Yankee Drive Meanderings

I talked recently about whether, when we say we are in or out of our “comfort zone”, it is often more likely we are describing our being in or out of anything we want to control. A controlled area makes us feel comfortable and we only really feel comfortable when we are in control. My area immediately around my workbench is organised to suit me and, after 55 years of working my bench and my tools, I feel I know exactly where everything should be and is when I want to reach for something. This, of course, is most comfortable to me and that’s because it maximises my control, my effectiveness and my efficiency. So is comfort and control more synonymous than we might think? To elaborate, we generally like to be in total control of our area and whatever area we are in as much as possible. I might redefine this more as an obsessive demand for controlling most everything, even things that don’t belong in our own camp. When I am in my own workspace, I don’t altogether like others to get too close to me and my things and I strongly dislike it if someone starts to fiddle with a tool or two.

When I lived in the US, I had an open-door policy. People could come into my workshop to visit and see me as I worked, together with my completed work. This was back then my bread and butter lines were small pieces that could be carried off easily. Tourism was a mainstay and a wonderful cash flow. At the ends of my workbench were two wide but not too deep tills fitted between the aprons. They carried what my apron drawer takes care of now and were packed with small tools that seemed not to fit anywhere else at all. Inevitably, to the inquisitive, not knowing what the drawer held was just too much and the drawer was regularly pulled out that one-eighth of an inch too far. Six inches is not very deep for a drawer, and all of my precious tools were spewed out all over the shop floor. The problem was that that was not the only problem. Getting them back to my comfort level might take a week or two. Red-faced, the perpetrator held up their hands as guilt crossed their face. My comfort and my control were both gone.

The slight incline eases alignment and also retrieving them.

Today, my tools are as well placed as it will get for me. I doubt that I will change much now. I can pull any of my three most used planes to my hand and switch them out in a split second and so too my saws, chisels, dustpan and brush, sharpening plates etc. Comfort and control all in one.

I often hear of the affection people have for the Yankee pump-action screwdriver for driving screws. I too used this unique contraption during my apprenticeship, for several years. You could drive screws in quick succession and back then much of my work was making window frames and hanging doors in frames etc. Hanging four hinged sashes with two or three hinges a piece was a cinch and about as fast as it gets. This was a pre-battery drill-driver age but to the accomplished user of the Yankee driver, screws could be pumped in single-handedly once the start was taken up and three or four thrusts with ten turns apiece the screws were set in seconds. I became well used to the Yankee driver but when I started working at my next job with the furniture company one foreman, seeing the purple Stanley handle in my toolbox till said, “Get rid of that lad. We don’t use them here!” When he walked away, my newfound friend, Derek said, “If you slip in general joinery it likely won’t matter beneath a painted finish. On furniture, it will!” I put it away and never used it again because it was about the time drill-drivers a d Pozi-drives came in to replace both the screws and the way we drove them.

I think that what I am saying is that it’s funny what you become accustomed to though. Most people will not know that I am equally accustomed to machines as I am to hand tools. Whether I am as comfortable with machines as I am with hand tools is a different matter. By comfort, I don’t mean equally capable. I am equally as capable with any and all machines for woodworking as I am with hand tools. By comfort I mean accepting, I suppose. I somehow crossed a line 30 years or so ago when I decided that mass-making and using mass-making methods gelled much less with the lifestyle I was aiming for. I felt that equipment like power routers seemed less and less fitting to the way I wanted to work and that for me, with my skill level and strengths, such equipment was more mess-making than mass-making. It was not some kind of blanket statement against ever using them again though, more that I wanted to use them less and less rather than never. Also, I didn’t want them in my way to be working around them all the time. It was very freeing to take my vintage mortiser and tablesaw to the metal scrap metal yard. They had zero safety features on them by now and they had really served their purpose. If I did start another woodworking school I would buy them in again for preparing stock for 20 students. But that’s not likely to happen now.

Organising your workspace to suit you is critical to effective working. It can take time. Weeks, years even, but when you arrive you know that you have arrived a nail hanger here, a screw hanger there, a sliding shelf or drawer, a tin can or a pot vase can radically change your peace arrangement as will lining up the planes at the end of your bench or hanging up the saws to the right of your leg. These things take consideration. It can mean much more to leave the gap between the vise face and the bench top so that you can use an overhand or underhand grip when installing your wood in the vise than a flush-to-the-edge vise where only a front face grip can be used. It’s a million time more convenient for everyday working than that rare need to clamp a board to the bench edge, believe me. People often tell me that stick of candle for waxing the sole of your plane or your saw plate is better than my rag-in-a-can oiler ut i don’t find that to be true at all. My rag-in-a-can oiler oils the bed of my bandsaw, the ways and thread on my vise mechanisms and much more. I even oil my chisels and spokeshaves very conveniently. Comfort is control and control is comfort.

