaron February 19, 2010 at 9:49 am

I can’t even begin to describe my hatred of flathead.

When my wife and I moved into our new place, I replaced every flathead screw with phillips.

16 fred February 19, 2010 at 9:51 am

the longer shank on a screwdriver allows you to turn harder without slipping out of the screw. As well the longer shank flexes, again allowing for more force to be applied, without the tip slipping out of the screw.
You can’t tighten as well with a stubby because small wiggles at the handle, inevitable when tightening a screw, cause the tip to slip from the slot.

fred

17 Evan February 19, 2010 at 10:23 am

I wouldn’t recommend using soap to lubricate screws. I’ve read that the lye in soap can react with tannins in the wood and become corrosive. Wax is fine, and there are products on the market designed specifically as screw lubes.

18 Will February 19, 2010 at 11:33 am

For the importance to humanity of the screw and the screwdriver, see the accessible (but scholarly) book “One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw ” ( ISBN 0-00-200031-8.) by Witold Rybczynski. It covers life before the screw, the invention and development of the screw, its uses and widespread socio-economic impact (like the printing press). It also covers the superiority of the Robertson head screw and driver.

19 Peter February 19, 2010 at 11:44 am

For making pilot holes, these things are fantastic. They’re called gimlets and are great when you don’t want to break out the power drill. Any Ace will special order them for you if you want to avoid shipping charges.
http://www.liquidchopperstore.com/st734-c.html

20 DJ Wetzel February 19, 2010 at 11:57 am

I own a nice fancy DeWalt drill, a cheap powered screwdriver, and I still prefer to use a pair of 30 year old screwdrivers that my Dad gave me as part of a wedding gift (I got a whole pile of tools in this gift that have been invaluable in adult life). There is a lot to be said for owning, maintaining, and properly wielding a quality screwdriver.

21 Scott February 19, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Just a BIG FYI it is not a square blade screw driver. It is Robertson it was invent in Milton Ontario Canada. So please call it by its right name.

thank you

22 larrywilk February 19, 2010 at 2:11 pm

With over thirty years experience as a carpenter I would like to comment on this article. Your information is true in most aspects,but I would like to point out an added aspect of using a pilot hole is strength. By pre-drilling, there is less distress to the grain allowing the screw threads to embed themselves into the grain causing more resistance to withdrawal. Also the drill motors of today, notably battery operated, have a clutch assembly on the front that allows you to “ratchet down” the torque to help eliminate damage to the surface.

Something I would point out is that, as in all things, practice or usage of a specific tool will go a long way in allowing one to gain the “feel” necessary to use a tool correctly.

23 Gus February 19, 2010 at 2:34 pm

A great tool to aquire for your screwdriving needs is a Yankee Drill. These are a spiral shanked screwdriver that applies signifigently smooth and strong torque.The stout handle is pushed in to spin the shaft, driving the interchangable slotted or phillips bits.They also come with boring bits for making pilot holes. I find these bits fit nicely into a small metal band-aid box, when one can be found.

24 rev3 February 19, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Agreed. Robertson are generally superior and less likely to strip. Though being a Canadian invention, it is seldom used elsewhere in the world. Thusly, when building things to ship internationally, and having parts we don’t want people to get into, we generally use robertson screws. :p

25 Carl Muthman February 20, 2010 at 4:32 am

My pet peeve with screwdrivers was co-workers using them as pry bars or punches. Totally destroys a screwdriver from performing as a scredwdriver afterwards. Obviously this article was geared towards working with wood and it should be noted there are many other types of screwdrivers and screws. For some projects with metal and impact driver with screw bits is better than a wrench on the shank. I like the Klein split-tip holding screwdriver for starting screrws and they come in many sizes, especially very small sizes. Only problem is that you can’t use them to break loose or tighten a screw. I also like a ratcheting screwdriver to save on the wrist.
You mentioned a power screwdriver/drill and I agree it should NEVER be used to tighten screws. If you need to use a power tool, stop before the screw is tight and finish the job with a hand screwdriver. I had a guy do some remodel work for me and he was using his power drill to tighten down #6 screws on cabinet hinges. Needless to say, I gave him a piece of my mind but being an amateur it bounced off him.
I can get by with less expensive hand tools like wrenches but I do buy the best screwdrivers just for the fact you can ruin a nice project with the slip or breaking of a screwdriver. Going cheap can be costly.

