Tools and Tricks for Dealing with Frozen Fasteners
© Lincoln’s Tool Chest
There you are, knee deep in that project, with everything going just fine when you run upon that faster that just won’t budge. Anxiously, you slowly apply more force, both up and down, in an effort to overcome this little bugger and get on with your project. You feel something give, and realize that you have snapped/stripped the head and everything comes to a halt.
Does this sound familiar? If you work on things often, sooner or later this will happen to you. Contained here-in are both some tips to prevent the scenario described above from happening and tools that might just save the day if all else fails.
Tip #1) – Try Not to Cheat – All fasteners no matter what type take a specific size driver. I think most of us have been in a situation where we don’t have the exact size we need, but grab one we feel is “close enough”. Selecting a driver, socket or wrench that almost fits can come back to bite you at the worst possible times. Often, even with hardened bolts, the head of the fastener will give enough where your tool will slip. If the tool slips even once on the head, you are on the verge of not having enough material to mate to the drivers surface. At this point, you will begin cussing yourself for not getting the right size. It’s best to shell out the few dollars for the specific size you are working with.
Tip #2) – Go Wall to Wall – With sockets, you will find quite a variety of options in each offered size. The most common variety are 12 point and 6 point. It’s cheap and convenient to purchase an all 12 point socket set and consider it “universal”. However, the truth is these sockets are made for their respective fastener types. If you mate a 6 point socket to the 6 point head of a bolt, you will find it much harder to round that fastener. It may break if it is corroded or weak, but it should not become rounded. If at all possible, it is safest to stick with sockets that match up exactly with their respected fasteners.
Tip #3) – Some Wrenches are Better – Obviously, if you are using a wrench, you just need to follow the same advice listed above. But what do you do if you are not able to encompass all sides of the fastener with your wrench? You might run into this situation when you have a tube or rod coming out of a fastener, or maybe it’s a nut you are trying to loosen. In this situation there is a better option than just using an open end wrench. This tool is called a line wrench. A line wrench is basically a box end wrench with one side of the box left open. This design allows you to pass and obstruction through the open side, while still allowing you to almost completely wrap the fasteners head with the wrench. Line wrenches offer more insurance against rounding the head because of they engage much more material than their open end counterparts.
Tip #4) – Make an Impact – You might thing that an impact driver/wrench is riskier than using your own strength or a breaker bar. An impact wrench may not be ideal to use when tightening something, but when trying to loosen a stuck fastener, an impact has a distinct advantage. An impact wrench, delivering impact after impact, has the ability to slowly encourage the fastener to back out. It may also knock loose corrosion and assist in threads sliding against each other. When you try to break something loose by hand, especially smaller fasteners, it’s easy to slowly increase torque in a continuous and linear fashion. If the fastener has become seized in place, you may end up stretching the threads to their yield point. Once this happens, that fastener becomes weakened and strength marginalized. It can be beneficial to use an impact if possible for this reason.
So let’s say you’ve followed all of the above steps and have found yourself looking at the business end of a screwed up fastener. What do you do now? Well, fortunately there are some specialty tools that have been created for situations just like you are facing now. Here are some of the most popular choices for situations just like this:
Easy Outs/Screw Extractors – These are perhaps the most well known group of the “I screwed up a fastener, now what do I do” tool selection. These tools are tapered and have flutes (AKA “spiral grooves”) cut into the the body twisting in the opposite direction of normal threads. To use these, you simply drill a hole in the head of the fastener and then insert the screw extractor. As you turn the screw extractor the same direction as required to loosen the fastener, the flutes bite into the side walls of the pilot hole and lock into place. Once locked in place you continue to turn the extractor, which in turn, causes the fastener to turn, resulting in the removal of the fastener. The downside of these is a very hard steel is needed for this type of application. Extremely hard steel can also be brittle, so always use the biggest extractor possible for the particular fastener you need to remove. This will allow you to use as much force as possible without breaking the extractor.
Bolt/Nut Extractors – These are just like the screw extractors, except the flutes are cut on the inside of the extractor. To use, simply find the closest size to the rounded nut or bolt head and slide the extractor over the fastener. Sometimes it helps to lightly tap the extractor into place. As you turn the extractor counter clockwise, the flutes bite into the rounded head and begin to turn the fastener. I can tell you from experience that it is a GREAT feeling when that fastener starts to turn. Because these extractors are made to surround the head of the fastener, they are thicker and contain much more material then their screw extractor counterparts. This allows you to use quite a bit more force than with screw extractors. Bolt/Nut extractors are available today in many forms, including versions rated for use with impact drivers. You can find them in shallow sizes, deep sizes as well as large sizes for applications such as seized lug nuts.
Left-Handed Drill Bits – Not as well known as the extractors listed above, left-handed drill bits are just that. Drill bits with the flutes cut into the shaft of the bit in the opposite direction of a standard drill bit. Similar to the screw extractor, left-handed bits are commonly used to remove fasteners and when used properly, can do so without damaging the threads of the hole the fastener is mated to. For these, you simply install in the chuck of a reversible drill, put the drill in reverse and start drilling. At some point the bit should have removed enough material that the screw/bolt will start spinning and come out. These should not be used in blind holes; however, as you may exceed the depth of the bolt and drill into something you do not want to drill into.
Spline-Drive – Not really an extraction tool, but something worth mentioning are spline-drive sockets and wrenches. Spline-drive tools work on 6 point, 12 point, square and e-torx fasteners. Because of their design, they will grip well enough to turn slightly rounded fasteners. Depending on your needs, it might not hurt to have some of these at your deposal to try before breaking out the big guns listed above.
Hopefully, having the tools listed above at your disposal will make short work of any stuck fastener you come across. Whatever method you decide to use, make sure that you spray plenty of penetrating fluid on the fastener before removal and don’t be afraid to let the fluid soak in for a day. If you aren’t having any luck, you may need to resort to more extreme methods. This could be as simple as welding a nut onto the fastener or using a cold chisel and hammer to drive the fastener in the direction needed to loosen. Heck you may just need to drill the whole thing out and re-tap or repair the threads the fastener was secured in. If you get to that point, don’t worry, there are tools for that as well. We’ll cover that in another post!