Canadian Woodworking

The common wood screw

Author: Carl Duguay
Photos: Ray Pilon
Illustration: James Provost
Published: April May 2010
wood screws
wood screws

Go into any building supply store and you’re bound to find the ubiquitous ‘wood screw’ – the essential fastener that every woodworker uses.

When it comes to assem­bly time, we usually reach for two basic products – glue and screws. Like modern glues, there are dozens of varieties of screws available today for just about every conceivable application. Nonetheless, the funda­mental function of the wood screw has remained the same.

It All Starts at the Top

The typical wood screws with which we are most familiar have a flat head and generally a Robertson (a.k.a. square) drive. The major advantage of a Robertson drive is that it significantly reduces ‘cam out’ when applying full torque to a screw. Due to the design of the drive, Robertson screws are much less likely to fall off the end of the driver than most other types of screws, even when held at an angle, making one-handed driving much easier.

Many Heads Are Better Than One

There are some situations when a screw with a different head is a bet­ter choice. On very thin stock, where you don’t need to hide the screw head, use a screw with wide shoulders, such as a round head, pan head or washer head screw. Pan head screws, by the way, look very similar to round head screws, except they have a flatter head and chamfered sides. These three screws deliver a lot of holding power. Pocket hole screws, which rely on the holding power of the screw rather than glue, are essentially a washer-type head screw. In a pinch you can use an appropriately sized washer, or cup washers, with a flat or round head screw to simulate a washer head screw.

Some furniture designs call for screws to show. Oval and round heads are the common choices here. These come in a variety of sizes and finishes, with brass being a popular option. The major prob­lem with brass screws is that they are weaker than steel screws and can easily break if too much torque is used when setting them. To avoid breakage, pre-drill the screw hole, then install an equiva­lent sized steel screw to thread the hole. Remove the steel screw and then insert the brass screw.

The Straight and Narrow

Traditionally, wood screws had tapered roots. Today, the standard wood screw typically has a straight root and a zinc coated body. If you hold a ruler along the body of a wood screw you’ll see that the threaded portion has a larger diameter than the shank. You can also see that it has a single, shallow thread. The thick­ness of the shank (the screw diameter) is expressed in a gauge number (designated by the pound ‘#’ sign), and range from 0 to 24. The most common sizes used by woodworkers are the #6 to #12 sizes. The smaller gauge screws come in one or two lengths. For example, a #1 screw is only available in a ¼” length. Larger gauge screws come in various lengths – the ever popular #8 comes in 14 lengths, from 3/8″ to 3 ½”.

Unlike wood screws, most brass screws continue to have tapered roots. If you look at a brass screw you’ll see that the shank is larger in diameter than the threaded portion. Brass is much weaker than steel, and the thicker shank on brass screws provides more structural strength, particularly in the small gauge sizes.

You’ll also find a wide range of specialty steel screws on the market, including flooring screws, deck screws, stainless steel screws and construction screws. These are typically manufac­tured from hardened and heat-treated steel. Like standard wood screws they have a straight root with a wide diameter thread, and usually have deeper, sharper threads, along with some kind of tip slot, which provides a self-tapping feature. Often these screws have nibs on the head, which facilitate countersinking, and are dry lubricated to facilitate wood penetration.

common screws

common screw

A Few Basic Guidelines

When fastening two pieces of wood together, you want to sink your screws as far into the second board as you can without hav­ing the screw protrude out the back side. A good rule to follow is sinking two thirds of the screw into the bottom board for maxi­mum holding power.

In general, pre-drill screw holes, specifically for hard woods, and always when installing screws near the end of boards – it will prevent splitting. Ensure that you select the appropriate bit for drilling (see ‘Screw Clearance and Pilot Hole Reference Chart’). If you are using tapered screws it’s best to drill two holes: an appropriate size clearance hole for the shank, and a smaller sized pilot hole for the root. You can buy tapered drill bits from Lee Valley that enable you to drill the right size hole to accommodate both the shank and root in one fell swoop. Often, the exit hole on the top piece of wood will have some blow out; a countersink makes quick work of ‘de-burring’ the hole. Due to the weakness of brass screws, install the same gauge of steel screw in a pre-drilled hole before inserting a brass screw.

Most specialty screws are dry lubricated; however zinc screws are not. You’ll find it easier to sink the screw if you dip the tip into a bit of wax before installing. Don’t over torque when setting screws. Use a torque setting that sets the screw at the appropriate depth. You’ll have to do a bit of experimenting with your drill/driver to determine the correct setting. You’ll also get better results if you replace worn bit drives. Select high quality, hardened and heat-treated driver bits, as they are less likely to damage the screw head and will last longer.

Regardless of the application, there is a screw out there that will do the job. Next time you’re in your local hardware store, check out the selection – you may have more options than you thought.

screw clearance

Cam Out

Cam out occurs when a driver bit slips out of the drive as you are applying torque. The result is invariably a damaged screw head, prema­ture wear on the driver bit, or worse, a nasty scratch across the surface of the piece you‘re screwing into. Robertson screws have a square drive with slightly tapered sides that virtually eliminate cam out – but only if you use a properly fitting driver bit. A worn or damaged driver bit can easily slip out of the drive head, so it‘s a good idea to buy high qual­ity, hardened and heat-treated driver bits – they‘ll last a lot longer than bits made of mild steel. Other more exotic drivers, like Torx and Pozidriv, offer the same advantage as the Robertson.

By a wide margin, flat head wood screws are the most widely used on the planet. Whether you make furniture or cabinetry, build houses or craft products, or install decking or flooring, you‘re more than likely to reach for a flat head. They can be installed without countersinking, using the torque of your power drill/driver to set them flush with the work surface, or for a cleaner look, by countersinking a hole, and then driving the screws home. If you don‘t want the screw heads to show, you can counterbore the holes, install the screws, and then cover the holes with wooden plugs. There is even a slimmed down version of the flat head that finish carpenters use when installing trim work or moulding. Called, appropriately enough, a finish head screw, it gives more holding power than a finish nail, with a small head that is easily covered by filler or putty. Flat head screws with undercut heads ( are handy when installing piano hinges and drawer slides. These screws sit flush to the surface of the hinge or slide.


  1. Yes – screws if coated at all have a very thin coating of zinc or other paint like material that may delay rusting by a little but does not prevent it.
    You really only have two options if you want to avoid rust/ corrosion.
    -Hot dip galvanized nails – I have assembled and disassembled many out door projects and I have always found that hot dipped galvanized nails were almost always still intact with little to no rust while other nails and screws were severely rusted. Hot dip puts a heavy coating of zinc on rather than the microscopic coating of other method.
    – Stainless steel – if you want screws that will not rust, then it has to be stainless steel. If you buy from hardware or building supply stores, unless you just need a few screws, stainless is very expensive. I have though found that if looking for boxes of screws, you can generally find a much better price on Amazon.
    As they say, the proof is in the pudding and my experience says that for avoiding rust, nothing comes close to hot dipped galvanized and stainless steel.

  2. I used a variety of wood screws to attach 2×4 decking 2 years ago. Plans changed this year and I had to take the deck apart and rebuild it at another location. More than half of the screws were significantly rusted, and some of them right through so that I needed to use vice grips to get the remains out. I had no idea they would rust that fast. I used 4 different colours of them , but none were galvanized. Not complaining… just advising..

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