Everyone understands how to use a screwdriver, right? Well, not always. A screwdriver has a seemingly simple design and function, but can be surprisingly complicated to use correctly. Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve ever been confused about screwdriver sizing, style, use and more. Our complete guide to screwdrivers has all the info you need to know.

What Does a Screwdriver Do?

A screwdriver is a metal rod with a unique head shape. The tip of the screwdriver is designed to fit into what’s called a counterpart, which is usually either a screw or a bolt. The ability to fit into a counterpart instead of around it is what differentiates a screwdriver from a wrench.

There’s really no shortage of uses for a screwdriver. Whether you’re a professional contractor or simply need a tool for small household chores, a trusted screwdriver is an essential part of any toolkit. Common uses include:

  • Furniture assembly (cabinets, dressers and more)
  • Small electronics and computer equipment
  • Auto repairs including hose and air filter replacement
  • Drawers, light switches, cover plates and other small items

Don’t let the simplicity of the screwdriver fool you. Using the wrong type of screwdriver can cause serious damage to the counterpart. Plus, improperly fastened screws can be a safety hazard.  

The Main Parts of a Screwdriver

All screwdrivers can be broken down into four basic components:

The Handle

This is the part of the screwdriver you hold. Less inexpensive screwdrivers will typically have a hard plastic handle but higher quality screwdrivers can have rubberized, no-slip handles which are easier to grip and hold.

Parts of a screwdriver
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Image via Encyclopedia Britannica

The Shaft or Shank

This is the long, metal part of the screwdriver. The longer the screwdriver, the more torque you’ll be able to produce. A longer shaft gives your forearm more freedom to twist the screwdriver even when used in cramped quarters like underneath a car. On the other hand, shorter screwdrivers are easier to transport.   

The Blade

This is the end section of the screwdriver. The width and size of the blade determines the appropriate type of counterpart. Never try to use a screwdriver when the blade is too large or too small for the counterpart. For instance, while a small blade can technically fit into a large screw, the chances of stripping or damaging the screw drastically increases.  

The Tip

This is the style and shape of the very end part of the screwdriver. The screwdriver’s tip is the most important part. It determines which type of screws the driver can use.

Common Types of Screwdrivers

Slot Head Screwdriver

This is the single, flat head used for traditional screws. Also called a regular screwdriver, slot heads are the oldest and most common type of screwdriver.

Philips Head

types of screwdrivers
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Image via Industrial Screw Drivers

Philips Head screwdrivers are also very common. A Phillips screwdriver is a four-point star or cross. This design allows for the application of more torque. Damage can be prevented because the screwdriver will automatically slip out before over-tightening occurs.  

Torx Screwdriver

A Torx is a six-pointed head. Although they’re not very common, they’re easy to use. Note a Torx screwdriver isn’t as secure as a flathead or Philips Head, so they’re a better choice for lightweight objects.

Torque Screwdriver

A torque screwdriver allows for tightening to specific torque values. This is often necessary for manufacturing, auto repair and other precision maintenance. A limiting clutch ensures you tighten specifically to the value tightness you need.

Allen Wrench  

Finally, there’s the Allen wrench. This one’s a bit of an outlier. Despite the word “wrench” in the title, an Allen wrench is both a wrench and a screwdriver. It’s a wrench because the tool fits inside the counterpart, but it’s used like a screwdriver.  

Oh – and, of course, there’s also Dr. Who’s famous sonic screwdriver. But that one can be pretty hard to get ahold off. Basically, if you’re interested in the most versatility, get one Philips head and one flathead.  

Avoiding Common Screwdriver Problems

Most potential problems can be prevented with a combination of care and proper technique. Always use the right screwdriver for the job. The main problem you want to prevent is a stripped screw.

Stripping the screw means causing extensive damage to the screw head. For instance, a slip of a flathead across the top of a Philips screw can result in deep grooves. A stripped screw can’t be turned by any type of screwdriver and requires extensive effort for removal.

Using the wrong type of screwdriver is an easy way to strip the screw. Don’t use a Philips head screwdriver for a flat screw, and vice versa. Yes, it can sometimes work in a pinch – but the risk of stripped screws is pretty high. Plus, the screw won’t be in very securely.  

Aside from using the wrong type of screwdriver, you also don’t want to use the wrong size. The tip should snugly and completely fit the screw slot. Too narrow and driving the screw will require a ton of effort (and won’t end up very tight). Too wide and the screwdriver tip could press into the surface.  

Philips head screwdrivers are sized #0 through #04, with zero being the smallest. Size #02 is generally used for standard screws while #01 is common for miniature screws. The absolute smallest screws are often called jeweler’s screws.

How to Use a Screwdriver

Okay, so you’ve got the right size and type of screwdriver for the job. Now you want to use the right techniques. Don’t worry. This stuff is easy.

Are you inserting the screw into wood? If so, you’ll want to create a pilot hole. This is a small hole drilled into the wood.

Carpenter using a screwdriver to put a screw into wood
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Image via Farm and Fleet

Screws are often guided by the wood’s grain. This means the screws can take a crooked path. But drilling a shallow pilot hole helps the screw stay on course.

Next, you’ll place the screw into the pilot hole. Put the screwdriver into the screw head. Hold both the tip of the screwdriver and the screw with the fingers on one hand.

The saying is true: Right-y tight-y, left-y loose-y. If you’re inserting the screw, turn in a clockwise direction. Apply a slight pressure as you turn the screwdriver. You should feel the screw go past the pilot hole and enter the wood.    

Now move your fingers to the screwdriver’s shaft. The screwdriver will need a guide to stay lined up with the screw. Apply pressure as necessary.

What About a Power Screwdriver?

So far, the focus has been on handheld screwdrivers. But this is the modern age? Isn’t an electric or battery operated screwdriver the better option? Actually, not always.

First, power screwdrivers are pretty powerful. This leads to an increased risk of damage to both screws and property. Be careful using power screwdrivers around furniture and other surfaces where damage would be easily noticed.

A handheld screwdriver is easier to feel. You can insert screws with precision and less risk of damage. Handheld screwdrivers are especially useful if you’re inserting screws into hardwood. Also, rubbing soap or beeswax on the screws makes them easier to drive.  

Using a Screwdriver in Hard-to-Reach Places

Unfortunately, screws aren’t always conveniently located. You might need to access a screw underneath your car, behind a bunch of wiring or somewhere else out-of-the-way. There are a few tips and tricks to use here.

First, choose a screwdriver with the right length for your needs. Let the shaft of the screwdriver do the reaching for you. This helps you avoid injuring your hands and arms.  

You can also use a screw holder. This is a small attachment placed on the end of your screwdriver. With a small set of jaws, a screw holder keeps the screw in place without requiring your hands. Another similar feature is a magnetized screwdriver.  

Final Thoughts

The tips above should help you pick the right screwdriver for your needs. First, always choose the right type and size of screwdriver for the job. You’ll want at least a Philips head and a flathead for around the house.

Don’t let their simple appearance fool you. Screwdrivers are a sophisticated, versatile tool. Whether you’re an at-home do-it-yourselfer or professionally handy, you’ll need a trusted screwdriver by your side.

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