What is the Difference Between a Flathead and Phillips Screwdriver?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

At first glance, the main difference between a flathead screwdriver, or more properly called a slotted or flat blade screwdriver, and a Phillips screwdriver should be patently obvious. A flathead has a single blade, and a Phillips has two blades in the shape of a cross. Attempts to use a flathead tool on a screw designed for a Phillips usually won't be successful, and a Phillips screwdriver could never be used on a slotted screw. Both are considered "driver" tools, which means they are used to force bolts or screws through various types of material.

The head of a Phillips screwdriver looks like a plus sign when viewed head on.
The head of a Phillips screwdriver looks like a plus sign when viewed head on.

There are differences beyond the blade shapes, however. The flathead has been in use far longer than the Phillips. When screws began to replace hammer-driven nails in the manufacturing process, the single slot screwhead was almost universal. A flathead screwdriver became an indispensable tool for woodworkers and other commercial artists. This version is still considered the default model to this day, even with its inherent problems.

Various nuts, bolts and screws, including those for use with both flathead and Phillips screwdrivers.
Various nuts, bolts and screws, including those for use with both flathead and Phillips screwdrivers.

The Phillips screwdriver, by comparison, is still a rather new tool option. Invented by Henry Phillips, a tool company owner working in the 1930s, the screwdriver and accompanying screws were intended to provide a safer alternative to the traditional flathead. Henry Phillips wanted a screwdriver that would prevent a damaging process called overtorquing.

Power screwdrivers can usually be fitted with either flathead or Phillips tips.
Power screwdrivers can usually be fitted with either flathead or Phillips tips.

Traditional screwdrivers at the time often allowed the user to put too much twisting force, or torque, on the slotted screws. By designing a cross-shaped blade and corresponding cross-shaped screws with a slight depression, Phillips could apply more torque than with a flathead. This mechanical advantage allows users to use their twisting strength more efficiently. The depressions in the screws, however, forced the blades of the Phillips to slip out before any damaging overtorquing could occur.

One flaw in the flathead design is the relative strength of the blade, or bit. When a flathead bit is attached to a powered driver, the added force can cause a weaker blade to snap off. In addition, the slotted screw may become stripped if too much torque is applied. This is why the use of the flathead screwdriver is generally limited to woodworking and other light-to-medium industrial applications. Only the strongest flathead driving bits are used for high-torque manufacturing processes.

By comparison, a Phillips screwdriver is very well-suited for industrial processes. Once the Phillips bit is seated securely in the Phillips head screw, the operator can apply much more torque for fastening. Since the screw will force out the bit at the first sign of overtorquing, there is less risk of damage to the product or the bit.

Some modern screws accept both flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, although some experts suggest using a Phillips for tightening and a flathead for loosening the screw. One advantage a flathead has over a Phillips, however, is universality. In case of emergency, a number of other flat metal objects, such as coins, butter knives or keys, can be used to tighten or loosen a screw. It is much more difficult to duplicate the fit of a Phillips head.

A flathead screwdriver may also be called a slotted screwdriver.
A flathead screwdriver may also be called a slotted screwdriver.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


In my kitchen junk drawer I keep one screwdriver. This has several different kinds of screwdriver bits stored inside the handle. This way you only have one screwdriver to keep track of, but yet have the correct bit to use for the job you need to get done. All you have to do is unscrew the bit that is on there and choose the one you need. Being able to store the additional bits in the handle is nice because you always know where they are.


@honeybees -- That is really not a bad idea what your husband did. Especially if you are setting up housekeeping, you will probably need both a flathead and Phillips screwdriver. That would be one less thing they would have to go out and buy.

I think a hammer and a screwdriver set is a must for just about anyone. My dad always liked to give flashlights for a Christmas present. This wasn't a very exciting gift, but he encouraged us to keep it in our car because you never know when you might need one.


My husband loves his tools, and always says that the proper tool makes the job a whole lot easier. When our kids would move out on their own, he would give each of them a screwdriver set. I think the boys appreciated this more than our daughter did, but nevertheless, it was his way of helping them prepare for life on their own.


It seems like no matter how many screwdrivers I have around, I never have the right one handy when I need it. If I need to use a flathead screwdriver, all I can find is a Phillips, or it is the other way around. It would probably help if I was more organized with my tools, but both of them are essential to have.

I must admit, I have often tried to use things like coins or a knife to tighten something without using a screwdriver. While it may get the job done, I don't think it ever gets it as tight as it would have been if I had used the proper screwdriver.


There a lot of different types of torque screwdrivers. So it's better to know the difference about them. The star screwdriver is what we commonly use at home. A flat screwdriver is also know as a turnscrew.


Stop calling it a "flat head" screw driver instead of validating ignorant terms. If you refuse to call it a "flat head" and call it what it is, a slotted screwdriver, maybe it will get beaten into their brains what it is called!


The Philips self centers the torque through the center axis of the screw, while the flathead (slotted) does not self center the torque through the center axis of the screw. Much more inefficient.


@FireBird - I think because there's more surface area between the screw driver and the screw there is more mechanical advantage with the Phillips Screw. I don't think the distance between the axis or hand gives any advantage.

Another thing, when it comes to advantages is that theoretically it takes half the time to align a Phillips Screw as opposed to a slotted screw (because the Philips Screw is tapered and has 2 perpendicular slots so you don't really have to aim to make the screw driver lock in to the screw). This might not seem like a big deal but if you have 10,000 screws to put into an assembly line that makes some huge time savings.


What you are calling a flathead screw is instead a slotted screw. A flathead screw is one made to go into a countersunk hole so that the top of the screw is flush, that is, flat, to the surface.


How does the Phillips allow for more mechanical advantage if the distance between the axis and the screwthread, and that between the axis and the hand are the same as with flatheads?

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