Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Turn of the Screw

Conventional wisdom says that, when moving residences, the last thing to pack and the first thing to unpack is toilet paper. We’ve moved six times in the last nine years, mainly due to the unstable and volatile nature of Sarah’s status in the United States. Through these moves, we’ve learned some things, including not to ever get rid of reusable boxes, to leave certain items packed for the next inevitable move, to not acquire ridiculously heavy items like pianos, and how to fix cheap furniture that probably wasn’t designed to handle the wear and tear of one move let alone six.

The most important thing I’ve learned in the transient nature of my recent adult life is that, while toilet paper is always a good thing to have easily accessible, a tool kit within reach is most invaluable when moving.

My dad is a toolmaker, and so I grew up in a house where, much to my mother’s often-voiced dismay, tools were always lying everywhere. My dad knew how to fix pretty much everything, and even if he didn’t, he at least had the right tools to look like he knew what he was doing. From a very young age, I knew the difference between slotted and Phillips screw drives, the advantages of carbide-tipped drill bits, the function of a countersink, and that a lathe is the only machine that can reproduce itself. When I was in fifth grade, I had a prized collection of diamonds—sharpening diamonds that my dad didn’t use any more and had given me. From my high school graduation on, I received gifts of tools from my dad for any notable occasion. My point here is that I have a lot of tools, almost any type imaginable.

Then came my move to Canada.

When I arrived in Canada with a U-Haul full of that fraction of our possessions that we deemed important enough not to give away, the first items out of the truck were my tool boxes. I immediately noticed tasks in our rental dwelling that would require instant attention—a broken railing on the deck stairs, missing buttons on the stove, loose lighting fixtures, cupboard doors that would not shut properly, a lack of closets that necessitated the building of a coat rack, etc.

My first mission was to secure the loose railing on the deck, so I looked at the screw to determine what type of driver I would need. I looked at the screw, thought there was a foreign object on the head, tried to dust off the screw, did a double take, and thought, “Wow, that screw head is really stripped out.” It looked like someone had gone crazy with a Phillips screwdriver to the point that the socket was stripped into a square shape.

I was formulating a creative plan to remove the screw when I felt all the little square eyes of the rest of the screws on the deck staring at me.

I knew I would have to deal with metric sizes and goofy spellings in Canada, but different screws? I felt as useless as a roller-skater in a sandbox.

Screw drive head types are an element of national identity in Canada. What I had encountered, and still encounter regularly, are the Robertson head screw drives. Back in the early 1900s, a Canadian called Robertson decided that slotted screw drives were not adequate for Canadian screwing needs. So, he began manufacturing his square shaped drive head screws and corresponding bits in his factory in Milton, Ontario (about a half hour from where I live now). Apparently the Canadians were so pleased with a type of screw created by a Canadian that they insisted on using these rather than the old-fashioned slotted screws or even the Phillips screw drive head, invented some years later by Phillips, an inventor from the evil American empire.

One of the first things I had to buy in Canada was Robertson head screw driver bits. Clearly all of my screwdrivers, power drills, and hand drills would be worthless until I did. I popped into the hardware store, found the driver bits, and realized that I would be paying $5 for a square driver bit. Oh, but wait—there’s more! Not only do these Canucks like to use the square head drive screws, the squares come in three different standard sizes! Theoretically, one would need to purchase a bit in all three sizes to enjoy the much touted tight-fitting and easy-handling mechanism of the Robertson system.

Sarah and I recently bought our first house in Canada, and so last month, we did the moving thing again. This time we were moving about 2 miles rather than 300. Still, our house needed some attention, particularly because the previous owner of the house apparently liked to screw a lot—he must have put screws and drywall anchors in every wall in the house, to the point where we probably have no choice but to repaint. One of my first tasks was to remove these screws, some of which were sticking out from the wall at knee-height. Sure enough, the previous owner of the house was a big fan of the Robertson screws. This time I was a bit more prepared, and had the hardware I needed.

I always thought that it was enough of a pain to switch between slotted and Phillips drives, but now there is a third character in the mix. I’ve heard a rumor that the reason that Americans don’t use Robertson screw drives is because they didn’t want to adopt something created by a Canadian. Perhaps the Americans just realized that two main types of screw drives were enough!

Just for fun, I say let’s screw ‘em all and come up with something even better—something even more secure, more unique and more patriotic. I have created the Maple screw drive. My preliminary design is below. Compare with the competition. Surely this will be the new favorite screw of Canada! I also plan to release it in five different sizes!

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