Chris Schwarz's Blog

Look Close at my Screws. No, That’s Too Close

One of the first times I was a guest on Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright’s Shop,” I was explaining the construction of a schoolbox from the book “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” and I had made a terrible mistake.

Before we shot the show, Roy explained each shot to the crew that was filming it. He opened the lid to the chest and told them to get a close-up shot of the strap hinges on the inside. Roy stopped. He twisted his lips. He closed the lid.

“Nah, don’t shoot that. He used Phillips screws to attach the hinges,” Roy said.

Huh? I don’t remember using modern screws. But when I lifted the lid I saw that Roy was correct. I had ordered iron pyramid-head screws with a black finish, but they indeed had a cross-recess on them.

The following statement is pure opinion, but I don’t like to see modern screw heads on furniture that is built in an antique style. It’s like using a plywood back in a reproduction of a 17th-century cupboard.

The problem is finding good screws. I inherited a huge supply of them from my grandfather’s workshop, who apparently thought along similar lines. Recently, my supplies have been running low. So I’ve been buying zinc-plated screws from my hardware store and then stripping the zinc using citric acid. This works, but chemistry isn’t my bag.

So I was thrilled to learn about BlacksmithBolt.com, which sells old-school unplated fasteners – including stuff you’ll never find at a typical hardware store. I went on a buying binge and restocked my cabinet of fasteners with slotted screws of all sizes and lengths.

Despite the fact that the fasteners shipped from the West Coast, they arrived surprisingly fast. And I am quite pleased with the quality. Unlike the junk at the home centers, these fasteners are strong and can be driven into hardwood without worrying about the head snapping or the slot becoming completely chewed up.

So if you are in need of fasteners that look right for a reproduction or something in a pre-20th-century style, check out BlacksmithBolt.com before you attach that cabinet back on with PoziDrive screws. Shudder.

— Christopher Schwarz

14 thoughts on “Look Close at my Screws. No, That’s Too Close

  1. peter

    I recently asked a experenced craftsman/tutor about clocking screws method. His reply was “1.He has never came across the term clocking. 2. He was taught the metod, intructions being the slots should always follow the grain of the wood.” Hope this is of interest to those obesed with the details. Cheers Peter Australia

  2. Bradinsc

    LOL! I think along these lines every time my wife gets on me about “getting rid” of all those “Old useless screws”! I have about a dozen of those plastic wall mounted drawer organizer units, more than half are full of ancient slotted screws I have saved over the years. Some are hand me downs from boxes that belonged to my dad, granddad and even great granddad. Sure are handy to match up on a repair, or to make a new “old” piece look authentic. Thanks for the laugh, and for the ammo to fight against the wife! :)

  3. J. Pierce

    On the subject of screws, and not knowing who else to ask, ever seen a nail with a screw head? My wife had an oldish (but not too old, but heck if I know how to date things) wardrobe type thing with the hinges coming loose. I figured I’d just pull unscrew ‘em, plug the holes and redrill and remount.

    I could get some of the screws to turn. And turn. And turn and turn, but not come out. Confused, I got a good grip with some padded vise grips, and turned and pulled gently at the same time. The screw came out – and it was a nail. I wish I had photos. My first thought was maybe the screw threads somehow corroded away, but closer inspection makes it appear that no, they certainly were nails. And about half the fastners were still held in really darn tight – I’d imagine that screws that had lost their threads would have given up their hold a long time ago.

    Never seen such a thing, but I have little experience in these things. Any idea what the heck was up with such a thing?

    1. switzforge

      Maybe an early scam? “Look here we used them new fangled screw thingies and it’s going to cost ya extra” I have on the other hand seen screw nails that have a slow spiral to the shank and are driven in with a hammer, really tough to pull out.

    2. Jimboz

      An old bloke told me that they were used to give an impression of quality on some cheap furniture. He said that was why a hammer was jokingly known as a Birmingham screwdriver in some circles.

    3. Rocco Stone

      My hobby is building small “Antique Furniture” using old barn material, I have been to a few barns that date back to the early to mid 1800’s. I have seen a few of what you are describing on furniture that was dated back to pre-1830’s.

  4. switzforge

    I have always found Blacksmith Bolt to be a good source. However since I need a large amount of period looking fastners for hardware that I make in the blacksmith shop I have started stripping the platting off of ordinary hardware store screws (actually I buy a few hundred at a time from McMaster Carr) I use a fairly strong acid for the job, but the muriatic acid sold at the home center for cleaning concrete should work fine, it will just take longer. I have even heard vinager will do the trick but may take overnight.

    1. John

      I also get my screws from McMaster Carr. Half the price of Blacksmith Bolt. An over night soak in vinegar is all it takes to remove the zinc. If you don’t want rusty, than apply a bit of oil after drying, other wise they will rust.

      Another method is to heat and dunk in BLO.

  5. watermantra

    Chris, I’ve also found good brass screws at my local Ace Hardware. They are dome topped, which I like the look of, are not coated in lacquer, and are quite a bit stronger than the brass screws I find at home centers. In combination with those great screwdrivers you wrote about in an earlier article (thanks SOOOO much…they are a joy to use), I find reasons to screw things together. I’m going to also get a supply of these that you mentioned. They sound great.

      1. Bill Lattanzio

        I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Todd Gillis, if that is in fact his real name, allegedly wrote a rubber check from a possible 5 different locations in the great state of Florida.

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