The Screwdriver – A Modern Man’s Guide to Tools

A few generations ago, men built their own houses, fixed their own toilets, installed their own sprinkler systems, and grew unironic mustaches. Unfortunately, due to a lack of immediate necessity, these DIY tool skills have been lost on many of us. Our new series will teach you to correctly pick and use the best tool for whatever job you have to tackle.

Strangely enough, this is one of the simplest tools, but it’s also the easiest to screw up, no pun intended. For our purposes, the Screwdriver category consists of a simple metal rod with a shape on its head, designed to fit inside its counterpart, the screw (or bolt). This distinguishes it from the Wrench category, in which the tool fits around its counterpart.

Like all things that screw, the screwdriver shares a “complicated” relationship with its counterpart. To carry the metaphor a little further, if the two parts are not compatible, the one doing the screwing can permanently damage the one getting screwed. Let’s put it in plain terms.

Screws, and screwdrivers, have different types and sizes. The most common types here in the US are Phillips head and slot head. Then there’s the less common Torx or star head, a super cool six-pointed star-shaped head, which is used on things that need to get very tight. Others exist, but let’s not get too complicated.

The Allen wrench is something of a step-child. While a wrench by name, it also falls somewhat into the screwdriver category. It shares the criterion of the tool fitting inside the counterpart, and it shares some of the pitfalls of other screwdrivers. You can even get an Allen-head screwdriver. However, most commonly (and technique-wise), it is more of a wrench. Read on.

The Other Kind of Screwdriver

About the drink: According to legend, American petroleum workers in Saudi Arabia (or Siberian, Welsh or Irish coal miners, depending on your ethnic pride) mixed vodka into cans of frozen orange juice, using a screwdriver to stir them together. Whence the name.

You are likely to need a screwdriver for:

  • Computers, small electronics
  • Wall socket electrical outlets, light switches, and cover plates
  • Changing the air filter or hoses in your car
  • Furniture fixtures (cabinet & dresser knobs)

Screwdriver Technique

The most important technique is to use the right size screwdriver. While screw size is shrouded in mystery, there are four basic sizes of Phillips screwdriver — from #0 to #4 — #0 being the smallest. The most common sizes are #2 and #1, #2 for standard screw sizes, #1 for “miniature”. Then there are the jeweler-size screws. With slot head screwdrivers it’s even simpler, the blades are measured in fractions of an inch. The point is, before you go all Bruce Willis on a screw, make sure the screwdriver head fits snugly.

The technique of tightening or loosening a screw is pretty simple. Push the screwdriver toward the head of the screw, and then it’s righty-tighty, lefty-loosy. In other words, turn clockwise to tighten (the way a clock’s hands turn), counter-clockwise (or anti-clockwise if you’re speaking the Queen’s English) to loosen.

Phillips head screwdrivers are designed to “cam out”, which means they are designed to slip out of the screw, so you don’t over-tighten them. This also leads to their greatest pitfall.

Screwdriver Pitfalls

The greatest danger of screwdriving (new word, you read it first here) is stripping the screw head. Using the wrong size screw, or trying to over-tighten can damage the screw, making it unusable.

Another danger, as with any pointy object, is cutting yourself, poking your eye out, all those things that Mom warned you about. Be careful. Use the screwdriver for its intended purpose: screwing things. And if you bleed, don’t bleed on this article. We won’t clean it up.

Stay tuned for the next tool in our Modern Man's Guide to Tools series!

Before birth, Jesse's mother decided that Jesse Stern was a great name for a writer or musician. He now lives as a touring and studio musician in Los Angeles California. He also has an 80's tribute band, The Young Guns. He plans to wait until 40 to write his first novel.

  • John Toews

    I’m a bit (get it?) surprised that you give such short schrift to the Canadian favorite, the Robertson screw and driver. I and many of my fellow Canadian countrymen use nothing but Robertson. I believe there may be some chauvinism (national, as in it’s original meaning, not sexual) here – on both sides of the Phillips-Robertson debate. I want to say, at the outset, that I favored the Robertson before I knew it was invented by a fellow Canadian (just over a century ago). So, why do we like the Robertson so?

    #1) A Robertson screw, impaled on the tip of the appropriate driver, will remain there, without magnetism, thru quite a range of angle from the vertical. In fact, with a new bit and a new screw, I’ve had friction alone hold the screw even when pointing essentially vertically downward! This can be extremely handy when maneuvering a screw into a tight spot.

