I HESITATE to say this again because it makes me sound positively ancient, but in the world of screws (as in tools generally) we have never had it so good, writes PETER BRETT.
I can still remember the days in my youth when putting in a simple woodscrew involved using a hand-powered drill to drill a pilot hole – sometimes two – for the shank and the thread, then drilling a countersink for the head and then screwing in the screw with a wooden-handled screwdriver that really tested how much torque you could apply with your hands. Some old timers even recommended putting a dab of fat onto the screw thread to ease its passage into the wood. It was also said that, when using brass screws, that a steel screw should be inserted and then removed to make a track for brass screw because of the potential danger of breaking a brittle brass screw.
Some years later (1980s/1990s?) saw the widespread use of the cordless drill driver in the trades. In retrospect, their peculiar banana shapes and 1.3Ah battery packs don’t seem so great, but it was the start of an explosion of innovations that came with the extra torque available at the press of a trigger.
Soon the slotted screwdriver head became old-fashioned and even Phillips head screws were outdone by the invention of the Pozi. More recently the Torx, hex and square drives have hit the market, giving end users a wide range to choose from.
Making the old conically shaped woodscrews was difficult, even for machines – in England, woodscrews were still being made by hand in the early 1900s! Modern screws are all machine-made in their millions with straight shanks, sharp points, parallel threads, etc, and are so easy to use that modern trades think nothing of using several hundred screws a day on a job. Progress? I would say so.
The Optimaxx design
Unsurprisingly, not all the screws we buy are the same. Although they may look superficially similar in shape there are many subtle variations and I have found that I do choose certain brands of screws for certain circumstances. For example, some manufacturers use slimmer designs with sharp teeth on the threads that work better to prevent splitting when used near the edges of boards.
The Optimaxx screws I was sent follow a strong general purpose design that can be used on timber, man-made boards and other materials like plastic and insulation. My use tests found them to be very strong screws – I tried often to break the heads off by overdriving into the timber but I didn’t succeed once. More often, they would just drive through the timber – especially if it was softwood. I think they must be case hardened because I tried cutting off a screwhead with a multi-tool but it was hard job because even the TCT blade struggled to make inroads into the steel.
The strength and driveability of these screws are clearly plus points so time for a closer look at the basics to see why.
The first thing that I noticed is that there are some differences between the screws of different lengths. For example, the 50mm long screws have a thread that goes pretty well all the way to the countersunk head. The longer screws at around 80-100mm long have the thread finishing about two thirds of the way up the shank. This makes sense because the sharp thread has done its work after the first third or so of the job and having a thread all the way to the top would just increase friction, heat generation and the torque needed to drive the screw. It also helps to reduce ‘jacking’ – where timbers being screwed together tend to separate as the screw is being driven through rather than being pulled together.
To appreciate the subtle thread designs of modern screws it is actually necessary to examine them with a magnifying glass.
Under magnification it is clear that the points of Optimaxx screws are VERY sharp. The points are as low an angle as 20 degrees; your fingers may have noticed this when getting them out of the box…
The sharp point helps the user to push the point into the timber to get a good straight start, and the second feature of a cut-out on the point acts a razor edge for speed of cutting and clearing of material.
With the magnifying glass, it is clear that the next section of thread has what seems like mini saw teeth cut into it. It is self-explanatory that these cut into the timber making for a speedy drive of the screws. The thread finishes with a simple deep and wide formation that is quick to drive and also has a lubricant added as part of the coating. It is clear when using the screws that the design actually does what it says it should do – the screws are easy to start and drive quickly, sometimes too quickly if you are being ham-fisted and overdoing the torque setting on the drill driver.
I am a fan of the next bit of the design – the built-in countersink ridges that make possible a good, neat setting of the screw just flush or slightly below the surface of the substrate. (I can never understand why some people drive the screws deeper into the timber leaving a hole – unless you are going to fill them.) The deep countersink also makes possible a deeper - and therefore more secure - Pozi drive slot and a stronger head that will resist snapping off.
The marketing bits
Optimaxx screws have the benefit of being highly visible with the blue, black and white boxes that stand out in a retail environment. The Optomaxx logo is clear as are the sizings - they are big enough for me to read without my glasses, so job done.
In the retail environment, despite the clarity of the sizing on the box, unfortunately, customers still open the boxes to check them against the screw they brought in to match. Under these conditions strong boxes are an advantage since they will be tough enough to withstand the treatment. On site too, strong boxes that are easy to seal up again and do not split or come undone are a necessity for me. Optimaxx boxes are actually good in these respects but I have noticed that the screw companies are looking more closely at packaging to solve some of the issues. So maybe we can look forward to a redesign in the future?