Screwdrivers are among the simplest hand tools and everybody knows how to use one. Right? Judging by the number of stripped screw heads I find, I’m not so sure about that. I think people have a tougher time with this tool than they let on.

I see at least five reasons that people strip screws:

  1. They’re using the wrong insert bit or the wrong type of screwdriver.
  2. Overtightening.
  3. They mangle the screw head because they have trouble reaching the screw.
  4. They ruin the screw because they’re having trouble handling the screwdriver
  5. The screw is stuck and is not turning or turns only with difficulty.

Let’s tackle each one of these problems, and then have a look at some of our favorite problem-solving screwdrivers.

Note: If the screw head is already stripped, have a look at our stripped-screw removal tutorial.

The 5 Solutions to Mangled Screw Heads

There are several easy solutions to keep you from mangling screw heads. With a methodical approach, we can almost guarantee that you’ll never wreck another screw head when tightening or loosening the fastener.

Problem 1. Using the Wrong Insert Bit or Using a Damaged Bit

If you’re trying to make do with the wrong size bit, you’ll almost certainly strip the screw head because a bit that’s undersized or oversized relative to the fastener will not turn it properly. Likewise, a damaged bit that is chipped or severely worn will rotate inside the recess in the screwhead, stripping it.

Solution

Buy a high-quality set of bits to ensure that you are more likely to have the size you need, and rotate out bits as they are worn or damaged. Also, having a large selection to choose from also distributes the wear and tear over many bits and makes it more likely you can quickly swap out a bit that’s worn down

screwdriver bits
Invest a little money in a high-quality set of bits and rotate out parts as they become damaged or worn. We have several years on this Bosch set which is tough enough to use in an impact driver.
Roy Berendsohn

Problem 2: Overtightening

A lot of people think that that it’s better to make a screw a little too tight than leave it loose. In other cases, fatigue or a poor grip can cause someone to inadvertently overtighten. Regardless, of the cause, overtightening is a sure way to strip a fastener. A lot of this comes down to better technique and implementing the solution mentioned above (use the right bit and replace damaged or worn bits).

Solutions

Tighten the screw firmly but when you feel that the screwdriver bit or the head wants to cam out (that is, rotate out of the screw slot) stop tightening.

You can also tighten the screw, stop, adjust your hand position on the screwdriver, then apply a little more downward force as you torque the screw carefully the rest of the way home.

screwdrivers
Tightening even several screws by hand can be tiring. It can help to stop, and readjust your hand position. When driving screws horizontally, try the dagger grip, a common hand hold used on screwdrivers, chisels, awls, and nut drivers. Apply firm downward pressure and twist the handle as you do so.
Roy Berendsohn

Finally, where a specification exists as to how tight to make a screw, buy a torque screwdriver. These tools disengage when the foot pound limit to which they have been set is reached. This prevents over tightening but also undertightening, since you can feel free to tighten the fastener all the way up to the point that the tool disengages. The GearWrench 89620 was a recent Tool Award winner.

Problem 3: Can’t Reach

When people struggle to reach a screw, they tend to mangle the screw head once they manage to get in contact with it.

Solution

Consider buying a small selection of screwdrivers with longer shafts, or a single tool with an adjustable shaft. We’ve used the Klein 32751 for several years. Its shaft is adjustable, enabling the user to change the screwdriver’s length from 4 inches to 8 inches.

screwdrivers
The Klein 32751 has a spring-loaded collet at the end of its handle. By pushing the collet forward or pulling it back you can slide the screwdriver shaft forward to lengthen it or shorten it by retracting it into the handle. The shaft can be withdrawn entirely, and switched end for end. One end is a No. 2 Phillips and the other is a 1/4-inch slotted. The tool is handy for reaching into appliances and deep electrical boxes and for fitting through the holes in mounting hardware for window shades and blinds.
Roy Berendsohn

Problem 4: Difficulty Handling the Screwdriver

Even if you can reach a screw, have a properly sized screwdriver or a bit that accurately matches the screw, none of this will do you any good at all if you can’t comfortably, powerfully, and consistently apply torque. If your hand slips or you have trouble applying torque, you’ll almost certainly strip that screw head.

Solution

As basic as it sounds, reliably turning a screwdriver starts with a good grip. Look for screwdrivers with large-diameter handles, tri-lobe handles and cushioned handles with features such as soft rubber, non-slip surfaces inset into the handle. All of this improves your grip and in so doing provides for more consistent torque.

screwdrivers
A large-diameter handle helps provide you with more screw-turning torque and more control as you tighten or loosen. Its increased surface area also promotes a better grip. On the left is a Craftsman V series screwdriver and on the right is a decades-old Yankee screwdriver (with a handle 1-1/4 inches in diameter!). You can buy beautifully-made reproductions of the Yankee, a tool from the analog era that’s worth investing in. Generally speaking, the increased control and torque that larger handles afford translates into better driving performance and less likelihood of a stripped screw head.
Roy Berendsohn

Also consider a comfortable set of non-slip work gloves. We have several years of using Klein’s and find they offer tremendous wear resistance and a good, hearty grip.

