I never really knew how serious the discussion about which screw to use could be until I posted a picture of a restored sash lock on social media the other day. I was particularly proud of this meticulously restored piece of Victorian amazingness, but the reaction was anything but what I expected.
There were plenty of positive comments, but most were tempered with reactions that ranged from disappointment to outright anger that I would install this meticulously restored hardware with new Phillips head screws rather than the original flat head screws that came with it.
What strange nerve had I hit that would cause normally supportive preservationists to go off the rails like this? Why would the type of screw matter so much? I had never seen anyone complain that I nailed my trim up with a brad nailer rather than using hand cut nails so why the fuss over screws? That got me thinking about why I did what I did and why this offended people so much, and I came up with a few thoughts I felt needed to get out there for other preservationists to think about.
What’s Worth Keeping?
I understand those who want to go back to what was originally there and I think it’s a legitimate argument. In most ways, I agree with it and practice that as a preservation contractor, but not always. I won’t return a house my company is working on to an original substandard condition if the original builder cut corners and I doubt anyone else would either.
I got into restoring old buildings because I recognized the wealth of premium materials and better made products that they’re made of. When those awesome materials or methods are encountered, I always endeavor to restore or replicate was previously done.
On the other side of the coin, there are a lot of items I don’t keep and rarely will I find a person who disagrees on these items. Below are just a few examples:
- I don’t keep original asbestos insulation
- I don’t keep original knob and tube wiring
- I don’t keep or reapply lead paint
- I don’t keep aluminum wiring
- I don’t keep calcimine paint
- I don’t keep kraft paper house wrap
- I don’t keep fuse boxes
Yes, some these are dangerous and should be removed, but others are personal preference, aren’t they? Calcimine paint, kraft paper, and fuse boxes aren’t dangerous, they’re just substandard products and we have better performing items that should replace these items, just like the dangerous ones like asbestos, knob and tube, and lead paint.
Restoration in the 21st Century
There are other changes in how I work with old houses today compared with how the old timers, who did such a stunning job on these buildings, worked. I doubt anyone other than the most die hard purist would fault me for any of these, but correct me if I’m wrong.
- I don’t hand nail things that can be nailed with a pneumatic nailer
- I don’t cut with hand saws when a power tool will make the cut cleaner and faster
- I use high quality modern epoxies to repair damage
- I use infrared paint removal rather than a torch
I do these things because we have invented better and more efficient methods of construction over the centuries. I don’t pick everything that is modern, though. I am unshakably loyal to the best methods available. Some of those methods may be from 2018 and others may be from 1740 or 1923- it doesn’t matter to me.
Also, if any of you think your great-grandaddy would still hand nail a house together if he had access to a framing nailer, you’re crazy. He’d have an arsenal of the most effective tools available to him and that’s what I have too.
Phillips or Flat?
So, here we are again. Should we use Phillips or flat head screws? What’s my take? If you are a purist and can’t stand the appearance of Phillips screws anywhere in your old house, then by all means go back to the venerable flat head. I get it. If it’s an aesthetic thing for you, then go for it.
For me, the Phillips head screw is one of the biggest improvements in screw design over the last century. It was the first screw design that allowed the bit to self-center which made manufacturing processes exponentially more efficient. It allows me to install faster, strip less often, and allows more torque on installation than flat head screws.
So, I’m going to keep installing Phillips screws on my jobs. It may not be historically accurate if your house was built before the first Phillips screw rolled off the line in 1935, but I’m okay with that. For those of you that disagree, I’ll be sure to keep a box of flat heads in my truck just for your house.