Last updated on June 16, 2021
Are screws or nails better? Being the two most-used fasteners for joining wood and metal (apart from glue), most DIYers can end up confused when choosing which one is the best option over the other for each situation and project.
They may do the same thing, but they have different strengths and weaknesses that can make (or literally) break a project. In this guide, we’ll be distinguishing the key differences between nails and screws and when it is appropriate and recommended to use one fixing type over the other.
What are the benefits or drawbacks of using nails?
The main benefit of using a nail vs screws in a wall is that they’re very cheap and simple. You only need to apply blunt force at the head and you’re good to go.
Speed is crucial for big projects with tight deadlines where every second counts. But this strength is also its drawback, being easy to insert means that they can also pull out easily, potentially causing failure if holding power is needed that can lead to accidents.
A solution can be to angle multiple nails to clamp the wood together more on this later.
What are the benefits or drawbacks of using screws?
Screws, vs nails, offer greater control during insertion and extraction. This is great for projects where precision is most important and when applying blunt force is ill-advised. Another benefit of screws is that they can be reinserted multiple times with little-to-no loss in grip strength.
Where nails mainly vary in size and length, screws have 5 distinct head types which require the proper screwdriver to fasten.
One drawback of screws is that they can be slower to drive in compared to a nail gun.
Technical differences between nails and screws
What holds better, screws or nails? Let’s find out in terms of strength.
Nails have adequate grip strength but can pull out if there is too much load or force parallel with the nail.
Nails are more malleable and can deform or pull out with enough parallel force but have great tensile strength for example 2 4-inch nails can hold a few tons of vertical pressure.
Nails have good shear strength and are not likely to snap. They bend under pressure which makes them great for structural joints.
Screws have more grip strength and can join two pieces together more securely than nails.
Screws have great tensile strength depending on the width of the shaft and are made to withstand forces parallel to their length just like nails.
Screws are more brittle than nails and can snap with too much lateral load instead of bending.
Appearance and structure
Nails have a flat head where the hammer strikes to drive it into its material. The shank is the long slender portion that grips the material.
Lastly, the point is the tip of the nail that wedges material apart to make insertion easier.
In addition to the parts of a nail, screws also have threading at the shank and drive the head. The threading allows a screw to be inserted by rotational motion and to hold and clamp from pulling apart.
Lastly, the drive is a slot, square, pozidriv Phillips, or star-head that allows a cordless drill to grip and turn the screw.
For simple and small tasks, a claw hammer will do. For a project that requires large amounts of fasteners driven quickly, use a nail gun of course.
But if you have other projects more than fastening, here are the hammer types you’re probably looking for.
For simple and small tasks, you can use a screwdriver that matches the drive slots. For maximum speed and high-volume work, use an electric drill or impact driver.
Methods of fastening
Sudden blunt force is applied to the head of the nail to drive it into the material.
You can also use high bursts of air pressure or a power-driven pin such as with nail guns.
Screws are inserted and extracted via a screwdriver or a rotating electric power tool. For most applications, a pilot hole is first made before the screw is driven in.
Rotational motion is then applied to drive the screw in or out of the material.
Projects they’re used
Projects that need a lot of strong fasteners at a more affordable price like framing and timber structural work. Also securing wood sidings, roofings, and hardwood floors.
Fixing drywall, cabinets, temporary installations, wooden decking (so it doesn’t pop up).
Things to consider when choosing between nails and screws
Identify the possible stresses the fastener will encounter. For lateral loads or any application that will apply shear stress on your fastener, use nails.
In any other case, screws perform better.
Materials to fasten
Some materials like hardwood work better with nails as screws can tend to create splits on the surface.
Meanwhile, most nails are practically useless with metal framing and sheets.
Temporary or permanent structures
If the structure is temporary and/or it is to be rebuilt somewhere else, then use screws. They are easier to remove and retain their grip strength after reinsertion.
On the other hand, nails are preferred for permanent structures as they are faster to drive in and cheaper to supply.
Tools availbale to drive nails or screws
Tools for driving nails are almost always present in your toolbox. Meanwhile, screws would need a screwdriver with compatible tips.
If you have a Torx screw but you only have a flathead or Phillips, you won’t be able to drive it in.
Head visibility when installed
Nails will be more flush with the material after insertion than screws. Aside from screws with countersunk heads, most screws will protrude from the surface.
Nails can be driven deeper with a nail punch and covered with wood filler. Where screws are better to finish flush as a visible feature.
Projects that require a large volume of fasteners can affect your choice. In general, nails are faster and easier to install so use them unless you really need to use screws for the benefit of only screwing instead.
Nail or screws: attaching different materials
Metal to timber connection
Some screws are specialized to grip and be driven into metal. Their threads provide optimal grip even for thin sheet metal.
Nails have a superior grip for dense but softer materials like wood and are a great choice when fastening metal and wood together if you fix through the metal first.
