Repair Smarter: Confessions of a Former Screw Stripper

This is the first in a series of posts we're calling "Repair Smarter," with tips and tricks for how to make your repairs go more smoothly.
Cara on Flickr/CC BY 3.0

As a kid, whenever I picked up a screwdriver, I could expect to strip a screw. I've often thought it might have had something to do with the tools my parents kept around the house: the screwdriver I used most often was a slightly rusty old 6-in-1 hammer/screwdriver like this that was already in the kitchen junk drawer when my parents bought the house. It did the job—when I was ten, I put together my brother's IKEA bedroom set on my own one afternoon—and the excitement of a Matryoska doll hammer was worth all the screws I stripped.

Better tools would probably have helped. But since I started working at iFixit, I've discovered a bigger problem: I've been screwing stuff in wrong my whole life. It's hard to admit. Screws seem so blindingly obvious, don't they? Stick the driver in the hole, twist and shout. But in the true sharing iFixit spirit, here's what I've learned. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes (or just laugh at them, if you figured this stuff out long ago).

1. Pick the Right Screw Bit

The two most common screw bits, as you almost certainly know, are flat-head and Phillips. Phillips drivers allow for greater torque and are far less likely to slip out than their flat-headed brothers, but they are also more likely to strip screws when poorly seated—especially in small electronics applications. Actually, tiny screws are easier to strip in general, because they have less metal, and because the difference between a properly and improperly seated screwdriver is much smaller.

See a screw you don't recognize? Check Wikipedia's handy and nearly comprehensive list of screw drives. We've got most major and proprietary bits necessary for electronics repair in our 54-bit driver kit.

2. Size Matters

I've always been OK at making sure I used the right type of bit. I know my flat-head from my Phillips, my Torx from my square. I know my iPhone is screwed together with special proprietary Pentalobe bits. But the biggest mistake I've been making is understimating the importance of using the right size bit. My coworkers tell me that the most common reason for stripped screws is using a too-small driver. We try to make it as easy as possible: every iFixit product manual tells you what size driver to use for each step, and the bits in our driver kits are clearly labeled.

What if you have to guess? You can measure the screw—compare the measurement with a screw dimension chart like this. If you can't measure the screw, it's better to err on the larger side. Start with the largest bit you think might work, then work down until you find something that fits.

3. Hold It Right

This is another tip from my "how have I been doing this wrong for so long?" list. Be sure to always hold the driver in line with the axis of the screw. Take care not to waver to the side. Press firmly, but not too firmly. If the driver starts to slip, stop and reevaluate: do you need a different-sized bit? Are you off-axis? If a screw starts to strip, don't continue on without changing something.

4. Have a Back-Up Plan

When all else fails, as it probably will eventually, it's good to have a back-up. You can always try some simple home remedies—turn the screw through a rubber band, for example. If you're doing a lot of repairs, you may want to invest in something that can help you extract stubborn screws. We offer two types of screw extracting tools: screw-extracting pliers, which have specially designed jaws, and precision screw extractors, which have sharp four-pointed bits to grip what's left of the screwhead.

I still have relapses; I still screw up occasonally. But at least now I know what the problem is (usually), and how to fix it (most of the time). And I don't strip a screw every time I pick up a screwdriver, because now I have the tools to repair a little bit smarter.

Tags: Gadgets | Repair | Technology