How to Use a Screwdriver

Picture of 6 screwdrivers laid out on a flat surface

A screwdriver is one of the essentials in your tool arsenal. It’s an old-fashioned yet necessary hand tool for completing countless projects and repairs. While most people know how to use a screwdriver, getting the most out of this essential tool requires knowing which type to select and the proper technique. Failing to do either can lead to the dreaded stripped screw or damage the screwdriver tip. This article will review how to choose the right screwdriver for the job while providing tips for appropriately using this essential hand tool.

The right screwdriver for the job

The biggest mistake most people make is using the wrong type of screwdriver for the job. This error isn’t due to ignorance but rather out of desperation. Who hasn’t attempted to jam a flathead screwdriver into a cross-shaped screw slot when they can’t locate that darned Phillips screwdriver? While you might get away with committing this tool sin once or twice, using the wrong screwdriver will eventually strip out the screw head or even damage the screwdriver’s tip.

Beyond choosing the right bit or head type, which we cover below, it’s essential to ask what’s the best screwdriver for the job.

A capable precision screwdriver is needed for small screws commonly found in electronics and children’s toys.

A ratcheting screwdriver is highly versatile with lots of torque, and is more efficient than a standard screwdriver.

An electric screwdriver can help reduce hand fatigue when not needing much torque, such as loosening electrical plates.

Standard sizes and naming conventions

Screwdriver Heads
Credit: DIY Gear Reviews

Many screwdrivers and screwdriver bits will be labeled with the size, such as a combination of letters to denote the type and a number to denote the size. Standard naming conventions are P or PH for Phillips heads, SQ for square heads, T for Torx heads, and just a number for most flathead screwdrivers.

Phillips heads

You’ll probably use the #2 Phillips screwdriver tip for most jobs. For Phillips screwdrivers, the pointed cross-shaped tip should fit snugly into the screw’s slot without extending beyond the screw’s head. With Phillips screwdrivers, if the point of the screwdriver is too small, you lose torque, requiring more arm strength to turn the screw. If the screw tip is too large, it won’t fit inside the screw head. This causes the tip to slip and chew up the inside of the screw head as you apply turning force.

Flathead screwdrivers

The tip should match the width of the screw’s slot for flathead screwdrivers. You won’t get a tight fit if the flat end is too small with your flathead screwdriver. This reduces the amount of torque you can create, and it also potentially damages the screwdriver tip.

How to hold a screwdriver

Holding a screwdriver properly is critical to producing optimal torque and preventing cam-out. Grip the screwdriver’s handle in your dominant hand and pinch the tip of the screwdriver between the thumb and forefinger of your non-dominant hand as close to the head of the screw as possible. Apply moderate downward force on the screwdriver from your dominant hand while rotating the handle clockwise for tightening and counterclockwise for loosening. Use your non-dominant hand to keep the screwdriver’s shaft lined up with the screw’s shaft to maximize torque and prevent the screw tip from slipping out of the slot.

How to avoid stripping screws

In addition to making sure you’re using the right size and type of screwdriver, there are other measures you can take to avoid stripping screws.

Apply constant pressure

When driving in a screw, apply firm downward pressure with your dominant hand to prevent the tip from jumping out of the slot. But don’t get carried away. Using too much downward pressure and torque on a stuck screw can cause you to twist off the screw head.

Drill a pilot hole

Use a drill to make a small pilot hole if working with wood or masonry. A pilot hole makes it much easier to start a screw, and a pilot hole also reduces the torque required to drive the screw into the material.

Picking manual or powered screwdrivers

For smaller jobs, stick with a manual screwdriver.

Power vs Manual Screwdriver
Credit: DIY Gear Reviews

However, their speed and torque can be overkill, causing the screwdriver tip to spin inside the screw head, stripping it out before taking your finger off the trigger.

Use proper alignment

Make sure the shafts of the screwdriver and the screw are aligned. Any bend in the imaginary line that runs from the screwdriver shaft to the tip of the screw will create a weaker connection between the screw head and screwdriver tip, increasing the odds of cam-out and stripping.

Use Torx screws

If you don’t mind their additional cost, try using Torx screws. Phillips screwdrivers are designed to cam out under certain torsional forces to prevent the user from over-tightening the screws.

Torx Screwdrivers
Credit: DIY Gear Reviews

Torx screws don’t have this feature. The star-shaped recess of these screws locks tightly to the Torx screwdriver tip, decreasing the odds of cam-out and hence stripping.

Retire worn-out screwdrivers and bits

Eventually, screwdriver tips wear out and deform over time, reducing their ability to fit snugly inside the screw slot. Their worn tips make them more likely to cam out of screw slots. Thank these old screwdrivers for their service, then lay them to rest.

Tony Carrick
Tony Carrick
Tony is a recognized expert in the home and DIY space, as well as outdoor recreation. His articles have appeared on websites such as Bob Vila, U.S. News and World Report, Angi, Popular Science, and Popular Mechanics. He can be emailed at awcarrick@gmail.com. His online portfolio is available at https://www.tonycarrick.com/.

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