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Screws and screwdrivers might not seem like the most exciting topic on its face, but you could write a book on their uses and intricacies. There are so many tricks on how to use this type of hardware and their respective tools, and I’ve chosen ten that I hope will help you with future projects. If you have more tips, by all means, sound off in the comments.

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Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.


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Comments

  1. GC says:

    re: wrench that driver
    They make screw drivers with a hex nut thing just below the head for just that purpose.

    also, Magnets… are Awesome.

    1. And I’ve seen screwdrivers with a hex on the end of the handle for the same purpose – that way you can stick a ratchet socket on it.

  2. james B says:

    tip 11: put a little candle wax on the wood screw. I keep a little piece with my drill bits so it is right there when I drill the pilot hole.
    tip 12: impact drivers work better than cordless drills for sinking screws. I suspect that a drill driver puts more and more twist on the screw, until it breaks. The impact driver puts a little twist on the screw, then releases it ten times a second.
    tip 13: to hide the screw head, use a Forestner bit to start a hole for a wooden plug, then drill a pilot hole using the center point of the Forestner bit hole. Use plugs of the same species, and rotate them so the wood grain is oriented the same direction as your work piece. Try to tap the plug flush, it shows if it is recessed or sitting proud. I don’t normally glue the plugs, you can drill a hole in the plug, twist in a screw, and pop the plug out if you need to.
    tip 14: screws act like a wedge, and will often split hardwood if you don’t drill a pilot hole. Tapered screw head act like a really aggressive wedge, so the advice to countersink is quite sound.

    1. Joel Finkle says:

      I was taught by my father to keep a piece of bar of soap in my toolchest for the same purpose as the candle wax.

      And “It’s not a chisel, a pry-bar, or a knife.” — or a paint stirrer, gaah! My lovely wife has mucked up every nice straight-bladed driver I have.

      1. jamesbx says:

        I’ve heard about soap, but never used it. And you are lucky she used a screwdriver. My wife opened the paint cans with my bench chisel.

        1. dennis says:

          the problem with soap as apposed to wax is ,soap is caustic and over a short period of time the soap corrodes the screw and weakens the wood fiber making a recipe for disaster ,dont use soap if you can avoid it

    2. Drew says:

      James, good stuff.
      I’ve also started finding some additional uses for wax. Often i have fastener heads that will unavoidably get exposed to crud, mud, concrete…etc. I have been using wax to “plug” the heads of screws and other fasteners like Allen, Torx, etc to prevent ice, dirt, and all the other stuff that seems to pack in over time and then petrify there.
      Originally I started doing this with the cover fasteners for outdoor junction boxes (the type that are buried in the ground for electrical wiring junctions, sprinkler valves and connections…). The problem has always been, once the cover is installed, concrete slurry, landscaping gravel and other crap has to be chiseled/ blown-out for the appropriate driver to be able to back out the cover’s fasteners.
      Of course, most guys get impatient, irritated, both…and do a half assed job of clearing out the fasteners heads, and proceed to “go to town”…The end result is stripped-out, cammed fasteners that are now, basically rivets.
      This means the fasteners then have to be drilled out and replaced with new ones.

      Proving once again… Haste makes waste. So do it right the first time, in the first place ;)
      – Rub/ press wax into the fastener’s head, (use a little heat from a cigarette lighter, etc. to “flow” the wax a bit if necessary). The idea is to fill it up so nothing else will.
      When and if it’s time to remove the fastener, the wax can be melted, (if needed) or simply squished out with the driver bit.
      A bonus I have found is that a good smearing of beeswax over the whole exposed part of the fastener prevents corrosion damage and moisture wicking.

      Cheers

      1. James B says:

        I like the idea of packing the screw heads. I threaded holes in the milling table on both of my mills, and I always have to bust out the shop vac and a piece of wire to clean out the swarf. A good cleaning, and packing the unused holes, might be a good way to keep them more accessible.

        I got the bright idea to melt wax on the terminals of my automotive battery. But it still corroded. They make a spray on coating that works pretty good for that.

  3. Tiberius says:

    The picture for Phillips head screws actually shows Pozidriv heads. This was designed as an improvement to the Phillips head to allow more torque to be applied before camming out. Generally a torque limited drill and Torx head screws are the better solution and Hardware stores in Germany have started to carry Torx head as general-purpose screws rather than Pozidriv

    1. Whoops! You have better eyes than me. Thanks for catching that.

    2. Bruce R says:

      I second that, you beat me to it. You tend not to see Phillips screws much, but you see loads of Phillips screwdrivers, The combination of the two is one of the problems, they are not really compatible and i think that’s where the problems start. I think one of these tips should be:

      “Learn to spot Pozi and Phillips screws and screwdrivers and don’t try to use one with the other.”

