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How to Use a Screwdriver

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A screwdriver is one of the essentials in your tool arsenal. It’s an old-fashioned yet still very necessary hand tool for completing countless projects and repairs.

While most people know how to use a screwdriver, getting the most out of this basic tool requires knowing which type to select and the proper technique for using it. 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 properly using this basic hand tool.

Choosing the correct type of 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. 

RELATED: Best screwdriver sets

Common sizes and naming conventions

Picture of various types of screwdriver head labels.
PH and P commonly denote Phillips screwdrivers. Some flat-head screwdrivers will include an SL label for slotted. T and SQ are typically used for Torx and SQ heads, respectively.

The most common screwdriver tips for most fasteners are the #1 and #2 sizes. 

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. 

Common 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

Chances are, you’ll 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. 

If the flat tip is too small with your flathead screwdriver, you won’t get a tight fit. This reduces the amount of torque you can create. It also potentially damages the screwdriver tip. 

How to hold a screwdriver

Holding a screwdriver properly is key 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. 

Applying too much downward pressure and torque to a screw that’s stuck can actually cause you to twist off the screw head. 

Drill a pilot hole

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

Picking manual or powered screwdrivers

For smaller jobs, stick with a manual screwdriver. 

Picture of an impact driver and a regular manual screwdriver
Make sure to use the right tool for the job. An impact driver or a drill may be overpowered for many tasks and risks breaking or stripping the screw. A manual or ratchet screwdriver is underpowered for other jobs as well.

Power screwdrivers or drills converted to use as a power screwdriver may be necessary for larger jobs that involve driving in a lot of screws. 

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 actually designed to cam out under certain torsional forces to prevent the user from over-tightening the screws. 

Give Torx screws and heads/bits a shot if you haven’t used them before. It’s easy to avoid stripping the screw with a Torx head. You’ll also get additional torque, which makes it far easier to drive in a screw than when using a Phillips head.

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. 

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