Furniture Detective: Practical advice on removing reluctant screws

In a previous article on how to disassemble antique furniture, a portion of the instructions read “Start by removing screws.” Sometimes that’s a whole lot easier said than done, especially if you are working with older pieces. Trying to remove a reluctant screw can be a frustrating job and what would otherwise be a one-minute procedure becomes a trial of endurance and frustration.

The primary element of screw removal is having the right tool. That sounds fairly simple on the surface but the variety of screw heads and the corresponding variety of screwdrivers required to accommodate them is endless. You just can’t have too many screwdrivers!

Even the simplest type of screw, the original slotted head wood screw, has a huge variety of heads. For example, very early hand made screws had wide, deep slots and a sumo sized screwdriver blade works best with them. But only a few years later in the 1830s, after machinery was designed to make screws, the blade required to manipulate them was extremely thin compared to the older models and required a different technique using more finesse and less brute strength. Having the right tool means not only having the right size and the right shape but having it in good condition. A screwdriver with a worn, rounded blade or one that has been used excessively as a pry bar will damage screw heads and add greatly to your frustration. The right tool for the right job.

The most common occurrence in screw removal is what the technical people in the fastener business call “cam out.” That just means the screwdriver slipped out of the slot and busted your knuckle. The most common reason for cam out is the use of an improperly sized screwdriver. Most people will automatically grab the smallest tool they think will do the job. The result is most often a screw head that is marred or a twisted screwdriver blade. The opposite should be the case. You should start with the absolutely largest screwdriver that you think will possibly work and down size from there. It is important to completely fill the slot of a screw head with the blade in order to get the most surface area working in your direction.

But don’t go overboard. Closely examine the fit of blade to slot and make sure your selection of blade goes all the way to the bottom of the slot. If not, move down a notch in size.

Next make sure that you are exactly perpendicular to the screw. The right size blade probably won’t work at an angle and will result in more cam out and screw head damage. Once the blade enters the slot, rock it gently from side to side to make sure you are flush against the bottom and square to the sides. Then turn the screwdriver slowly but firmly counter clockwise. You are not trying to set a speed record here. The object is screw removal so take your time.

If the screwdriver slips or the head of the screw starts to deteriorate, first try reseating the screwdriver blade in the slot by tapping it firmly with a hammer and try turning again. This not only will seat the blade better, it may help free up the screw as well. But only try to get the screw to just move, even the tiniest fraction of an inch is a great first step because if it will move a little, eventually it will move a lot. If  it is still reluctant try exerting pressure CLOCKWISE. Even if you don’t move the screw visibly you may break up the bond, probably rust, that is holding the screw tightly in the wood. Then try the counter clockwise move. Even pressure is the key now. Again make sure you are square over the screw and use more down force into the slot than sideways force to move the screw. While exerting major down force just move the screw slightly. And if one tool is not giving you good results, try another. Sometimes one screwdriver works better than another for no apparent reason.

If the slot starts to get sloppy or damaged, it may be time for more drastic measures. If the head is accessible, use a hacksaw blade to carefully deepen the slot and put some square edges back into it. Then use a larger screwdriver in the modified slot and begin again. You may be able to entice the screw to move by using a pair of diagonal cutting pliers (commonly known as “dykes”) to grasp the head of the screw at the edges of the slot. Turn the dykes up and engage the blades in the edges of the slot and turn the whole assembly.

The major drawback here is that you may have to remove some wood around the screw head to give the dyke blades room to turn. Use a very sharp 1/4 inch chisel to create a “moat” around the screw if you need the room. This will leave you with a touch up problem but it will probably help get the screw out.

When all else absolutely fails, use brute force. In this case it means deleting the screw head. Use a Dremel tool with a grinding rock in it and just erase the screw head. It will take a while and you may have some collateral wood damage but these are desperate measures. When the head is gone leaving only the shaft, remove the hinge or whatever the screw was holding and remove the remaining screw carcass with vise grip pliers. Not a pretty sight but effective. If the screw head broke part way through the removal process and you have enough room to get behind the screw, just cut off the head with a hacksaw blade (remove the blade from the saw frame and wrap one end of the blade in a cloth to protect your hands) then remove the screw carcass as above.

Above all, don’t let the screw defeat you: outthink it.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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