Do It Yourself: 5 Tips To Loosen Stuck Screws

A stuck or frozen screw can be frustrating. Get them out using these five methods.

It's a simple job. Remove a few screws, replace a broken part, replace the screws, and you're done - unless the screws won't come out. A frozen screw is one of the most frustrating situations the do-it-yourselfer has to contend with.

A stuck screw is usually caused by corrosion. Methods to remove it involve breaking the screw loose so it can turn freely. There are five basic methods to do this, chemical corrosion removal, force (or torque), impact (which is basically sudden force), and the last resorts, which destroy the screw in the process of removing it.

1. Chemical corrosion removal. This is the first thing to try, as even if it does not do the job alone, it will help with the other methods. A number of things will work to dissolve rust and corrosion. You can try hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice, or even Coca Cola or Tabasco sauce. Auto repair shops sell a number of penetrating oils, such as Liquid Wrench, which are made specifically for this purpose. All of these products work best when left to soak. A tissue saturated with your rust remover and wrapped around the stuck screw may help. Also, tapping gently on the screw while applying the rust remover may help the chemical reach farther down inside.

2. Force. There are several ways to increase the amount of force, or torque you can apply. First of all, be sure you have the correct size screwdriver. A screwdriver that is too big or too small can strip the head of your screw. If the screw head is sticking up, you may be able to grasp it with pliers, or vice grips, and turn it that way. If the screw is not sticking up, try placing the screwdriver in the slot and pressing down while grasping the upper, square part of the shaft of the screwdriver with your pliers or vice grips. You may be able to apply enough force to turn the screw that way. Finally, even though it sounds counter-productive, try to tighten the screw. Remember, you really just want to break it free of the corrosion that is holding it. If you can move the screw at all, move it back and forth, and eventually it will come free. If the head of the screw is slightly damaged, you can improve your screwdriver's grip by applying some aluminum carbide paste or valve grinding paste to the head of the screw.

3. Temperature. Assuming the item holding the stuck screw will tolerate the heat source, you can try heating the screw with a butane or propane torch. Different metals expand at different rates when heated, so this may loosen the corrosion. A soldering iron is also good for heating a stuck screw. In a pinch, try your hot glue gun, without any glue sticks in it. Remember that long screws are not necessarily affected all the way down by heating the screw head. If the material holding the screw will not tolerate heat, try cold. This is less effective, but works sometimes. Remember that what you want is a temperature difference. Hold ice against the screw head. Better yet, if you can, use dry ice, remembering to protect your hands. Alternating heat and cold may also work. After heating, allow the screw to return to normal temperature before reapplying penetrating oils, as they are flammable. Repeating this cycle several times may also be helpful is breaking up corrosion.

4. Impact. Be careful that the material surrounding your screw will take the impact before trying these methods. Occasionally, a sharp rap with a hammer on the screwdriver inserted in the slot of the screw is enough to break the adhesions and allow the screw to turn. A better method is to strike the screwdriver while you are turning it. You can buy a gadget called an impact screwdriver for this purpose, as well. It is designed to rotate the screwdriver bit when the handle is hit with a hammer. This works because the tip is being forced into the screw head while turning. Also, the sudden shock is often effective in breaking the screw loose.

5. Last resorts. If none of these methods work, and you simply HAVE to get the screw out, there are a few other things you can try. These things will destroy your screw, but should leave the screw hole intact so you can replace it with a new screw. Using a small, sharp steel chisel or a steel punch, set the chisel or punch into the screw head off center, pointing counter clockwise. Hit with a hammer a few times and the screw will often come out. Some people have tried using superglue to affix a screwdriver to the screw head. Using vice grips to turn the glued screwdriver sometimes allows the screw to be removed. Acetone (nail polish remover) will eventually dissolve the superglue to get your screwdriver back. The final at-home remedy is to drill out the screw. Be sure that your drill bit is centered and drill carefully. If you have, or can get, left-handed drill bits, they work even better, as they put turning pressure on your screw as they drill. Usually, the screw will start to turn before the drill is half way in. You can also buy a screw extractor, sometimes called Easy Outs. These work on the same principle. You drill a small, starter hole in the stuck screw and start screwing the Easy Out into it. They have left handed threads, so they put pressure on the screw. Turn gently enough not to break the easy out, because if you do, you have a piece of hardened steel in the center of your stuck screw, preventing you from drilling out the screw. The final option, if nothing else is working, and you really need the screw out, is to find a place that offers Electrical-Discharge Machining (sometimes called EDM or Spark Erosion). It generates sparks, electrically, which destroy the screw, small amounts at a time, while leaving the casing intact.

A stuck or frozen screw is a real annoyance. The corrosion that holds it in place can be broken, either chemically, with force or impact, or by expansion and contraction caused by temperature changes. Once the hold has been broken, persistence will get the screw out, and you can finish your project.

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