One of the most frustrating things about having a flat tire is discovering your spare tire is also not in good shape. But even if your spare is in usable, there is another problem you may encounter: lug nuts or a wheel that simply won’t loosen. And, if you can’t loosen either, then you won’t be able to change the tire. The following lug nut removal tips and tricks will help you get the job done and send you quickly on your way.
Lug nuts are what hold a wheel to threaded studs and connect to the axle. There are also lug bolts which are popular with German cars, but for now we’ll focus on lug nuts since they are the most common. Securely tightened lug nuts are the best insurance for preventing a wheel from loosening, which can have disastrous consequences if it occurs. But there can be too much of a good thing. Lug nuts are meant to be tightened to a specific torque rating (specified in the owner’s manual). Simply cranking down on a lug nut with an impact gun until it is tight is not the answer. Lug nuts must be tightened in sequence using a torque wrench.
Passenger vehicles usually come with one of three lug seat types: conical/tapered, ball/radius or flat. If you make changes to your wheels after acquiring your vehicle, such as choosing aftermarket alloy wheels, new hardware may be required. Make sure that the lug nuts not only match the threads of the wheel studs, but also the size and shape of the wheel lug holes. Usually aftermarket wheels will specify the exact lug nut type required.
If you have aftermarket wheels it’s important to keep an extra set of lug nuts in your trunk, or in some other storage compartment, in the event you use a factory-supplied wheel and tire. Usually the spare tire can only be fitted with the original equipment lug hardware so having an original set on hand is important.
Lug Nut Removal Tips and Tricks
To begin, carefully follow your car’s wheel removal instructions, typically found in the owner’s manual or on a sticker located in the vicinity of the spare tire. There are a few general steps to take. Make sure the wrench is firmly seated on the lug nut to prevent rounding off the corners. Before lifting the vehicle off the ground, try loosed the lug nuts one turn using the weight of the vehicle to prevent the wheel from turning. If you have already lifted the vehicle off the ground, have a helper step on the brake pedal to hold the wheel still. Depending on your preference you may want to use your foot to push down on the lug wrench for extra power, or you can lift upwards using your legs for added strength. Regardless of which way you choose to go be prepared for the lug nut to loosen suddenly, so watch your balance.
Snow, salt and rust can take a toll on your car, especially on the lug nuts, causing them to stick. If the lug nuts are still stuck even after repeating the prescribed removal pattern, then you’ll need to use a wire brush to remove all visible rust off the threads. That step alone is usually enough to loosen things up and allow you to continue with your lug nut removal. If the lug nut is really stuck you may have to resort to using a long breaker bar to increase your mechanical leverage. Just be aware that using extreme measures like a breaker bar may snap the wheel stud, which is an entirely different problem.
If you have access to an impact gun (either pneumatic or electric) then by all means use it for lug nut removal. Sometimes stubborn lug nuts can be loosened by actually switching the impact gun direction to tighten and letting the anvil hammer for a few seconds, then switching back to reverse direction. This essentially “rocks” the lug nut back and forth helping it break free of any corrosion holding it in place. Once the lug nut is free just take it all the way off with the impact gun but don’t grab it with your hands, as the lug nut may be hot from being spun off the wheel stud.
What If the Wheel is Stuck?
Another problem you may encounter after removing the lug nuts is a wheel stuck in place. Over time, a wheel and the hub it fits around can become fused, making it more difficult to remove the wheel. Sometimes a swift kick can get the wheel free from the hub (while the wheel is off the ground of course). But if a few good kicks don’t get things moving, it is time to get creative.
In this situation, it’s recommended that you loosen the lug nuts just a little, or about one-quarter of a turn (do NOT remove the lug nut). Next, get behind the wheel of the car and drive it for 10 feet before stopping suddenly. Then put the transmission in reverse and slam on the brakes once you have traveled 10 feet. Don’t go any further.
The back and forth motions along with suddenly stopping your car each time should have the intended effect of loosening your wheel. Of course, you need to follow each of the other steps related to changing a tire before you complete your work.
Get Ahead of the Problem
You can also get proactive and prevent future problems by checking for corrosion in two places around the wheel: on the outside of the hub protrusion as well as the inside of the hole in the wheel. Usually you can tell exactly where the wheel contacts the hub by the location of the corrosion that has formed.
Remove rust by applying sandpaper to the affected area, then remove the wheel. Next, generously cover both surfaces in wheel bearing grease before returning the wheel to its proper place. Do this twice per year and you should avoid a repeat of the problem. Do NOT apply anything (including anti-seize, grease, or oil) to the lug nuts or wheel studs themselves. Simple clean them with a wire brush and tighten them as specified in the owner’s manual.
For more information on lug nut removal, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.