20 thoughts on “Yankee Drive Meanderings”

  1. The Yankee is one of my favourite tools, both for speed, comfort and, call me childish, also the sheer magic of the tool. It has its risks/downsides and is not always the best tool for the job. It’s more a tool for construction work than fine woodworking, as you say. Driving screws with them often goes easier than drawing screws. For me, it’s the ideal alternative to a cordless drill as screwdriver. I never use a cordless drill to drive screws, only to drill holes. The cordless drills I do use are ancient Makita 6012D’s (with the old long black 7.2V battery packs), modified with small length of electrical cord connected to a 12V/7Ah battery. This way I’m not dependent on overpriced original batteries (though, Walmart in the US sells them for 1/3 what they cost over here).

    It’s re-assuring to see you not unabashedly recommending Yankees; prices would go through the roof if you did. Not that it matters much for me anymore, I already own way too many of them anyway. Most I bought for peanuts, only for the bit they held. I recall one of my father’s employers was too cheap to have more than one Yankee for the entire team. He ended up buying and using his own for work. They were pretty expensive tools back then. I once calculated it to the nowadays equivalent of 70 euro for the mid-sized 131B (my workhorse). A local hardware store still had a few bits (PZ) for them. The guy behind the counter was a bit older, remarked about those screwdrivers being pretty ‘old-school’ (his literal words). I like that term he used.

    The rest of your post – having your own space where you’re in full control, with tools (dis-)organized exactly where you want them, I wholeheartedly agree with. Though I must say it’s pretty bad manners to open other people’s drawers or finger their tools, without first asking, no matter how curious (or interested) you are. I’m sure that if you did that in your apprentice days, at best you’d get a stern talking-to, at worst, a smack on the back of one’s head followed by a stern talking-to.

    Once you get used to using the rag-in-a-can oiler, it’s such an amazing difference to a saw or plane. Have made an extra one to prevent rust on the gardening tools in the shed. And a small one out of a plastic 35 mm film-can. Of course, the idea of lubricating woodworking tools isn’t new; I saw an old book where it showed and recommended a bit of pig’s leg (sinewy part?) hanging from the wall, being used to grease the saw. I wonder how that shop smelled on hot summer days…. Think I’ll stick to the rag in a can, on olfactory grounds. So if someday you see a 3-legged pig limping about – it wasn’t me!

  2. Maybe owning a Yankee screwdriver is a right of passage. Mine is a collector item from one of my great uncles. It is an original Nelson Brothers Yankee. If left in the closed position it is just a ratcheting screwdriver. However, if the blade fits the slot in the screw properly they work very well. Slip out is not guaranteed but of course is not impossible. The same can be said for a hand screwdriver or cordless drill/driver. The same can be said for a bit brace with a straight blade (a boatbuilder’s choice for No. 12 and larger screws). How many of us grind our blades to fit the screw slot? I know I normally don’t so hand driving is best for this old woodworker.

  3. When I started work in 1984/5 , the Yankee pump screwdriver was king of the workshop. The firm I did my apprenticeship with did very high class joined , shoplifting and cabinet making. When we worked on high class work we locked the screwdriver making it in effect a ratchet screwdriver not a pump. Dedicated screwdrivers were a must also and I have very many of all lengths and types I still use to this day ,quite often , If not daily.
    As regards the day in the Can oiler. I first saw this at the same firm. My foreman had one . The only difference being it was not a rag but what we called engine felt. This was a roll of white felt about 40 know wide ,that used to be used to pack old fashioned plate circular saw blades run true on the machine. By adjusting the amount of packing just behind the bullet of the teeth of the saw blades altered the tension to keep the saw running true.
    Any way we cut a length and rolled it right and fitted in a cut down can just like Pauls, I still have mine and use it daily ,though it’s now word down to the edge of the can. They do work really well and I wouldn’t want to be without mine.

