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How to Loosen Nuts, Bolts and Screws

Use these time saving (and frustration saving!) tips to loosen stuck fasteners. They work on any fasteners in your home, automobiles and lawn mowers. So stop dealing with problem nuts, bolts and screws and make life easy on yourself with these time-tested tricks.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Heat to the rescue

Heat, oil and tapping will unstick most nuts and bolts in metal. Apply only enough heat to cause expansion in the entire bolt. If the area is soaked with penetrant, spray it with nonflammable brake cleaner to remove it before you apply heat. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Once you’ve established that it’s safe, aim the flame at the bolt head or nut, not the surrounding metal. Heat for about 15 seconds, but don’t get it cherry red. Then spray the bolt head with water to cool it quickly. Continue spraying until it no longer steams. The expansion/contraction cracks the rust, so add more rust penetrant and let it soak in. Tap the end of the bolt a half dozen times with a hammer to help loosen the threads and allow the oil to penetrate. Wait another minute or so for the oil to work, and then use your wrench.

Get a grip on rounded bolt heads

When a bolt head has become so rounded that a wrench won’t get a bite, use a locking pliers. Get a tight grip: You may have only two or three chances before the head gets so rounded that even this won’t work. Use penetrating oil, heat and tapping if it slips after your first try.

Adjustable wrench technique for stuck fasteners

An adjustable wrench isn't the ideal tool for loosening stuck fasteners because it can round over the head, making matters worse. But if an adjustable wrench is your only option, here's your best shot at preserving the shoulders on the nut or bolt head: Slide on the wrench all the way, so there's full contact at the back of the jaws. Then tighten the wrench thumbscrew so there's no play at all in the jaws. Always turn the wrench handle toward the lower jaw, never away from it.

Pound a combo wrench

Grind a wrench to fit.

Grind a wrench to fit.

Sacrificing a Tool

It might seem sacrilegious to destroy a tool, but sometimes working in narrow or confined spaces makes it necessary. That’s where your grinder comes in. Use it to make wrenches thinner and screwdrivers skinnier and to add tapers to sockets so they fit into tight recesses. But this technique comes with a warning. Grinding a tool compromises its integrity, so take extra precautions when using it (wear goggles and gloves). When you’re done, toss the modified tool and get a new one—it’s no longer safe for use on other jobs.

Two ways to remove fasteners that have mangled slots

When the slot on a fastener is too damaged to insert the tip of a screwdriver, file down the sides so you can turn it with a wrench, or cut a new slot in the head with a hacksaw.

Cut off a fastener’s head

When there’s no other solution—when heat, penetrating oil and wrenches have all failed—cut off bolt heads or nuts with a hacksaw, reciprocating saw or or, better yet, a cutoff tool. Some smaller fasteners, especially rivets and flathead bolts, may be easier to drill out than to cut.

Pipe wrenches aren’t just for pipes

Be Gentle With Spark Plugs

If you snap off a spark plug or strip the threads, you’ll have a real nightmare on your hands. So if a plug shows any sign of seizing, stop and spray on rust penetrant. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes and try to loosen it just a one-eighth turn. Don’t get greedy and keep turning. Add more penetrant and turn the plug in and out slightly to work penetrant down into the threads. Saturate with penetrant and tighten/loosen only an eighth of a turn at a time. Eventually, it’ll start turning freely and you’ll be able to back it out.

Turn a sticking screw

A wrench on a screwdriver blade will help beat that big screw that won't budge. First select the largest screwdriver that'll fit, and tap the butt of the screwdriver handle with a hammer to loosen the thread bond. Lean your weight onto the screwdriver to keep it in the slot as you turn it with the wrench. Careful—too much torque will bend the screwdriver tip.

Use a Cheater Bar (and the Right Socket)

Be a cheater by slipping a short length of pipe—a cheater bar—over the end of your tool handle. The extra length gives you major-league leverage. Be careful, though, not to use so much force that you break the tool or break the head off the shank of the bolt.

