5 Tools to Use on Hard to Loosen Bolts

breaker bar

We’ve all walked up to a bolt with a standard length open-end box wrench thinking that this tool selection would get the job done. Then we pull on this wrench with everything we have and the bolt doesn’t budge. Now it’s time to grab another tool to use on this hard to loosen bolt.

Since this is a common problem for professional and do-it-yourself driveway mechanics alike, we decided to provide a top five list of our favorite tools that can overcome the most stubborn nuts and bolts. We’ll also include a few different choices reviewed by brand versus price so you can add these bolt beating tools to your own collection.

Half Inch Drive Breaker Bar

A half inch drive breaker bar is one of the first tools to grab for busting loose stubborn lug nuts and large bolts. Although you can find a ½ inch breaker bar in a variety of lengths the three most popular are the 18 inch, 24 inch and 30 inch sizes. Obviously, the longer your handle the more leverage you’ll gain. However, put some thought into what size is right for most situations. The 30 inch breaker bar will provide superior leverage, but also requires additional space to operate the tool.

stuck lug nut
Stuck Lug Nut

This isn’t a problem for the lug nuts. Nevertheless, if you’re trying to remove the 15/16 bolt from a disc brake caliper bracket you probably won’t have enough room to get this extra long breaker bar in position.

Sidebar: One of the most stubborn large-size bolts you’ll run into is the caliper bracket bolt. You need to remove the caliper bracket to replace the rotor on most automobiles equipped with disc brakes.

The factory not only torque these at an aggressive 85 to 100 foot-pounds, but they also apply thread locking compound to assure this bolt doesn’t back out. Consult your auto repair manual for the specifications on your model car or truck. This means you will have to apply a force greater than 150 foot-pounds to break this bolt loose. In a perfect world we’d add all three lengths of breaker bars to our tool collection.

Surprisingly, this isn’t as expensive as you might think. Of course the longer length goes for more money, but if you go with an off brand like Sunex or Titan tools the 30 inch bar will cost around $35. Hunt around a bit and you’ll find both the 24 inch and the 18 inch in the $20 range.

Rusted Hub Nut
Rusted Hub Nut

If adding all three isn’t possible, because of budget limitations than I would choose the 24 inch middle-of-the-road sized breaker bar. This tool fits almost anywhere that the 18 inch does and provides plenty of leverage. Although the tool manufacture won’t recommend this, if you find a situation where the 24 inch isn’t long enough, you can always slide a metal pipe over the handle to gain additional leverage. We’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the pipe method below.

Sometimes mechanics will think a long handled ratchet performs the same job as a breaker bar. In some cases the long handled ratchet will be sufficient. However, it’s not recommended to slide a pipe over the handle of a long ratchet. The ratcheting mechanism of even a half inch drive ratchet isn’t designed to withstand the same forces that can be applied with a breaker bar.

If you’ve ever had a ratchet strip on you, then you know the pain and suffering that this causes. Applying that much force and then it suddenly letting loose can lead to busted knuckles or even worse injuries. The other advantage the breaker bar has over the long handled ratchet is the 180 degrees swiveling 1/2 drive head. Not only does this allow you to swing the handle to the other side, but it allows you to position the socket in different places when space is limited. Many do-it-yourself mechanics look for a way to avoid purchasing a breaker bar when it could be your best friend in the right situation.

Long Handled Ratchets

long handled ratchet
Long Handled Ratchet

I know I just badmouthed long handled ratchets in the previous paragraph about breaker bars. However, there certainly is a place in your toolbox for a long handled ratchet. Although the ratchet mechanism cannot stand up to the same pressure as the breaker bar it has a speed advantage.

Being able to operate the ratchet up and back coupled with the long handle gives you both power and speed at the same time. Let’s talk about the different choices we have when adding a ratchet to our toolbox.

A good tool set will have a quarter inch, 3/8 drive and a half inch drive ratchet in the collection. In my personal set of tools the standard length 3/8 drive ratchet gets the most use. Coming in at a close second is my long, curved handle 3/8 drive swivel head ratchet. The curved handle and the swivel head allows you to use this tool as a speed wrench to spin out bolts or spark plugs.

Out of the six or seven ratchets that I own, my half inch drive gets the least amount of use. Your results will vary, especially if you work on heavy duty trucks. With that said, in an automotive application the 3/8 drive ratchet reigns supreme. Therefore, I think you should concentrate on adding a standard length ratchet in all three sizes, but consider stretching the budget for the 3/8 drive swivel head curved handled ratchet.

There’s no reason to spend more than $50 on this recommended tool. You can get a brand-new husky at the big box home improvement store that carries a lifetime warranty for about $45. In addition, you can get top-tier name brand automotive tools on your favorite auction site. I’ve seen these curve handled 3/8 drive ratchets going for $15-$25 on those types of websites.

