Your tires could go flat anywhere, literally anywhere. Now you better pray that if that had to happen, it would happen within the areas where you can get to a mechanic shop as quickly as possible.
But on a bad day, it’ll happen on an empty highway through the desert. You’ve got a spare tire, but moments before you notice you don’t have a torque wrench on you, because most people don’t.
Either because they don’t own one or they simply don’t carry it around. Can you save the day with some old-fashioned tire iron, or something similar?
Seems like you can!
Do You Need a Torque Wrench for a Lug Nut?
Well, here’s the thing—it’s not an ideal world and we don’t always listen to the word of manufacturers, do we?
We’d probably be better off listening to those, but not every time it seems to be possible because often the circumstances are not in our favor, so we have no way out but to improvise.
Imagine a situation where your tires have gone flat in the middle of a highway and there’s no help around. You open the toolbox and there’s a tire iron but no torque wrench—what do you do?
You can definitely go about the process without one, and that’s okay. Situations like this could arise, maybe not this extreme, and you could actually go about it without a torque wrench.
So the bottom line is that you don’t ‘absolutely’ need a torque wrench for a lug nut every time, but you’d always be better off using one and tightening the nuts to the recommended torque to avoid any potential hazards that include the fasteners breaking and flying off the wheel in an extreme case—yeah, doesn’t sound pleasant at all.
How to Tighten Lug Nuts Without a Torque Wrench?
Don’t sweat it—if you don’t have access to a torque wrench, you can get the job done without one. There are 2 tools that we can use for this purpose:
- Tire iron, preferably a crossbar
- Breaker bar
Using a Tire Iron to Tighten Lug Nuts
You can get the job done with any sturdy tire iron, not necessarily a crossbar type one, but you’ll be better off using one if your hand muscles aren’t that strong. In a moment, you’ll find out why.
First, Remove the Nuts
No surprise, the job starts with removing the nuts. The nuts are likely to be very tight, so let’s proceed by assuming that.
Firstly, choose the right socket size. This shouldn’t be hard. You can tell which one will fit just by looking at the socket. Fit the socket over the nut.
Grab the iron with both of your hands to turn it counterclockwise. Do you remember I told you a cross-style tire iron would come in handy if you’re particularly not that muscular?
As we assumed, the lug nut will be very tight—and if that’s the case, you’re not likely to be able to loosen the nut just by your hands, no matter how hard you try. Yeah, that’s the experience of a skinny guy talking.
So what you need to do is to use your body weight to do the job. Yeah, that’s right, stand on the iron. And if you’re so skinny that even that doesn’t seem to be enough, try bouncing a little on the bar to exert more force.
Be careful with this step and remember to hold onto something, because otherwise you could fall and you don’t have anything more on the plate. One more thing I’d like to add here is leverage.
You need to take the advantage of leverage. If your weight just doesn’t seem to be enough, make sure you’re using the highest leverage that you can. That means, the further you stand on or put your hands on the tire iron, the more leverage you’ll get.
So try to push the force as far as you can while ensuring your safety. And this time the nuts will come loose; repeat the process on all of the nuts. Take them out of their chambers and jack the car up.
Now, Put on the New Tire
Carefully put the new tire on the car’s wheel. Make sure you align things correctly. After you put on the new tire, use your hands to tighten the lug nuts as much as you can.
Now lower the car to sit on the ground. Take your iron and tighten each of the nuts to a decent extent. The best practice is to tighten all of them to that extent and then start tightening each to the maximum limit. You shouldn’t be tightening one all the way up where another is sitting there loose.
Following the procedure, hand-tighten all the lug nuts. Now there’s something to talk about here. If you’re a skinny guy like me and had to use your body weight to loosen the nuts in the first place, you can go all-in and tighten the nuts as hard as you can—you won’t end up overtightening them.
But if you’re one of those muscly strong dudes that easily loosens the nuts, you need to be careful about how hard you go. If you’re really strong, I’ll say give it your 80%. And if you’re sanely strong, give it your 90%. The bottom line is, when you feel it’s right, you should stop.
