Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Lever Cap Isn’t a Screwdriver (Or is it?)

Lever Cap

It burnses our eyes! Aieeee. Make him stop!

When I bought my first Stanley No. 5 in the mid-1990s, I regularly used the lever cap as a screwdriver to adjust the tension screw in the center of the frog and to tighten and loosen the cap iron screw.

Then one of my fellow employees dressed me down. You should never do that, they told me, because that illicit activity could chip the lever cap. This is advice repeated everywhere.

So I started using a screwdriver – for a year or so. Then I slipped back into my old habit and hid my shameful activity. When demonstrating to a class, I’d use a screwdriver. At home – lever cap. Always.

I do this on all my bench planes – even the expensive ones. And I’ve never chipped the lever cap on any of them in almost 20 years. Just lucky? I doubt it.

Lever Cap

Twenty years as a screwdriver. No chips.

Also, suppose I did chip the lever cap – so what? A chip in the lever cap isn’t going to change the function of the plane – just the aesthetics. In all the planes I’ve seen – even those with chipped lever caps caused by dog-knows-what – they all worked just fine.

Could you fracture a lever cap by using it as a screwdriver? Perhaps, if your skin is green and you are prone to fits of rage.

So I’m calling bunk on this chestnut. Use your screwdriver if you like, but I’m going to continue to use my lever cap so I don’t have to find one more tool when I head to the sharpening stones.

— Christopher Schwarz

36 thoughts on “The Lever Cap Isn’t a Screwdriver (Or is it?)

  1. jlm_in_ak

    And now since you posted this I’ve seen several planes on ye olde auction site (mostly 5’s) that have little cap screw size bites out of the lever cap. Definitely keeps the cost down…

  2. mjeanson

    Chris, I’m going to have to respectively disagree on this one. I have see students over tighten and thus mar up to the point that the bottom surface of the cap can catch shavings. What I have been taught and now teach my fellow wood workers is to grab their loose change from their pockets and use the appropriate thicknesses coin. This “screw” driver never wears out and if it does you can get you money back. I find that due to the limited amount of edge to side contact they have less of an edge to over tighten as a side benefit. No special screw driver need always have one in my pocket, no possible long term damage to the cap, limited torque to mess up the screw head.

    1. CAMLACHIE

      I’ll try to be brief, I’ve worked many years with wood, starting with a five year apprenticeship in 1965.
      On day one in that shop we were told “forget all that school stuff” you’re on the bench now. Lay the plane down flat on the bench, it’s safer that way. Don’t spend time looking for a screwdriver to fit the cap iron screw, use the lever cap.
      Of the forty or so men and apprentices in that shop in Glasgow Scotland I don’t recall ever seeing anyone use a screwdriver for the cap iron screw,
      Also, may I draw your attention to the very interesting study on W.S Birmingham planes.
      http://www.wstoolsbirmingham.com/handplane-type-study/number-4-plane-type-study/
      pictured there are the lovely bronze lever caps used on these planes and clearly seen on the bottom edge is an indent to be used to tighten the cap iron screw, which I have done these many years.

  3. kmahony

    Brilliant.

    When I saw the title and the picture my first thought was why didn’t I think of that, and how simple and clever the idea is. I’m a novice and I’ve used various poorly fitting screwdrivers which damage the screws, and wondered why the slots were so large.

  4. idbill

    I have a well used #5 pre-WWII with a nice chip in the center of the cap iron that matches the cap iron screw perfectly. But like I said, ‘well used’. The front knob is split, the rear handle is missing the very end and has been glued a few times, there is a chunk of metal missing next to the knob and the sole is worn down just in front of the blade… basically a paperweight at this point.

  5. KB6DXN

    I hollow grind all my screw drivers so the tip of the screw driver bites at the bottom of the screw slot rather than being a wedge that bites on the top of the slot. Hollow ground screw drivers won’t try to back out of the slot where a normal wedge grind will.

  6. oakdust

    You can always tell the plane whose screw has been tightened with a screw driver – it’s the one with the nicks and mangles slot – I have always used the lever cap – as the means of tightening – that’s how I was taught way back when.

    1. peterjj

      Though not made for task. I have found a shearers screw driver to work well. Not being dismisive or not re using the leaver cap.
      They are unique visualy, some do require a modifycation with a file, as they are not all uniform.
      But they are both compact and easerly visible.
      Just a alternitive for those who prefer, a dedicated tool for a purpose.

  7. JasonS

    Hey Chris,

    I’ve been reading for some time now. Watching Roy on PBS got me started and I just wanted to say thanks for all the help you give all of us. I’m in the middle of building a knockdown Nicholson using your wonderful workbench book.

