How to remove soft screws without stripping the heads?
March 9, 2010 6:27 PM   Subscribe

How can I remove old screws when the heads keep getting stripped?

I want to replace the hinges on my kitchen cabinets, but the screws have been there for at least 40 years, and my screwdrivers are going to strip the heads. The metal is quite soft and strips within just a couple of turns of the screwdriver. (Looks like brass?) Do I need to clean the hinge area to make sure there is no dirt buildup that is acting like cement? I actually got a couple of the looser screws out without stripping the heads, so it is possible. What can I do about the couple I have already stripped?
posted by Knowyournuts to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have needlenose pliers? Those have worked for me, where there's enough of the head to grab on to.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:32 PM on March 9, 2010

Easy Out. Instructions.
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:32 PM on March 9, 2010

You'll need either an "easy out" or a left-hand drill bit, something that bites into the screw with pressure opposite the threading, you know?
posted by Red Loop at 6:32 PM on March 9, 2010

Rubber band.
posted by kimdog at 6:36 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've never had good luck with the "Easy Out" kits. Could you just drill out the heads of the screws? I've done this loads of times with great success!
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:08 PM on March 9, 2010

If they're not too stripped you can try to set the screwdriver into the screw with a couple of hammer taps - this works particularly well with a sharp Phillips head screwdriver. Also, if you're using an electric screwdriver, you probably want to try a few by hand - you can control the amount of torque better.
posted by macfly at 7:10 PM on March 9, 2010

If there's enough room, I've had some good luck with sawing out basically a giant flat-head notch in the screwhead. Macfly's idea of setting the screwdriver with a hammer is a pretty similar theory.
posted by muddgirl at 7:36 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you sure the head will strip? I regularly unscrew things that have remained unmolested since my 80 year old house was built.

First, make damn sure you're using the largest screwdriver that will fit the head. The less slop in the screwhead-driver interface, the better.

Second, there's a trick. Many people half-ass pushing into the screw as they unscrew, thus stripping the head. In other words, you can't generate proper breakfree torque on a half-stripped slot. So tighten the screw - just enough to break the paint/wood garbage free. Then loosen with the lower torque required.
posted by notsnot at 7:43 PM on March 9, 2010

90+% of the time, heads get stripped because a) there's crap in the slots, b) you're using the wrong type of screwdriver e.g. Phillips vs Pozidriv, or c) you're using the wrong sized screwdriver e.g. a #1 or #3 screwdriver on a #2 screw.

Make sure you're not making one of these 3 simple mistakes, before thinking about Easy Outs etc. Even then, I'd try a tap with a hammer or a light try with an impact driver to break the grip before getting more technical.
posted by Pinback at 7:44 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pinback mentioned what I was going to suggest -- I think that a manual impact driver will be the most that you will need. I think I paid all of $8 for mine at Harbor Freight more than a decade ago, and it is still going strong. Try just using the right size/type of screwdriver first, but if that isn't working, the impact driver is almost guaranteed to get them out with little damage.
posted by Forktine at 8:45 PM on March 9, 2010

What I've done is use a dremel outfitted with a cutting circle. Cut a new groove into the screw. Use a flat-head screwdriver (the biggest that will fit into the newly made slot so you can get as deep as possible into it) to unscrew it - sometimes the metal is so crap and the cut so hard, the head breaks off - if so, I unscrewed the rest of it with a pair a pliers.

Depending on the situation, I've drilled into a broken-off screw with a drill with an anti-metal drillbit. It takes a lot of strength/coordination and something to brace against, and you'll either have to refill the hole with fake wood (or maybe a a wooden plug) or one of those plastic screw-a-magingers.

If you're replacing the hinges, there's no great reason why the new hinges have to go in where the old hinges are. If the best you can do is get rid of the old hinges, the new ones can go higher or lower than where the old ones were - the screws would go into un-violated wood (and there are "crayons" that are sold to fill in holes in wood).
posted by porpoise at 8:47 PM on March 9, 2010

I'd like to expand expand upon Macfly's and muddgirl's suggestions with the hammer, because they point to a classic technique for both flathead and phillips screws.

What you need to do is first of find the biggest screwdriver that will still slot into the notches. Preferably, though, you shouldn't use your very best screwdrivers for this technique, because this technique might dull them.

Next, you want to get a fairly heavy hammer - I prefer to use a club hammer for this rather than just a claw hammer.

Once you'd slotted the screwdriver, what you want to do is lightly tap on the butt of the screwdriver while trying to twist the screw free. Don't be surprised if it doesn't come free or even budge right away - just keep tapping and twisting, though let me repeat you don't want to be pounding away at the screw, just using the hammer to set the screw and to keep the screwdriver in place.

This technique works especially well with screws that have been painted over or that have been locked in place from becoming rusted.

Failing that, I know that they now sell (at least in the States and Europe) a certain kind of screw bit with really sharp edges that cut into the screw as your electric screwdriver tries to back it out. Sorry, don't know what they're called.
posted by rudster at 1:46 AM on March 10, 2010

Easy-outs and impact drivers are generally inappropriate for the small screws used with cabinet hinges. Pinback's suggestions are almost certainly all you need; make sure you have the exact right type and size of screwdriver, and make sure the slots are absolutely clean of paint and crud before trying to unscrew them.

For the handful of screws that still don't come out easily, drill the heads off with a handheld drill, pull the hinge off and grab the (now headless) screw shank with a pair of vise grip pliers.
posted by jon1270 at 4:02 AM on March 10, 2010

For unstripped screws, first make sure you have a snug fitting screwdriver as per the suggestions above and then clamp a pair of vice grips on the shank of the screwdriver. By twisting with the vice grips you can generate a lot of torque while keeping the blade from slipping out of the slot by pushing on the end of the screwdriver.

For getting the stripped wood screws out, using an easy out is a long shot. You'd have to use a very small easy out & drill bit and drill down the screw dead center without slipping off the to the side. It may be easier to just drill off the head of the screw and use one less screw on the hinge. Hopefully you don't have more than one stripped screw per hinge.

Although tool purists would cringe, I've removed stripped screws by using a screwdriver as a chisel, delicately tapping the periphery of the screw slot on either end in the counter clockwise direction. If you can get it to unscrew an eighth of an inch, you may be able to grab the sucker with the vice grips I mentioned before. You do have vice grips, right? No, then go get some today.
posted by digsrus at 12:31 PM on March 10, 2010

John1270 has it. We ended up having to remove the heads of the stripped screws, lift off the door/hinge combo, and then use pliers to unscrew the screws from the cabinets.

I marked best answer for everything that we tried. There were other good answers (like rubber band, etc.) but we had already found that on Google and tried before I wrote to AskMe.

What didn't work, for posterity: Methods that were incompatible with the screw being housed flush with the hinge, absolutely none of it sticking out. Methods that needed the screw to be tightened or slightly unscrewed first; these screws were unmoveable and stripped upon the first turn of the screwdriver.

I can't emphasize enough that these screws were extremely soft. We don't know why.

Thanks for all the help!
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:52 AM on March 17, 2010

« Older Greens on The Green   |   Why are car chases so slow? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.