If you’re fastening hinges or simply mounting bikes, screws hold metal and wood together better.
Metal to metal connection
Nails provide little to no grip strength in this kind of connection. Instead, screws are used to fasten metal together.
This is in combination with a threaded hole drilled into the material or a threaded rod and a nut at the end that secures the metal to metal in place.
Screws, or threaded rod with a nut.
Wood to wood connection
This kind of connection is commonly used for furniture, cabinets, and wood framing. Both types of fasteners can grip wood very well and can be used interchangeably.
So, are screws or nails better for wood-to-wood connection? Both, nails glue and screws work well just consider the overall dimensions of the project and what type of force or pressure the join will be subject to.
Wood to concrete connection
This is most common in the foundation of structures or when attaching wood details and furniture to concrete walls. While screws have superior grip in wood, they cannot be so easily be driven into concrete.
If you want to use screws, you will need to drill holes and insert plastic wall anchors to provide threading for the screws to grip onto.
Light applications can make do with nails, anything bigger or heavier, go with screws both methods require inserting a plastic wall plug.
Metal to concrete connection
This is the same case as wood to concrete connections. Nails, especially masonry types, specialize in gripping and being driven into concrete.
A railroad spike is a giant nail that’s used to fasten railroad tracks to solid ground.
Powder actuated nails, threaded rod, or screws with a plastic raw plug.
Which is better: nail or screws?
Fasteners on deck joists often experience a lot of lateral load and uplift from the weight on a different area, meaning that higher shear strength is ideal.
Nails and coach bolts.
Framing requires a lot of fasteners to be secure. The joints will also be experiencing loads perpendicular to the fasteners which make nails a better and cheaper option.
So, are screws or nails better for framing? Nails, of course.
Just make sure you know how to space your studs properly.
So, is it better to use screws or nails when building a deck? Properly holding down decking boards prevents them from lifting which can cause creaking.
Decks also absorb a lot of tensile force, so fasteners with superior grip and high tensile strength are better.
Fence rails and pickets
Is it better to use screws or nails on the pickets on the fence?
Fences with long lengths require a lot of fasteners to be built securely. Therefore using a nail gun is easier, faster, and more economical than fastening with screws.
Nails are cheaper.
Plasterboard or drywall needs to be fastened securely to the wall framing. Using nails can cause the material to crumble when driven. So, screws are both safer to use as they can be tightened more slowly and they have better grip.
Screws (Designed for plasterboard).
Concrete or shear wall
Concrete and shear walls are designed to resist high amounts of lateral force. This renders even shear-resistant fasteners ineffective and instead benefits more from the use of studs and adjacent supporting structures.
Neither are suitable for securing shear walls.
Masonite or hardboard siding is an alternative to wood siding. While screws may seem the better option due to their high tensile strength, specialized nails for masonite are a more popular and effective choice.
Both; screws to an extent, but masonite concrete nails are superior.
Cladding exerts shear stress on fasteners, so nails are best used here. Nails also cause less splitting in wood compared to screws, especially with most hardwoods.
Nails are generally better for a number of wood-to-wood joinery applications.
Wooden flooring needs to be secured in a manner similar to wood decking. Flooring also experiences a lot of wear, absorbing high amounts of tensile stress and lateral load.
Screws are better at preventing lifting and creaks.
Installing windows and doors
Windows and doors are semi-permanent fixtures and can be replaced or adjusted over time. This makes screws a more convenient option.
To add, using nails to install windows can break the glass if you’re not careful.
Screws give much more control when installing joinery, and are also easier to intentionally remove.
Carpet tile sliders
Carpet and tile sliders are offered with either nails or screws for attachment. Nails provide stronger resistance to shear stress as furniture is dragged along the floor, while screws make removal and installation gentler and easier.
Use either or both situationally and depending on whether your installation is permanent or semi-permanent.
Furniture like chairs and tables experience a lot of dynamic loads that can easily loosen a nail’s grip. They also don’t require a ton of fasteners, so screws are ideal.
Nails will do for light furniture such as stools. Screws generally perform better, especially for fastening furniture corners and for furniture that you can repeatedly disassemble. Nails may work well as a temporary hold until wood glue dries unless you’re using the right nails for your project. There are , aside from the common wire nails that you probably know.
Different types of nails
Different types of screws
Alternative types of fastening
Aside from screws and nails, rivets and anchor bolts can be used in more specific or demanding applications such as attaching heavy-duty supports on concrete foundations.
Tools needed to automate fixing materials
Screws and nails can be used interchangeably in a lot of cases. Situationally, one can be better than the other, but ideally, you’d want to use both in different situations to really make the most of your fastening options when it comes to building and DIY.
Nails are cheaper and easier to drive, while screws may take longer, but offer higher degrees of control. It may seem simple but fasteners do very complex jobs helping mitigate and disperse the effects of physics (stress and force). Keep this in mind so that you don’t screw anything up.
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