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Tool Review: Yankee Screwdriver

An old-fashioned hand tool steps up when cordless drills give out. Story and photos by Ray Tschoepe

    Attaching a hinge with a Yankee screwdriverHaving spent several unproductive hours traveling back to the shop to replace or recharge the batteries in my cordless drill, I knew I had to find a solution to these delays. Little did I suspect that it would appear among a collection of hand tools passed down from my father.

    Up until the 1980s, when cordless drills arrived on the market, almost every carpenter carried a simple mechanical device that resembles a heavy-duty screwdriver. Known as a “Yankee,” it features a large wooden handle with an extending sleeve that slides over a solid steel shaft criss-crossed with spiraling grooves. Operation is simple, effective, and best of all, requires no batteries.

    How It Works

    When the handle is pushed forward, pins engage the spiral grooves to translate the forward (pushing) motion into rotational spin, moving the screwdriver bit (straight or Phillips) inserted in the Yankee’s tip. This pressure keeps the bit engaged and assists in driving the screw. An internal spring forces the handle back into the ready position. There’s also a small three-position slide on the side of the outer sleeve that allows the screwdriver to reverse direction to extract screws, or to lock so it can be used exactly like a standard screwdriver.

    What To Look For

    The only potential issue with my old Yankee screwdriver? The notches and cuts in the bit shafts are fairly specific, so damaged or missing bits can be difficult to replace. However, my online search for a replacement Phillips bit turned up several companies still making Yankee screwdrivers and bits. What’s more, these companies also offered an adapter that, when fitted into the bit holder, converts it to accept standard ¼” hex shaft bits. With an adapter, the screwdriver can handle everything from square-drive to torx screws. More online searching turned up small Yankee screwdrivers designed to accept the ¼” hex bits without the use of an adapter, a quick way to achieve the same result.

    The Bottom Line

    No, you won’t be able to drive a pocket full of 2½” screws with the Yankee. But you can install hardware, and easily drive screws up to 1½” long. Best of all, you won’t find yourself wasting time fetching new batteries or waiting for them to charge—just pull out your Yankee and keep on working.

    Ray Tschoepe, one of OHJ’s contributing editors, is the director of conservation at the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust in Philadelphia.

    Published in: Old-House Journal November/December 2009

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