The other day, my wife was replacing knobs on some of our cabinets, which is normally a simple enough job. However, the existing knobs had been there for 2 decades, and some used incorrect screws that were very difficult to remove. She spent a frustrating 30 minutes and was ultimately unable to get the screws out. When I got home, I was able to replace them in about 10 minutes, simply because I knew a few tricks. Hopefully these tricks can help save you some frustration.

Trick 1: Bigger is Better

Use the biggest screwdriver you can fit in the slot (or cross in, the case of a Phillips head screw). Using too small a screwdriver tip concentrates the force over a smaller area and increases the chance of stripping out the screw head. Many times, using a bigger screwdriver tip will remove a screw that seems stripped when using a smaller tip.

Large screwdriver
Credit: gibbon

Trick 2: Hold the Outside

If the bigger driver didn’t work, try grabbing the outside of the screw with pliers or vise grips. In our first case, the screw head stood out enough to get a grip with vise grips. The key here is to use as much force as possible; really tighten the pliers down. Once you have a grip on the screw head, you can either turn the knob (or nut) from the other side, possibly using another set of pliers, or try to rotate the vise grips. This worked on one of our screws, but on the other, the screw head was too low profile to get a good grip. So if the vise grips don’t work, it’s time for trick #3:

Vise grip
Credit: gibbon

Trick 3: Cut a New Slot

The first two tricks were fairly easy, now we’re getting serious. Using a dremel or other tool with a cutting wheel, either cut a new slot in the screw head, or enlarge the existing slot. Be very careful to keep edges of your cut flat and perpendicular to the screw head. If you make a sloppy or sloped cut, it won’t engage the driver any better than the original slot. Also be careful not to cut too deep so you don’t damage the material behind the screw. Fortunately for us, this technique worked on our last screw.

Dremel cutting wheel
Credit: gibbon

Trick 4: Drill it Out

If all else fails, you’ll need to drill the offending screw out. Choose a drill bit very close, or slightly larger than the body of the screw, and drill straight into the center of the head. Once you reach drill past the head, the rest of the screw should break loose. In the case of larger screws, you may want to start with a smaller drill first, to establish a pilot hole.

These are 4 of the most useful tricks for removing screws using tools you may already have around the house. In the case of large bolts, especially in stubborn automotive applications, you can buy screw drilling kits, which drill into the screw spinning backwards and attempt to unscrew it that way.

I hope these tips can save you some frustration.  Good luck!