Advice from an Apple tech: Got a Mac? Get a Dremel!

If there’s one certainty about digging around inside computers, it’s that you’re going to make mistakes. And, at times, those mistakes may be epic.

One of the most common mistakes that happen during an otherwise routine repair is stripping a screw to the point that it’s practically useless. Fortunately, you can get around this disaster by using a Dremel tool. This may seem like an extreme tool to keep on hand when you’re fixing a computer, but you’ll be glad for it if disaster strikes.

I learned the lesson of the Dremel the hard way. In the midst of cracking open my 2006 Mac Pro to replace its power supply, I came across two screws holding the computer’s RAM cage to the logic board. The instruction manual and YouTube videos I referenced suggested using a Torx driver and indicated that the screws could be removed with relative ease (though, admittedly, the YouTube video made the point that a little more force than usual might be necessary).

Dremel 200 Series rotary tool
The Dremel 200 Series rotary tool.

What followed next, even though I used the recommended driver, was the complete stripping of both screws to the point that almost no workable structure remained for a tool to fit into and turn the screw with. The screws, which felt as if they’d been overtightened by an assembly-line robot, remained defiant.

I turned to a tech-savvy friend who has joyously torn into countless computers and consoles. We cracked open a toolbox and proceeded to try every option we thought might work. We tried chiseling out new screw slots via diamond-edged tools, using pliers to try to turn the screws, and even using a rubber mallet to insert the driver into the screw and then a wrench to turn the driver.

When none of these methods worked, my friend suggested the Dremel route, a move that put no small amount of fear in my heart. I’d never taken a shop class in school, and the idea of cutting a new slot in a metal object intimidated me. Nevertheless, we went to Home Depot and picked out a Dremel 200 Series two-speed rotary tool for just under $50.

Image: Lifehacker.com
Cut a new slot in a stripped screw, and you're free to remove it with almost any flathead screwdriver.

Back home, my friend showed me how to make my first cuts with the Dremel and the approach to take with the screws. “Keep it going at full speed, but pretty much just kiss the metal with the bit,” he said. Within a few minutes, we had carved two new slots into the screws and were able to then use a standard screwdriver to free the screws from the case.

The Dremel was the best possible way out of a minor disaster and may just deserve a slot in your computer toolkit.

Just remember the following points, and you’ll be fine:

  • Read the manual.
  • Get comfortable with the Dremel by practicing with it. If you really want to master a Dremel, find some old screws and cut new slots into them.
  • Be careful as you’re using the tool. It may throw a few sparks as you’re cutting.
  • Don’t go overboard with your initial Dremel cuts. Keep the Dremel running at a fast enough speed to cut into the metal, but just touch the metal lightly with the Dremel bit. 

Take your time—there’s no rush. Yes, you may be dealing with a minor Mac disaster or a stripped screw that you’re cutting new slots into, but a Dremel tool is easy to control and is a good way to get more comfortable with using power tools. With the tool in your kit, you’ll be able to handle almost any Mac hardware disaster.

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