How to Remove Rusted Screws From License Plates

So you bought a new car, and you want to adorn it with your custom license plate, but the screws attaching the plate to your old car are rusty. Or you’re a hobbyist starting to restore old cars and removing rusted screws from license plates are about to be part of your daily routine. How do you detach them?

To remove rusted screws from license plates, break the bond made by the rust, apply a rust remover to dissolve the remaining corrosive material, and use a screwdriver to turn and twist off the screws.

This is the basic principle for corroded screw removal—an amalgamation of all the techniques in this article. Continue reading to find out which method matches your circumstance and the state of your screws. Use a more aggressive method if a straightforward one doesn’t work.

Safety First

Before beginning any screw removing endeavor, protect your eyes and hands first. Wear safety goggles for your eyes and heavy leather gloves for your hands.

Zap the Corrosion With a Rust Remover

I advise that the solution to blasting rust is to regard it as another type of glue.

If you break the rust’s stronghold before applying the lubricant, it will be easier to remove corroded screws. Professionals use these methods in varying degrees, gentlest ones first, to avoid breaking or damaging the screw heads. If the first technique doesn’t work, employ the next.

You will need:

  • Spray-type rust remover*
  • Ball-peen hammer
  • Screwdriver with hex bolster
  • Closed-end wrench—to fit the screwdriver bolster
  • Kitchen/bath cleanser (powder form)
  • Impact screwdriver—a tool that removes stuck or rusted screws without stripping the screw head

Get these optional supplies if methods using the above materials don’t work:

  • Nail polish remover/acetone
  • Transmission fluid
  • Sewing machine oil

Stun and grease up those rusty screws with these steps:

  1. Use a ball-peen hammer to strike the head of the screw multiple times. This will destroy the bond made by the rust and create pathways for the lubricant (aka rust penetrant) to trickle in, soften the rust, and dissolve it.
  1. Spread rust remover generously around the screw head. Let the lubricant seep in for a few minutes. Hammer the screw head several more times. Give the rust penetrant 15 more minutes to work.

*Rust removers are available at home center outlets or online stores, such as Amazon. I recommend WD-40 Specialist Rust Release, B’laster, and Liquid Wrench.

  1. If you can’t get a store-bought rust penetrant, make your own by mixing 50% nail polish remover or acetone with 50% sewing machine oil or transmission fluid. In the absence of these materials, use regular WD-40, which almost every vehicle owner has in the garage. The original formula, however, doesn’t work as fast as a dedicated rust catalyst.
  1. Strike the screw head again several times. Tap the metallic surface around the screw to allow the penetrant to get deeper into the rusted parts. Attempt to remove the screw with a screwdriver.

Apply an Automotive Valve Grinding Compound

If the screw won’t come off and the screwdriver is in danger of stripping the screw head, take a break. The last thing you want to end up with is a stripped screw head because this is harder to remove, and you won’t be able to use it again.

Instead, apply a spot of automotive valve grinding compound, such as Permatex, to the screw head. This will allow the screwdriver tip to grip the screw head better.

If you can’t get the above compound, make your own gripping paste. Stir some droplets of water into a half teaspoon of powdered bathroom or kitchen cleanser. Apply the paste into the screw head. Simultaneously push and twist a screwdriver tip into the screw head. This should loosen the rusted screw.

Use a Screwdriver-Bolster-Wrench Combo

If the screw still doesn’t budge, get a screwdriver with a hex-shaped bolster. Slide a box-end wrench over this bolster for more leverage. Apply force to the screwdriver tip. Use the wrench to turn and twist the screwdriver. This motion should loosen the screw.

Use a Hammer-and-Impact Screwdriver Combo

If the screw is insistent on staying, use a ball-peen hammer and a hand impact screwdriver. This kind of screwdriver converts straight hammer blows into a twisting motion, which forces the driver’s tip deeper into the screw head.

This guards against stripping the screw head and improves the possibility of triumphant screw removal.

Choose an impact bit that fits the screw head. Set the impact screwdriver to do a counterclockwise rotation. With one hand holding the tool, hammer a blow to it. Keep doing this until the screw gets loose.

Use a Rotary Tool With a Cutting Disc

This is a more aggressive method for obstinate rusted screws or stripped ones.

You will need:

  • A large flat-head screwdriver
  • An oscillating tool with a cut-off wheel

Follow these steps:

  1. Use a rotary tool and a cutting wheel to carve a new groove deep into each screw head. Then use a flat-blade screwdriver to remove the screws. The slot should be wide enough but fit tightly for the largest flat-blade screwdriver at hand.
  1. Insert the screwdriver tip into the new notch. Simultaneously push and twist to remove the screws.

Heat the Screw

This method involves heating the screws to expand them, so you need to proceed carefully. However, this is meant to address the problem of stripped screws, which we tackled in another report. For details on this technique, see our article titled, “How to Remove a Rusted Screw with a Stripped Head.”

Conclusion

It’s good to know what to do with rusted screws, but to avoid having to deal with them repeatedly, we suggest:

  • Getting a head start by immediately replacing screws that are beginning to rust.
  • Using stainless steel or plastic screws on new license plates.
  • Applying an anti-seize compound like Loctite on the screw threads before installation.

We hope you found our recommendations useful. Here’s to future trouble-free license plates!

Image credit: Thisislove / Shutterstock.com

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