How To Loosen A Stuck Faucet Stem

How To Loosen A Stuck Faucet Stem

You probably don’t give much thought to your faucet until it isn’t working properly. But, if your faucet is leaking or something’s up with the water flow, suddenly you’re thinking about your faucet a lot. While many might assume they need to replace the entire faucet, you might just need a new faucet stem.

The faucet stem is inside the valve and turns to control the water flow coming from your faucet. If it gets corroded or stuck, you’ll need to loosen it or perhaps replace it. You can use WD-40, two separate wrenches to add torque, or decide to replace the whole valve assembly.

If you’re having faucet troubles due to a stuck faucet stem, the first step is to determine if the stem is actually stuck. It might be dirty or have damaged O-rings; you’ll also want to see if you can loosen it or if total replacement is necessary. The only way to do this is to take apart the faucet.

What Does A Faucet Stem Do?

The valve in your faucet features two primary parts, the valve seat and the faucet stem, housed inside the cartridge. The faucet stem, or cartridge, controls water flow and allows you to select the desired temperature.


The stem is inside the faucet’s handle (or handles in the case of a double-handle faucet). The top of the stem attaches to the handle, and the bottom of the stem attaches to the valve seat, which is fixed.

When you turn the handle, it moves the stem, which operates the valve, controlling the water flow. As the stem moves, it can start the water, stop it, and control the temperature.

For temperature, a single-handle faucet stem lets out cold or hot water depending on which way you turn the handle. For two-handle faucets, each handle has its own stem. You need to adjust the cold and hot taps separately to achieve the right mix for your desired temp.

Why Do You Need To Replace A Faucet Stem?

Now that you know a little bit more about how a faucet stem works, you can see that it’s a vital part of your faucet. Therefore, if it’s faulty or damaged, you would need to replace it. Otherwise, you might start noticing the following problems:

  • The faucet is dripping from the spout. This is likely because the stem isn’t fully closing the valve to shut off the water completely.
  • There is an issue with uneven temperatures. For example, the water isn’t as cold or as hot as it should be when the handles are a certain way.
  • You could also notice hot water coming out when you turn the cold tap and vice versa. Temperature issues can indicate a worn-out stem that isn’t responding as well to the handle position.

If you suspect you’re having issues with the faucet stem, you can check it for damage. In some cases, you might need to replace it, but it could just be stuck. This would mean that the faucet stem won’t move independently of the valve; instead, it all moves together as one.

Or you could have both a stuck and worn-out faucet stem. Either way, you need to loosen a stuck faucet stem before you can proceed with fixing your faucet woes.

What If The Faucet Stem Is Stuck?

First things first, it’s time to try and loosen the faucet stem. You need to get some WD-40, a piece of wood, and a couple of wrenches or vice grips.

1. Spray WD-40

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After removing the faucet handle (more on this below), spray the faucet cartridge and stem with a few squirts of WD-40. Give it some time to penetrate (about 15 minutes), and then give it another squirt or two. Use the wood to knock the nut around the stem from all sides.

You’re trying to loosen up the tight grip that’s keeping the nut immovable.

2. Add Extra Torque

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Once you’ve used penetrating oil on the stem and cartridge and hopefully loosened the bond a bit, time to add some leverage. If you’re only trying to turn the nut with one wrench, you likely won’t get enough torque.

So use one wrench or some vice grips to hold the bottom piece in position while you turn the nut with the other wrench. This, in combination with the WD-40, should give you the leverage you need to loosen the stuck stem.

Then you can try to reassemble the faucet and see if that solved the problem, or you might need to replace the faucet stem and cartridge altogether.

3. Replace The Valve Assembly

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If, no matter what you try, you can’t get the faucet stem to budge, it might be simpler to replace the entire assembly. Or, if you so desire, you can change out the entire faucet.

If you’re comfortable with your plumbing DIY skills, you can do the replacement yourself. Otherwise, call a plumber to handle the job. Changing out a faucet only takes a pro about an hour and should cost about $100 to $250, depending on the cost of your new faucet.

How To Replace A Faucet Stem

Here’s a step-by-step look at how to replace a faucet stem. Remember, if the stem is only stuck, use the above ideas to loosen the stuck faucet stem. Otherwise, prepare to replace the entire valve assembly.

