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What Is the Difference between a Flathead and Phillips Screwdriver?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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At first glance, the main difference between a flathead screwdriver, or more properly called a slotted or flat blade screwdriver, and a Phillips screwdriver should be patently obvious. A flathead has a single blade, and a Phillips has two blades in the shape of a cross. Attempts to use a flathead tool on a screw designed for a Phillips usually won't be successful, and a Phillips screwdriver could never be used on a slotted screw. Both are considered "driver" tools, which means they are used to force bolts or screws through various types of material.

There are differences beyond the blade shapes, however. The flathead has been in use far longer than the Phillips. When screws began to replace hammer-driven nails in the manufacturing process, the single slot screwhead was almost universal. A flathead screwdriver became an indispensable tool for woodworkers and other commercial artists. This version is still considered the default model to this day, even with its inherent problems.

The Phillips screwdriver, by comparison, is still a rather new tool option. Invented by Henry Phillips, a tool company owner working in the 1930s, the screwdriver and accompanying screws were intended to provide a safer alternative to the traditional flathead. Henry Phillips wanted a screwdriver that would prevent a damaging process called overtorquing.

Traditional screwdrivers at the time often allowed the user to put too much twisting force, or torque, on the slotted screws. By designing a cross-shaped blade and corresponding cross-shaped screws with a slight depression, Phillips could apply more torque than with a flathead. This mechanical advantage allows users to use their twisting strength more efficiently. The depressions in the screws, however, forced the blades of the Phillips to slip out before any damaging overtorquing could occur.

One flaw in the flathead design is the relative strength of the blade, or bit. When a flathead bit is attached to a powered driver, the added force can cause a weaker blade to snap off. In addition, the slotted screw may become stripped if too much torque is applied. This is why the use of the flathead screwdriver is generally limited to woodworking and other light-to-medium industrial applications. Only the strongest flathead driving bits are used for high-torque manufacturing processes.

By comparison, a Phillips screwdriver is very well-suited for industrial processes. Once the Phillips bit is seated securely in the Phillips head screw, the operator can apply much more torque for fastening. Since the screw will force out the bit at the first sign of overtorquing, there is less risk of damage to the product or the bit.

Some modern screws accept both flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, although some experts suggest using a Phillips for tightening and a flathead for loosening the screw. One advantage a flathead has over a Phillips, however, is universality. In case of emergency, a number of other flat metal objects, such as coins, butter knives or keys, can be used to tighten or loosen a screw. It is much more difficult to duplicate the fit of a Phillips head.

What Is a Phillips Screwdriver?

In the 1930s, Henry Phillips created the Phillips screw. This screw was designed to accept more force than the traditional single-slot screw, which made it ideal for heavy-duty applications like automotive construction.

The Phillips cross-shaped slot was designed in such a way to make the screwdriver stay put and to provide the user more leverage. However, although this was a great and useful screw, the standard flat-head driver didn't suit the new design.

Since a standard flat-head didn't fit cleanly into the head of a screw, Phillips designed a different screwdriver to fit his new invention. This new screwdriver came to be known as the Phillips screwdriver and completed what is now known as the Phillips system.

One of the most significant advantages of the Phillips system is that the screwdriver is self-centering. That means it fits neatly into the head of the screw, making it easier to get a good grip while turning. When it comes to screwdrivers, a good grip on the handle makes completing a job much more manageable and, in some cases, safer.

Another unique feature of the Phillips screwdriver is that it will "cam" out when the screw can't go in any further. In other words, the screwdriver will pop out of the head when the screw reaches its limit. This helps keep the screw from being overdriven, which can damage the screw, the screwdriver, and the material the screw is in.

What Is a Flathead Screwdriver?

The flat-head, or slotted flat blade, screwdriver, has a much longer history than the Phillips. Dating back to the 16th century, the flat-head is used to tighten screws, bolts, and fasteners of all sizes. Like the Phillips, it gives the user significant leverage when tightening screws.

The flat-head screwdriver is incredibly versatile, although using it for purposes other than tightening screws can damage the tool. Regardless, it's often used as a chisel, ice pick, or paint scraper, or to get leverage when pulling screws. Because flat-heads are so frequently put to purposes they aren't intended for, they often don't have a long lifespan.

Flat-heads come in a lot of sizes. The key factor when choosing a size is remembering that a larger screw requires a fatter and more sturdy screwdriver. In other words, although a smaller screwdriver might fit a larger screw, the amount of force needed to loosen that screw could easily bend or break a smaller tool.

What Does a Phillips Screwdriver Look Like?