  4. Square drive has been around forever and is infinitely superior to Phillips head, without the (unknown to me until just now) patent issues with Torx.

    1. Jeff Faust says:

      Square drive rocks!

    2. jai says:

      Yes. They’re not always easy to get outside Canada, but I have switched from Phillips to Robertson (square) at home. No more chewed bits or stripped screw heads!

      1. David says:

        Plus no need for magnets to hold the screws on the driver bit, since Robertson bits have a tapered hole, unlike regular square drive.

    3. serigj says:

      Wikipedia suggests Square drive *is* patented, which is why it’s hard to find outside canada

    4. Art says:

      +1 on the Robertson/Square drive.

      I typically throw out the junky philips screws that get supplied with items (curtain hardware, lamp hardware, etc) and replace the with robertson screws.

      And everyone should know that the grips on robertson screwdrivers are colour coded to match their bit size! ALL red-handled robertson screwdrivers are the same size tip. DItto for black, green, and yellow.

  5. My dad was an advocate of using wax and I find a stub of a candle among his tools from time-to-time. However, he advised me against using soap as it can absorb and trap moisture which, of course leads to rust.

  6. I often use socket head cap screws for my designs. Tools (allen keys) are easy to come by, can fit it tight places and can apply a high torque value. I usually specify a counterbore (cylindrical hole) to make sure the head is flush with the work surface.

    1. jamesbx says:

      Plus, with the socket cap screws, you can use a ball-end Allen wrench, and get in at an angle.

  7. terrefirma says:

    The problem with never having learned the correct way of doing any job- only the cheap and fast way, is that many observers (myself)only see subcontractors with a nailgun or hammer drill driving screws- and discarding much of the wood that could be salvaged because as one worker told me- ‘that ole heart pine and oak is so hard you can’t get a screw in it!’ I haven’t seen one pre-drill yet either.

  8. no says:

    Gah! Don’t predrill with a bit that matches the screwhead diameter. Drill the smaller hole first, then the larger hole.

    1. Ward says:

      Actually, I’d to drill the larger diameter for the screw head first. The smaller wood drill bit can center on the bottom of the larger hole. The larger wood drill can’t center on the smaller one, because there is no material to grip. Resulting in a (usually messy) off center hole for the screw head.
      In most cases it’s even better to just use a countersink bit, which can center on a drilled hole.

  9. cde says:

    The opposite is true too. Since flat end pozidriv or JIS (Japanese head similar to phillips) type screws are used often, that phillips head screwdriver you have, with it’s pointy end, won’t sit right in it, making it hard to properly unscrew or screw one in. Grind the end of one down, and you will see it work better.

  10. Heh. A while ago I had a screw problem that a combination of three of these tips fixed. I had a security screw way down the a plastic shaft. It was impossible to get one of the security bits on a driver and get the entire thing down the shaft to the screw head. I did this http://twitpic.com/axm8ub and could then reach it with my long thin flat head.

    1. Drew says:

      Nice and quick.

  11. Morgan T says:

    1/ My wood-shop teacher told us to run the screws through you hair. The tiny bit of hair oil makes all the difference! It might be hard to believe, but try it. No need to swipe a candle!
    2/ When re-assembling items with self tapping screw, start by turning the screw backwards – until you feel it click (into the existing thread), then proceed to tighten the screw. This avoids cross-threading or stripping out the previously cut thread.

    1. Jim Crutchfield says:

      Starting a screw by turning it backwards is a trick that applies to all threaded parts–screws, pipes, even jar lids. Make it a habit, and you’ll never cross threads again.

  12. More Explanation please! says:

    What’s the value of the wax (or hair oil, or soap (or not)) for a wood screw?

    1. Jim Crutchfield says:

      Lubrication makes the screw go in easier. But see my separate comment here: a hammer eliminates the need for lubrication.

