How to remove stubborn wheels from rusted rotors and drums

Now that Spring is officially here it’s time to take off the Winter beater steelies wrapped with snow tires and put the Summer alloys and tarmac tires back on the car. Unfortunately, after sitting all Winter in the snow, ice, salt and slush, quite a thick layer of rust can form on the rotors and permanently bond the steelies in place. Removing the wheels can range from annoying to outright impossible…fortunately, there are a few simple methods that can be employed to easily remove stubborn wheels.

Zero bleeding knuckles:

Jack up the car.

Be sure to use a hydraulic jack to jack up the car from your preferred jackpoint. Also have jackstands available to place under the car while trying to shake things loose (not required but a safety precaution for weak jacks). A sledgehammer, otherwise known as the Persuader or the Prodrive Tool, will be required to attempt to bang the wheels free.

When it comes time to put the new wheels back on the car be sure to use a wire brush to scrape off as much rust and dirt as possible from the rotors and the backs of the wheels. Spraying WD40 or PB Blaster on the back of the wheel before installing will also prevent rust buildup and make for easier removal come Spring.

Also, when torquing the wheels to desired spec (usually 60 to 70 pounds), take into consideration that the lubricant used in the first suggestion below will lubricate the studs. Lubricated studs require less friction to tighten so be careful not to overtorque the lugnuts. 60 pounds on a lubricated stud is like 75 pounds on a rusty stud.

One bleeding knuckle:

If the wheels won’t budge, remove the lugnuts and spray a little bit of lubricant through the stud holes and let it soak in behind the wheel. Make sure that no fluid touches the rotors! After waiting a few minutes for the lubricant to work its magic place jackstands under the car, grab hold of the wheel and shake like mad. If you’re lucky, the wheel will pop right off.

Two bleeding knuckles:

If the wheel is still stuck, keep the jackstands in place and lightly tap the wheel just outside the stud holes with a Persuader taking care not to bend or dent anything. Rusty dust should fall out of the wheel and form a little pile on the ground. If you’re lucky, the wheel will pop right off.

An alternate two bleeding knuckles method is to violently kick or whack the tire with the Persuader taking care not to hit any bodywork or innocent bystanders.

Three bleeding knuckles:

Put the lugnuts back on the studs and tighten them with your fingers. Once the lugnuts are finger tight, back them off by half a turn to a turn until there is a very small gap between the wheel and the lugnut (very important…failure to put the lugnuts back on could bend your studs).

Remove the jackstands, stand clear of the car and drop the hydraulic jack by twisting the release valve as quickly as possible. This will violently drop the car to the ground and the force should disintegrate the rust on impact. Jack the car back up, remove the lugnuts and the wheel should pop right off.

Four bleeding knuckles:

Time to bring out the big guns. This could damage your studs so this is where you need to make the decision whether to continue on your own or bring the car to your local shop. Go back to three bleeding knuckles by jacking the car back up, finger tightening the lugnuts and backing them off just a bit.

Violently drop the car again with the hydraulic jack, remove the jack from underneath the car and get into the car. Start up the car, slowly roll forward about five feet and then slam on the brakes as hard as you can. If a gut wrenching clang emanates from your wheels then they have broken free.

Get out, jack up the car, back off the lugnuts and the wheel should pop right off. Repeat four bleeding knuckles for as long as you dare to risk damaging your studs. It took six or seven tries to get the wheels off the rally car that had been put up on jackstands the day after an ice race…the worst possible combination of accumulated salt and slush being transferred to a warm garage to start the rust process.

Five bleeding knuckles:

If the wheels still won’t come off, you’re out of luck without professional assistance. Put all the steelies back on the car, torque appropriately and take the car to a shop to have them pop the wheels. At least then, if something gets damaged in the process, you’ll have someone other than yourself to yell at.

2 thoughts on “How to remove stubborn wheels from rusted rotors and drums”

  1. Thanks a bunch for the tips. Had a Toyota with the front wheel rusted on the hub. Hand tightened the lugs, backed them off a half turn, rolled forward 5 feet and hit the breaks. Heard the wheel break loose, removed the lugs and the wheel came right off. Big money saver over a weekend call to a tow truck. Thank you

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