Making a More Efficient Screwdriver

I have always been a little obsessed with screwdrivers. Maybe it’s because I like using screws so much – for their adjustability, holding power, and reversability. In my shop, fasteners are organized in clear plastic divier boxes, each of which holds between 3 and 8 different varieties. I have one dedicated to nails, 10 devoted to bolts, and 20 or more devoted to screws.

When Lee Valley Tools introduced a simple T-handle screwdriver with a floating grip on the shaft, I liked the concept immediately. A tool that you could use to quickly spin in a screw using just one finger at the end of the T-handle, then firmly grasp and apply torque to seat it seemed ideal. It was a well-designed and well-built hand tool that looked like it would last for generations.

The red and black grip on the shaft can be slid up and down, locking at any of the grooves.

But I didn’t buy one. I had a few chances to use one to drive screws for various tasks, and while it did the job, it didn’t feel right.

It wasn’t until last week that I realized why it didn’t feel right. While the screwdriver’s T-handle could be spun with one finger, applying more torque requires a closed hand over the T-handle. To drive the screw further, I needed to open my hand, remove it from the handle, rotate my hand to revert to the initial position and close the hand. It was terribly inefficient.

My favourite hand tool to drive screws, since I bought it several years ago, has been a Rolgear screwdriver. (It came with seven 4” long double-ended bits, but I quickly replaced them with the single-sided bits from a Picquic screwdriver.) The Rolgear screwdriver has a ratcheting mechanism that is stepless and silent in action. To drive a screw, I just gripped the screwdriver and rolled my hand back and forth until the screw was set (or removed) – so much easier than with a conventional screwdriver and I would recommend this tool to anyone.

My favourte screwdriver

As nice as the Rolgear’s mechanism is, it still wastes 50% of your motion (not effort, since the return motion doesn’t encounter the same resistance). I mused about a mechanism that would employ the return motion to propel the screwdriver tip in the forward direction through gears, or something else.

Then, I realized that there are mechanical devices that can drive screws more efficiently. An eggbeater drill is one which I own, but the gear ratio provides high rotational speed and has neither the torque nor control to carefully set a screw.

A brace is a good example, but most have large sweeps (around 10” diameter) designed for producing the high amounts of torque required for drilling big holes and are therefore less efficient at driving small screws (the last time I used a brace was to drill a 3/4” dog hole through 6” of hard maple in a tail vise that needed another dog hole). There are some examples of smaller braces more suited to screwdriving, but they are hard to find. Bridge City Tool Works makes a Palm Brace with a 1/4” hex chuck that looks to have a sweep of about 4”. I haven’t used one of these, but I would bet that it would be a wonderful expereince.

I like nicely-made tools. And I do like having tools that make my work efficient. I also like the challenge of making and customizing tools so they work better for me. And I like experimenting and testing/pushing my capabilities. So I decided to make my own bit brace.

One of my strengths is being able to see things for what they fundamentally are. The T-handle screwdriver, to me, looked like a round bar of steel with a 1/4” hex recess at one end, a cross bar at the other, and a sliding and removable grip in the middle. I decided that it would be a worthwhile venture to try to make my own bit brace from one. I bought one. It was on clearance for half price.

The round bar measured 3/8” diameter, so I expected that it would be a challenge to bend (my only heat source was a propane torch). I made a simple bending jig from a thick scrap of hardwood and a couple sturdy bolts and a small screw that served as a stop for positional accuracy to minimize the amount of time between heating and bending. The screw was moved for each bend.

I fired up my torch and slowly heated up the part of the T-handle that I wanted to bend, rotating it occasionally to ensure the area was heated evenly. When it started to glow orange, I quickly moved to the bending jig and pulled it around the fulcrum bolt as far as I dared, as it became stiffer as it cooled. Then, it was back to the torch for more heating before continuing the bend. It took three heating/bending cycles to complete the bend. The result looked perfect.

The second bend was almost the same, except that it had to be done at roughly the same angle as the first bend (which was arbitrary). I made some layout marks on the wood to guide me as I made the bend and proceeded to heat and bend the next corner. I think I was a little more impatient or too aggressive with this bend, as it didn’t turn out as smooth as the first bend.

The third bend was pretty easy. The most important thing was ensuring the straight section between the second and third bend was long enough for my hand to fit.

The fourth bend was the most challenging. Not only did it have to be the correct angle, it also had to be at precisely the right location to leave the screwriver shaft aligned with the top section before the first bend. I made the bend too far away from bend #3, but was able to slightly straighten bends #3 and #4 to achieve proper alignment.

To finish the brace, I filled in the grooves in the shank with epoxy putty, then levelled it with an old Microplane rasp (which did an excellent job of flushing the putty without going too far), and a chisel for the inside corners. A little sanding ensured all surfaces were paint-ready.

For a uniform look, I applied multiple coats of a metallic spray paint I had on hand from another project (about seven coats were required to achieve a consistent finish). While the paint was drying, I turned a dogwood knob for the tail end of the brace.

I’ve used the bit brace to drive a dozen or so screws and so far, I really like it. Here’s another look at the completed bit brace.

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