  13. Waxing the screws (or soaping them, as we did in the scene shop all though high school and college) is a lubricant that makes the screw easier to drive, especially in hardwoods.
    Also: the Phillips screw is not dead yet, far from it. The much-overused drywall screw keeps the Phillips drive from disappearing. Of course we don’t use drywall screws for good projects, but we do use them for things other than securing drywall. Frequently overlooked in screw selection is thread pitch: coarse thread for soft woods, fine pitch for hard woods [in general]. And one more thing: When securing one piece of wood (say) to another, you’d prefer that the threads of the screw DID NOT bite into the piece that has the head against it. Although you’d be better off using a screw with an unthreaded shank, they aren’t always available (think 2″ drywall screws). The pre-drilling you do ideally makes a clearance hole for the piece being secured and a hole slightly smaller than the root (or minor) diameter of the screw in the piece to which you are securing.

  14. Jim Crutchfield says:

    About Phillips screws: Many years ago, I worked with an old retired navy man who taught me that, when you’re working with wood, screwdrivers are for *removing* screws. What do you drive them in with? A hammer, of course! You laugh, as I did, but he was right. Probably not the best method for joining hardwood, or for fine work, but for sticking lots of 2x4s together it’s the ticket–it’s fast, and you never cam out the head.

  15. I recently assembled a playyard for the boys that came with #2 square drive bits. Enjoyed it immensely. My experience with pocket screws has taught me the same. However, my go to screw for fine work is a #8 1-1/4″ (and I don’t usually worry about it’s head). All my shop stuff is put together with 1-1/4″ and 2″ exterior screws, with a handful (maybe 10) of 3″ screws in stock. Seems to cover all my needs.

  16. Prof. K. says:

    The reason “cross-head” screws are so popular is that the screwdriver is less likely to slip and mar the workpiece or cut your fingers than using a straight edge screw & driver. This is particularly true when starting off a woodscrew or self-tapper as there is nothing to hold the screw firmly in place until it is starting it’s own thread and becoming self-supporting.

    I have not noticed any problems driving Philips screws with cam-out. But if that is a problem for some reason, then use anti-cam-out bits or drivers. These have ridges or industrial diamonds on the tips that cut in to the internal load-bearing faces of the screw to greatly reduce the risk.

    Why Torx? Hex-head screws & drivers have been common for a long time. But any “enclosed” head screw like hex/Allen, Torx, etc. will suffer the same terrible problems of dirt, grease or whatever getting trapped in the head and making getting them out again a nightmare. You know what? Those old-fashioned slot head screws never suffer from that, because the slot clears with just a brush or wipe down. Their only drawbacks are the instability when driving them in where there is no pre-drilled hole and having the head chewed up from the screwdriver not being properly at right angles to the screw head.

    I do not believe it is fair to say any one screw is better than the others, because it depends what they are to be used for and how often (if at all) the screw is likely to need to be removed. All have their place.

    One thing I am seeing a lot of now with using cross-head screws in wood, is that the threads are cut quite deep in to the shaft. So to keep costs down, people are buying very thin screws, not aware of how little is left of the shaft and it has to bear all the torque of driving the screw in. So now I am constantly having to try and repair things where the screw has sheared off near the surface of the wood and preventing a new screw from being driven in.

  17. B Star says:

    ARE YOU GUYS KIDDING? Torx are super great for all industrial applications but pricey…square drive (Robertson) is the way to go for a little less cost and an excellent bite for the driver tip when you have to use a million fasteners. Also, look for heavy duty drivers with a square shaft for wrenching, like Klein Tools. Worth their weight in gold…

  18. fotoflojoe says:

    “Wrench that Driver
    If a screw is particularly stubborn, you can get more torque by placing a pair of pliers or vise-grips on the handle, and bearing down on the screwdriver handle with the palm of your hand. Make sure it’s a screwdriver you don’t care much about, as the wrench can mar the handle.”

    For that matter, make sure to use a hand that you don’t care about either.

  19. David says:

    I would add to this list that longer shafted drivers are going to work better (space permitting). The longer shaft means that if you hand moves slightly away from the axis of rotation during the driving motion (which it likely will), the off-axis angle is smaller and the driver tip less misaligned than wold be the case with a shorter shaft driver. This makes the tip less likely to slip out and provides better tip to fastener contact for better force transmission. Try two drivers identical except for shaft length and see which is easier to use.

  20. Jeff says:

    Wrench that Driver – My grandfather had a great screwdriver to which he welded a single flat onto the side of the shaft of. You could fit a wrench to the shaft, instead of putting pliers on the handle. You can add great torque this way, and you don’t damage your handle.

    The flat was probably about 3/4 inch long, and even though the shaft was originally round, you only need to add one for this to work.

  21. Peter says:

    Really hate those hexagon precision screws. I never have a suitable precision screw screw driver for those.

  22. Kurt Hill says:

    I also agree, magnetic screwdriver is great idea.

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