How to Tighten Lug Nuts Without a Torque Wrench

Maybe this scenario will sound familiar to you. Hopefully not, but try to imagine this:

You borrow a friend’s car (or they have borrowed yours). The car gets a flat tire. No biggie, right? You can simply change the tire yourself. You open the trunk and…the torque wrench is gone. What the heck?! Now, what do you do?

There’s no need to panic unless there is nothing in the trunk to use (no lug wrench, no breaker bar, no tools whatsoever). If you find yourself in this predicament, call a tow service or a friend who has a tool that will work. 

You might be worried that you will overtighten the nuts and strip the stud, or you might wonder if the lug nuts are on tight enough. Fair enough, no one wants the expense of replacing lug studs or worse yet, to look in the mirror and see the tire sailing off on its own. 

So, what CAN you do if you find yourself in this situation? It’s not as awful as you might think. 

Use What You Have on Hand

If a look in the trunk reveals only one of the old-fashioned crossbar style lug wrenches, it will have to do. 

Hopefully, the lug nuts are not already on so tight that you cannot remove them. You can leave the wheel on the ground and set the parking brake to prevent the car from moving. 

Put the correct size socket on the lug nut and, using both hands, turn it counterclockwise. If the lug nut does not move, you can try standing (yes, you read that right: stand on it!) on the left side of the wrench to help loosen the lug nut. You can try stomping on it, but don’t miss or you will get a nasty scrape up the side of your leg (yes, this is experience talking). 

For those who don’t weigh much, standing on the left side of the crossbar, and bouncing up and down if necessary, is an old practice but it works most of the time. 

Once the lug nuts are off the wheel, you can jack up the car and replace the tire. Put the lug nuts back on the wheel but only make them finger tight. Lower the car and get that old crossbar ready to use again. 

With the tire back on the ground, use both hands to tighten the lug nuts in the proper order. Don’t tighten each one as hard as you can, try to adjust each nut a little bit at a time until they are as tight as possible using your two hands and pulling on the crossbar as hard as possible. 

The Tricky Part

This is where you need to use some good judgment. If you are, let’s say, a 60-year old woman who has difficulty opening a mayo jar, you will need to do more than just tighten these lug nuts by hand. 

If you are a 30-year old weightlifter, you are probably good to go. 

For those who know (and be honest with yourself here) that you simply don’t have the arm strength to tighten the lug nuts properly, get ready to do the stand-up routine once more. 

You don’t want to strip the lug nuts, but you do want them tight. 

Put that crossbar back on the lug nut, and this time, stand on the right side of the lug nut so it turns clockwise. In most cases, standing on this tool and making the lug nut turn once should be enough. 

However, if the lug nut feels loose, or it turned very easily when you stepped on the crossbar, you will want to repeat this routine of stepping on the right side of the crossbar until the nut is very difficult to turn. 

Of course, as soon as possible, take your torque wrench to the lug nuts to ensure that they have been properly tightened. 

Using an Extendable Breaker Bar

Some older model cars used a telescoping or extendable breaker bar. This isn’t as accurate as a torque wrench, but it usually gets the job done. 

A good example of extendable breaker bars is like the Olsa Extendable Breaker Bar

To use the extendable breaker bar properly, it should be fully extended to its full length when removing the lug nuts. This will offer you greater force when removing the lug nuts.

When you are ready to replace them, contract the breaker bar to its shortest length. You will still tighten the nuts as hard as you can, but the shorter length of the breaker bar will prevent you from being able to overtighten the nuts and strip the threads on the studs. 

AS with the crossbar, you will want to double-check the torque of the lug nuts as soon as possible to ensure that they are not too tight or too loose. 

The Mathematical Method

Assuming you can remember this formula, you can use a straight breaker bar to tighten the lug nuts. 

You can stand on the breaker bar using the correct distance from the lug nut so your weight times the distance will equal the correct torque. 

For example, if the lug nuts should be tightened to 150 foot-pounds and you weigh 200 pounds, you would stand 9 inches along the breaker bar. Nine inches is ¾ of one foot. The formula looks like this: .075 X 200 = 150-foot pounds. 

For most people, you either won’t remember the formula, or you won’t know what you weigh at the moment. For those who are mathematically inclined, however, this is another good choice. 

Don’t Sweat It

Of course, you can always just call someone and wait for help if you don’t trust yourself to tighten the lug nuts enough, but the truth is that people have been changing tires without a torque wrench ever since cars were invented. 

Yes, there have been accidents because of loose lug nuts, but these are few and far between. We know of many people who drove for 10 or 15 miles after leaving a repair shop, only to discover that the strange shimmy in their steering wheel was that the lug nuts on one or more tires were only hand tight. 

If a person could drive that far before noticing lug nuts that were THAT loose, surely putting lug nuts on as tightly as you can (for those of us who are 98-pound weaklings) will work until you can get the car checked out properly. While you should be okay to drive a short distance be sure to understand the risk to your car and yourself by doing this. 


You May Also Like