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Drive enough screws, and, eventually, one will break. Luckily, there's more than one way to get a damaged screw out of your way and your project back on track.
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If you forget the pilot hole or drive a screw too quickly, a power screwdriver can spin its bit fast enough to strip away the cross shape in a Phillips-head screw. Once that’s gone, the screw can’t be driven deeper or backed out.
If the screw head stands above the wood surface, clamp a pair of locking pliers to the screw as close as possible to the wood surface and gently turn it counterclockwise. Work slowly to avoid snapping off the head.
Locking grip pliers sometimes lose their grip, so protect the wood surface underneath by cutting half the width of a small piece of cardboard and sliding the notched halves around the screw. That way, a slip doesn’t turn into a scratch.
For #12 or larger screws where the stripped screw head rests flush with the wood (and you don’t want to risk damage to your project), turn to a screw extractor for help. First drill a 1/8-in. deep hole in the center of the screw head to accept the largest screw extractor that will fit the screw head.
Place the extractor tip in the starter hole you drilled. Slowly spin the extractor counterclockwise and press down until you feel the extractor threads bite into the screw head. Turn the extractor slowly to back the screw out of the wood enough to grip it with the locking pliers and finish removing.
Prevent stripped heads and breakage on screws 2-1/2" or longer - rub the threads with a candle (beeswax works best) to help reduce friction as they’re driven.
When the head twists off a screw that’s been driven in place, you have a bigger problem. If you can leave the broken screw in place, as when securing a deck board, simply drill a pilot hole and drive a second screw about 1/4" from the first one.
Things get trickier when the screw location can’t be moved by even 1/4-in., such as when you’re installing a hinge. You'll need to go in after the broken piece and patch any damage you create. There will likely be one of three scenarios:
One: the head snaps off while some of the screw shank still extends past the wood surface. Grasp the screw shank with locking pliers and slowly turn it counterclockwise until it’s free.
Two: the screw breaks at the wood surface. Use the tip of a utility knife with a sharp blade to cut away just enough wood around the shank for the locking pliers to gain a firm grip and back out the screw. Then drill a 1/2-in. diameter hole centered on the screw hole. Fill that hole with a dowel (if the wood won’t show) or, for a seamless match, a wood plug cut from matching stock. If appearance matters and the screw is longer than 1 in., use a dowel capped with a plug to give the replacement screw plenty of material to grip.
Three: the screw breaks off more than 1/8 in. below the surface. That’s the time to think carefully about how much you need that fastener in that location. If the answer is “definitely,” use your 1/2-in. bit to drill just down to the broken end of the screw. Use the point of a nail and light taps with a hammer to make five or six starter holes around the screw.
Then use a 3/32-in. or 7/64-in. drill bit to bore holes immediately beside the broken screw on all sides. (Drill at least as deep as the screw length.) Use an awl or nail set to wiggle the screw loose enough to grip with needle-nose pliers and pull free. Now you’re free to clean up the ragged holes with a 1/2-in. drill bit and fill it with a dowel or plug (or both if the screw is long).
Work slowly when backing out broken screws. Speed adds stress, and this particular fastener has already shown a tendency to break.
You could fill holes left by broken screws with a dowel, but the end grain of the dowel won’t match the face grain of the surrounding wood. For that, you need a plug cutter. To prepare the wood for a plug, you’ll first need a hole sized to the plug you cut (1/2-in. in this case). Drill carefully to keep the wood from splintering. Then fill the hole by gluing and inserting a dowel cut about 1/2-in. shorter than the hole. Tap it beneath the surface by turning a nail upside down and hammering the point to drive the dowel as far down as it will go.
Using a portable drill, bore plugs in scrap that matches the color and grain of the surface you’re fixing.
Place a flat-blade screwdriver into the plug hole and pop the plug loose at its base.
Insert the smooth plug end into the hole with the grain of the plug parallel with the grain of the wood and tap the plug in place with a hammer. You can sand the remaining plug smooth with an electric sander, or save time by using a sharp chisel to shave the plug nearly flat and sand it smooth.
Watch Our Video: When Do I Use Nails vs. Screws?