I'm going to replace them with a quick release
April 1, 2011 4:27 AM   Subscribe

The axle nuts on my front bike wheel seem to be stuck solid. Is there some sneaky trick to getting them to loosen up?

I've tried adjustable wrenches, a proper spanner and one of those multi-head nut-unscrewing-things to no avail - the nuts just won't loosen. I don't have a bike or hardware store nearby, but I do have at least five different types of chain lubricants, generic oil, and citrus-based degreaser at my disposal. Is there a way to get these off?

The wheel's fine at the moment, but I'm hoping to enjoy the first long ride of spring tomorrow, and I'm not keen on being out in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire and no way to remove it.
posted by cmonkey to Health & Fitness (24 answers total)
You know how they say never use WD40 on a bike chain? This is what you should use it on. This is what it was meant to be used for.

WD40, the right sized wrench (preferably a ring head or socket) and elbow grease. Make sure you clean off the nut and the axle, then apply a bit of grease to the threads and re-install.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:37 AM on April 1, 2011

Could you clarify what type of wrenches you have available? 'Spanner' seems to mean different things to different people, and I have no idea what a 'multi-head nut-unscrewing-thing' is unless it's a ratchet and sockets.

When you say they won't loosen, do you mean that you don't have the strength to loosen them, or that the tool is rounding off the flats on the nut?

Without knowing exactly what's going on, some random suggestions (some of which require resources you don't seem to have):

*Penetrating lubricant / solvent, e.g. PB Blaster (from an auto parts store)
*Six-point socket using a ratchet or breaker bar
*A length of pipe or other extension for whatever wrench you use
*Make sure you're trying to turn them in the correct direction!
posted by jon1270 at 4:37 AM on April 1, 2011

Have you tried both sides? Longshot, but one side might be left-hand threads. Examine the bolt that sticks out past the nut.

Also, hammers. You might need to actually smack the axle (axially, not radially) to loosen things up.
posted by notsnot at 4:48 AM on April 1, 2011

Yeah, what you want is penetrant, not degreaser or lubricant. WD40 will do, but PB Blaster would be better. Saturate the area and then let it sit for a long time -- overnight if possible. Then go at it again. If the nut has already been rounded off, go for the locking pliers (Vice Grip™ or equivalent.) Otherwise a socket wrench with as long a handle as possible is probably best. I wouldn't bother with adjustable wrenches, they just make things worse.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:51 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Penetrating oil (penetrates even better than WD40, but that works too) and a propane torch. Let the oil do it's work for an hour or so if you can, then wipe everything down an apply flame to the nut and only the nut for five seconds or so. You want the nut to get hot and expand while the axle threading stays cool and does not expand. Then apply generous force with a proper socket wrench.
posted by caddis at 4:52 AM on April 1, 2011

Try tightening the but slightly and then trying to untighten. Sounds weird but sometimes there's some room to tighten and the movement loosens it a little.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:54 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Use a penetrant several times over the course of a couple of days, if you have the time. Let it work.

And don't use an adjustable wrench if you have any proper spanners available. An adjustable wrench will always have a tiny bit of play, making it easer to round off the bolt.
posted by Harald74 at 5:02 AM on April 1, 2011

Response by poster: Could you clarify what type of wrenches you have available?

multi-head nut-unscrewing-thing (I don't know the word for it in English, hence the strange description)
Adjustable wrench
Alien tool knock-off with a ring spanner

When you say they won't loosen, do you mean that you don't have the strength to loosen them, or that the tool is rounding off the flats on the nut?

They just won't budge, even with a tool that fits the nut head properly.

I'll go see if I can find something like WD-40 to apply to it.
posted by cmonkey at 5:06 AM on April 1, 2011

A dedicated penetrating oil will do a better job than WD40. Not sure if it's available in Germany, but Plusgas is the brand of choice in the UK.
posted by anagrama at 5:31 AM on April 1, 2011

Yeah, what everyone else says. Penetrating oil. That, plus a cheat (basically a way to extend the length of your wrench). If you can extend the length of that fulcrum 8", you'd be surprised how much stronger you seem.
posted by Gilbert at 5:35 AM on April 1, 2011

Yeah, if you can, go to an auto parts store for the appropriate penetrating lubricant.

That aside, if you're not rounding off the nuts then you might just need to find a way to apply more force.

In American English your "spanner" is a combination wrench. The open end is an open-end wrench, and the circular end (which I think you're calling a 'ring spanner') is a box wrench. The combination wrench in your first pic has a 12-point box wrench on one end.

The 'multi-head unscrewing thing' is, well, yeah - a weird multipurpose tool. Probably also fair to call it a hunk of junk, although there's a chance it might work well because its openings are all 6-point rather than 12-point, so they're less likely to round off the nuts.

