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The Turn of the Screw

July 8th, 2017

Over the last week or two I have been learning about screwdrivers. I blogged about it on June 28. You would think that after a couple of days of Googling and asking questions, I would have learned everything there was to know. Not so. I’m starting to think universities should offer master’s programs in screwdriver studies.

I thought I’d put up a photo of some of the drivers I’ve used, so you can look at them as I complain and ramble.

The driver on the right (orange plastic) probably came from Harbor Freight. Somehow, my dad ended up with a set. Guess what? They work great. The tips are hard, the handles are reasonably comfortable, and I’m sure they were cheap as dirt. I would not hesitate to buy new ones to carry in my vehicle. If you think your tools will probably get stolen, these are a good choice.

I don’t understand how Harbor Freight pulled this off, but the facts are undeniable.

To the left of the orange screwdriver, you will see a crooked wooden-handled screwdriver. It came from China. My lathe or milling machine (can’t recall) came with two screwdrivers, and this is one of them. It has a long, graceful bend in the shank, and I can assure you, that bend was not created intentionally. Here’s the funny part: it works. The tip hasn’t stripped. The handle hasn’t peeled. It’s a very useful tool.

Seems like the Chinese (some of them) have learned an important lesson Americans can’t seem to absorb: when you make cheap tools, you put the quality where it needs to be. These Chinese screwdrivers have plenty of shortcomings, but the tips are very good, and that’s 95% of what makes the tool work. Americans don’t do it that way. When we make cheap things, we spend the money on making the whole tool look nice, and we don’t invest in the parts that count.

The two screwdrivers to the left of the Chinese no-name are Stanleys. I believe I bought a red-handled set some time ago, and the other one came from a set that belonged to my dad. I’m not going to complain about these. They worked fine, and they weren’t expensive. I wouldn’t call them good screwdrivers, but they didn’t fall apart when I really needed them.

Speaking of falling apart, the next screwdriver is a Craftsman I bought in about 1995, as part of a set. I have very few left, and I don’t lose them, so you can guess what happened. The tips on the Phillips screwdrivers didn’t last. I don’t recall, but I’m sure I threw them out. Yes, Craftsmans are guaranteed for life, buy why would you replace a tool with another tool which will also fail? It’s not worth the drive to Sears.

My Craftsmans looked very nice. Unlike Harbor Freight, Sears put the money in the appearance. Now I avoid Craftsman screwdrivers, but I heartily endorse Harbor Freight. This is what Sears should have expected.

Next comes a Klein with a rubber handle. The screwdrivers are more expensive than Craftsmans. The tip on the screwdriver is a little chewy, and I don’t abuse it, so what does that tell you? For the most part, my Kleins have held up fine, but this one is dubious.

People buy Klein because they expect something that will work better than a cheaper tool, so Klein should use very good steel and add useful features. The steel in this screwdriver seems questionable, and the tool has other problems. The shank is round, so you can’t put a wrench on it. It has no hex bolster. A hex bolster is another feature that will allow you to use a wrench. The rubber handle reacts badly to oils and solvents. The butt of the driver is plastic, so you can’t hit it with a hammer. Also, the tool is not insulated, even though Klein is known for electrical tools.

I have read that Klein had a temporary steel issue which has been fixed, but I don’t want to get caught up in a company’s confused voyage of self-discovery and recovery. I’m not Dr. Phil. I have more hair.

Add all that up, and you have to ask: why Klein?

“Well, you have to cut corners if you want to compete.” Really? Let’s look at the next screwdriver.

The yellow Phillips head next to the Klein is a Wera Kraftform 900 Chiseldriver. It doesn’t have a rubber handle that hates gasoline. It has a full-length shank which goes to a steel cap on the butt, so you can use a hammer to drive it into dirty screws. The shank is hex-shaped so you can use a wrench. The shank has a big hex bolster so you can use a bigger wrench. The handle itself is hex-shaped at the shank end. What more could you ask?

You can get a set of 13 of these for $85, shipped. And they’re made in China. No, they’re not! Don’t be so gullible! They’re made in Germany. Real Caucasian quality tools. Yes, they cost a lot more than Craftsman. If Craftsman made this set, it would be about $20. But you don’t have to throw the Weras out the third time you use them. To get 14 Kleins, you have to pay about $112. So you spend around 40% more, for something that isn’t nearly as good.

I haven’t looked at every screwdriver made, but I’ve looked at a few, and it appears that if you want something good, you have to spend $25 per screwdriver for Snap-On, or you can buy German.

That’s not completely true, and that brings me to my latest screwdriver lesson. After ordering Wera drivers, I was told that they’re not right for use on guns. Guns are among the highest quality things we own, and the screws are made very well. Ordinary screws have slots that are V-shaped when viewed from the sides. Gun screw slots have parallel sides. Most screwdrivers have tapered tips. Gun screws require drivers that have flat tips. If you jam a tapered tip into a really good screw, you open it up on the near side and deface the weapon.

Like life wasn’t complicated enough.

I found a relatively cheap solution. For about $30, you can get a set of US-made Grace screwdrivers made for guns. They have square wooden handles that don’t slip when you get oil on them. They don’t have hex bolsters, but they do have flats on the shanks.

Here’s how I see it now, and I am aware that this could change in ten minutes:

1. If you want screwdrivers that work, cheap, get Harbor Freight and check the tips to make sure they’re okay. For all I know, the screwdrivers they sell now are crap.

2. If you want quality screwdrivers that won’t put you in the poorhouse, get a German brand like Wera, Wiha, or Fela.

3. If you want to work on guns, get Grace.

4. If you want screwdrivers for electrical work, get Wera or Wiha and forget about Klein. Get insulated shafts.

5. Never, ever buy a Craftsman screwdriver, and forget about the stupid warranty. Sears is disappearing. Where are you going to go every time your mushy Phillips head fails? And how many companies DON’T have a warranty? Let me check Wera. Yes, they have a lifetime warranty. Same deal.

I don’t know what to tell you about the Stanleys. They seem to work, but they are low on features.

It’s sad that the topic of screwdrivers has to be so complex. Part of the problem is my upbringing in a culture where people don’t know anything about tools, but the bigger part is the ineptitude of an entire industry. When you go to Home Depot to get a saw or an axe, you shouldn’t have to ask (axe?) things like, “Does it work?”

Is it unfair for me to plug German tools without testing them? In short, nein. The Internet is full of people who will confirm their excellence. Besides, I have Wiha precision screwdrivers and Allen keys, and they’re very good.

If the Weras crumble like Craftsmans, you better believe I’ll blog it.

I feel like I made the best choices I could, with the information I have.

I’m going to sit here for a while and run my hands over my Weras.

Happy driving.

One Response to “The Turn of the Screw”

  1. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I have almost every screwdriver pictured.
    That craftsman slotted driver is iconic.
    My first thought upon seeing it was the same as always: That’s where I left it. Often knowing it’s my dad’s, brother’s or co-worker’s.
    I have a drawer with a number of the same size Wiha terminal screwdrivers to give to my techs or replace the one taken.
    The Stanley phillips as pictured still works well after 30+ years.
    I have dressed a number of slotted screwdrivers on a surface grinder to get the parallel sides.
    1/4″ hex bits are a gift from God.