Screwdrivers are important. Really; you just can’t do anything without them. And it turns out that lots are lots better than just a few. This is about that. Illustrated.

We’re not home-improvement fanatics but we’re up to quite a few of the basics, and any time you’re going to fix anything, screwing is involved. After a decade of marriage and home ownership, we had three or four different multi-bit screwdrivers. Then, not too long ago, I was trying to fix something complicatedly three-dimensional, and the blue clouds of profanity were starting to threaten the children’s moral development. Not too long after, Lauren brought this home:

Fifteen-piece screwdriver set
· · ·
Fifteen-piece screwdriver set

Let me tell you, this is a big win. A multi-bit screwdriver is damn versatile, but at the end of the day, it’s just not a good screwdriver. Yeah, it might have a ratchet, but a one-piece connection from your wrist to the metal without any fiddly bits or adjustments makes up for that and then some.

Now here’s the thing: this totally has to serve as a metaphor for something in the software world, right? What is it?


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Kevin (Jul 29 2008, at 23:39)

The cliché you're looking for is "the right tool for the right job."


From: JY (Jul 29 2008, at 23:54)

The best bricolage investment i did (it's almost the only one :-D ) was buying a set of expensive Facom screwdrivers. ( )

I had bought some very cheap Chinese ones (1 euro per screwdriver, great!), and the diffrence between a bad one and a good one is enormous.

The good one makes you feel you're always putting your screws in butter.

I almost feel ashamed for writing this. I sound like a screwdriver nerd.


From: AndrewJ (Jul 30 2008, at 00:31)

It's possibly a metaphor for both (a) editors, and (b) programming languages. Some people will swear you only need one, but with a multi-function tool, you're always going to be compromising on something.


From: Marius Mathiesen (Jul 30 2008, at 00:41)

I actually had a similar experience a few years ago, and it seemed so in-my-face relevant to my day job.

I had just bought a 30 year old boat which needed some repairs. I needed to borrow some tools from my father in law to get the job done; not wanting to demand too much I asked for an adjustable spanner, saying it would get the job done.

My father in law protested and handed me his full set of wrenches. "Just imagine", he said, "what will happen if you use that adjustable spanner. At some point you'll encounter a screw that's stuck, and you're bound to apply too much force. At the moment you feel it slipping, leaving a small piece of metal, you will know that this screw will always add a piece of frustration to working with that engine."

The same goes for software development: you do something to your code that you probably shouldn't do, and the moment you do you know it will always trouble you.


From: Adrian Sutton (Jul 30 2008, at 00:47)

The message is that if you only have a single, even very versatile, tool in your toolbox, it is not as good as having a large set of tools which are essentially the same but in different sizes.

Perhaps, sometimes introducing new tools isn't worth the effort and you should just use a slight variant of what you've already got?

Or perhaps it's just time for you to branch out and buy a hammer. I have one complete with instructions from my father-in-law who was most disappointed that I didn't have a toolshed.


From: Jim Millen (Jul 30 2008, at 01:24)

Heh. Replace screwdrivers with kitchen knives and you've got my pet obsession - how people manage to cook at all with some of the horrors I've seen in their kitchens I have no idea...


From: F.Baube (Jul 30 2008, at 01:50)

Is it a metaphor for ... a huge library of database drivers? a big library of pluggable DSLs? an ESB? is it bigger than a breadbasket?


From: Justin Forder (Jul 30 2008, at 02:06)

"Any problem in computer science can be solved with another level of indirection" - but indirection/abstraction can pose an obstacle to understanding.


From: Jesper (Jul 30 2008, at 02:40)

"Microsoft Works doesn't rock?"


From: Jonno (Jul 30 2008, at 03:14)

IDE vs. command line tools


From: MilesZS (Jul 30 2008, at 05:55)

Dynamic Langauges = Multi-bit Screwdrivers, Static Langauges = No-Moving-Parts Screwdriver?

Well, that is depressing, in the context of this story. It is the first thing that came to mind, though, and my primary language is Ruby. Perhaps it has real-world support: Rubyists use Ruby for a lot of things (everything), but when things get really frustrating and they need to get down to the nuts-and-bolts and make something perform, they drop in to C. Does it fit?

I have a strong urge to go out and add substantially to my screwdriver collection right now. (I'm not being metaphorical -- I want to visit a hardware store.)


From: len (Jul 30 2008, at 06:12)

Next comes the big plastic toolchest. Then the industrial Craftsman rack. Then you are in the garage cursing again because family members never put the screwdriver back in the right drawer. And so it goes. You've become the average dad having an average day. Welcome to blessed mediocrity.

