You're Using the Wrong Screwdriver For Electrical

Brendan Lamothe

Key Takeaways

  • Phillips screwdrivers are commonly used, but other options might be more effective.
  • Combination screws offer versatility, accommodating various screwdriver types.
  • Insulated screwdrivers provide a safer option for electrical work.

Screwdriver Usage Poll Results

In analyzing your screwdriver preferences for electrical work, the poll results were quite telling. Here's a breakdown of the findings:

  • Phillips: At the forefront with a decisive 65% usage rate among you. Despite its popularity, it's worth noting there are options that could provide a better fit and reduce the risk of screw wear and tear.

  • Flathead/Slotted: Even with some strong opinions against their effectiveness, 17% of respondents utilize the slotted screwdriver. Many of you may favor them due to familiarity or the torque efficiency with the correct size—like this properly fitting one meant to fill the entire slot across the screw head.

  • Robertson/Square Drive: Garnering 8% of the usage, the Robertson drive is especially praised by Canadian users for its excellent fit and torque, as well as being easy to work with due to its 90-degree insert increments.

  • ECX/Combination Tips: These tips picked up the last 9%. They’re intriguing due to their compatibility with various types of screws, especially the prevalent combination screws in modern electrical devices that feature slotted, Phillips, square, and combo drive options.

Regarding screw sizes, the ones you'll commonly encounter include the #1 Square Drive for outlets and light switches and the #2 for electrical panel work. It's interesting to note that Phillips also uses the #2 size, contributing to its widespread utility.

Above all, safety remains a priority. Always look for insulated screwdrivers where possible to mitigate the risk of electrical shock and make sure to cut the power before starting any work.

Flathead Screwdrivers

Pros and Cons of Flathead


  • Good torque: When the correct size is used, flathead screwdrivers provide substantial torque, essential for some applications.
  • Compatibility with combination screws: Many electrical devices use combination screws, which the flathead can engage with.


  • Inferior design: According to my experience, flathead screwdrivers are outdated. Their design is less efficient compared to newer models.
  • Lack of versatility: In comparison to more modern types of screwdrivers, flathead screwdrivers offer limited utility and compatibility.

Historical Context

Flathead screwdrivers were once the standard for all electrical work, including outlets and other applications. This was long before the introduction of other types like Phillips, Robertson, or ECX. Given their historical prevalence, many users may still prefer flatheads out of habit or comfort from past use.

Flathead in Modern Usage

Despite my aversion to slotted screwdrivers and a preference to see them phased out, the reality is that flathead screwdrivers remain in use. Electrical plate covers, light switches, and other finish work typically utilize screws compatible with flathead screwdrivers. Although I advocate for modern alternatives, flathead screwdrivers are still a necessity for certain tasks in today's electrical work setups.

Combination Screws

Visual Inspection with Macro Lens

To understand the intricate design of the combination screw, a macro lens comes into play beautifully. You can analyze the details profoundly, seeing the connection between the driver and the screw. With the aid of this lens, the compatibility of the combination screw is evident, supporting multiple drivers. This visual closeness to the subject provides a clarity rarely achievable with the naked eye.

Compatibility with Multiple Drivers

Here's a detailed look at the combination screw's compatibility:

Driver Type


Traditional Slotted






Combination Tips


  • Slotted (Flathead): Make sure to use the correct size for optimal torque.
  • Phillips (#2 size): A universal choice for electrical work, yet not always the best due to potential wear and loss of torque.
  • Square (Robertson #1 and #2 size): Offers a snug fit and consistent torque, ideal for outlets, switches, and electrical panels.

Availability of insulated screwdrivers may vary, but they're a recommended safety measure to reduce the risk of electrical shock. Always ensure to work safely by turning off the power and utilizing labelled and tested insulated tools.

Insulated Screwdrivers

When selecting a screwdriver for electrical work, your choice matters for both safety and efficiency. With a dominant 65% of you reaching for a Phillips, let's explore why that might not be the best option and what alternatives are available.

Phillips Screwdrivers:

  • Universal: A #2 Phillips fits most electrical screws.
  • Convenient: Works in 90-degree increments.
  • Risks: Worn drivers lose torque. Soft screw metals compromise grip.

But let me introduce you to why insulated screwdrivers should be on the top of your tool list. Insulation adds a safety layer against electrical shock. Look for certifications and safety specs.

Flathead Screwdrivers:

  • Torque: Provides good torque with the correct size.
  • Commonality: Plate covers for outlets and switches usually require these.
  • Perspective: Considered outdated by some; still necessary for certain tasks.

Now, for the breakthrough option: The square drive, or Robertson. This choice often trumps others for several reasons:

Robertson Screwdrivers:

  • Fit: Superior fit into screw pockets.
  • Efficiency: Insert at any 90-degree angle with exceptional torque.
  • Popularity: Particularly favored in Canada due to its origin and reliability.
  • Concerns: Reports of cam-out or slipping, though often related to wear or incorrect driver selection.

Remember the importance of using a properly sized driver for maximum efficacy. When engaging with combination screws, don't limit yourself. Consider the variety of available combinations, like Phillips-square or slotted-Phillips.

Keep in mind the two prominent sizes:

  • #1 Square Drive: Common in outlets and switches.
  • #2 Square Drive: Used in electrical panels.

Although versatility is convenient, the crux of the matter is the fit and resultant torque. Invest in quality screwdrivers, and whenever possible, choose insulated ones for that extra precaution. Always prioritize safety by not just relying on insulated tools, but also by ensuring the power is turned off during work.

Philips Screwdrivers

Advantages and Universal Use

  • Ease of Use: Insert the driver every 90 degrees – no hassle with alignment.
  • Universal Application: Use a #2 Phillips for various tasks, ranging from outlet installation to electrical panels.
  • Popularity: Dominates 65% usage for electrical work around the house reported in a recent poll.


Use Case

Percent Usage


Traditional, yet losing prevalence



Common in electrical work



Preferred for superior fit



Emerging versatility


Issues with Wear and Leverage

  • Wearing Down: Over time, wings of a Phillips can degrade, reducing leverage and making it harder to turn.
  • Screw Quality: Often paired with softer screws, which fail to provide a robust grip for these "wings," leading to poor torque.
  • Quality of Tool: Invest in screwdrivers with hardened steel tips to improve lifespan, but soft screws remain a challenge.

Robertson or Square Drive Screwdrivers

Fit and Torque

  • Robertson or Square Drive: Exceptional fit within the screw pocket.
  • Torque: Provides robust grip and turning force.
  • Alignment: Inserts at every 90 degrees for quick, error-free alignment.
  • Durability Mention: Use of hardened steel tip suggested for improved performance.

Ease of Use

  • Quick Alignment: Due to its design, no time wasted aligning the driver.
  • Universal Insertion: Easy to use at every 90-degree rotation, like the Phillips.
  • Driver Tip Wear: Maintenance of the driver tip is less of an issue compared to Phillips.
  • Consistency: Provides consistent driving power without the risk of camming out.

Canadian Preference

  • Popularity: Strong preference in Canada for the Robertson drive.
  • Historical Origin: Canada introduced the Robertson drive to the market.
  • Community Feedback: Canadian users often wonder why any other driver type would be used.
  • Market Dominance: Though only representing 8 percent of users currently, enthusiasm suggests potential growth in preference.