Chris Schwarz's Blog

How to ‘Time’ or ‘Clock’ Your Screw Heads

First a warning: Don’t read this blog entry if you already obsess too much over the details of your furniture. This entry could only make things worse.

Years ago, a high-end finish carpenter infected me with a disease for which there is no cure: clocking your screw heads. What is “clocking” – sometimes called “timing?” This is when you get the slots in all your screw heads to line up, either horizontally or vertically.

This carpenter pointed it out to me on a job he was working on. When he installed switchplates or hardware on cabinets, he always clocked the slots and said it was a mark of good workmanship. Since that day I have always looked out for clocked screws on furniture and cabinetry and have clocked my own screw slots when they are visible.

It’s a fairly uncommon feature on furniture, though it is common in other trades. I’ve met gunsmiths who clock all the screws on high-end firearms. I’ve also seen it on nice astronomy equipment.

So how do you do it?

Well there are lots of methods – enough to write a 10-page article on. When you are driving machinist’s screws into metal you might even use special screws designed for this. The head of the screw comes too tall for the hole. So you drive it in and mark where you want the slot to go. Then you remove the screw, file the head flush and cut a new slot with a hacksaw.

There are also ways to clock screws by machining the underside of the screw head.

In woodworking, you don’t need to go to those extremes to clock your screws. The way I do it is fast. It adds only a few minutes to installing a piece of hardware. But before I show you how, let me stress that this is not something I recommend you necessarily do in your furniture. I get obsessed about hardware and I might have mild OCD. That said, here goes.

1. Do all this before you color your hardware (if you are going to color it). This process can remove some of the color from your screw countersinks.

2. One method that some people recommend is to drive the screw, then remove it and just drive it again. This method doesn’t work well for me. I don’t want to cross-thread the wood and potentially weaken the screw’s grip.

3. So what I do is to drive in the screw and note how far off the slot is from vertical. Then I remove the screw.

4. Sometimes I will take a countersink and twist it by hand to remove a little bit of metal in the screw’s recess. This is fast and it works well – it usually takes four or five twists to adjust a screw by a quarter-turn. I actually don’t prefer this method, however, even though it is fast. I’d rather adjust the screw (which is disposable), than the hinge (which is expensive).

5. So what I do is wrap the threads of the screw in some masking tape and chuck the tape into my drill press or a cordless drill clamped to my benchtop. I set the drill on fast speed and spin it. Then I take a triangular saw file and touch it to the underside of the screw head. This turns the underbelly of the screw head down a bit. It takes only about 5 seconds of filing to make a difference. Then I unwrap the screw and drive it in.

By the way, I’m not alone in my obsession. Toolmaker Colen Clenton clocks the heads in his beautiful squares. He uses square-drive screws and clocks them to look like diamonds. Nice. There probably should be an encounter group for people like us. I’ll bring the doughnuts.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. I know there are still other methods for clocking screws that use epoxy. But I’ve done enough damage today already to your supply of valuable shop time. And if you think I am compulsive, then you should read James Krenov’s masterpiece “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.” Krenov was the king of details and opened my eyes to many things important to the craft.

57 thoughts on “How to ‘Time’ or ‘Clock’ Your Screw Heads

  1. Steve in Thunder Bay

    My screw alignment habit [obsession?] first started with aligning slotted screws vertically on all the electrical switch and outlet cover plates. I noticed that I was not alone in this while visiting at a friend’s home. But he had all his slots horizontal.
    I smugly pointed out the fallacy of horizontality: slots are more aesthetically aligned vertically with the electrical plate or hinge vertical components. And vertical slots do not capture dust!
    Consequently horizontal slot fans have the choice of spending some hours today realigning every slot in their house to vertical, or using a feather duster at least once daily for the rest of their lives ;-)

  2. t.d.reid68

    Chris or Megan,
    Will you please explain the process of coloring that Chris mentioned “1. Do all this before you color your hardware (if you are going to color it)”? Megan I added you to this request because of your comment “I can report what really makes a girl cry is to buy expensive oil-rubbed bronze hardware, then fuss about “timing,” only to have perfectly aligned heads…off which the finish has been scratched”.
    Thanks for the great work. Todd

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick

      Glen posted a video of his method late last year:
      http://www.popularwoodworking.com/article/fire-acid-create-aged-hardware

      And per his video, if the hardware doesn’t have lacquer on it, you can skip the torch step (fun though it may be). (One thing he doesn’t say is that gun bluing is poison – I always wear gloves when I’m using it.)

      And here’s a post Chris wrote on aging brass, sans fire:
      http://www.popularwoodworking.com/woodworking-blogs/chris-schwarz-blog/adding-age-to-brass

      I’ve had good results using white vinegar for cheap hardware (the galvanized stuff) – drop hardware in a glass jar full of vinegar (no lid), let it sit overnight, and it comes out looking like iron hardware (well…pretty much).