A Phillips screwdriver has a unique look. Like other screwdrivers, it has a round, steel shaft attached to a handle typically made of resin or rubber. However, the most significant difference is that the head is a cross-shaped wedge. The shape of the head makes it easy for the tool to self-center and keep a solid grip on the screw.

Phillips screwdrivers come in five sizes that range from zero to four, with zero being the smallest. Sizes one and two are the most commonly found options. Size two is used for standard-sized screws, while size one is meant for miniature screws.

In addition to the five standard Phillips sizes, smaller options are available. Thmese saller tools are typically sold in sets and are often used by jewelers to tighten very small screws, such as those you might find on a watch or locket.

The most important thing to remember about selecting Phillips screwdrivers is that they're very precise. A size-zero Phillips won't work with a size-four screw because it won't be able to center itself properly in the screw's head.

You should also bear in mind that overworking the screw can damage both it and the screwdriver, rendering them both useless.

What Does a Flathead Screwdriver Look Like?

A flat-head screwdriver has a very simple shape. Like the Phillips, it has a steel shaft attached to a handle. However, the tip of a flat-head is cut into a wedge that fits cleanly in screws and fasteners with straight notches.

Flat-heads come in many sizes based on the width of the head. For example, you can purchase flat-head screwdrivers that are only a few millimeters wide and others that are a half-inch wide. You can also find them in miniature sizes that work for things such as jewelry or eyeglasses.

The benefit of flat-heads is that, despite their varied sizes, you can often use a smaller size with a larger screw. For example, while a 1/8 inch flat-head is smaller than a 5/32 inch screw, you can still use it in a pinch.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By LisaLou — On Dec 02, 2012

In my kitchen junk drawer I keep one screwdriver. This has several different kinds of screwdriver bits stored inside the handle. This way you only have one screwdriver to keep track of, but yet have the correct bit to use for the job you need to get done. All you have to do is unscrew the bit that is on there and choose the one you need. Being able to store the additional bits in the handle is nice because you always know where they are.

By myharley — On Dec 01, 2012

@honeybees -- That is really not a bad idea what your husband did. Especially if you are setting up housekeeping, you will probably need both a flathead and Phillips screwdriver. That would be one less thing they would have to go out and buy.

I think a hammer and a screwdriver set is a must for just about anyone. My dad always liked to give flashlights for a Christmas present. This wasn't a very exciting gift, but he encouraged us to keep it in our car because you never know when you might need one.

By honeybees — On Nov 30, 2012

My husband loves his tools, and always says that the proper tool makes the job a whole lot easier. When our kids would move out on their own, he would give each of them a screwdriver set. I think the boys appreciated this more than our daughter did, but nevertheless, it was his way of helping them prepare for life on their own.

By sunshined — On Nov 30, 2012

It seems like no matter how many screwdrivers I have around, I never have the right one handy when I need it. If I need to use a flathead screwdriver, all I can find is a Phillips, or it is the other way around. It would probably help if I was more organized with my tools, but both of them are essential to have.

I must admit, I have often tried to use things like coins or a knife to tighten something without using a screwdriver. While it may get the job done, I don't think it ever gets it as tight as it would have been if I had used the proper screwdriver.

By anon291029 — On Sep 12, 2012

There a lot of different types of torque screwdrivers. So it's better to know the difference about them. The star screwdriver is what we commonly use at home. A flat screwdriver is also know as a turnscrew.

By anon262901 — On Apr 21, 2012

Stop calling it a "flat head" screw driver instead of validating ignorant terms. If you refuse to call it a "flat head" and call it what it is, a slotted screwdriver, maybe it will get beaten into their brains what it is called!

By anon231154 — On Nov 23, 2011

The Philips self centers the torque through the center axis of the screw, while the flathead (slotted) does not self center the torque through the center axis of the screw. Much more inefficient.

By anon159595 — On Mar 12, 2011

@FireBird - I think because there's more surface area between the screw driver and the screw there is more mechanical advantage with the Phillips Screw. I don't think the distance between the axis or hand gives any advantage.

Another thing, when it comes to advantages is that theoretically it takes half the time to align a Phillips Screw as opposed to a slotted screw (because the Philips Screw is tapered and has 2 perpendicular slots so you don't really have to aim to make the screw driver lock in to the screw). This might not seem like a big deal but if you have 10,000 screws to put into an assembly line that makes some huge time savings.

By anon45580 — On Sep 18, 2009

What you are calling a flathead screw is instead a slotted screw. A flathead screw is one made to go into a countersunk hole so that the top of the screw is flush, that is, flat, to the surface.

By FireBird — On Aug 01, 2007

How does the Phillips allow for more mechanical advantage if the distance between the axis and the screwthread, and that between the axis and the hand are the same as with flatheads?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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