Choosing the Right Nuts and Bolts

Understanding Hardware Differences that Tend to Cause Confusion


Employees of hardware stores get asked very difficult questions on a daily basis. The reason for this is that the vast majority of the casual home owner or renter who makes their way into these stores in search of tools or supplies, rarely knows exactly what it is that they need.

For this reason, it is good to be reminded from time to time that hardware store employees, while often very knowledgeable about their chosen department, are not miracle workers. They are not blessed with the psychic ability to be able to know exactly what each customer needs based on only the most ambiguous possible description.

For instance, there is no hardware store employee in the world who could immediately find the right part for such a request as:“I’m looking for a bolt about an inch long.”

The follow-up question would surely be something like: “What else can you tell me about the bolt?”

And this is where many customers freeze up. They never thought to find out any more. They figured that a hardware store is a place one goes to buy bolts, so they will obviously know which one is required for each situation. Clearly (and everyone should know this already, it just helps to be reminded), there are certain things that a person must know before going to the hardware store, especially something that comes in such a wide variety as nuts and bolts.

Here are some tips for being able to find the right fasteners

Tip #1 – If the Old Part is Available, Bring it In

It’s very surprising how many people neglect this first, rather self-evident truth. The easiest way for a person to find exactly what they want at a hardware store is to bring an identical part along. Especially in terms of bolts, where there are several different “pitches” of threads (thread pitch refers to how large or small the individual threads are) along with many different sizes, this is very important. Even the precise measurement of bolts will not necessarily be helpful, as there several other features that make bolts unique, such as…

Tip #2 – What’s the Thread Pitch

If the nut or bolt is lost or otherwise can’t be brought in to match it up, get as much information as possible before heading to the hardware store expecting a miracle. Measure the length, then the width, then try to estimate the thread pitch. Generally, there are a few pitches per diameter of bolt, which are often referred to as “fine, medium, or course” (or some variant of these threads). These thread pitches are also often labeled using numbers – for instance, a ¼ -24 bolt means that it has a diameter of ¼” and a thread pitch of 24 (which would probably be a medium pitch – a fine being 32 and course being 12). Often, to prevent extra trips, it is best to be safe and simply pick up each of these threads (unless a large quantity is needed, in which case perhaps it is better to start with just one of each and then return once it has been determined which is correct.

Tip #3 – SAE or Metric? It’s Not as Clear as it May Seem!

Looking for a bolt for a car engine? Remember that there are two major types of threads – SAE (standard, as it is often called in America) and Metric, which are not remotely compatible with each other. In an automobile, many people think this is a simple question to answer – just figure out where the car is made. If it’s an American car, it takes SAE threads, if it is foreign, it takes Metric. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The majority of the time, fortunately it is this simple, but there are many instances where people mistakenly make this assumption, then find out that their particular car model does not keep with this rule. New Ford engines, for instance, often use foreign-made components, which means that there will be a mixture of SAE and Metric threads.

Once again, the best answer is to bring as much information into the store as possible, but if it is not possible to bring the actual bolt or nut, perform measurements as thoroughly as possible, and buy several different sizes (nuts and bolts are generally fairly inexpensive, if only a few are needed), just to be safe.

Tip #4 – What’s it made of?

Is the nut or bolt in question stainless steel, galvanized, grade 5, grade 8, or any number of other different metals or hardnesses? Sometimes this is important, sometimes it’s not.

  • If it’s going to be used in automotive applications, often times grade 8 (or hardened) hardware is the way to go for extra strength (and safety) – though be warned that there are applications where harder is not better, as under a certain amount of tension some bolts are expected to break for safety reasons, so it’s best not to make too many assumptions.
  • Grade 5 is a fairly standard bolt that is fairly hard, though not resistant to corrosion, so only used for indoor applications (this is the standard kind of bolt that comes in furniture and such applications as that).
  • Stainless Steel is, as the name implies, resistant to corrosion, though it is not as hard as grade 5 or grade 8. It is also fairly expensive, so is not cost-efficient to be used in every application.
  • Galvanized steel is generally standard grade 5 steel covered in a corrosion resistant zinc coating. These are a generally more cost-effective alternative to stainless steel, though they rarely come in fine threads, so are not universally compatible.

So, armed with this little bit of knowledge, perhaps the next trip to the hardware store will go a little bit better. Just remember – the more one knows, the better the trip will go, and the less frustrated the store employees will get.

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