home improvement

Which Screwdrivers Do You (Really) Need?

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

There are a lot of different kinds of screwdriver — at least a dozen distinct types. But, according to Justin May, of Alpers Hardware in Port Washington, New York, unless you work on cars, cell phones, or, say, in the aerospace industry, you really need to know only five of them. “Usually, all you really need are a couple of different sizes of flathead and Phillips screwdrivers,” he says. “Unless you do specialty work, you don’t need super-small bits, and you don’t need lots of different options.” Whether you’re buying for yourself or as a gift, here are the most useful screwdrivers for five different types of people, along with an important skill that everyone should know.

For people who just want to buy one thing and get it over with

Most everything handled by traditional screwdrivers can be taken care of by a single tool with interchangeable bits. This Lutz screwdriver is a favorite of Strategist senior editor Peter Martin, who learned about it from his uncle, a longtime plumber. Its 15 bits — including the standard flathead and Phillips, along with more specialized Robertson and Torx bits (see below), which you probably won’t need until you start a career in decking — are stored inside the handle, so you don’t have to carry around an extra case.

This is a ratcheting screwdriver, which means the shaft can spin freely in one direction. So if you’re tightening a screw, it’ll apply turning force as you rotate your wrist to the right, then let your wrist spin back to the left and into place for another twist — all without removing the screw head from the screw. Since the tip and shaft are not part of the same solid piece of metal, a tool like this isn’t as strong as a traditional screwdriver. But if you need a screwdriver only a few times a month (or year), this is your best option. It’s basically a multi-tool. As May says, it means “you don’t have to carry around a box filled with screwdrivers.”

For those with a little more patience (and space)

Flathead screwdrivers are iconic, but they also can be hard to get into screw heads, since you have to line up the slots perfectly, and quick to slip out once you do. They’ve mostly been replaced by Phillips head screwdrivers, which have tips that look like an X. Those get more grip on a screwhead and almost funnel the screwdriver into the correct position. Still, if you’re going to be changing light switches or outlets, you’ll need a flathead screwdriver to remove the plastic faceplates. For nearly everything else, like mounting that coat hook to the wall or attaching the hardware to hang a heavy mirror, you’ll want a Phillips head.

Klein Tools screwdrivers are made in the U.S. and have a comfortable, cushioned handle that should be a more common feature than it is. The company’s screwdrivers have impressively durable tips — a critical feature for smaller tools, which can be more susceptible to bending and breaking.

Phillips head screwdrivers come in sizes from 0 to 4. The lower the number, the larger the tip. Most jobs can be handled by a No. 2, like this 7-inch option from Klein.

For bicyclists or fans of IKEA furniture

If you’ve ever assembled a Hemnes bed or Billy bookcase, you’re familiar with hex-head screws, which require Allen wrenches, also known as hex keys. Furniture makers like these because they sit deep inside the screwhead for a better grip, which allows you to more easily make tight connections necessary to attach, say, the legs of a couch. Also, Allen wrenches are small and inexpensive to make, so manufacturers like IKEA can include them in the box, reassuring buyers that they’ll definitely have the tools they’ll need for assembly. That small size and weight is also what makes Allen wrenches good bike tools. They make tight connections and can be thrown in your bag without weighing you down.

Hex keys can be annoying to use, in that you have to line the key up perfectly perpendicular with the screwhead. But this affordable set, which comes with both metric and standard sizes, has rounded tips, a feature that lets you insert the wrench into the screw head at a slight angle. That can be especially nice in tight spaces.