Yankee Screwdrivers

What is a Yankee Screwdriver?

A Yankee screwdriver is something that a lot of people have seen on their father's or grandfather's (forgive the sexism, but unfortunately, few women were working screwdrivers at that time) workbench -- it's a "push screwdriver", where a pushing motion is converted into a turning motion by a spiral cutting in the shaft. They can also be used as a traditional ratchet screwdriver and even as a conventional "fixed" screwdriver.

The original maker of the "Yankee Brand" push screwdriver was (seemingly) North Brothers Manufacturing. At some point, North Brothers, or at least the Yankee brand name was bought out by Stanley Tools. (can you tell my history here is more via observation than research?) Stanley has discontinued producing the traditional Yankee screwdrivers (push screwdrivers), and in fact, they were last produced in the United Kingdom. So yes, for a while at the beginning of the 21st century, the Yankee Screwdriver was available only from the Brits. However, there are some similar devices that have been available from other sources on and off for many, many years. For purposes of simplicity, when I say "Yankee Screwdriver", I mean any of these various brands, unless stated explicitly. To add to the confusion, Stanley now uses the "Yankee" name on some of their NON-push screwdriver products. I'll just ignore those.

Some pictures here would be nice. Eventually.

They predate modern "power drivers" by decades -- I have several Yankee screwdrivers that are almost 100 years old, and are still 100% functional.

There seem to be three primary sizes of Yankee drivers, I'll call them "small" (around a foot long, extended), "medium" (around a foot and a half, extended), and "large" (over two feet long, extended). The small ones are the size of a conventional screwdriver, and do not always have a lock on the spiral action. The medium size ones are my favorite -- long enough to do the job, not so long as to be considered a weapon. The large ones are...large. They do a job wonderfully, but they can have clearance issues. For most uses, the medium sized ones are my favorite, but I have a large one I like. I just don't carry it with me. Curiously, some of the "non-Yankee" push screwdrivers seem to follow these same basic sizes. There is also what could be called an "Extra Small", which feels like a "home" oriented tool to me, which has a much shorter "push" than the "bigger small". Many of the "Extra small" Yankees I've seen have a handle that unscrews permitting the storage of bits (both screwdriver and drill) with the screwdriver; a very nice feature on what is otherwise a tool I've not found overly useful, as the shorter "push" just doesn't seem to do much for me.

Bits

Yankee Screwdriver bits are..unique. They do not (directly) use the (now) standard 1/4" hex bits. Unfortunately, each of the screw driver sizes uses a different size bit, meaning you can't pool your driver bits well at all. Most of the used Yankee drivers I have seen at garage sales have only one bit or no bits in them. Replacement bit sets are not typically seen hanging on the shelf at your local hardware store.

There are several makers of Yankee to standard hex bit adapters made now, some links below. I've got some adapters, though I must say I do prefer avoiding adapters and using "real" bits, as they are smaller and thinner than an adapter and a bit.

One issue you may experience with the Yankee to Hex bit adapters is the fact that hex bits are designed to deliver torque to the bit, but provide easy removal of the bit by simply pulling on it. The problem with this is a Yankee screwdriver can apply a force to the bit in other directions -- most notabily, when releasing the spiral mechanism, they will often throw a hex bit out of a magnetic adapter, and launch it across the room (ok, usually only a few feet, but usually enough to toss your most unique and important bit into an unrecoverable place). The standard Yankee mount both provides twisting force to the bit, but also securely holds the bit in place. Some of the Yankee to hex bit adapters do provide various ways of holding the bit in place beyond a magnet -- sometimes, a screw-down collar, in other cases, a spring retainer.

The Spring Thing

All of the Yankee screw drivers I have seen in my life before I got interested in them myself were "spring-loaded" -- you push the handle in, compress the spring, the bit turns. Let go, the shaft extends on its own from the spring. After I bought my first, I did a little googling for them, and found a reference to someone finding a very old Yankee screwdriver without a return spring, with some speculation as to whether it never had one or it was broken. Since then, many of the Yankee screwdrivers I have purchased have NOT had the return spring, and I think I can say with good confidence, considering the otherwise perfect operation of some of theses tools, the spring is not broke, it just isn't there. Some of them have got a large screw on the handle, which APPEARS to be a "spring access screw" -- I say this because there is no way to store bits in this area, and I have one that has both the spring and the large screw head. Remove the spring, it behaves just like the ones I have that do not have springs.

I've since heard from a number of people on this topic, and the general consensus is that while the spring provides conveinient one-hand operation, it is very easy to have the screwdriver slip and do dammage to the piece you are working on. Without the spring, the tool almost requires two hands, once of them right near the work, allowing it to be a very precise tool.

Why care about Yankee Screwdrivers?

Well, they are cool.

It turns out they are a very useful tool for computer building and repair -- they can put a typical screw in or out of a typical computer in two or three strokes, with greater speed and greater control than one will find in all but the best power drivers. They are lighter than most power drivers, and have no magnetic fields to mess with monitors or disks, which is also a nice feature.

Plus, there is just something retro-cool about working on a brand new computer with an 80 year old tool.

Non-Yankee Yankee-style tools

I recently acquired a "Millers Falls Co" (Greenfield, Mass) Yankee-style driver. It is the same size as the "Large" Yankee drivers, uses the same bits as the large Yankees. Quality tool, primary difference between it and my large Yankee driver the Millers Falls Co driver has the spring (looks like it was removed from my large Yankee), and the "shifter" is a twist-collar near the locking collar. Patent date is 1926.

Lara Specialty Tools: Looks interesting, I know NOTHING about it. I'll get one, some day.

New Yankee Screwdrivers

Shortly after I became interested in these things, I brought the three I had to a client I knew to be interested in fine tools. A week or two later, Harold called me up to say, "Nick, guess what is on the front cover of the newest Garrett Wade catalog?" Sure enough, Garrett Wade is importing them from England. He had promptly picked up the phone and ordered one for himself. The order-taker told Harold that this had been one of the most popular cover tools he had ever seen.

I purchased a couple for friends of mine who was getting married as a wedding gift (I had to order two -- they don't share tools well!). While I didn't unpackage them at the time, I have since had a chance to look them over. It is an impressive tool, at least for today. Is it quite as "nice" as my 90+ year old Yankees? Not sure. However, it does have a real, honest to goodness wood handle, and it works well. It feels a little lighter than mine do, but that's not all bad. The shaft lock collar is actually labeled with "On" and "Off", which confused me for a while: "On" means "Lock on", I was stuck thinking it meant "Tool is ready to use".

Garrett Wade now says that "Stanley has stopped production of all Yankee Screwdrivers". Sounds like the end of an era.

Yankee Resources

Note: I do NOT endorse or recommend any of the vendors here. I have probably not bought any products from them. As with everything on the Internet, including this poorly researched page, buyer beware.

Yankee Screwdriver stories

Yankee Screwdrivers in Art and Literature

Tell me your Yankee Screwdriver stories, and let me know if I can add them to this page, and how to attribute them to you. (In general, you probably don't want me to post your e-mail address unless you are already something of an often spammed Internet celebrity.)

Write me at (nick at holland-consulting.net).

since 11/9/2007
holy cow. I realized I never put a counter on this page when I first put it on-line, so I stuck a counter on it. 24 hours later, it had racked up 20 hits, much to my surprise. So, I went back and looked at the logs, and saw 10,362 hits...and that was only a year's worth of logs. The temptation to alter the counter is there, but it seems cheating somehow. That number is just since 11/9/2007.

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