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Vehicles old and new go through a series of changes and periods of maintenance during their service life. One of the most frequent types of car maintenance and repair is installing the wheels on your vehicle such as when fixing a flat tire, and removing and reinstalling the wheels to perform other types of repair. 

What Are Lug Nuts?

Tightened lug nut on a car
is is a lug nut.

Before getting into tightening lug nuts without a torque wrench, it is important to understand what they are, and what they actually do.

It’s important to understand their uses, in order to prevent issues when you’re on the road.

Lug nuts are basically a type of fastener designed to keep your wheels and tires properly secured to your vehicle.

They can be rounded or tapered, and secure the wheel in place and center it properly on the axle. Lug nuts are set right above the stud of the wheel, where the seat (conical, radius and flat-seat) of the lug is in contact with the hub. 

They are mostly made from chrome plated steel owing to this material’s excellent corrosion resistance properties, but can also be made from titanium or anodized aluminum.

Lug nuts are not to be confused with lug bolts, owing mostly to the difference in threading between the two, yet both serve similar functions in fastening a wheel in place. 

What Is a Torque Wrench?

Torque wrench on a glove
This is a torque wrench. Just above the handle you can see the amount of torque applied, when tightening a lug nut.

To explain briefly, a torque wrench is a tool that is used to apply a certain level of torque to a bolt, nut or other type of fastener.

This tool is most often used for industrial maintenance, tire changing operations, etc., and is not the same as a basic wrench, given that torque wrenches via a needle, gauge, electronic window or most commonly a clicking noise indicates the amount of force being applied to its handle.

This key feature is extremely important in certain situations, especially when tightening bolts on cars, because guessing it’s “tight enough” can be detrimental to the vehicle’s safety.

Some of these issues include premature brake wear, brake rotor warping, less effective stopping, or in worse cases wheels getting loose and/or falling off.

Can I Tighten Lug Nuts Without a Torque Wrench?

Yes, there are several ways to tighten nuts without a torque wrench, most notably:

A lug wrench.

Lug wrench
A lug wrench can be used to tighten lug nuts, but shouldn’t be used as an alternative to a torque wrench.

A lug wrench, also referred to as a tire iron, is a type of socket wrench that is regarded as a must have and simplest tool to have in your arsenal.

Sometimes dubbed wheel brace in certain countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom, lug wrenches are most commonly available in an L-shape or an X-shape, and perform the same function as a torque wrench, i.e. loosening and tightening nuts and bolts.

However, it doesn’t tighten the lug nuts at the right amount of torque, like a torque wrench does.

You can use a lug wrench to tighten lug nuts temporarily, but they ideally should be tightened with a torque wrench, because as mentioned previously the lug wrench lacks the ability to measure the force used.

Installing a wheel with a lug wrench requires a bit of guesswork with regards to the right amount of tightness.

Not applying the right amount of tightening with a lug wrench could make the nuts very tight (or impossible) to remove or the excessive force may strip the threads.

Most cars and trucks come with a small lug wrench, which is neatly tucked away in your vehicle’s toolkit usually located in the trunk of your vehicle. 

How to Use a Lug Wrench (Also Known as Tire Iron)?

Using a tire iron to tighten or loosen lug nuts is quite easy, where you start by:

  1. Park in a safe area.
  2. Get the spare tire, jack and lug wrench out of the vehicle.
  3. Use the jack to elevate the vehicle.
  4. Remove the tire with the tire iron.
  5. Install the spare, lower the vehicle with the jack, and lastly tighten the nuts with the tire iron.

One of the most common question that crops up among users is:

Should I use a torque wrench after a tire iron to tighten nuts?

Well, the answer is yes, but not necessarily, because if using a torque wrench was important, then car manufacturers would include a torque wrench with their vehicles to change tires rather than a tire iron. 

However, it is a good idea to use a torque wrench when you can, to ensure that they have been tightened properly to prevent damage and to improve the vehicle’s overall safety on the road.

In most cases, tightening the nuts with the included tire iron is good enough, but again its wise to take your vehicle to a professional repair shop to ensure things are in good working order. 

Can You Tighten Lug Nuts by Hand? 

Warning: This could potentially lead to dangerous situations, and is not by any means a recommended method for a car that’s going on a public road, let alone any car. There’s a very good reason why you should always use the proper tools for the job. This method is only suitable for situations where you have to move your car around the corner at low speeds, but NOT for actual driving on any road.

Things can get a bit tricky and require a bit more effort. Good news however, is that you can get the job done “temporarily” by using your hands, but you will have to get it tightened properly as soon as you have access to the right tools – torque wrench or tire iron.

  1. Start by placing the wheel and tire on the studs.
  2. Next, hand tighten each lug nut using the crisscross method.
  3. Wiggle the tire around to determine if the nuts need to be tightened a bit more.
  4. If the wheel still wiggles, you will have to tighten a bit more until it is secure in place.

Tightening lug nuts with your hands is not recommended, because it is very difficult to get the lug nuts to stay securely in place. And if they aren’t securely in place, then it is dangerous to move the vehicle at any speeds above 10 mph, so stay put and call for professional help instead.

Final Thoughts

Tightening lug nuts should be done with a torque wrench to ensure that they are tightened properly.

However, there may be times where this tool is unavailable, for which you can use the tire iron that came with your vehicle, or your hands if you’re just moving your car around a corner.

But to reiterate, tightening lug nuts with your hands can result in loose tires, so if you don’t have a torque wrench or a tire iron, then it’s best to call roadside assistance so you’ll get home safely.

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