26 Jim Pierce February 20, 2010 at 7:07 am

When using a screwdriver with a longer shank, it is easier to keep it aligned with the screw, (think longer sight base). By being true to the screw, you are less likely to slip when applying a great deal of force. This is a good reason to reach for a longer screwdriver (that fits properly) when installing a screw that’ll go in hard. Plus one for Robertson. On the ships I work on, they’re everywhere…. Good luck finding a Robertson screwdriver in Brooklyn Navy Yard though…. Keep up the great articles.

27 Dennard February 20, 2010 at 8:41 am

Nice review of screwdrivers and how to use them, Brett.

28 John February 20, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Great post. Love the idea of using an adjustable wrench on a stubborn screw.

29 James February 20, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Interesting

30 Nickoli February 20, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Posi-drive screws are easily mistaken for Phillips – They have an eight-pointed design, like a phillips but with a shallow extra cross.

Also, sewing is done with a needle and thread. Sowing is something you might do with wild oats.

31 Jake February 20, 2010 at 9:58 pm

I like the idea of the screw holder. I’d never heard of those before (shows I’m not the handiest of guys), but my dad always used to tell me to magnetise the screw driver if I wanted a screw to stay inplace as I started driving it. Run a magnet from base to tip a few times and you’re all set. I’ve heard it can be annoying when you’re metal working, but I’ve never had any problems.

32 Alan Drury February 22, 2010 at 3:31 am

A couple more tips for holding the screw on the screwdriver tip: 1) use a blob of blu-tack (or some other sticky but easily removable substance), and 2) Magnetize the screwdriver

33 Pat Ashley February 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm

To properly screw one piece of material to another, assuming you have the right size screw to begin with….

Keep in mind what you’re trying to do – mechanical press one piece to another.

Drill a pilot hole in the top board equal to the diameter of the height of the screw threads. This allows the screw to not split the top piece of wood, not to mention stressing the screw and your tool.

Don’t use that screw bit to go into the bottom piece of wood; you’ll have nothing for the screw threads to attach to. Instead, you should measure the shaft under the threads, which will be the thinnest part of the screw, and use that diameter of drill bit to drill the pilot hole for the bottom piece. In doing this, you won’t be crushing the wood fibers of the bottom piece, simply engaging the threads. It will be much easier to put in the screw, and you’ll actually get a more mechanically sound joint.

I know it sounds like a bother, but it’s the best way to do this….

34 Bruce Williamson February 24, 2010 at 10:25 am

I still use my “Yankee” screw driver. You can purchase bits for drilling the pilot hole. So, you can drill the hole and drive the screw without changing tools. Good for hanging blinds and or other times when you’re on a ladder.

35 Steve C. February 24, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I hate both flatheads and philips heads. Do they make screws with bolt (hexagonal) heads? That’d make my life 100x easier.

36 Fingersoup February 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Yes – there are hex-head drivers that work like allen keys. Usually they are easier to find as bits to a replaceable tip screwdriver.

Most people understand the usage of screwdrivers, but may people too often try and fit a Slot driver into a Phillips head… showing the variety of driver tips and Screw heads would be useful for some people.

I encourage people who want to know more about different head types to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screw

37 Matt March 2, 2010 at 10:08 am

Replacing an electrical outlet yesterday i needed a “Flat” and 2 Philips head screw drivers. 8 years of dock building. i have put in more Robertson Screws than most Canadians can dream of, and my fair share of Philips in that time also. i would have to agree that a Robertson does the job better but still can strip. The key to doing a job right is to practice. And with that said, any good power drill/ driver will have a ratcheting gear built into it to prevent over torquing the screw or stripping it out. if your power drill doesn’t have this, you are using the wrong drill…

38 Drew February 4, 2013 at 6:57 pm

It is not called a ‘flathead’ screw driver. The correct names are Standard screwdriver, flat-blade screwdriver, or slotted screwdriver. Please refrain from using the name ‘flathead’ when talking about drivers. You are just adding more misinformation to the uninformed general public.

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