    This tip will save an untold amount of time. Thanks again Chris,

    Jason

  8. Dinger

    Thank you for this. I struggle to keep track of a dedicated screwdriver for this task. Once again, you’ve saved me a cumulative metric crap ton of hours with this blog post.

  9. hickorybench

    For at least a hundred years the most thoughtful gun designers allowed for field stripping without “tools”, just using items that should be at hand. A cartridge was an acceptable tool, bullet nose for a punch and cartridge rim as a screwdriver.
    A similar philosophy should be expected in metal bodied hand planes. Pop the cap, then use the cap to loosen the screw. A true time is money craftsman will appreciate the economy of motion when no tool exchange (and search) is required.

  10. Redbat

    Thanks for this article, I have always struggled to find a screwdriver that fit the screw, now I know where to find one, and plan on making it a future practice. Any other suggestions on how to improve my craft using less tools?

  11. wldrylie

    I have something definitive to add. In 1963 my High school got split in two. A new building for 10th grades through 12 and the old for Junior High, 7th through 9th, the old building being renovated. We got new shops. The tools were mostly Stanley, hand and some machine. We got Stanley’s new motorized hand routers and a router table. The Stanley salesman set up the tools and machinery and gave us a four day education on using hand tools and the machinery. (Service that is sadly missing today). Day three, 22 other students and myself witnessed the Stanley guy hold up a London pattern flat blade screwdriver with wood handle and the lever cap of a number 3 smoothing plane and said “this, (screwdriver) not this, (lever cap)” to tighten the cap iron screw. If the Stanley rep made a point about this, and not this, there must have already been some contention about the habit. Also, planes were always laid on their sides and never, but never drag the plane back and forth over the wood, always pick the plane up during return for a new cutting stroke. These work habits were strictly enforced by our shop teacher which I followed my entire six years of wood working education. I was fortunate to have shop five days a week all school year. That way, there was time to get projects done, and learn much. I follow those work habits to this day, but that’s me. I am not going to suggest to any one how to treat their tools or criticize their work habits. Do what you think is best! By the way, the guy was serious as he left a dozen of those cool screwdrivers in both shops at no charge to the school. I won’t use any metal planes other than Stanley.

    1. BobGroh

      Your comments are good enough for me! I do like my Stanley planes and, frankly, own a bunch of them. Plus a bunch of others (all of them used ones – bought at antique stores, garage sales, etc over the years). Frankly the Stanley’s (important note: only talking about the somewhat higher end of the Stanley line – there are some not so great one’s on the bottom end – the better ones seem to have ‘Bailey’ on the front end) are just a bit better – fit, etc. So I now just automatically reject any plane if it isn’t a higher end Stanley. Not that I would reject a Veritas or any today’s super neat ones!

  12. rwyoung

    Not definitive, but here are a few examples of Stanley publications showing (way too long and too narrow) screwdrivers in use:
    http://tooltrip.com/tooltrip9/stanley/stan-bpl/edsheets.pdf

    http://www.lkctraining.co.uk/Stanley/Page%2012.jpg

    Both seems to be 50’s or 60’s vintage so who knows. Cherrypicking because some other publication illustrations didn’t address the issue at all. However, the most complete Google search I could accomplish in 10 minutes did NOT show an official Stanley publication where they promoted the use of the lever cap.

    Personally, I like using the palm driver I got from Veritas rather than the lever cap. But hey, I doubt either the wood or the plane really cares.

    Now go make sure all your planes are resting on their sides when on the bench. Or not.

  13. Rich

    The shipwright who took me under his wing some forty years ago told me to go out and buy a vintage hand grinder, a new No. 6 Record plane and a couple sharpening stones. The next thing he had me do was grind a small flat on the edge of my brand new lever cap, right in the middle, so it wouldn’t cam out when used to tighten or loosen the cap iron screw. That plane has a zillion miles on it by now, and the lever cap has suffered no further damage beyond what I inflicted the day I bought it. That’s the only lever cap I ever ground, finding a flat not completely necessary, but for my old shipwright, grinding a flat in the lever cap was just part of what any sensible woodworker would do to put a new plane in working order.

  14. thekiltedwoodworker

    Next thing you’ll be telling us is that it’s OK to pay someone good money to suss up a plain ol’ No. 5 (corrugated, no less) with fancy metalwork on the sides. Hahahaha!

    Does your anarchism ever end?