      And, we’ve rubbed cheap hardware with BLO, and used a torch on it – it comes out kind of mottled black/gray (great for an aged “country” look).

      And, um, Sharpies come in a wide range of hardware shades at my local art store. That’s how I usually fix a little nick, say on the edge of a screw slot (I shouldn’t admit that, should I?).

      1. Jason

        (I shouldn’t admit that, should I?)

        Megan, this is a safe place. A place where we can feel free sharing our feelings. Think of this blog as a nest in a tree of trust and understanding. We can say anything here.

  3. J. Pierce

    This isn’t just OCD though – if it’s a screw that takes any forces, timing all the screws in the project lets you know quickly if a screw is working it’s way loose. (At least, that’s what I’ve been told by the one who infected me, and that’s been my excuse.)

  4. LanceG

    I just find it hard to believe that this is the only article on Chris’s blog that shows up under the tag “Anal-Retentive Woodworking”. 8-)

    Just kidding, tips on these little touches are great for bringing our projects up a notch.

  5. Publius Secundus

    Some gunsmiths building longrifles in the Golden Age, 1770-1820, aligned screw heads, generally in line with the bore, when installing furniture such as brass butt plates and side plates, iron trigger plates, and particularly brass patchboxes, supposedly as a sign of workmanship and attention to detail. They often made the iron screws as well as the brass patchbox finials and sideplates, and would deepen the screw slots with saw and needle file before installing. They’d countersink the brass parts for the screws, install the screws, and then file the screws and patchbox down together for a flush fit. The deepening allowed the screw to be removed after it was filed down. Some used rounded or oval head screws which were not finished flush with the box, although the slots were commonly aligned parallel with each other or aimed at a common point such as the end of the patchbox finial.

  6. billlattpa

    When I first became an electrician I was taught to always “soldier” the screws on wall plates, panels, and fixtures where applicable. If you didn’t solidier your screws you basically got yelled at. It’s good practice and looks much more professional. I guess that applies to woodworking as well.

  7. nateswoodworks

    I have been doing this for years, ever since I had seen an electrician do it with switch and outlet covers. I am also severly OCD so don’t mind me!!
    Nate

  8. John Cashman

    Wow, you folks are all nuts. I will never even think about having the slots on my switch plates lined up. Having said that, the next time I use screws that show on a piece of furniture, I probably will line them up. Like tiny dovetails, it’s one more sign of attention to detail. After putting in many hours of work on a project, a few more minutes won’t hurt.

    I own a 130 year old house and use a dremel tool frequently. It has an abrasive cutoff wheel that I use to recut grooves in ancient slot-head screws that someone long ago stripped. Ord to clean out a dozen layers of paint.

  9. chm8v

    But now the screw head isn’t flush with the hinge plate, that would drive me almost as crazy as not having the slots line up (especially in this case where the brass is showing instead of ORB). I usually use gimlets to start the threads, makes it easier to align the heads by starting with the gimlet the same way on each hole.

    1. milwen

      I agree. The screw head not being flush would be a bigger deal to me, especially with the brass showing. I guess if he hadn’t used the countersink to ream out the recess it wouldn’t be brass showing in the photo above.

      1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

        So question: Do the screw heads in the top photo (a finished example) look like they are at different heights?

        Once you color the hardware, it’s very hard to tell you did any work.

        Chris

        Who is off to his weekly meeting right now.

        1. milwen

          It looks lower to me, but it may just be the difference in color.

          Would you clock them as well if they were Phillips head? What kind of a nightmare would a piano hinge be?

          1. milwen

            I’m sorry, you said top photo. They look the same in the top photo. If it’s the same hinge then I guess I’m crazy. Maybe it’s the photo angle, color, or my insanity.

  10. Jim Maher

    I didn’t notice the warning.

    I DID notice the screws and said to myself “Oh, look, someone else lines up their screws. But why are they horizontal and not vertical?”. So I clicked.

    THEN I read article.

    But I don’t understand why this is a problem . . .

  11. esincox

    “…and I might have mild OCD.”

    lol

    (And your disclaimer wasn’t strong enough, Chris… I still read the article. But teasing someone who is OCD with yet another way they can BE OCD really isn’t much of a disclaimer to not read the article, then, is it?)

    Oh, and…

    “…off which the finish has been scratched”

    Wonderfully written, Megan. :)

  12. Jason

    My wife thinks it hilarious to turn a screw on a random switch plate and see how long it takes me to notice and fix. The longest a screw has so far stayed misaligned is less than 12 hours.

    Don’t judge me.

  13. Megan Fitzpatrick

    Having been infected with this dread disease (I won’t say by whom), I can report what really makes a girl cry is to buy expensive oil-rubbed bronze hardware, then fuss about “timing,” only to have perfectly aligned heads…off which the finish has been scratched. :-(

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