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What are the different types of nuts and bolts?

What does a bolt look like? Let’s start with a nuts-and-bolts definition. Bolts are threaded fasteners with external male threads. They mate with nuts, which have female – meaning, internal – threads.

What are nuts used for? Both the bolt and the nut grip the materials being fastened, creating a bolt joint, with the nut also preventing axial movement.

The effect of the bolt joint comes down to the axial clamping force provided by the nut and the shank of the bolt, which acts as a rod that presses the joint against sideways shear forces. This is why so many bolt shanks are threadless – it makes for a stronger rod.

When to use bolts vs screws

It’s often assumed that the difference between hex bolts and screws lies in the tools used to install each – a screwdriver for a screw and a wrench for a bolt. This isn’t always the case, however. Bolts can have heads that we associate with screws and require a screwdriver for installation. Even some screws use nuts, so we’re dealing with gray areas.

The decision of which you choose really comes down to the application and the materials you’re fastening. For lightweight materials, such as plastics, plywood and drywall, screws are best. Most of the time, that is. Bolts also come in plastics, but these are mostly used for electronics, as they’re lightweight, corrosion resistant and provide excellent insulation.

For heavy-duty applications and heavier materials, such as concrete and metals, go with bolts.

Types of bolt heads

Bolt head styles are designed for the bolt’s intended function while enabling the installation tool to grip the head. Below are examples of different types of bolt heads. As seen here, bolts can have slots or drives, just as screws do.

The vast majority of nuts, no matter what type, are hex shaped. This is because the six sides make it easy to turn. It only takes a one-sixth turn for the nut to reach the next flat parallel. A nut with fewer sides takes more time to install. Other shapes are available, which are for specific needs.

For the same reason you use them with screws. Technically you don’t need washers for nuts and heavy hex bolts, but we recommend that you still use them.

a silver washer

How do washers work with bolts?

Washers evenly distribute the nut’s load and protect the surface that you’re fastening from damage. It also gives your nut a smooth surface to push against, which helps the fasteners remain tight instead of loosening. In a few cases, you’ll need to put the washer on the bolt side, but only if it’s the bolt that requires turning.

How to choose the right nut for your bolt

Nuts and bolts fasten together with their threads. The weakest shear plane in the thread profile is where failure can start. That is, the weakest material determines the strength of the connection. The point is, nuts and bolts should be made of the same alloys. Not only that, but your nut should meet or exceed the maximum tensile strength of the bolt, which is the amount of pull the bolt can withstand.

If safety is a key consideration in your application, then you want your nut to be stronger than your bolt. In these instances, the Industrial Fastener Institute (IFI) recommends that your nut should exceed your bolt’s tensile strength by 20%.

How to tell the grade of a bolt

Bolt grades indicate the strength of your fastener. Understanding bolt grades is critical to choosing the right fastener. Typically, identification markings on bolt heads include the grade and the manufacturer’s mark. The grades are indicated by raised dashes or numbers.

Bolts are one of the most common elements used in construction and machine design. They hold every­thing together – from screws in electric toothbrushes and door hinges to massive bolts that secure concrete pillars in buildings. Yet, have you ever stopped to wonder where they actually came from? 

When was the first bolt made? 

While the history of threads can be traced back to 400 BC, the most significant developments in the modern-day bolt and screw processes were made during the last 150 years. Experts differ as to the origins of the humble nut and bolt. In his article “Nuts and Bolts”, Frederick E. Graves argues that a threaded bolt and a matching nut serving as a fastener only dates back to the 15th century. He bases this conclusion on the first printed record of screws appearing in a book in the early 15th century. 

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