  4. Paul,
    I’m of your generation. All of the carpenters I learned from had gone through a 4 year union apprenticeship and spoke the same hand tool language you use, so watching and listening to you is very comforting.
    Four of my five kids have worked or are now working in construction, too, but my youngest seems to have picked a real love of wood working with hand tools, and talking to her is like being back on the job.
    I’ve gotta ask you something. What are you wiping your glue coated fingers on next to you vise? Is it just the workbench apron?
    On the jobsite I would wipe it on a scrap of wood, and then rub the rest off between my fingers. Now I use a rag in my garage shop.

    1. To Mark Paulson: he wipes the glue on the underside of the apron. He’s often joked that that is what the apron is for.

  5. Hi Paul,

    I still use my Yankee screwdrivers (large and small). Over the years I have picked up various bits that I can use on them. Making them more useful.
    I have had several battery operated drills, but invariably batteries become useless and expensive to replace. So I continue to use my Yankee screwdrivers.
    My Sons kind of chuckle when they see me using them but I get the job done using one.
    The old way is not necessarily the bad way! Best wishes.

  6. My first carpentry job was in 1973. I was hired to do finish work in a high end house in Newtown Square PA – very posh – and the main guy was a man named Joe Shingle. He was born in 1900, so was past retirement age but was working the job for a friend. When it came to hanging doors and such, I watched Joe with his giant Yankee screwdriver installing the hinges and thought I had to get me one of them.

    That weekend at the local flea (the source of my $10 Stanley 55 plane in the box) I found 2 of them and bought one. The following week I was installing hinges trying depseratly to control the tool. At one point the tip got away from me and put a big gouge in the frame. Well Joe was watching me do this and he said “Why did you buy one with a spring in it?” I said “Huh?”, and he showed me. Dumped that one and got one without the spring (30 series) and all was right with the universe.

  7. I find one useful for building bike wheels – they are much easier to true if the threaded nipple on the spoke end is initially driven on a fixed number of turns (which one pump of the screwdriver delivers). This keeps the tension uniform around the rim before final tightening and truing.

    1. The former publishers ran out of stock supplies in the USA so it wasn’t going out. It will be different now because we ship worldwide from our supplies here at the workshop. With improved shipping over the last decade, it really doesn’t take much longer than internal mailing in the US and we absorb some of the shipping costs to help ease things there. Essential Woodworking Hand Tools goes out from here too so if you want your copy you can order from Rokesmith

  8. dear paul – congrats on getting control back of your book.

    re tin can oilers, if anyone here hasn’t made one, i highly recommend it.
    takes about 15 minutes. you get to eat a can of beans. the kids love making it, using it – and learn a lifelong habit of looking after the tools.
    and… it’s just one of those supremely pleasing tools – as pleasing as as any starrett square or fancy tool at a tenth the price…

  9. Yankee screwdrivers with Pozidrive bits rarely slip but of course you need to use the correct size bit for the screw.

    As someone else stated second hand Yankee screwdrivers are available at bargain prices in second hand tool shops.

    I was quite surprised that you can now get adapters to allow hex bits to be used in Yankee screwdrivers, that opens up a wide range of possibilities from wood boring to tightening nuts.

    1. Mine hung as decorations on my tool “shelf” for years having “upgraded” to a cordless drill. However, I recently started using them again. The adapter looks like a great idea. Ditto one for a brace when more torque is needed. I initially bought one when I started using pozi screws.

    2. It’s not too hard to make your own adaptor for the mid-sized Yankee (#130, with 7 mm diameter bits) by using a 1/4″ hex adaptor. This hexagonal shaft fits, by coincidence, exactly in the chuck of the mid-size Yankee. By grinding a little half-moon at the end of the 1/4″ hexagonal shaft and grinding a little indent for the locking mechanism, you get a perfectly serviceable adapter that holds the now universal 1/4″ hex bits. It’s what I’ve been using for about a decade now and is nearly indestructible. I’ve also modified some 1/4″ hex bits with longer shafts that way, so I can use them straight in the Yankee without the adaptor. Doesn’t work though for the smallest size Yankee (5.5mm shaft) and biggest size (8mm), but I find the mid-sized one to be most versatile and useful for me.

  10. I used those yankees in the mobile home factories. That was around 1991. We all were handy with them. The electricians however were masters with them.