    #2) A Robertson bit is much less likely to “pop-out”. That is, admittedly, a mixed blessing because, as pointed out, in certain applications (usually automated), it is desirable that pop-out occurs. When it is NOT desirable (i.e. non-factory usage), it is a royal pain. Maybe I should say, a federal pain.

    I personally have had a policy of never putting a Phillips back in, always replacing it with a Robertson. I wondered if I was a bit overly AR (anal-retentive) in this regard. Then my son, to put himself thru university, became an alarm installer for one of the larger alarm firms here in BC (e.g. they have the contract for all McDonalds in BC; McTavishes, not so much). Company policy matches mine. My son may remove a Phillips, but he is only to install a Robertson. I felt vindicated (tho I still may be a tad AR at times, I admit).

    I’ll end with a sociological nationalistic observation. First, my credentials, I lived in the USofA for 14 years, back in the 60’s an I go to the US (less than 20 km south of where I sit) almost weekly.

    You Americans are (by nature) a more loyal lot (for better AND for worse), and I suspect this is the reason for your persistence with the Phillips screw.

    Gas prices. Here in Canada, if one gas station is at $1.23 per litre, EVERY station within sight will be at $1.23 per litre or they won’t sell a litre (about a quart) of gas that day.

    25 km south of here, in Washington State, I regularly see as much as $0.31 per gallon difference ACROSS THE STREET! Inconceivable here in Canada. We do not have the brand loyalty to support a penny’s difference across the street.

    It’s in your water. My brother has 50% of my exact same genes and 100% Canadian genes. He has lived in the US for over 50 years and regularly drives clear across America’s Friendliest Small Town (so they claim) to pay 30 cents more a gallon. Such a waste of Canadian genes!

    PS Your border guards are consistently friendlier than ours. Hate to admit it, but, to quote a great American (Peter Schickle), “Facts are facts, you can’t have an opinion about facts!”

    GOD bless Earth! (Sorry, but I’m Canadian, it’s just the way we swing, eh?)

  • Andrew

    No offense to the Robertson intended, it’s just not used much Stateside. I’m not sure if I’ve ever even seen one in use “in the wild.”

  • joe

    I know tool names can be affected by region but we always called them Square head & Star head in the South… And never called it a “Slot Head”

  • Andrew

    Joe, I always knew it to be “flat head” I had never heard slot head before, but is technically the name. Square and Star are interesting, I hadn’t heard that before.

  • Steve

    Robertson screws are used all over the place in the US, but are used in hidden applications the majority of the time. They are used almost exclusively here for making pocket hole joints in kitchen cabinets, frames, tables and chairs, and anywhere else a standard butt joint isn’t strong enough. And the primary pocket hole jig system in the US is Kreg which uses the Robertson head.

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  • Ken

    I would take issue with your relegating the Robertson type drivers and screws to the “less common” shelf. The Robertson is favored highly in Canada for its strength over the Phillips drive. The only aspect where the Robertson type suffers is in public exposure. Kind of like Beta was to VHS. Although it was superior to VHS, the Beta technology was buried by VHS money backers. We must realize that, sometimes, what is put before us is not the best for us (roll in the Obama administration).

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  • Bro Bailey

    Thank you so much for this piece! I’m absorbing everything I can about tools. I just put this site on my toolbar!

  • Humphrey

    Actually, “flathead” in my experience is a screw configuration — a screw with a head that is flat on top and tapered underneath — the kind that generally requires countersinking to accommodate the head. There are flathead wood screws, flathead sheet metal screws, flathead machine screws, and so on, and any of them can be Philips drive, hex drive, slot drive, etc.

  • Mo

    It’s hence the name, not whence.

  • eddie

    You now need to add JIS it’s a Japanese cross head very tiny

  • eddie

    Like a + sign exactly like it

  • Steve Mwangi

    Knowing the different types of screwdrivers goes along way in helping users make the right purchasing choice as they will go for a specific screwdriver aimed to perform a specific tasks. A great post worth sharing.

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  • Tony Goodchild

    Hi Jesse, good to tell us that “cam out” is a deliberate feature of Phillips head screws. But most times it happens with me (1) I can’t get enough torque to get the screw in or out and/or (2) the screw head gets a little damaged. Please tell us more about pozi drive screws (which take more torque than Phillips) and torx screws (which have become my favourite for all jobs)!

  • Woodscrews Fasteners
  • Danny Clark

    Actually, The “slot head” you are referring to, is correctly called a “common” screw. And the corresponding tool, a “common” screwdriver. However hardly anyone uses this term no matter how correct.

  • Zara

    What is the best screw drive and why do we need so many?