In the Workshop / Screws & Nails
  • Reader's Tips: You can cut a slot in a stripped phillips or hex head screw with a hacksaw or a dremel tool cutoff wheel and use a slotted screwdriver to remove it.

    Better than wax or soap... a dab of wood glue will lubricate a screw or nail as it is driven, then will help hold it when dry. - Mark Kanzler

  • There are two basic types of screws: wood and sheet metal. The main difference between these is the thread in the screw. Sheet metal screws have sharper and more pronounced threads to enable them to better penetrate metal surfaces whereas the wood screw has a wider spaced more shallow thread since it will be used on softer surfaces. A sheet metal screw may be used in wood however a wood screw should not be used on metal. Both types of screws are measured in the same manner and are identical in all other aspects.
  • Match a screw to the type of job it will do. A flathead screw is fine for most joints. You can drive its head flush with the surface or sink it below and hide it with wood putty or a wood plug. When a screw must be exposed, an ovalhead screw is attractive and can be easily removed without marring a surface. A roundhead screw is most useful for attaching thin material, such as a metal bracket or pegboard, to wood.
  • Screws usually come in lengths ranging from 1/4 inch to 3 inches. Diameters are indicated by a gauge number. Many length and gauge combinations are available. When buying screws, state the length and gauge number you want--for example: a 1-1/4 inch, #7 screw. Get stainless steel or aluminum screws for a project that will be exposed to moisture and brass or bronze ones to match hardware. Otherwise, you'll save using plain, plated, or galvanized screws.
  • You can do most projects with either common or finishing nails. Common nails have large, flat heads and are fine for rough work. When appearance counts, select the thinner finishing nails. You can drive a finishing nail's head below the woods surface with a nail set and fill the hole with wood putty.
  • Nails are sized according to the penny system, designated by a number and a d. For sizes up to 10d (10 penny), you can calculate a nail's length by dividing the penny size by four, then adding a half inch. An 8d nail, for example, is 2-1/2 inches long.
  • Keep a block of paraffin in your workshop. Rub screws across it and they will penetrate wood with less difficulty. Paraffin is better than soap for these purposes because it does not attract atmospheric moisture that can rust metal.
  • Because of their relatively large diameter and large, coarse threads, lag screws have a tendency to cause splits when used in softwood. To avoid this, drill a full depth pilot hole that is at least half the diameter of the screw threads.
  • A screw that is too tight will sometimes come loose if you heat the edge of the screwdriver.
  • If screws are hard to turn or tighten, try rubbing their threads with soap or paraffin.
  • The holding power of a nail with a smooth shaft depends on friction between the shaft and the surrounding wood fibers. For this reason do not wax nails or wipe them with linseed oil to make them easier to drive. Instead, especially in hardwoods, drill a pilot hole about half the diameter of the shaft.
  • Confused by nail designations such as "4-penny," "8-penny," and so on (commonly abbreviated 4d, 8d, etc.)? To determine the penny size of a particular nail length, the following method works well for lengths up to three inches (10d). Take the length of the nail you need, subtract 1/2-inch, and multiply by 4. For example, if you need a 2-1/2 inch nail, subtract 1/2 inch, which leaves 2. Multiply by 4. What you need is an 8-penny nail (8d).
  • Is a hole too large for the screw that needs to be there? Place one or more glue-smeared matchsticks or toothpicks in the hole to give the screw threads somethings to bite into.
  • When you use a toggle bolt, insert a washer under the head of the bolt. Otherwise since the hole you must drill is usually larger than the head, there is a danger that the entire bolt may slip into the wall cavity before you get your hang-up in place.
  • To keep the head of a finishing nail from showing, try this: After it has been nailed into the wood, use another nail as a nail set, then fill the indentation with wood putty.
  • You don't have to fumble around with two hands trying to hammer a nail into a small, hard to reach place. Just wedge the nail between the claws of the hammer. Pound the nail in "backwards" until it is securely in the wood, then lift the hammer off the nail, turn it around, and continue hammering the normal way.
  • In a pinch, use locking grip pliers or an adjustable wrench to remove bolts.
  • To get a difficult nut moving, create a groove in the nut with a hammer and chisel, then pound with a rubber mallet; always counter clockwise.
  • To mount light loads between studs on a plaster or plasterboard wall, use hollow wall anchors or toggle bolts. Reserve plastic anchors for very light loads. Putting heavy loads on these fasteners could cause the wall to give way.

        The length of the hollow wall anchors or toggle bolts you need depends on how thick the plaster or plaster board on your wall is. To determine a wall's thickness, drill a small hole in it, then bend a piece of stiff wire into a hook and curve the hook through the hole. Pull the hook against the inside of the wall and mark the wire at the point it comes out of the wall. Remove the hook and measure between the end of the hook and your mark. You can drive a special sharp-tipped hollow wall anchor into plasterboard with a hammer. After that, flatten the anchor in the wall and withdraw the screw.
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