Any automotive DIYer knows that sometimes it’s the seemingly smallest jobs that waste the most time. They also know the dangers of letting your frustration get the better of you — it’s these jobs that can ultimately create major headaches if not handled properly. For example, removing rusted nuts and bolts can quickly go from minor annoyance to major disaster. Many folks find this out the hard way when they go to change their license plates. After years of being untouched and exposed to the elements, the nuts and bolts holding them on can become completely rusted and unmovable.
However, with a little patience and ingenuity, it can be done.
Getting the Rust Off
Different cars have different bolt types and varying backing plates or nuts. But no matter what you’re working with, always start with a heavy dousing of penetrating catalyst oil on the front and back, if you can. This oil is made to cut through rust as well as lubricate for easier removal. Spray it as close to the rusted bolt as possible, and give it at least 15 minutes to sit.
The tool you use to remove the bolt will depend on the kind you are dealing with. Most license plates use hex head bolts, but some are slotted cap screws, Phillips head or even Allen keys. The right tool is the one that makes the most surface contact with the head. In the case of a hex head, go for a socket (and make sure it fits snugly, or you’ll strip it). If the head is round and not spinning freely, use a file to make two parallel straight sides and get a pair of locking pliers on there.
Deliver a Shock
Before going for the removal, but after you’ve already sprayed a bit of oil, give the bolt a “shock.” If you’re using a socket, one great trick is to actually set the ratchet so that it’s tightening, put it on the bolt and deliver one or two blows with a hammer to the end of the ratchet. Don’t go crazy here, you’re not actually trying to tighten it, just break the rust up and move oil around.
If you’re working with a slotted head, place the screwdriver in the slot, pointed in a direction that will loosen the bolt, and again, give it a couple of hits with a hammer. In any case, be careful with your aim. Spray down once again with the penetrating oil and wait another 15 minutes.
Make sure the ratchet is in the loosening position and give it a good, solid turn to the left. This effort is especially important if you’re using vice grips — if you go slowly or gradually, you run a higher risk of stripping the head, so you might even want to use a hammer with these.
Unfortunately, sometimes even the best of efforts are no match for rust. If you’re still not making any progress, or worse have made too much progress in that you’ve snapped the head, you have little choice but to drill and tap out the bolts. Invest in a titanium drill bit for this.
For the Future
Don’t want to go through this again? Replace the original license plate bolts with stainless steel ones and make sure to apply anti-seize on the threads before installing them. Your future self will thank you.
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Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe
Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.