Canadian Woodworking

 The basics can be tricky

Blog by Rob Brown
Wide Range

I gave a one-on-one lesson to a beginner woodworker the other day.

We spent a few hours covering the basics: how solid wood is sold; the different cuts of lumber (flat, quarter, rift); how to break it out; how to make an edge joint that will last centuries and more. I also mentioned there’s a need to engineer furniture to accommodate the changes in seasons that cause solid wood to shrink in the winter and swell in the summer. All simple stuff to a seasoned woodworker, but it’s a lot to take in over the span of a few hours.

I happened to have a few solid wood tabletop cleats sitting around the shop, as that’s often what I use to secure a large tabletop to its base. I showed him how the grain should be oriented so it’s strong, and how I cut the mating recess in the inner face of the aprons before screwing these cleats in place.

That’s when he reached for the screw sitting in the cleat and said “What about screws? Are there different types of wood screws?” That was a topic I hadn’t figured we’d get into, but I was happy to go over screws with him. After all, screws are a small but important part of woodworking and home improvement, so why not spend a few minutes going over these shiny, spiralled shop helpers?

Good questions

We started with diameter and the size of driver needed to drive a screw home. This immediately posed a confused look on his face. “Why do you use a #2 driver on a #8 screw?” was his first question. It was a good one, too. We then covered the different drivers and screwhead sizes in more detail.

That led, naturally, to other types of driver / screwheads. There’s Robertson, invented in Canada. It’s the best, and Canadians love it. Then Phillips. That’s the one Americans love. Flat head. That’s the one nobody loves. Even a brief chat about Torx and Allen keys. “Why can’t the screw manufacturers just standardize the heads,” he asked, innocently. I paused, knowing this could eat up more time than either of us had. “Well, who knows,” was my only answer.

From there we covered common screw lengths, interior vs. exterior screws, head types, the different materials some of these screws are made from and when to use them, as well as a few other small details. It took about 20 minutes to go over these topics, which pushed us pretty close to the end of our session.

Getting back to engineering

After we paused so he could digest that in-depth conversation, I made the mistake of mentioning the need for a pilot hole in many situations when screws are used. He looked at me and asked, “What’s a pilot hole?” I gave him a very brief overview of the fact that a screw will cause internal stress in wood, and we drill a small hole in the material a screw is going into so it doesn’t split. And I mentioned that sometimes a pilot hole will help locate a screw accurately. We didn’t have time to cover how different materials need different diameters of pilot holes, how drilling near the edge of a workpiece will cause the wood to split more easily, that the material a screw is made of needs to be factored in (I’m sure you’ve all snapped brass screws when installing hardware, right?) and a host of other issues surrounding pilot holes.

Wrapping the session up

I told him I was sorry we didn’t get quite as far into the solid wood discussion as I had hoped. He reassured me this was fine, as he got a lot out of our lengthy screw discussion. I explained to him even I was surprised about how much ground there was to cover on such a small and basic woodworking topic. I said we would pick up with the solid wood discussion next time we met. I also mentioned how something as simple as a screw or wooden fastener can seem so basic to a seasoned woodworker, but can be so complex to a beginner, but not to get overwhelmed. He glanced my way and said, “Wooden fastener? What’s that?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him about dowels, biscuits, Dominos, slip tenons, splines, wood keys, etc.

“That’s for next time,” I said.

Wide Range

Screws come in a wide range of lengths, diameters, materials, heads and types. It can be confusing for a beginner to keep track of all these details.

Wide Range


Even though these are just the Robertson drivers, the fact that there are four is a lot for a beginner to take in. And to memorize the coloured handles and what screw size they go with is even more to take in.

Last modified: October 13, 2023

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


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  2. No question, Al!

    Ralph – our screw conversation was just a relaxed chat. Sadly, I don’t have any printable document to share. Maybe a topic for a future issue. Thanks!

  3. If anyone even doubts the complexity of woodworking and mechanics, just look at the number of fasteners and sizes we all have in our shops! Add to that the various tools, jigs, measuring devices, levels, etc. and it’s surely enough to question the sanity of anyone involved with this! I think that’s why we love it!

  4. Hmmm, would love to see a summary (if that’s even possible) in a future magazine publication. Might even fill the entire magazine :). Maybe even include a related pdf on screw types and apps?

  5. You don’t realize how much there is to what you do untill you attempt to describe it to someone else and they ask questions you either never thought about, or long ago dealt with it and forgotten why.

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