How to Remove Stuck Nuts and Bolts

Stuck fasteners are a constant source of frustration for do-it-yourselfers.

On marine engines and outboard and stern drive lower units the problem is compounded because corrosion is accelerated by damp, salty air. When a nut or bolt won't budge, don't lose your temper. Instead, heat it, or freeze it.

If you work on a boat you already know nuts and bolts freeze with frustrating frequency. Sometimes it's a carbon steel bolt corroded solid on a cylinder head. Other times it's a stainless steel bolt frozen solid in an aluminum lower unit. The only way to break it loose is with patience, bloody patience. Count to ten. Swallow the frustration. Then, one by one, follow the timeworn remedies revealed below that have been passed on from the dawning of the Iron Age.

Don't make the mistake of trying to free a stuck bolt with brute force, especially one stuck in aluminum housing. Otherwise it may snap off further complicating matters. It's a better strategy to walk away form a job for a day or two than risk making the situation worse. Besides, it's almost karmic the way coming back to a job after even a short break seems to make things go more smoothly.

Begin with fire. An oxy-acetylene torch works best. The downside, if you don't already own one, they are expensive to rent and complex to fire up. And because of the inherent danger of working with an open flame near an inboard gasoline engine tucked into an enclosed space, first run the bilge blower for several minutes to ventilate the area. Wear leather gloves to protect your fingers from bums. Usually a couple of minutes of flame from a propane torch is sufficient. This method works because heat expands the metal, breaking its threads loose from the rust that's locked it in place.

Know that sometimes the flame blossoming from the common propane torch may hold enough BTUs to get the job done. Either way, oxy or propane, heat the bolt. No need to go red-hot, but hot enough so droplets of water flicked onto the bolt sizzle off into a vapor.

Let the bolt cool completely. On a hot summer day that may mean a wait of at least an hour. It isn't the heat that breaks the fastener loose. But rather the repeated expanding and contracting of the hot and cold cycles that breaks corrosion's grip on the threads. One, twice, even three applications of heat may be required. Like we said in the beginning, patience is a virtue. It also helps to tap-tap-tap the stuck bolt with a ball pein hammer. The vibration loosens the rust. And you should also know the rust along the shank resists removal more than the rust on the threads. Keep that in mind when heating a stuck bolt.

An alternative to fire is ice. Some mechanics claim dry ice will shrink a bolt enough to break corrosion's hold. Though most of us choose a torch because it's quicker if not more dramatic. Besides dry ice, there is another cool option. It is an aerosol spray that freezes metal ice cold, more particularly a blast of freeze spray, an aerosol that super chills metal parts to minus 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Deep freezing contracts the fastener, breaking the tension between the threads and the rust. This time the strategy is to wait for it to warm up before giving it another blast of cold air. In extreme cases, alternately heating and freezing will do the trick.

broken bolt extractor

Purely mechanical methods are also effective. The most common is to drill a hole in the bolt head, from the top down, a bored tunnel paralleling the threaded shank. Thread an extractor bit into the hole until it bottoms out. In effect the bit becomes a new bolt head, one you can really grab hold of. Because its threads are left hand, cranking counter clockwise on the extractor grips the bolt tighter and tighter.

Sometimes the corners of bolt head round off making it impossible for a wrench or socket to grasp hold. Calmly reach for a center punch and a ball pein hammer. Pein the metal, expanding it outward, forming new corners in the six-point star that a wrench can grab hold of.

Depending on what parts the bolt holds together, consider drilling a rescue shaft at an angle in order to reach deep in the threads. The drilled hole lends access to the threads so they can be soaked with penetrating oil, coca cola or any other concoction you have faith in. Obviously this method is not available where drilling would destroy the very parts you're trying to remove.

Never use force. Just get a bigger hammer. When you are willing to sacrifice the bolt, position the wedge tip of a cold chisel against the corner of the bolt head or nut and bang away with repetitive strikes of a ball pein hammer. Strike the chisel so the impact forces the bolt head counter clockwise, loosening it. Wear leather gloves to protect your hands.

Finally, assembling fasteners with anti-seize compound in the first place is a good way to keep fasteners from corroding in the first place. For example, on new outboards I remove all the bolts in the lower unit, one at a time, coat them with anti-seize and then replace.