Problem 5: The Screw is Stuck

You can have everything in order but there are going to be times when a threaded fastener refuses to budge. Remember, once you strip the screw head, the problem only gets worse. So stop and take a more judicious approach. Brute force usually results in a stripped screw.

Solution

There is both a chemical and a mechanical solution to this. First, for machine screws stuck in metal, use a penetrating oil to penetrate and break up rust that is locking the screw in its hole.

Another simple and time-honored solution is to apply carefully-controlled torque by using a screwdriver with a wrench fastened to the bolster on its handle. The Craftsman V-series screwdrivers are recent Tool Award winners and are among the finest screwdrivers we’ve ever used. We have a complete set in the Pop Mech shop.

screwdrivers
Heavy-duty screwdrivers often have a wrench bolster formed into the handle. Attaching a wrench to this can give you incredible power and control to turn in or remove a difficult screw
Roy Berendsohn

Another simple mechanical solution is a manual impact driver that you strike with a hammer. Set the tool to loosen and when you strike it with a hammer, the impact is transferred to the tool’s spring-loaded mechanism and the shock from the strike is often enough to get a stubborn screw to turn. This heavy-duty model by MAC Tools has a hefty hand guard to protect you when you strike it with a small sledge or a great big ball peen hammer. Another version, without a hand guard, is this excellent model from Proto.

Although they’re not hand tools, cordless impact drivers can often remove a stuck or damaged fastener. But be careful with these. They apply so much torque they can also snap off a screw head. The Milwaukee Surge is a pro duty version, and expensive, but it’s a workhorse. The Hart impact driver costs a fraction of the price, but it’s an effective power tool for people who don’t need pro-duty power.


Some of Our Favorite Screwdrivers

There are lots of high-quality, problem-solving screwdrivers out there. Here are some of our time-tested favorites.

DEWALT Pivot Bit Holder Set, 14-Piece (DWPVTC14)

Pivot Bit Holder Set, 14-Piece (DWPVTC14)

DEWALT Pivot Bit Holder Set, 14-Piece (DWPVTC14)

Now 39% Off
$14 at Amazon

Sadly, one of our favorite screwdrivers, which has a pivoting tip, is no longer made by Craftsman. Loosen the tip to adjust the amount it pivots. Tighten the tip to reduce the pivot. The tool is incredibly handy for removing door knob screws and fasteners in hard-to-reach places on or around engines, motors, and machines. Used versions can be found at flea markets and on eBay.

DeWalt makes a modern version that works on the same principle. You can install it in a drill, impact driver, or even a multi-bit screwdriver. And there you are. Problem solved.

Klein Tools 85076INS Insulated Screwdriver Set

85076INS Insulated Screwdriver Set

Klein Tools 85076INS Insulated Screwdriver Set

You simply can’t find a better deal in pro-duty insulated screwdrivers than Klein’s 85076. The set of six US-made tools have an insulated shaft, precisely-machined tips, and a high-grip handle. Even if you never find yourself working on an energized circuit (something amateurs should always avoid) these tools are still worth it for their outstanding workmanship and durability.

Stanley FMHT69236 Hi-Speed Ratcheting Screwdriver

FMHT69236 Hi-Speed Ratcheting Screwdriver

Stanley FMHT69236 Hi-Speed Ratcheting Screwdriver

Credit: Roy Berendsohn

The Stanley FatMax ratcheting screwdriver has a gear case that spins screws very rapidly. It comes in for some poor reviews on Amazon, but we like it and have used it for several years, particularly in removing and installing small electrical screws. The high-speed action doesn’t work under much load, but works beautifully before the screw gets very tight or once it’s loosened.

We also can strongly recommend the Klenk DA86450 (not shown). We carried one for years and actually wore it out from constant use. It disappeared from the market and has re-appeared on Amazon, but it’s still US made. It’s a great tool.

Yankee Screwdriver

Yankee Screwdriver

Yankee Screwdriver

Credit: Roy Berendsohn

I hardly use my old Yankee, a spiral-drive screwdriver; a hand tool that was in common use when I started in the building trades. On the other hand, I still find it useful as a 12-inch-screwdriver. I don’t use it in spiral-drive mode, (I lock that drive feature out by turning its drive lock ring); instead, I use it as a large ratcheting screwdriver. You can buy newly-reintroduced reproductions of this famous tool from specialty tool retailer Garrett Wade; this new tool will take hex-shank bits, which my old Yankee will not. To make my tool compatible with these modern bits, I equipped it with an adapter chuck. Now I can use it with any 1/4-inch hex shank drill bit bit or screwdriver bit. So I tuck my old faithful Yankee into a tool roll to protect it, and take it with me on every job. You never know when you’ll need a hand tool as a backup.

Headshot of Roy Berendsohn
Roy Berendsohn
Senior Home Editor

Roy Berendsohn has worked for more than 25 years at Popular Mechanics, where he has written on carpentry, masonry, painting, plumbing, electrical, woodworking, blacksmithing, welding, lawn care, chainsaw use, and outdoor power equipment. When he’s not working on his own house, he volunteers with Sovereign Grace Church doing home repair for families in rural, suburban and urban locations throughout central and southern New Jersey.