Phillips or Flat?

By Scott Sidler April 16, 2018

phillips or flatI 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 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.

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8 thoughts on “Phillips or Flat?”

  1. I have seen advertised more expensive slot screwdriver sets that advertise that the tip is specially ground so that there is a perfect up and down flat fit, not a “wedging” effect as common slotted screw drivers.
    Do some of you folk invest in these?
    It seems to me from my limited DIY experience that a steel slotted screwdriver with a typical “wedge” shape can quickly butcher a brass screw that has been in place in old yellow pine (or something like it) for 100 years,
    but then I haven’t wanted to pay for things advertised as “gunsmith” screwdrivers or similar.
    Thanks

  2. If I was on a job where historic integrity was very important for the public, such as a museum or B&B, I think I would stick to a purist approach and use flat head (even though my guys would swear at me); however, I could also make a case for using flat head only when reinstalling original hardware, and phillips when installing reproduction hardware. Docents could then add that little tidbit to their speil.

  3. I would like to add to all the newbie old home remodelers out there: I know they are cheap, but PLEASE don’t use drywall screws for anything but hanging drywall. Some people are tempted to use them for framing, trim or hanging cabinets or shelves. They are very brittle and with enough torque with a screw gun or even your hand, they can snap off or the heads shatter especially driving into that concrete tough old growth wood in old houses. I have even had them break hanging drywall on old framing when they hit a knot or embedded nail, but that is pretty rare. I do keep some deck screws on hand when hanging drywall to use in cases where the underlying wood is causing problems with the drywall screws.

  4. This is from the viewpoint of an old house owner/restorer, rather than a professional–I’d probably see things differently if this were my job. For purely practical DIY reasons, though, I prefer the Phillips/Slotted and Phillips/Robertson combo screws.

    My house was built sometime before the Revolutionary War, then had major renos in c1830, 1857, c1920, 1966-7, and 1983-5. Apart from the beams, the basement, and some interesting hunks of stable-related rust I keep digging out of my garden, most of the 18thC and early 19thC stuff got renovated out of existence, but all those renos left behind a truly weird mix of fasteners. And of course, almost all of the metal ones were stripped, corroded, and otherwise almost impossible to remove with the non-pro tools at my disposal.

    When it came to removing them, I wound up having a much easier time with the slotted ones. Without fail, all the Phillips screws were stripped by the time I got to them. Sometimes, the Robertson drive bit helped me remove a stripped Phillips, but not often; I usually wound up having to dig around the screw until I could get some vise grips on the screw head.

    A ray of sunshine for me were the few combo screws that I ran across. These, particularly the Phillips/Slotted & Phillips/Robertson, gave me multiple ways to get the things out. The combo type also meant that whatever bit or screwdriver I happened to have with me was that much more likely to be the one I wanted, regardless of which it was, thereby saving me time.

    1. Excellent points by E. House. In case anybody reading this discussion wants to have a better idea of what we are talking about here is a link to the standard screw drives.

      I worked on the construction of several prisons and institutions where they had to use various screws that could not be removed with improvised tools by inmates. Those are the really oddball drives you see in the lower part of the chart, like the “pig-nose”, “female tamper” and “one way”. You may occasionally spot them on things like paper towel dispensers in public buildings (so people can’t open them and steal the towels). I have interchangeable drive tips and screwdrivers for all of them as a result of working on those facilities. But I have never used them for nefarious purposes!

      //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_screw_drives

  5. It’s good to see that you match metals with your hardware (brass with brass). I’m afraid a lot of people don’t understand dielectric effect and the fact that two different metals in contact eventually can cause corrosion. This can lead to an unattractive appearance and even cause the threads to bind up or loosen if the screw is embedded in a different metal to any depth (not an effect in wood, obviously). You can use a compound that you can buy in the electrical goods department that prevents this corrosion if you don’t have the option to match metals. It’s the goop that we electricians use when we connect aluminum service cable to the copper buss in home breaker panels, If you don’t use it there, the dielectric chemical corrosion can cause the connection to loosen over time and cause an electrical hazard.

    Can I be picky with you for a moment about terminology, which made your post a bit confusing to me at first? When you say “flat head screw” that means a screw with a flat top, like the Phillips-drive screws on the left in your illustration. The screws on the right in the image are round head slot-drive screws. Flat head refers to the screw head profile, not the type of slot. You can get flat head screws with Philips-drive or slot-drive (or square-drive or star-drive or a dozen other drive configurations). You can get round head or pan head or bugle head with either drive as well. I know that it is common for people to refer to Phillips-drive screws as “Phillips head” but it complicates matters when trying to specify what one wants and it is useful to keep the distinction clear. It will speed up getting the exact screw they want at the hardware store if your readers specify the head (as the screw shape) and the drive separately.

    So I believe that what you mean to say in your last paragraph is that if your client is a “historical purist”, you have slot-drive screws in your truck that you will use instead of Phillips-drive.

    I’ve come to prefer square drive myself over Phillips for fastening in old growth framing and lumber. As you well know, the density of some old wood can cause serious binding when you are power driving a fastener into it, even with a pilot hole. I have had much more problem with Phillips-drive heads stripping out under the torque of tight grained wood than the square-drive. The more costly hardened square drive screws end up being worth the money when you are mounting cabinets or shelving or door framing into old dense wood and have a lot of depth to drive into.

    I hope you don’t mind when I post my additions to your articles. I love your blog so far and have gotten some great information and links from it. Since I just signed papers to buy a 128 year old farmhouse up the street I will be diving deeply into what you have posted so far to learn more. My intention is to share with you and your readers my own experiences from nearly 40 years of owning and working on the kinds of old houses that we both love.

  6. I sort of get it. It can look discordant to the eye that’s sensitive to those kinds of things. However, as an amateur carpenter/remodeler, I have a pure T hatred of using (removing & replacing) flathead screws, especially those with a shallow groove. Plus, it only takes one or two slips to wear them out so they’re impossible to remove by ordinary means. I always breathe a sign of relief when I encounter a Phillips on an old job, and I know future craftspeople will thank me for using them in my work. And while I’m venting, there’s a special place in carpentry hell for the slightly offset flathead screw groove. Aaaaaaah!!!

  7. yes, but why does the Phillips screw continue to persist when the Robertson is such a far superior screw in terms of torque and stripping less often? I’ve never been able to understand that.

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