The Europeans tell us they understand Americans better than we do ourselves. It's rubbish but it makes them feel superior long after they've become a third-rate socialist rabble. In Britain, a sonic screwdriver is a toy used by a sci-fi hero to adjust the neutron phase continuum. In America, it is a fast food drive in cola with vodka.

The software metaphor: a fat client always performs better if you could just find one that does what you want when you want to do it.


From: Paul Morriss (Jul 30 2008, at 06:44)

"Small pieces, loosely joined" probably fits in here.


From: Mark (Jul 30 2008, at 06:54)

The UN*X philosophy of "do one thing well."

Quick, someone write up the canonical "if operating systems were screwdrivers" list and post it to rec.humor.funny.


From: Chris Jaynes (Jul 30 2008, at 06:54)

Do you have a good cordless power drill, too? I couldn't live without my Ryobi drill.

Also, one important tool that is often overlooked, a solid pair of mechanic gloves or work gloves.

Good stuff!


From: Chris Jaynes (Jul 30 2008, at 06:54)

Do you have a good cordless power drill, too? I couldn't live without my Ryobi drill.

Also, one important tool that is often overlooked, a solid pair of mechanic gloves or work gloves.

Good stuff!


From: Will Snow (Jul 30 2008, at 07:05)

I'm scared to show my collection of screwdrivers... Ok, that said, the number one cause of injury in the home is... The Screwdriver!


From: John Sellens (Jul 30 2008, at 07:06)

This requires a reference to the book "One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw" by Witold Rybczynski.


From: Noah Tye (Jul 30 2008, at 07:51)

"This totally has to serve as a metaphor for something in the software world, right?"

The multibit screwdriver has had the common part (the handle) refactored out, at the expense of simplicity and performance.

Sometimes I try to reduce code duplication, but wind up with a mess of maps and lambdas and applys that is hard to understand and even longer than the original. I should have stuck with the original, plain old function calls, duplicated though they may be.

Likewise, plain old screwdrivers are better.


From: John Cowan (Jul 30 2008, at 08:56)

It's true: fixing anything often does require a lot of screwing, particularly in marriages.


From: Amos (Jul 30 2008, at 09:16)

A "Good" Ratcheting screwdriver is worth its weight in gold. I was lucky enough to win one from Snap-On many years ago and it has survived through working in a heavy equipment shop, repairing countless jalopies, an entire home renovation and the set up of a new data centre. Never once has it failed me.

That being said. . . .

A proper set of good quality screwdrivers will make most jobs go faster and easier.


From: amused (Jul 30 2008, at 10:27)

Honestly, those photos mean something else to me entirely.

To me, they mean the author:

- is not the least bit mechanically inclined

- goes for quantity over quality or has difficulty perceiving quality

Those screwdrivers are cheap, dangerous crap that will destroy screws and or shatter. They should be tossed, and should never have been bought in the first place.



From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Jul 30 2008, at 14:22)

I can't comment on the Snap-on brand of tools; but in the US it's not a bad investment to buy Craftsman hand tools at Sears. My dad, a life-long professional mechanic, convinced me to buy Craftsman tools long ago.

The hand tools (NOT the power tools) are guaranteed for life, even if you use them in non-standard ways. I just had to replace a 3/8 in. socket wrench that was 17 years old, because the ratchet quit working correctly - they replaced it with no questions, no paperwork, no hassle.

I agree that multiple screwdrivers gives you the right one for each job. I do wish, however, that we'd eliminate certain types of screw heads: I'd favor Torx heads myself, could compromise on Phillips, but would like to eliminate the straight slot screws, the driver slips out of them too easily.

Some time back Wired had an article on screw standardization which is a good read:


From: MikeP (Jul 30 2008, at 15:14)

I'm more interested in what happens to the metaphor in a year or so when all the Phillips drivers go missing and all you're left with is the huge slot screwdriver and a couple of useless Robertson drivers.

What usually happens is somebody goes and gets a couple new sets. Then a year later you have twice as many huge slot and small Robertson drivers, and you still can't find a decent Phillips - but it takes you twice as long to figure that out.


From: Hugh (Jul 30 2008, at 17:10)

Nice metaphor for Java, and Suns original "just rewrite EVERYTHING in Java and all your software problems will go away."

I believe a major reason .NET gained traction even among developers who don't like Microsoft (eg the GNOME crowd) because of the promise that it wouldn't restrict you to a single language and a much easier interface to existing native C code.

For the same reason, large numbers of other software developers stuck with C, PHP, Python, etc.


From: D.S. Morse (Jul 30 2008, at 18:39)

I'd say the metaphor is that you can give your customers a product that is highly flexible and has 100 different uses, but at the end of the day all they want is a product that does the one thing they care about well.