  15. MCamaleri37

    Agreeing with Chris on this one! I’ve seen (and used) far too many planes with the screw’s slot all boogered up from someone using too small of a screwdriver. The cap iron is the perfect size and that’s not likely to be an accidental design element.

    1. JMAW Works

      I agree with this messed up screw issue being worse with the wrong sized driver. I wonder if this old wives’ tale stems from those that might use the corner of the lever cap, or not properly seating in the screw. I suppose someone needs to make an FEA model of the interface and see what the forces involved actually are given the required screw torque.

    2. aaronk

      exactly. why is that slot so wide, wider than any screwdriver that I’m likely to have, and why does the lever cap fit it so perfectly?

  16. oakjack

    I am with Chris to on this,
    I did my apprenticship as a Carpenter and Joiner here in the UK 42 years ago and every single Carpenter young or old I ever worked with used the lever cap as the tool to loosen the cap iron screw. even the instructors in tech college , I still do and have the same planes and lever caps.!!. I was also taught never to take the cap iron completly off when sharpening on site just turn it round at a right angle and on to the stone . Its all about getting the plane back working as quickly as possible. 6 internal doors a day was considered the norm (Shooting in , hanging and fitting furniture )
    However put your plane down on its sole when “on site” was a shoutable offence due to the fact there was generally no bench and alsorts of crap on the surfaces you might lay it on. In the workshop no problem.

  17. willarda

    I agree with Chris! It just seems so obvious, and I suspect that Stanley designed the edge to fit well into the screw head. Why scrabble for another tool when an excellent option is available? I have never had a cap iron chip. I suspect that chipping happens more often from dropping the parts when unassembled.

  18. Teddy

    I may not as experienced some who replied. BUT, I do agree with Mr. Schwarz and dkratville. If a person was to adjust the tension screw and tighten or loosen the cap iron screw with all the strength he had he might need to use a proper screwdriver, BUT, I understood from my old mentor a person should only snug up the screws on a plane. He taught me to use the lever cap. He has planes and other equipment most would consider going into debt to own. He respects he tools. He’s proud of them. He’s had most for a very long time. I do not remember seeing a chipped lever cap on any of his planes.

  19. cvtsf

    I’ve witnessed instructors at COR use the lever cap to loosen the cap iron screw. Of course when you’re busy making all of your own planes it doesn’t come up that often.

  20. lorenzojose

    If the lever cap were a screwdriver, it would be tempered steel instead of cast iron or bronze, wouldn’t it? Do you own any cast iron screw drivers?

    I have three of my otherwise pristine old Stanley planes I bought with chips obviously due to cap iron screw work with them. On two of them I was able to grind off the flaws and lengthen the screw slot so they function and look good. The third still has a flaw on the corner that I choose to ignore.

    Just because somebody in the past did it and ( sort of) didn’t ruin the tool is no reason to follow suit. I have great respect for craftsmen in the past, but this is a case where thy were sloppy.

    Really, Chris, are you running out of things to post about? Next it will be using screwdrivers to open cans…

      1. aaronk

        because the slot is soooo wide, and because the lever cap *just happens* to fit it perfectly, and because how hard are your torquing that thing down anyway?

    1. Barquester

      I’m afraid your logic is slipping. You really have no idea if the damage to the cap irons was from tightening a blade on the plane or using it McGyver style to defuse a nuclear bomb.
      The torque requirement to tighten or loosen the screw on a plane is negligible. You could do it with your wife’s butter knife and she’d never see a mark on it.

  21. abt

    Wonder if this got started because high school students were using lever caps as pry bars (or hammers) once they saw them used as screwdrivers, and instructors got tired of budgeting for more lever caps. (Isn’t where all that ‘don’t set the plane down flat on it’s base, don’t use the lever cap for a screwdriver’ stuff got started – in high school shops? Those few that don’t respect the tool ruin it for the rest of us.)

  22. m.kerr3@uq.edu.au

    I think I read in the instructions for a plane (they always have them and I read them – it is an illness) that the lever cap was designed to be used for the cap iron screw. I have no reference and my memory may not have remembered the “must not” but, like you, it has never caused me a problem. More of an issue than finding a screw driver is finding the freaking lever cap that I put down just there to sharpen the iron. I had it one minute ago and it can’t have gone far and yet!

  23. dkratville

    I’ve seen Paul Sellers say this more than once too. I also use it this way and everything seems fine to me. I’ve done more damage with crappy screw drivers!

    1. doug3030

      Exactly, I have seen plenty of tension screws damaged by screwdrivers and very few cap irons damaged by using them as screwdrvers.

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