Tools You Need For The Job

  • Allen wrench
  • Hex key
  • Fathead and Phillips screwdrivers

Note: You won’t necessarily need all of the above items; it depends on what kind of handle you’re dealing with. Single-handle faucets usually require an Allen wrench or hex key to remove the set screw keeping the handle in place.

However, double-handle faucets typically have regular screws hidden underneath plastic, decorative caps on top of the handle. You pop off the caps and simply remove the screw with the proper screwdriver.

  • Channel-locks/adjustable pliers
  • Penetrating oil (like WD-40)
  • New O-rings (if needed)
  • New Cartridge (if needed)

Step One: Shut off The Water

Before you do any plumbing repairs, shut off the water to the fixture. You can find the shut-off valves for your sink underneath it. Simply follow the hot and cold supply lines coming from your faucet to the water stops.

Turn the supply valves clockwise (to the right) to completely close them. If, for some reason, you can’t shut the water off below the sink, turn off your main water supply.

Step Two: Remove The Faucet Handle Or Handles

If your faucet has a single handle, move it back to reveal the set screw. This screw attaches the handle to the faucet stem. Back out the screw using the hex key or Allen wrench and lift off the handle.

Single handle faucets also will have a decorative cap below the handle that hides the inner workings of the faucet. You can remove this by simply unscrewing it by hand.

Don’t use pliers or a wrench, as you can scratch the finish. If you can’t loosen it by hand, place a rag between the wrench and fixture to protect it.

If you have a double-handle faucet, use a flathead screwdriver to pop off the caps gently. Then use the appropriate screwdriver to remove the screws holding the handles in place. Set the handles to the side in a safe place.

Step Three: Remove The Nut Securing The Stem

Once you’ve removed the handles and decorative cap, you’ll expose the stem and the nut that holds the stem in place. You can use the channel locks to loosen the nut.

Make sure to position the pliers on the shoulder, or top edge, of the nut, not the threads. Also, hold the base of the faucet in place with your other hand while you turn the pliers.

If the stem or nut is stuck, use some penetrating oil, and let it sit for about 15 minutes. Then, use the pliers to loosen the nut.

Finish unscrewing the nut counterclockwise by hand and lift it up to remove it. You’ll now be able to see the faucet cartridge. You can remove the entire cartridge and examine it for any issues at this time.

In some cases, you might discover that the O-rings on the cartridge or worn or damaged, and you just need to replace them. Or the cartridge and stem could be dirty.

You can use a wire brush, mild detergent, and warm water to scrub it. But, if the stem and cartridge are worn, corroded, or damaged, proceed with installing the new cartridge.

Step Four: Install The New Cartridge

If you don’t already have the correct replacement cartridge, bring the old one to the home improvement store. Select the proper replacement and place it in the faucet base. Make sure to line up the tiny feet on the cartridge with the proper holes in the faucet base.

Tip: Take a picture of the old cartridge when it is still in the faucet. You can use this as a reference if you’re unsure of the positioning for the new cartridge.

Screw the nut back in place with the channel locks, then replace the decorative cap if you had one. Remember to only hand-tighten the cap.

Lastly, replace the handle and secure it with the correct screws. If you have a double-handle faucet, replace the small caps that hide the screws in the handles.

Step Five: Turn On The Water And Test The Faucet

After you install the new stem, turn the water supply back on to the faucet. Then, test your faucet, looking for proper water flow and temperature. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to replace a faucet stem?

If you plan to do the repair yourself and have the right tools, you only need to pay for the cartridge. A new faucet stem costs between $10 and $35, depending on the faucet.

It’s worth noting since the faucet stem is a huge component of how your faucet performs, don’t opt for cheap products. Go with a high-quality cartridge.

What is a compression valve faucet?

A compression valve is the oldest type of faucet assembly, with a screw stem that has a rubber washer on the bottom. As the handle turns, it raises and lowers the stem, controlling the flow of water. These types of valves are often less costly than others but also tend to leak more.

What is the lifespan of a faucet?

A high-quality faucet can last for 15 to 20 years or more. Of course, it depends on a variety of factors, including frequency of use, water quality, and maintenance. Plus, the brand and installation of the faucet play a part in how long it will last.

You should consider replacing your faucet if it becomes damaged, gets corroded, or simple fixes won’t solve your problems. Also, if the cost of repairs ends up being 30% or more than the price of a new faucet, replace it.