And since we're talking about force, a word here about sockets: You'll find that six-point sockets get a better grip on hex nuts and bolts than garden variety 12-point sockets, which are designed to fit both hex and square fasteners.

Caution!

The cheater bar technique can exceed the design strength of the tool, cause it to break and void the tool warranty, wear eye protection.

How to split a nut

You may not need a nut splitter very often. But when you run into a situation where you can’t reach a bolt head to prevent it from turning, a nut splitter can sometimes save the day. Just slip the tool over the nut and center the chisel end (of the nut splitter) on a nut flat. Hand-tighten the chisel before cranking on it with a ratchet and socket. Continue turning the ratchet until you hear a loud “crack,” and the hard work is done. Of course, then you have to run to the store to buy a new nut. But least you can complete the repair without having to resort to nuclear weaponry. Buy a nut splitter at any auto parts store or at an online tool seller. (One example is the TEKTON 7580 Nut Splitter Set available through our affiliation with amazon.com.)

Use a screw extractor

A screw extractor could save your day. It will grab just about any threaded fastener and remove it—even if the head has snapped off. It usually comes with a hardened drill bit to drill a hole in the center of your stubborn screw or bolt. Then you turn the extractor counterclockwise into the hole. Because of its tapered shape and left hand thread, the extractor will jam in the hole and then begin to turn out the screw. It's available at hardware stores and home centers.

Use an impact driver

An impact driver works with a bladed or Phillips head screwdriver bit, or a socket head. Striking the tool does three things at once: The blow loosens the thread bond; the downward force keeps the tool in the slot; and the head of the tool turns 20 degrees in the loosening direction. Make sure the screw slot is clean and free of debris. Find it at Sears.com and home centers.

Whack stuck wheels

Drill out rivets

Stuck receiver hitches

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Hammer
    • Air compressor
    • Air hose
    • Cordless drill
    • Socket/ratchet set
    • 4-in-1 screwdriver
    • Adjustable wrench
    • Air chisel
    • Locking pliers
    • Impact driver
    • Drill bit set
    • File
    • Cutoff tool
    • Hacksaw
    • Pipe wrench
    • Reciprocating saw
    • Safety glasses
    • Sledgehammer
    • Soldering torch
    • Wrench set

You'll also need a screw extractor, nut splitter and hammer impact chisel.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Penetrating oil
    • Sprayer
    • Work gloves

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 5 of 5 comments
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January 02, 9:13 PM [GMT -5]

As an automotive restorers, heat is one of the most important tools in my shop - but after much trial and some errror - I can sa that the heat off a propane soldering torch will often not be enough heat to break loose long rusted fastener. I use an Oxy-Acetylene set-up as it often needs to be heated cherry red.

October 20, 8:53 AM [GMT -5]

Use a 50% mixture of acetone and power steering fluid to remove rusted nuts or bolts and screws.

February 07, 11:23 PM [GMT -5]

Weld a nut on top of the fastener; make a nice puddle right in the center hole of the nut. The heat does the same job as the torch, and you have a new nut to use your wrench on. It works for me about 80%, and if it breaks, you are no worse off than you were.

Careful with drill bits and easy outs. This hard steel is not easy to get out, and I have had to resort to an EDM bit to make a new hole through hard steel.

RK

August 24, 4:54 PM [GMT -5]

Your idea about putting a pipe over a ratchet gave me an idea.
Use a tire tool if it is the right size. Put a pipe over one of those and you wont break
a ratchet drive. Or if you have one of the 4 arm tire tools even better. you can use both hands. This is only good for larger size bolts.

May 26, 12:47 AM [GMT -5]

I like all your hints and tips and i have one to offer. If you are good with a grinder and have room to use it, you can grind the head off the bolt. Also, if the screw protruds far enough on the back side (of a head that is broken off) you can use a plier to grip the protruding end and unscrew it.

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