Light fixtures, electronics, kitchen appliances, the battery door on kids toys, cabinet doors, curtain rods, furniture, and just about anything else you can think of is probably held together by screws. This is likely to be the most frequently used tool in your arsenal, and there are plenty to choose from beyond the basic Flathead (which also goes by slotted or standard) and Phillips versions. This post will make sure you’re equipped with enough knowledge to build a screwdriver set that will tackle a wide range of projects with as little frustration as possible.
This is the second post in the series. See the first post here: Building a Toolkit Post #1 The Hammer and a directory of all our posts on tools in the Subject Matter Organizer. Links below may be affiliate links, see Disclosure on Affiliations .
There are really only three parts to a screwdriver, the handle, the tip, and the tip. You grip the handle to apply torque to a screw. The tip is just a shape that matches a recess on the screw-head (like a lock and a key). And the shaft connects the two. Starting out, we should cover some basic dos and don’ts plus some features that you’ll be looking to consider when choosing which screwdriver is right for your kit.
- A screwdriver is not a pry bar, a can opener, a hole punch for drywall, etc. I’ve tried most of these examples through the years and have several broken tips, skinned knuckles, ruined projects, and other reminders to not misuse tools.
- Having a variety of lengths matters. The standard length works great on most things, but having a long or stubby option available when you can’t reach something any other way makes a job go much smoother.
- Handles aren’t just about comfort (see figure 1 below). While it should fit well in you hand, look for some shape that will be easy to grip tightly. That handle is what decides how much of your force can be applied to the screw. You need a good surface that won’t slip around in your hand (for instance, a smooth handle with no ridges is awful). Triangles, pentagons, and hexagons with various amounts of raised features are all popular and work well. Big thick handles are great for generating that extra bit of torque but take up quite a bit of room in the toolbox if you have a full set.
- You need to select the right sized bit/head to avoid damaging the screw head. If there’s a lot of wiggle (often referred to as play) when you put the screwdriver tip into the screw head there’s a bigger chance it will damage the metal (called stripping the head). The connection should be as tight as possible while still allowing the tip to be fully inserted for good contact between the two. This allows all the force you put on the screwdriver to transfer evenly to the screw. Too big is often just as bad as too small, as both sizing mistakes cause damage.
- Since this is such a frequently used tool, I want to stress a consideration for higher quality. Manufacturing methods (like cold or drop forged) and higher quality alloys help the tools hold up well over time. When using these tools, they don’t flex and deform nearly as much and last a very long time. I’ll include some higher quality examples below in the buy it once selections.
Fixed Head Styles and Multi-Piece Sets:
You’ll need a good base set of some common sizes in standard and Phillips to get started. When looking at the sets to show as examples, I was looking for some that included varying lengths so you can get into those hard to reach spots. I also looked for sets that had a maximum of 24 pieces. There are plenty of options that have more, but you won’t get that much additional value out of them as they tend to get a little repetitive. If you’re needing lots of options, that’s where the bit holder/handle style comes into play.
Some might say why not just grab a handle with a bunch of bits and why do I need so many screwdrivers. While I love the bit holders and multi-bit sets (and I will profess that love in the next section) I truthfully think it would be best to have the old fashioned variety available to you. The advantage of having these over just the bit holder and some bit sets becomes apparent in a couple of areas. The previously mentioned multiple lengths are a major reason. These don’t have bits that can fall out in a difficult spot when working. They are often narrower than a bit in a holder so they’ll fit in some places the other tool just won’t work. The bits fit in a holder and then the tip is placed in the screw head to create two interface points (which results in more play), and you’ll feel both when using it. In short, it’s worth having a good set of plain single function screwdrivers.
This is a fine place to get started. Some may never need more than a set like this, especially if you aren’t getting into very many projects. I don’t care much for the little key chain screwdriver shown but if you’re not going to keep a bigger set in the car, throw it in the glove box and it may come in handy. If that’s a concern, though, you could get a lot more miles out of that glove-box space with something like this.
This set has a couple of extra things going for it. I love the stubby ones and the array of lengths. The small ones will come into play on some electronic thing or another one day. The handles look comfortable and overall this would be a great set.
These are really aimed at the commercial/industrial markets. Yeah, you’ll be fine with that larger set just above these. I know they refer to them as cabinet tip/keystone tip instead of standard; the cabinet tip is for electrical cabinets and has straighter sides than the keystone type you normally see. Check the tool belt of an electrician working at a power plant and you’ll find these, though. They really are fantastic.
Bit holders and Bit Sets:
I said earlier that I would profess my love of the bit sets. I have, at best guess, around 1000 individual bits. Yeah, a bunch are duplicates or part of a large 100 piece set, but they’re relatively inexpensive to acquire and handy when you need them. I keep a handle and 50 bit set in several places like the car, my household tool kit, my wife’s car, the kitchen junk drawer, and in a use-it-all-the-time bin in the workshop.
For every advantage of a traditional screwdriver that you give up, you gain a tremendous amount of flexibility with a driver handle and bit set. A small amount of toolbox space now represents tens, if not hundreds, of different driver options. This is the place to go well beyond the Phillips and slotted bits and cover all the specialty types of fasteners you may come across.
You’ll want to buy a nice bit holder/driver handle, but the bits aren’t as important quality wise overall (you’re going to break or lose them pretty regularly).
Things to look for in a bit holder:
- Good handle for grip that takes 1/4″ bits (most common size)
- Bit storage inside the handle is a great feature
- Some of these have ratcheting options. While this can be nice, I would only go for it on the nicer handles; every cheap ratchet-type I’ve had broke after a couple of days.
- T-handle type options are good to have around for some more torque, but aren’t an essential. Here’s a T-Handle for 1/4″ bits as an example if you think you need one.
Great starter bit holder. The handle is a great shape and designed for torque, and even has a lifetime warranty. The only thing missing here is some handle storage. If you want almost the same thing only insulated for electrical work, check this one out.
This one has pretty much the same features and includes the handle storage. It includes a couple of Phillips and standard bits as well.
This option includes the best features of the other two, but also has ratcheting action. Really, this only comes into play if you’re working with it for several hours in a row; otherwise the time savings is kinda negligible. But if you do use it a lot, you’re forearms will thank you.
Things to look for in a bit set:
- You’ll be looking for sets that have a wide assortment of sizes and cover most fasteners you may come across (Phillips, standard, Hex/Allen, Torx/T, square drive, and maybe some nut drivers).
- In addition to different sizes, also look for a set that has some long bits (2-4″). These let you slightly change the length of the screwdriver and will sometimes be just enough to get the job done.
- You’ll also want to decide if you need to have tamper proof bits. These have really odd-ball bits (like the one with two pegs) that help out mostly with things like car interiors and the odd electronic (check here if you’re concerned about electronics).
You’ll get Phillips, standard, some hex/allen, some torx, and a short extension all in a small easy to pack away case. It’s nothing exotic but neither are most screws you’re likely to run across.
For only a couple more dollars, you pick up some square drive bits, varying length, and high quality steel in this set. One drawback is giving up some hex/allen but there were only a couple in the other set anyway.
Like I said earlier, there isn’t really a buy-it-once option on bits, but there are larger sets to consider that have plenty to offer.
Larger Set #1– There are plenty of options in this one; it even has some drill bits.
Larger Set #2 – These are impact rated, don’t ever use normal bits in an impact tool.
Larger Set #3 – Another nice impact rated set.
And that’s it for getting started on screwdrivers and bits. Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments.