The Use and Abuse of Screws in Wood Work

screw_patent_sArchimedes is credited with the invention of the screw, but whether the famous geometrician’s labours extended much further than the enunciation of the scientific principles and the mechanical power of the screw, it is difficult to say. If he made a screw, he certainly must have tried its effect, and was probably well satisfied with its performance, for in the whole range of mechanical appliances in the constructive arts there is not a more useful article than the screw.

Archimedes is further reported to have said, “Give me a prop, a position, and a lever strong enough, and I will move the world,” and, no doubt, if these conditions could be granted to him, he, as well as others after him, could lift the earth, or aught upon the earth, by a combination of the tremendous lifting and driving powers exercised by a series of screws, apart from the lever.

Screws are various, and of various sizes, forms, and materials, but the same principle runs through them all, whether they be manufactured for use in metal or woodwork, or for exerting a lifting, driving, or pressing power separately. Our object here is not to treat of screw-cutting, but rather screw-driving in woodwork, and to throw out some useful hints to the building constituency, and particularly workmen.

The use and abuse of screws is a matter of importance to architects, builders, and their clients, for it is according to the way screws may be applied in several building and kindred operations that good or bad workmanship will be evidenced.

Screws are more extensively used than formerly in putting together various kinds of wood framing, and even in cabinet and chair work screws are pressed into service in places where their use would not have been tolerated by manufacturers in the earlier portion of the present century. Although their existence is generally concealed in furniture and fancy work, they are often present, nevertheless, and too often they are used as a substitute for dowels, dovetails, and tenons, in the manufacture of cheap work.

It is an instructive and remarkable fact that our building workmen of a century or two back, in many operations in carpentry and joinery, discarded, as far as was possible, the use of nails or screws, depending more on carefully-jointed work, put together by means of mortise, tenon, dovetail, hard-wood dowel, or oaken pin. Their work might have taken a longer time to execute than that done by our present race of joiners and woodworkers, but it was infinitely more lasting, and kept together so long as the timber or wood continued sound.

The nearly universal remedy now for every broken article on the part of the jobbing joiner and cabinet-maker is to repair it with the aid of a nail or a screw. Glue is even often dispensed with, or used where it will exercise little sustaining power, and coloured putty is not only made to cover the heads of sunken nails and screws on the face of a piece of work, but used also to hide bad joints and workmanship.

Some years ago the writer examined an old oaken staircase and hand-rail in a college, which work was executed more than two centuries since, and in the construction of which not a nail or a screw was used. From time to time, over long years, some slight repairs were made, but the workmen during their operations were never able to discover that a nail had been used in the original construction. There were mortises and tenons, grooves and tonguing, wooden pins or dowel work, but no iron fastening of any kind. The writer also examined more than one old roof in which the use of iron spikes, nails, and other iron fastenings was dispensed with, and the joining of the timber was effected without their aid.

In the hinging of doors and other framework it is necessary to use screws, but, unfortunately, many workmen, if not watched or cautioned, will not do the screwing properly or in a workmanlike manner. In deal, pine, and other soft woods a bradawl is sufficient to make an opening for the screw, which opening, of course, should be less than the thickness of the body, and short of the length of the screws used. It will be found, however, that most workmen, not content with tapping the screw a fourth of an inch or so to give it a hold before applying the screw-driver, will actually drive the screw into the wood two-thirds of its length with the hammer. This the workmen will do to save themselves trouble.

If there be two hinges upon a door, and if each hinge has eight screw-holes,—four in each plate,—the chances are that the workmen will drive half of the screws nearly home in the door-stile and frame with his hammer rather than take the trouble of driving them gradually home with the screwdriver. Hence, if the door be a massive or heavy one, the weight of it will tend to the hinges loosening, and after a time will follow a train of other ills,—the “dragging” and “rubbing” of doors, and their makeshift cure in what is known as “easing” them. If remonstrated with for driving a screw nearly home with the hammer, the workman may probably say (as some workmen certainly think) that a few turns of the screw in the wood are sufficient. This is an erroneous and mischievous idea.

A screw that is nearly driven its whole length with a hammer cannot make a regular and corresponding thread or spiral in the wood, and therefore its binding and maintaining power in keeping the hinge in its place is all but gone. Workmen should be made to drive every screw home gradually with the screw-driver, and not only an odd one. In hard-wood operations as well as in soft woods, particularly in hinge work, screws should be properly driven, and the aperture or opening made for the passage of the screw should be much less than the thickness of the screw to be driven. The screw will bite a sufficient passage for itself. In hard wood, however, it is necessary to give a little more freedom of entry to the screw than in soft wood, and a gimlet is needed for making the suitable opening instead of the bradawl.

A difficulty is often experienced by persons who wish to withdraw a screw, by finding that though it will turn round under the application of the screw-driver, yet it will not unscrew out. In this case a well-grounded suspicion may be entertained that the screw in question was driven, or nearly driven, home originally by the hammer, instead of gradually by the screwdriver, and that no regular thread corresponding with the screw exists in the wood.

Under such circumstances it becomes necessary often to wrench off the hinge or hinges by force, at the risk of their breaking, and this often happens. When hinges have lain undisturbed for long years on old doors or other framings, perhaps for a quarter of a century or double that time, it becomes difficult to extract the screws, although they may have been originally properly driven. This arises from the screws rusting in the wood and sometimes from other causes.

Workmen themselves often fail to withdraw a screw, and are forced to break the hinge to enable them to get under the head of the screw, and wrench it out. They often split, and break too, fancy and delicate woodwork articles in their efforts to take off hinges, locks, mountings, and other finishings, despite that simple methods exist for extracting screws that have rusted in the wood.

One of the most simple and readiest methods for loosening a rusted screw is to apply heat to the head of the screw. A small bar or rod of iron, flat at the end, if reddened in the fire and applied for a couple or three minutes to the head of the rusted screw will, as soon as it heats the screw, render its withdrawal as easy by the screwdriver as if it was only a recently-inserted screw. As there is a kitchen poker in every house, that instrument, if heated at its extremity, and applied for a few minutes to the head of the screw or screws, will do the required work of loosening, and an ordinary screwdriver will do the rest without causing the least damage, trouble, or vexation of spirit.

In all work above the common kind, where it is necessary to use screws, and particularly in hinge-work and mountings, fancy fastenings and appliances affixed to joinery or furniture work, we would advise the oiling of screws or the dipping their points in grease before driving them. This will render them more easy to drive and also to withdraw, and it will undoubtedly retard for a longer time the action of rusting.

As matters obtain now in carpentry, joinery, furniture, and other wood workmanship, with regard to screws, although they cannot be dispensed with, yet it would be advisable in sundry classes of woodwork to minimise their use, and in other cases to do without them altogether. They can seldom be used with advantage to the displacement of mortise and tenon or good dovetail or dowel work.

The growing practice of putting together woodwork with screws bespeaks a decadence of skilled labour, and of nails and screws there are far too many pressed into service in our workshops and dwellings. While admitting the usefulness of the screw in various ways, we have here endeavoured briefly to show its abuse in woodwork, and at the same time to afford some hints for better methods of procedure in building and kindred workmanship.

The Builder – (London) November 18, 1882

– Jeff Burks

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2 Responses to The Use and Abuse of Screws in Wood Work

  1. Stuart says:

    Reblogged this on Stu's Shed.

  2. bsrlee says:

    And never use soap to lubricate screws either. I have just replaced a dozen or so screws that my grandfather inserted in a door frame using soap, and all that was left of them in the holes was flaky rust – all I had to do was blow the rust out & put new screws in. Soap is hygroscopic and encourages corrosion of metal fittings.

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