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Why Your Screw Won’t Drive Into Wood (and what to do next!)

So, maybe you’re trying to drive a screw into wood. It gets halfway in, then stalls. Or maybe, you can’t get it to start at all.

The primary reason your screw won’t go into the wood is that it’s reached a particularly dense section of wood, and needs a bit more force. To mitigate the issue, drill a larger pilot hole, use a better quality screw, or get a more powerful drill/driver.

If you’re not working with hardwood or a softwood with an obvious knot, don’t worry, there are some other reasons too, so keep reading!

Note: This blog contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive compensation (at no additional cost to you.)

Screw Driving Basics

Before we dive into some of the various issues that might be wrong with your wood or drill/driver, lets check that all of the basics are in order!

The Drill is Turning Clockwise

First off, make sure the drill is turning the correct direction (clockwise for tightening.)

This sounds dumb, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put a screw onto wood, pressed the trigger, then wondered why on earth the screw wasn’t going into the wood, before realizing the drill was in reverse.

So double check that your drill is spinning clockwise.

If it’s not, change the direction. If you’re not sure how to do that, there’s typically a trigger on the side of the drill/driver that controls the rotation direction. Here’s what that looks like on my drill:

Reverse trigger on drill

You’re Using the Wrong Drill Bit

As you probably know, your drill bit needs to match the screw you’re working with. This sounds obvious, but there are a bunch of variations on a typical Phillips head bit, and many look very similar.

The Phillips head looks like this:

Phillips head, screw wont go in

But, there’s also the Phillips Square bit:

Phillips Square head, screw wont go in

And Ikea’s favorite, the Pozidriv screw:

Pozidriv Screw, drill wont go in

You might be struggling to see the difference with this one – Pozidrive screws have four little notches in each quadrant of the normal Phillips pattern.

Many of these still work with a Phillips bit, but not anywhere near as well as with the bit they’re designed for. If you’re working with a special screw, make sure you have the bit designed to match.

It’s also worth noting that drill bits come in different sizes. #2 is the most common size of Phillips bit, but some extra small screws might require a #1 bit, or extra large screws a #3.

You’re Using a Machine Screw

There are plenty of different types of screws out there, and while many of them work with wood, not all of them do.

Obviously, “wood screws” are designed for wood, but construction screws work well too, and even drywall screws will work in a pinch.

But machine screws have a flat tip instead of a pointy tip, and those will never work. You can see a picture of that below:

Machine screw

Possible Mechanical Errors

So now that we’ve checked that everything is set up right, lets look at some other things that could be going wrong.

The Battery is Dying

Cordless drill/drivers use a battery, and eventually that battery needs to be recharged.

And guess what? When the battery is dying, it has less power, and struggles to drive screws into wood.

As you gain experience and get used to working with your drill/driver, you’ll start to recognize the sound of a dying battery.

Until that happens though, you’ll just have to error on the side of caution, and charge the battery when you think it might be dying.

So, if your drill/driver battery doesn’t have a full charge, charge it. Then try driving your screw again.

The Clutch Setting is Too Low

So, see these numbers on the side of the drill:

Labeled clutch, screw wont go in

They control the clutch. This tells the drill how much force to apply to the screw.

If the drill applies too much force, the screw will drive too far into the wood before you have a chance to stop it. Alternatively, it could strip the screw head, which is a giant pain to deal with.

If the drill applies too little force, the screw will stop spinning before the screw is all the way into the wood.

The higher the number, the more force the drill tries to apply to the screw. So, if your screw won’t go all the way into the wood, turn the clutch setting to a higher number.

This will force (pun!) the drill to apply more force, and hopefully drive your screw into the wood!

The Screw is Bad

Have you taken a close look at your screw? My dad pulled this lovely number out of box recently:

Bad screw, no threads

It’s suppose to be a wood screw… but something went very wrong during manufacturing. No pointy end. No threads. This screw isn’t going to do a thing.

Also make sure you look at the head of the screw, and make sure it isn’t stripped. Stripped screws are when a drill bit has worn away the slots in the head of the screw. They look like this:

Stripped screws, screw wont go in

FYI – if you regularly run into stripped screws, I tested a bunch of hacks for removing stripped screws in this Youtube video. There was a clear winner, so go check it out!

Working With Dense Wood

Once you’ve ruled out mechanical issues, it’s likely that you’re just working with wood that’s particularly dense and difficult to drive screws through.

Luckily, there are a bunch of things you can do to make screws drive into hardwood more easily, so lets take a look!

Pilot Holes

If you’re not sure if you need a pilot hole, check out this post devoted to that question. But long story short, if you’re struggling to drive the screw into the wood, you need a pilot hole.

Theoretically, you want a pilot hole that’s the diameter of your screw without the threads.

If you didn’t drill a pilot hole, or drilled one that was too small, widen the hole with the correct sized drill bit, and try driving the screw again.

But if you already had a pilot hole that was the right diameter and went the full depth you needed for your screw, and you still can’t drive the screw all the way in, then you need a larger pilot hole.

Only go the next drill bit size up – you don’t want to accidently drill a hole that’s too big.

Countersunk pilot hole

Also consider using a countersink bit (used in the photo above,) which will make a little spot for the head of the screw to sit.

Not only will this look really clean, it also makes it easier for you to drive the screw that last 1/8 inch.

Screw Quality

Screws are not created equal, and higher quality screws will make driving a screw into dense wood much easier.

If you’re skeptical of that claim – I hear you. I do lots of expensive vs cheap tool tests on my Youtube Channel, because I’m also hesitant to accept that expensive=better.

But some more expensive screws are truly better, and there are some clear features that make it easier to drive high quality screws.

Screw Head Style

The drill bit required to drive the screw makes a big difference. Phillips head screws are obviously really common, because they’re a decent mix of cheap and secure.

But there are better style screw heads, with more contact points where the drill bit hits the screw, which makes the drill bit even less likely to slip out of the slots. This makes it easier to drive the screw.

Star bit, screw wont go in

This is a star (or “torx,” as the fancy people say) style screw head, and it’s wonderfully easy to drive these screws into wood.

There are plenty of other styles as well – basically anything that isn’t a flathead or a Phillips head screw is an upgrade.

Self-Driving Screws

Self-driving screws have this convenient little notch in the side of the screw that make it easier to drive the screw into the wood:

Self-driving screw

They’re called “self-driving” for a reason. This little notch is apparently so great that you can drive the screw into wood with only a screwdriver, no pilot hole or drill/driver required.

I’ve done this on softwood, but I wouldn’t try it on hardwood, or on wood that’s already proved difficult to drive screws into.

Impact Drivers

If you’ve tried all the above techniques, and you’re still not able to drive the screw all the way into the wood, consider upgrading your drill.

Some drill/drivers are more powerful than others, and an upgrade from a cheap drill/driver to a more powerful drill/driver can make a big difference.

But if you’d rather upgrade to the big guns, impact drivers are a thing.

If you’ve never heard of an impact driver, it’s basically a drill/driver that’s designed for the sole purpose of driving screws. And, as you might expect, it does a better job at that than the more versatile drill/driver.

First off, the chuck of an impact driver only accepts hex-style drill bits, which are the kind that are used to drive screws.

Additionally, the rotational force is applied in a way that is better for driving screws than drilling, which is what makes it so much better at driving screws than a drill/driver.

So if you still can’t get your screw into the wood, and you need an excuse to buy a new tool, go get yourself an impact driver.

It’ll get the job done quickly.

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