The adjustable wrench could also be called a "Crescent wrench," after a company that makes them in the U.S.
posted by jon1270 at 5:35 AM on April 1, 2011

Whenever I had this problem in the past I used to put the ring end of the spanner onto the nut, then tap the other end of the spanner with a wooden mallet (or a block of wood and a hammer). Sometimes that's enough to unbind the nut enough to get it turning. You have to be careful, though; it's quite possible to have something bounce up and hit you in the head if you go at it too enthusiastically.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:39 AM on April 1, 2011

I keep a large (12") adjustable wrench for cases like this as the long handle gives you plenty of torque (plus it opens wide enough to fit freewheel removers and bottom bracket tools). Nothing fancy, just a generic model from the local hardware store, pretty sure I paid around $12-$15 for it. The equivalent "cheat" as jon1270 and others have noted, is effectively lengthening the handle of your existing tools with a length of pipe. That, coupled with some WD40 or penetrating oil, should loosen just about any nut.
posted by jalexei at 5:45 AM on April 1, 2011

If we're talking about buying something so that you don't have this problem again, then the correct tool is a breaker (cheater) bar. They are 18 or 20 inches long and cost less than $15. You'll need a socket, but if you have a good hardware store you can buy individual sockets without having to buy a set. The breaker bar gives you enough torque to loosen pretty much anything without having to get an extra length of pipe (and risk something slipping), and a proper six-sided socket won't round off nuts like an adjustable wrench.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:59 AM on April 1, 2011

If a larger spanner doesn't work, then penetrating oil and heat is your best bet. If you don't have a propane torch to heat the nut fast enough (ie before the axle gets hot) then you can heat the whole thing (even with an electric heat gun) and get it really hot and let it cool. The differential expansion often loosens things off.
posted by Brockles at 5:59 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just FYI, the pictures in your list are: a combination wrench (one end is "box-end wrench", one is "open-end wrench"), a dogbone wrench, a crescent, or adjustable wrench, and multi-tool with box-end wrench. In American English.
posted by notsnot at 6:02 AM on April 1, 2011

really hard nuts benefit from strategic thinking.

First step is clean the area and liberally apply penetrating oil (wd40 also works ... or kerosene if you got it) and tap the nut (hardish) with a hammer to get better penetration and loosen the bond ... soak for 24 hours and try again, but don't round off the nut

Still not working ... you need a 6 point socket on a breaker bar with a cheater pipe (at this point adjustable wrenches or box wrenches will probably round off the nut ... which is BAD ... 12 point sockets are still ok ... and a cheater pipe is a pipe which fits over your breaker bar to apply leverage).

Still not working

clean again and apply heat to the nut ... a small propane torch is a good idea ... and try the socket and breaker bar again.

Still not working

use a longer breaker bar ... at some point either the nut will loosen or the entire article will deform (but at that point the part is toast anyways)
posted by jannw at 6:03 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

P.S. I had one old bike with one side of its axle reverse threaded ... it really through me for six ... make sure you are turning the right way!
posted by jannw at 6:11 AM on April 1, 2011

NB. When applying heat, it doesn't matter if you heat the axle up too so long as the nut gets good and hot: the magic of geometry means that heating the lot will loosen the nut even if they whole thing (nut + axle together) has been raised to the same temperature.

(Given that most metals conduct heat very well it's impossible to heat the but without heating the axle anyway.)
posted by pharm at 8:44 AM on April 1, 2011

(Given that most metals conduct heat very well it's impossible to heat the but without heating the axle anyway.)

Eventually, yes. The trick in heating the nut faster is to use a high energy heat source (like a Butane torch or Axy-Acetylene torch) because if you heat it fast enough you can heat one without the other for a short period until the heat conducts through. This is why short and fast heating is more effective at breaking rust bonds and thread binding than purely raising the temperature of everything.

So yes, it doesn't matter after a few minutes, but it does make a difference in the very short term.
posted by Brockles at 8:56 AM on April 1, 2011

A quick release skewer serves the functions of both axle and nuts. Since you will refit the wheel for a quick-release, go ahead and cut the nuts off with a hacksaw.

It'll go more easily with either some clamps or a partner to hold the fork still, but then you can just cut the axle between the nut and the dropout. Note that the saw blade itself has a certain width (the kerf) and you'll want to put the kerf on the nut side, not on the dropout side. Don't take a slice off your dropouts!
posted by d. z. wang at 9:50 AM on April 1, 2011

Also - when you're really desperate to get it off / break it off, put a length of pipe over your spanner to effectively lengthen the handle. You'll be able to get way more torque on the bolt.

Warning though - you may get so much that you'll twist something right off / damage the internal workings of the wheel - or break the tool...
posted by csmason at 10:37 AM on April 1, 2011

I am going to recommend a simple approach that will absolutely free up those nuts and make sure they never freeze up again.

1. Go to an auto parts store and ask for a tube of "anti-seize compound."
2. With a wrench of the proper size, ride to an auto mechanic - a place where they change tires.
3. Ask the mechanic to use his impact wrench to loosen those nuts. Mention to him that there may be left-hand threads, unless you know there aren't. It will take him NO TIME AT ALL to zip those nuts off.
4. Apply some of your anti-seize compound to the axle threads, put the nuts back on, and tighten them with your wrench.

The mechanic's impact wrench works because it's designed to take of auto lug nuts that are commonly over-torqued, then left in place for years of running in salt water and weather. I have snapped lug studs using the penetrating oil and breaker-bar method, but that practically never happens with an impact wrench.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:10 PM on April 1, 2011

In Australian English, an impact wrench is a "rattle gun". And with a decent compressor behind them, they are indeed pretty much irresistible.
posted by flabdablet at 2:24 AM on April 2, 2011

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