Learn the best techniques for clearing clogged sink drains using a plunger and a snake. Avoid emergency visits from the plumber and save hundreds of dollars by doing it yourself with these inexpensive tools.
Unscrew the pivot rod retaining nut on the drain assembly underneath the sink. Pull the pivot rod out slightly to release the stopper. Pull out the stopper, then clean and reassemble it.
Before mounting a full-scale plunger attack, clear the mouth of the drain right at the top. Sometimes the clog is in plain sight, like a wad of hair and scum stuck to the stopper in bathroom sinks (Photo 1). You can pull some stoppers straight out and clean them off. Others only lift slightly. Peer under them the best you can. If you see any crud buildup at all, remove them (Photo 1) and clean them.
The stopper apparatus in bathtubs often catches debris too. But it's usually easier to try the plunger solution before pulling it out (Photo 5).
Don't use drain-cleaning chemicals before using a plunger. The chemicals are corrosive and can splash out while you're plunging. If you tried chemicals to open your drain and they didn't work, let the drain sit overnight so as much water runs out as possible. Then refill the drain and put on safety glasses and rubber gloves to protect your eyes and bare skin before using a plunger.
Fill the sink with at least 2 in. of water, cover the drain with the plunger bell so the edges seal, and push in and pull out, forcing water up and down in the drainpipes. Seal the overflow hole(s) with a wet sponge or plastic to maintain the pressure.
Using a plunger is the simplest way to open a clogged drain without undoing any pipes. Any bell-shaped plunger will work for sink or tub drains (Photo 2). If you have the type with a bell extension, fold the extension back into the bell.
The general idea is to break up the clog and force it on down the drain. You don't have to take anything apart. We recommend that you wear rubber gloves (although we didn't in our demonstration photos!) and follow these plunging guidelines:
Most of the time this is all it takes to clear the clog and restore the flow. However, if the drain remains clogged, reach for the snake.
Remove the P-trap under the sink. Use a large slip-joint pliers for metal nuts; you can often hand-loosen plastic nuts. Put a bucket under the trap to catch water and perhaps other goop. Check the P-trap for obstructions and clean it.
Use a 1/4 in. plumbing snake for most household clogs.
When the snake stops, spin it using the offset handle. This helps slide the snake around bends and to corkscrew into obstructions. The snake will break the clog and push it out or grab the clog so you can pull it out. Reconnect the P-trap and run water through the drain to make sure you've solved the problem.
Plumbing snakes are lengths of tightly wound wire that are highly flexible so they can go around those sharp 90-degree bends in drain lines (Photo 4). A 15- to 20-footer that's 1/4 in. thick will handle most household needs. They're available at all hardware stores and home centers.
While the plunger is a 10-minute solution, expect the snake to take 20 to 30 minutes. You'll have to remove the P-trap under the sink first, then shove the snake down the drain, spinning it around corners and into clogs. The corkscrew tip grabs obstructions so you can pull them out. Follow these snaking guidelines:
After clearing the clog, reassemble the P-trap. Slide new washers under the slip nuts on metal traps to avoid leaks. If the trap is old and rickety, replace it with a new one while you're at it.
Remove the overflow plate and the stopper mechanism from the bathtub. Cover the overflow hole with a damp sponge and plastic to get a good seal and plunge the drain.
Push the snake down the overflow hole first to clear obstructions. If you're unsuccessful, replace the overflow plate and stopper mechanism, remove the P-trap through the access hole, and run the snake on down the drain from there. The snake shown here stores conveniently in a rotating drum.
Snaking bathtub drains is a bit trickier because access to the P-trap isn't always easy. Remove the stopper mechanism first (Photo 5), since hair and other debris often stick to it and cause the problem. (You can also get a better seal over the overflow hole for more effective plunging.) Then try snaking through the overflow hole (Photo 6). The snake should work its way through the P-trap and beyond. Remove the P-trap as a last resort. The snake we show in Photo 6 automatically coils the cable inside the drum and spins it more effectively than the snake in Photo 4.
If the same drain clogs several times, chances are you have dirty drainpipes, a partial obstruction in the pipe or a poorly designed drain system. After you restore the flow, try the simplest long-term solution first.