Now us skinny guys have to again do some jumping on the iron to tighten the lug nuts properly. Follow the method you did earlier, just clockwise this time and keep the concept of leverage in mind, and also ensure your safety.
Tighten all the nuts properly and you should be good to go. However, there’s one more thing I’d like to suggest in a moment.
Tightening Lug Nuts with a Breaker Bar
The second alternative to a torque wrench should be a breaker bar. In some cases, they could be even more convenient than a tire iron because they can help you produce enough torque to loosen the most stubborn nuts.
A “breaker bar” is mostly used to break loose stubborn fasteners, and it does not ratchet. The longer the handle is, the more leverage it produces to break loose frozen nuts and bolts.
Another advantage of a breaker bar over a tire iron is that the head of it is capable of rotating up to 240 degrees (a few of them are fixed though and don’t rotate), so you can use this at the angle you find most convenient to get the highest leverage.
Here’s how to get the job done with a breaker bar:
Loosening Nuts and Removing the Tire
The process is pretty similar to what we have done before. Put the breaker bar over the nuts and rotate counterclockwise to loosen them.
With the added leverage of a breaker bar, a good portion of the people who would fail to hand-loosen the nuts with the tire iron should be able to do it this time. If you still can’t, go hit the gym and have a nutritious diet, yo! For the time being, you already know what to do to loosen them up.
After removing all the nuts, jack up the car.
Putting on the New Tire and Tightening the Nuts Back On
Again, put the new tire in the slot carefully while aligning everything perfectly. Put on all the lug nuts, hand tighten them, and let the car sit on the ground.
You’ve learned the best practice to maintain the sequence in tightening all the nuts, so comply with that. Go easy on all of them in the first round and then go hard on them one by one.
Skinny dudes might still need to use body weight to tighten them fully, while jacked-up dudes will do it with less effort this time because of the added leverage of a breaker bar.
However, one thing worth mentioning here is that some of the bars come with adjustable handles. For strong blokes, you can reduce the length of the handle by contracting it so that you can twist freely without having to be too concerned about overtightening the nuts.
If I Had to Mess Up, Should I Over or Under-Tighten?
Now let’s face it, the 2 methods discussed above work based on assumptions. It is not really torqueing the nuts down to the recommended figures, but rather assuming that we get close to them. The reality is that most people will not be able to feel when it’s right.
That brings us to this question: Should I look to over or under-tighten it if I had to mess up?
My 2 cents on it is that you should rather overtighten it than under. The reason for this is that most people cannot overtighten a lug nut to the point where it will cause serious hazards, at least not quickly. So chances are, if you look to overtighten it, being an averagely strong guy, you might end up getting pretty close to the desired torque or just going over it.
And lug nuts are sturdy fasteners. So the effect of the extra torque should not be that hazardous right away.
But under-tightening feels riskier. If you keep it too loose and try to under tighten it, that could be more hazardous. This feeling itself is pretty scary—what if a wheel just flies off while you’re driving? Probably that’s not going to happen, but the thought itself is enough to give nightmares.
Get It Checked as Soon as You Can
All that said, you can simply be more assured by checking it when you’re back at convenience. That certainly is worth it because the lug nuts on modern alloy-rimmed vehicles are more sensitive than you think, and there’s no true ‘hack’ to torque those properly without a torque wrench.
Sure, following the methods above, you could tackle emergencies, but you shouldn’t keep your car running that way. As soon as you can, get them checked by a mechanic and if possible, learn how far off it exactly was so that you get an idea of what you did on that rainy day and that might help you to get closer on another occasion.
Wrapping it up
To sum things up, yes, you could tighten lug nuts and change the tire without a torque wrench on a rainy day and you’ve just learned how to do so. But you should get it checked as soon as you’re out of trouble—doing a couple of hundred miles on that isn’t a problem, but continuing to carry on like that could lead to some.
For final recommendation, I’d like to suggest you get a decent quality digital torque wrench to avoid all this hassle and be confident on your wheels and drive confidently. You could get a decent quality click-style torque wrench for under $100 that’s capable of handling almost all the torqueing jobs your car may require. You don’t always have to buy a fancy snap-on wrench for four or five hundred dollars.
As a car owner, it’s definitely a worthwhile little investment.