  11. Great read.
    I’ve never used the yankee screwdrivers though two sit idle in a box of handed down tools from my Pa. They look a little strange and so perhaps it’s why I’ve never given them a go.
    Paul I need to make a couple of large windows for a workshop I’m building, whilst I can find diagrams and that on the net, generally the instructions are difficult to follow. I did make a fixed window with some success but the others need to open. Could this potentially be a project you might offer. It’s probably been a long time since you built a window frame but then again, maybe not.
    Anyway your blog was great as always. Be well and all the best.
    Nathan.

  12. I have been using Stanley Yankee pumpscrewdrivers since the mid seventies. Combined with an adaptor for industrial pozidriv bits, they are fantastic. Though I started ten years ago with a cordless screwdriver, I stil use my Yankee. Especially for sensitive work. For exemple in modern products where screws stay visible as an element of the design.
    New pumpscrewdrivers (another brand than Stanley), are available at Dictum, Germany

  13. I would not say that the Yankee screwdrivers are all that bad. As a woodworker, I rarely put in screws or any mechanical fasteners for that matter. Yankee screwdrivers were really used for carpentry jobs such as installing hinges and installing door hardware.

    For me, I use my Yankee screwdriver with a hex adapter so I can use pozi drive bits. It is a great tool that i would hate to be without. Compared to normal screwdrivers they seem more interesting and enjoyable to use.

    I have a question for you Paul. Why do you not use the Yankee screwdriver even though you still use old and sometimes outdated handtools?

    1. Primarily because I make furniture and one bad slip can seat the bit deep into an adjacent surface in a heartbeat. They can be used singlehandedly but that is risky on my kind of work. If I were hanging sashes and doors, as I once did, I would use the Yankee version just fine. Would I still use it in place of a battery-driven drill-driver? No. Why? One hand holds what is being screwed and the other singlehandedly the drill-driver.

      1. The slipping problem with the screwdriver is know non- apparent with the introduction of these philips and pozi head bits. At first I was not so keen on them but they work fine. ‘A battery- driven driver’ sounds like a fad to me personally. I don’t think those gadgets will last as long as my dear Yankee screwdriver will. All these young folk don’t understand how good these Yankee’s are if people gave them a try. Long live the Yankee screwdriver I say! Good day old chap.

  14. Fr Justin McDonnell

    I must say that my experience as an organ builder concurs with Paul’s observations. Restoring British 19th/20th century instruments requires the mind the wholeheartedly accept the slotted screw. There are thousands of screws in every organ. Especially painful is screwing down the upper boards; they must be tight enough to hold and yet light enough to allow the sliders to move. They are tightening up “loosely” enough to predict the weight that will bear down upon them once the metal pipes are installed, and whose feel sit in the holes in the upper boards. There’s a feeling about it, that’s the thing. Too loose and the whole thing will move about, which once the pipes are installed is very difficult to rectify, too tight and the sliders will bind: no sound. The stops won’t work. Installing these things on site often found you high up, kneeling on the wind chests at the top of the building frame, in a dark and airless organ chamber, armed with a lead light, bucket of screws, and a good old Marples screwdriver, of the “Armstrong” variety. As an apprentice I could not understand at first why we didn’t use pozidrives, yankees, or even a brace and screwdriver bit to do this. It was all done with a flat screwdriver, by feel, to determine the degree of tightening. Tightening upper boards was invariably assigned to the apprentice, which I though was sheer discrimination at the time. How wrong I was. My foreman was the one who told me, pointing to my hands and eyes, “they are the best tools in your kit, and the only things we really rely upon for good work”. The ancient traditions of organ building still allows for the survival of handwork to a very large degree, perhaps singularly nowadays, amongst the woodworking professions. As I slowly accustomed myself to this very traditional approach I found that my eyes, hands, and ears were really the things being trained. Whatever tool you use must be clearly understood in the mind, you must “feel” what it is you are doing with it, and be able to replicate it exactly, yes even if it is a power tool. As I think back upon it, it strikes me; how much I learned screwing down those upper boards, high up in a dark organ chamber, with my large flat screwdriver, feeling for the right tension on the screw thousands and thousands of times over. How else can one really learn a thing? And learn it I did, by feel and intuition. It made me smile the other day when I built a new knock-up door for my workshop. As the door “evolved” I found, by and by, that somehow the slotted screws came out, and the Marples flat driver of my apprentice days was taken up again, like an old friend. Even the new hinges found some nice old slotted screws. To my eye it’s what looks, and feels, right.

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