# of features not so important, the quality it performs the one the customer cares about VERY IMPORTANT!!

(although personally I'd never give up my snapon multi-bit screwdriver)


From: Chandru (Jul 31 2008, at 06:16)

Inheritance is a fundamentally flawed concept and so is the OO methodology. Roll on FP.


From: Zach (Jul 31 2008, at 08:07)

It's interesting to see everyone's biases in the comments. Myself, while I was reading this I was pondering the difference in operating systems, particularly the BSD mentality vs. the SysV mentality.


From: robert (Jul 31 2008, at 11:56)

@Hugh: I believe a major reason .NET gained traction even among developers who don't like Microsoft (eg the GNOME crowd) because of the promise that it wouldn't restrict you to a single language and a much easier interface to existing native C code.

If that were fully true, then VB6 would still exist. As it turned out, its semantics couldn't be made to work with the CLR, and was born VB.NET; which acts more like C(#). It's an interesting question whether something like Prolog can be run on the CLR, without bending its syntax and semantics to fit.


From: Tony Fisk (Jul 31 2008, at 21:37)

Real software programmers use screwdrivers? (and soldering irons)

Issue on contributing:

Real software programmers speak in tongues like 'Error: Module consistency-check configurator has invalid index; exiting.' Seems someone has used their sonic screwdriver to 'reverse the polarity of the chronic configurator!' (aka check the batteries!)


From: Dave Eshleman (Aug 02 2008, at 23:41)

I've found out (the hard way) that it is best to get good tools often cheap screw drivers will strip themselves on a tight screw and become useless often the multi head screw drivers are made too cheap to last, or work best to have the right tool for any job.

how this translates to blogging or computers in general, (unless it's Apple VS PC) I don't understand.


From: Paul Carey (Aug 04 2008, at 00:11)

Friend Feed and Facebook, surely


From: Mark (Aug 06 2008, at 23:01)

I wish they had sets like that for eyeglasses screwdrivers. I can never find one small enough or just the right size thickness or width to avoid stripping out the top of the screw.


From: font9a (Aug 30 2008, at 00:01)

i asked a google answers (now defunct) question a few years ago about who made the best best screwdrivers. No one even proffered an answer for my $50 question (don't ask...)

I am fanatical about quality hand tools for my multiple mountain bikes, &c.

Wiha (Germany) I think makes a terrific set of small drivers (2.0-4.0 flats) and Torx (7 -> 15) as well as the full range of phillips heads. They are quite quality and a lot cheaper than Swiss watchmaking tools if all you're doing is working on bikes and computers. Swiss tools are the best you can get, but they are very expensive and specialized.

As far as larger had screwdrivers go I have been disappointed with Craftsman the last 10 years or so (except that their newest polished line of spanners are the rocking-est: even better in my opinion than Snap-On. I have a 12/14" that replaced my Fullers, a 15mm crows foot, 21mm crows foot, and a 1" (26mm) that are absolutely perfect in every way).

Snap-On makes the best American screwdrivers out there period. Mac Tools (if they manage to live another year are a close second). If you need specialty drivers (for RC cars / planes, etc.) Hudy is your brand of record. Team Associated also makes great drivers (I have a set of allens and a set of hexes).

I go with Hudy allen wrenches up to 19mm usually -- but they are spendy (up to $30 a tool). Hexes and Torx I use Craftsman for my polished hand ratchets and torque wrench. The craftsman torque wrench is a piece of crap. If you can afford it, get the very best -- the Giustaforza Torque Wrench ($185).

I have a set of Xcelite (Germany) hand screwdrivers that seem to be holding up well. They have stainless shafts and slightly tacky plastic, yet ample grips. Very dependable.

Fullers makes pretty good tools. I have a few that have hung in there, but the plastic grips tend to feel very brittle after 10+ years. I do like their ratchets and drivers, though.

ACE Hardware I think used to own Fullers, but the last 3/8" --> 1/4" adapter was made in China and the ball fixture was a piece of crap. I have a set of metric spanners from Fuller that are absolutely top-notch.

Sweden makes a lot of quality hand tools, too: I forget their names, but I own a couple of hole saws that cost me upwards of $400 and they are rounder than Jolie's butt many uses later.

Stay away from Husky, and anything sold in bulk from Home Despot. Also stay awar from the Park series of home mechanics tools. Opt for Park's shop tools: the quality is night and day different. Park pro tools are very good. As are Shimano. Don't even consider Sette -- they are the worst I've ever used.

Japan makes excellent tools: I have many Hozan brand specialty spanners for headsets and bottom brackets. They make screwdrivers and other conventional tools, too in the JIS standard. But for the money I'd buy Snap-On unless it was for a truly unique purpose.

Happy hunting.

-- c


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