Manual or Hammer Operated Impact Driver

Impact Driver Tool
Impact Driver Tool

The Hammer operated impact driver is the least expensive tool in our list of items to break loose frozen fasteners. The Powerbuilt 648002 1/2-Inch Drive Impact Driver Kit retails for $11.99. The standard driver kit comes with two slotted and two Phillips bits. They specifically designed the tool for removing the Phillips head retainers on drums and rotors. I’m talking about the beveled type screws that actually hold the rotor or drum onto the axle hub.

Although you often find these on foreign cars like the Honda Civic or the Hyundai Sonata there’s other manufacturers that use these retainers. If you use a standard screwdriver to remove them you might strip the face of the bolt, because it’s hard to apply enough down force to stop them from slipping. Once they slip the first time the job becomes increasingly difficult.

The nice thing about the impact driver is when you hit it with a hammer, you’re pushing down and twisting at the same exact time. This makes it less likely that the bit will slip in the screw head. Although the Hammer operated impact driver is capable of both tightening and loosening I can’t remember ever using it for a tightening procedure. Where this tool shines is in the removal of seized threaded fasteners.

I think the largest mistake I see when a do-it-yourself driveway warrior is using this tool is the kind of hammer they are striking it with. A standard Ball Pein hammer only weighs 16 ounces. Swinging this light weight hammer at an impact driver doesn’t apply enough twisting force in difficult situations.

Although you don’t have to hit the impact driver with a 20 pound sledge it’s recommended to use a heavier than standard hammer. Let me provide another important piece of advice. Use a set of heavy work gloves when holding the driver. This can go a long way in protecting your hands should you swing and miss the driver head.

The Right Size Pipe for the Job

leverage pipe
Leverage Pipe

As I mentioned throughout the article leverage is a key factor in overwhelming a frozen bolt. First, let’s talk about the downsides of applying this much leverage to a fastener. If you slide a 2 foot pipe over the 30 inch 1/2 drive swivel head breaker bar you’ll apply a massive amount of force. In fact, you’ll have enough leverage to make a guerrilla envious of your strength.

In this situation two things will happen. The bolt will come loose and you will be victorious. And as you might have guessed, the other possibility is you’ll snap the head of the bolt off. Removing the remaining threads of a bolt that’s severely frozen will often require additional disassembling of the project. And if you couldn’t get the bolt out with the head on, it will be even more difficult to remove the remaining pieces. In the case of a wheel lug nut, I’m less concerned with breaking the wheel stud. Wheel studs are replaceable and besides a lug nut will have to come off to remove the wheel.

Now that you know the downsides let’s talk about the kind of pipe we can use. On a standard box end wrench the open inside is too wide to slide into a standard plumbing pipe. However, you could flatten out the end of a short length of chain link fence post on one side. This fits nicely over many sizes of combination or box end wrenches. As for a pipe that slides over a 1/2 drive breaker bar, old cast-iron plumbing pipe works fantastic. As for the length it’s not recommended to go over 12 to 16 inches of pipe. Too much leverage can put you into a situation where you are more likely to break the bolt then remove it.

Air-powered Half inch Drive Impact Thunder Gun

Thunder Gun 1/2 inch impact gun
Thunder Gun 1/2 inch Impact gun

I have saved the air-powered half inch drive impact gun for last, because not everybody has a compressor in their home garage. I should note that you can get a compressor for a reasonable price these days. To further explain I would recommend a 92 – 120 psi unit with a 20 gallon reserve tank to operate a half inch drive impact gun. You can get these electric compressors for under $300 at your local home improvement store.

The rest of this section is just a biased view from somebody who owns an Ingersoll-Rand Thunder Gun. I’ve used Ingersoll-Rand air tools for about 30 years and they performed well. Despite the overseas construction they still seem to hold up under normal conditions. The Thunder Gun I bought a few years ago is a plastic and metal hybrid. This makes it light weight while still retaining all the power that I need.

How much power? How about 625 foot-pounds of maximum reverse torque. With that much power there’s not many bolts or lug nuts that won’t come off with a thunder gun. The nice part about an air operated impact gun is that it uses quick and short blows that can break loose rusted threaded retainers. With a total weight of around 6 pounds and a price in the $200 range it’s one of my favorite tools in my collection. I actually get excited when it’s time to use it.

Using Impact Rated Sockets

This last section talks about the sockets we’re going to put on the bolt that won’t come loose. I have broken too many sockets not talk about choosing the right one for the job. Although many of the tool makers will replace the broken one at no charge it’s the threat of injury that you really need to look out for. A thin-walled chrome socket can turn into shrapnel when you put it on the end of the thunder gun or half inch drive breaker bar.

They make impact sockets specifically for the task of removing stubborn threaded fasteners and lug nuts. The only reason you can’t use these all the time is because they are so thick they might not fit into every situation where a socket is used. With that said, they will work on lug nuts and the larger bolts you fight with in average automotive repairs.