In Shop Blog, Techniques

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I have four sets of screwdrivers. Three for loaning and one for using.

The set I never loan is made up of tools that were made (mostly) by the H.D. Smith & Co. company of Plantsville, Conn. Usually these are referred to as “perfect handle” screwdrivers. They are single drop-forged pieces of steel with a wooden handle that has been riveted into place. And they are tougher and more comfortable than any screwdriver I’ve used.

I’ve picked up my set of six drivers through the years since 1996, when I spied my first one at a flea market and picked it up for $5. Since then I’ve also noticed that the prices for these tools can be ridiculous. I’ve seen screwdrivers go for $40. I’ve never paid more than $10, but I’ve picked up mine at antique fairs.

The reason I was able to get mine so cheaply is that mine look like dogmeat. And they look like dogmeat because they were probably used on the devil’s locomotive they are so black and grungy. And they are as tough as hell.

Note that there are counterfeits out there that weren’t made by Smith. Some of the tools are stamped “Germany,” and some are stamped “Irwin.” And some are tools that have been cobbled together by a clever welder. But if you find the real thing, I know you’ll be pleased.

I’ve noticed that Garrett Wade carries a Chinese set that looks like my screwdrivers, but I don’t have the heart to test them. Anyone out there have these?

If you’d like to learn more about the line of “perfect handle” tools, here are some good resources:

– A history of H.D. Smith & Co. at “I Like Rust.”

– A reprint of the company’s catalog from Martin J. Donnelly Auctions.

– A tutorial on repairing a perfect handle from Jim Thompson.
– Read a patent for the company’s wild adjustable screwdriver. And check out their patent for a chisel handle. Look familiar?

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 11 comments
  • John Browne

    One word: Snap-On. I’ve probably got 50 screwdrivers, but the ones I save for Really Special Occasions are the 7 Snap-On ones that together cost more than all the others combined. Worth it? Absolutely. Give me a half-stripped Phillips and the Snap-On will get it out. Bought them back in my mechanicing days and although at $5 per week it took awhile to pay Snappy off they were worth it. And no, they NEVER get loaned out. As Nigel Tuffnel said, "Don’t even look at it!"

  • David

    I have the Garrett Wade ones. I didn’t know that they were made in China. How did you determine that they were made in China? BTW, they are ridiculously overbuilt. I use mine for prying open cans (paste wax, shellac, etc.). They work great.

  • Don Knott

    I inherited my first P/H screwdriver from my father-in-law. It was a monster, and I imagine it first lived on an Army tank.

    Years later, when I saw the set on clearance at Garrett Wade, I bought one as quickly as I could. A few minutes with several grits of sandpaper took care of the handle roughness, and a few minutes of grinding and buffing turned them into things of beauty.

    They are well-balanced with a certain heft to them, and they fit my hand like they were made for it. Like you, Chris…I NEVER loan them out!

  • Roy Griggs

    Much like many 100 yr. old tools, quite a few of the P/H type tools are in need of refurbishment. Putting new scales on a screwdriver takes only a small investment in time and the resulting tool will bring pleasure each time you use it. For the enterprising person, the worse shape a tool is in the cheaper it is to acquire. It is also a good use of those small pieces of precious wood too small for most purposes.

    Being that "clever welder" I have P/H philips screwdrivers, chisels, awls and even a couple of ratchets. All made from scewdrivers too far gone to be restored.

  • John Davey

    I have one that looks just like the ONE you show but is made by PEXTO. It really does have a nice feel to it. ‘d love to have a set as mine is smaller. Ugh something else to start looking for, Thanks. 🙂

  • Bruce Simpson

    I can attest to how tough these screwdrivers are. They are the same type the Army issued to tank crewmen to maintain Abrams tanks. Anything that can stand up to that kind of use is very tough indeed!

  • Derek Cohen

    Hi Chris

    I have a similar "set" of Perfect Handled screwdrivers that I have collected over the years. They may have perfect handles, but they are otherwise not perfect.

    The perfect screwdriver needs two features (aside from good steel): a handle that is not round so as to reduce fatigue (round handles require greater strength to hold firmly than oval handles); and a hollow ground blade to avoid camming out (as a previous poster noted). The Perfect Handled screwdrivers I have lack the latter feature. So for years they have been my go-to paint can openers! And they do such a wonderful job at this. 🙂

    OK, I am inspired enough to go grind the blades into perfect little hollows so that my Perfect Handled screwdrivers are now indeed perfect.

    Regards from Perth


  • I have the Chinese set from Garrett Wade. I picked them up a few years ago when they were on sale or clearance. The flats on the head were ground too thin, but otherwise they showed up better than I expected for the $10 to $15 I paid for the set.

    I don’t think I have ever used them to turn a screw, but they cannot be beat for prying and all those other tasks you shouldn’t use a screwdriver for but do. The largest regularly gets picked up whenever I can’t find a small pry bar.

  • Pretty handles aside, the thing about screwdrivers in general is that they’re mostly wedges and physics 101 will reveal the problem – camming. Stick a wedge into a straight walled slot and under rotary pressure, the screwdriver quite naturally wants to cam-out of the slot. This leads to buggered screw heads and a need for medication. Most folks compensate by bearing down on the screw to keep this from happening. Too much and physics takes over again leading to screwdriver stabbed, gouged and otherwise ruined adjoining surfaces and the need for increased medication.

    I learned through my interest in firearms that you NEVER touch a firearm’s screws with ANYTHING other than a "hollow ground" screwdriver. Buggered screw heads are anathema to a firearm’s value and a warning to anyone considering one for possible purchase. Buggered screw heads mean an uninformed individual has been messing around with it.

    Therefore, I regrind any handscrew or screwdriver I intend for fine work with a hollow grind. Correct hollow grinding the blade of a screwdriver will eliminate the camming inherent with standard wedge-shaped screwdriver design by attaining parallelism between the mating surfaces of the screw and screwdriver.

    Lie-Nielsen grinds theirs in just this fashion and they have beautiful handles too.

  • Andy

    I have one of these – I don’t think it has any engraving/stamp, so I don’t know whether it’s a Smith, but it sure is comfortable, and it is indeed tough. I had a friend make new scales (bocote), and I ground slight hollows on the end of the blade so it grips screws better. It’s definitely my favorite screwdriver! I just wish I could get a few in Philips and Robertson drive…

  • John Cashman

    I have several of the HD Smith drivers, including a couple with "wings," and think they’re great. After noticing crazy prices a couple of years ago, I bought two sets of the Garrett Wade Chinese versions, and paid $15 for each four piece set. They are very tough, solid tools, and have held up very well. As you might expect, they are very rough. It looks as if the screwdrivers were finished on a belt sander — with the wood scales attached — with 60 grit paper. My plan was to use Jim Thompson excellent tutorial to make some fancy wood scales and buff up the metal to make a real handsome set, maybe for gifts. It still is my plan. Someday. I’m not sure I’d pay $30 for the set of four, although it’s still a bargain compared to ebay prices.

    Smith made all sorts of "Perfect Handle" stuff. Wrenches are really common, and I’ve even seen a drawknife and hammer.

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