There are two good reasons to use a non-metallic and non-magnetic ceramic screwdriver. The first is that you are adjusting a variable component in a high frequency circuit, where a long piece of metal might affect the tuning, and the second is that you are adjusting a variable component in a live circuit and don’t want to short anything out with the shaft if you miss with the screwdriver blade.
Time for the mandatory disclaimer: You should avoid working on live electronics if possible, but sometimes there is no alternative. In those circumstances please take all necessary safety precautions. Some components are meant to be adjusted only when a circuit is energized.
The types of components that you would need to adjust while energized are trimmers, such as potentiometers (variable resistors), variable capacitors, and certain inductors. Fasteners or connection points, such as screw-down wire terminals that are used for signal and power connections, should NOT be adjusted when a circuit is energized.
Learn More: A brief introduction to electronic components
Other materials can be used for insulating screwdriver blades, but they are harder to find. You can’t simply search for “non-conductive screwdriver” or ” insulating screwdriver” because you’ll find metal screwdrivers with a non-conductive coating used for working on or near live high-voltage circuits. You pretty much have to specify ceramic screwdrivers to find the right thing.
A plastic spudger, like the 3M ones Stuart uses, can *sometimes* be used in a pinch.
So if ceramic screwdrivers are so great for working on electronics, why aren’t ceramic blades more commonly found in precision screwdrivers? The answer is simple: ceramic is brittle and can’t handle much torque. Ceramic screwdrivers are fine for turning pots and other components that don’t offer much resistance, but won’t last very long when for tightening or loosening fasteners.
It’s important enough to repeat – ceramic screwdriver blades are delicate! Use them for their intended purpose, and they’ll last a long time. Use them on fasteners instead of adjustable components, and there’s a strong chance that you’ll ruin them.
Ceramic screwdrivers also usually have anti-static handles. These plastic or foam handles won’t form a static charge that can burn out your circuitry. “But wait,” you say, “if it’s anti-static isn’t it conductive?” Anti-static refers to a completely different property; it prevents static charge from building up, but says nothing about conductivity.
Note: In a technical sense, anti-static, dissipative, and conductive are different properties. Some brands, such as Wiha clearly describe their ESD-safe screwdrivers as dissipative and conductive. But they also describe their ceramic screwdrivers as being anti-static and dissipative. Some drivers are marked antistatic and non-insulating, while their ceramic screwdrivers only seem to be marked antistatic. Does this mean that their ESD-safe and anti-static handle materials and properties are different?
We’ve been debating about this behind the scenes of the post, but don’t know anyone at Wiha whom we can ask for clarification. Do you have any insight into whether there’s a difference or not?
Like most other tools, ceramic screwdrivers come in a range of different qualities. For instance, at the higher end, Wiha makes ceramic screwdrivers featuring their traditional precision handle with rotating cap. They come in Phillips #0 (PH0), and in slotted widths of 0.9mm, 1.3mm, 1.8mm, and 2.6mm.
One screwdriver will run you somewhere between $13 and $19 on Amazon, or you can buy a set with a PH0, 0.9mm slotted, and 2.6mm slotted screwdrivers in a nice case for $39 with Prime Shipping.
Alternately, you could buy some cheap ceramic screwdrivers that are made somewhere in Asia. They have different company names stamped on them, but they all look like they are manufactured at the same place. You can find these screwdrivers for $5-10. The pictured one is a 1.3mm slotted tip that’s under $5 with free shipping.
Buy Now (Off brand Ceramic Screwdriver via Amazon)
My 3D printer was misbehaving, so I was trying to adjust the voltage to the stepper motor that was skipping. This involves using a #0 Phillips screwdriver to adjust a potentiometer on a powered board. There are many reasons why this was a bad idea, but one unforeseen one was that the stepper started to scream whenever I touched the screwdriver to the pot with the metal screwdriver.
There’s a band of adjustability between under-driving and buzzing very loud, so not being able to hear if I was going outside the acceptable range was pretty irritating. I was able to adjust the pot and get the stepper moving properly again, but the next time I was on Amazon, I picked up one of the cheap off-brand versions of the ceramic screwdriver, very much like the one above. Going back to look now, the listing for the screwdriver is unavailable, but I could pick up pretty much the same one under another brand.
While the screwdriver worked for its intended purpose, it wasn’t very high quality. The screwdriver shaft wobbles in the handle. The handle itself is some type of high density foam, which is okay, but my handle is visibly bent. I think next time I get some extra tool money, I’m springing for a set of the Wiha ceramic drivers.