A Yankee screwdriver is an old-fashioned mechanical hand tool with over 90 years of history. It has an extending sleeve sliding over a steel shaft with spiraling grooves. Pushing the handle generates a driving motion (forward or reverse, depending on the way the screwdriver is set).
Not so long ago when cordless screwdrivers (or power drills for that matter) were unheard of, any self-respecting craftsman owned one of those. The tool would be passed down from fathers and grandfathers to children and grandchildren – it’s still not uncommon to come across these screwdrivers as old as a hundred years, still fully functional and in a great shape.
Known as just “a Yankee”, this type of screwdriver works in the following way: when you push the handle down or forward, depending on whether the screws are to be driven in a horizontal or vertical surface, the spiral grooves on the solid steel shaft transform the forward motion into a rotational spin. As a result, the bit rotates, driving the screw in (from two to two and a half rotations per stroke). The spring inside the screwdriver then helps the handle slide back into the initial position. The screwdriver can be set to extract screws, or locked to be used as a regular screwdriver, for which there is a three-mode slide on the outer sleeve.
These screwdrivers were first made by the North Brothers Manufacturing Company. The company was founded in 1878 and acquired by the Stanley Company 68 years later. Patented in 1923, their Yankee brand of spiral ratchet screwdrivers is probably the best known line of tools. Eventually the Yankee name was sold to the Schroeder tool company (Germany), which at present continues to sell Yankee branded screwdrivers.
These screwdrivers were manufactured in a variety of sizes – from the small handyman type with a convenient bit storage handle to the intimidating 131 model for more serious tasks. Models starting with 1 are spring-loaded, so caution should be exercised to avoid situations when the spring can shoot out of the barrel. Unlike their predecessors with wooden handles, modern-day Yankee screwdrivers come with resin handles for better grip. They are made from high quality chrome vanadium steel. Typically, a modern day Yankee screwdriver comes with a set of double-sided bits from small to large, both slotted and Phillips. Chrome plating is used for corrosion resistance.
Additional bits can be purchased online, but if those are regular bits, rather than the proprietary Yankee type, you need a chuck adapter. Even though the original screwdrivers have almost a century of history, you can still find plenty of bits and pieces if you need to replace something. With a suitable adapter, your Yankee can handle virtually anything. Obviously, Yankee screwdrivers are not the only ones out there made and used, but much like some other distinguished brands, their name has become generic and is commonly used to describe any spiral ratchet screw drivers.
Compared to an ordinary screwdriver, the Yankee speeds up the operation tremendously while also taking away lots of the effort you would otherwise have to put into it. Compared to a power screwdriver, it offers the convenience of driving screws in and out independently from availability of power. And if you have the right shell-type bit, you can also make pilot holes. So, even though the Yankees have been surpassed by cordless drills and are considered an old technology, there are many situations when you simply cannot do without one. The most obvious one was mentioned above – no power. They are also simple to use and efficient, will last forever and cost just a fraction of what you would be paying for a modern power tool. If you don’t want to buy new, you can always visit a flea market or a garage sale, or just search eBay – there will be plenty of versions and options for any budget and taste.