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How to Repair a Dripping Two-Handled Stem Faucet

This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey demonstrates how to fix a leaky faucet

Gold faucet
Paul Perreault

Droplets from a two-handled laundry-room faucet have been falling with the relentless beat of a metronome in the home of Richard Trethewey, This Old House's plumbing and heating consultant. "Most people will ignore a dripping faucet out of fear or ignorance," says Richard. If they deal with it at all, it's usually by cranking the handle so hard they risk tearing a rubber washer or cracking something and making the leak worse. At his own Second Empire house, it's more the case of the cobbler's child whose feet go unshod.

When Richard does finally find a free morning to break out the wrenches, he stems the tide within 15 minutes. A homeowner with a little wherewithal should be able to finish similarly simple repairs in half an hour. "Fixing a faucet drip won't solve the world's water woes," says Richard. "But it will save the finish on your enamel sink and end your Chinese water torture."


Steps // How to Repair a Dripping Two-Handled Stem Faucet
1 ×

Compression Faucet Diagram

 
Step One // How to Repair a Dripping Two-Handled Stem Faucet

Compression Faucet Diagram

compression faucet assembly diagram
Photo by Paul Perreault

Most leaky compression faucets need new seat washers. Pry off the decorative cap on the handle, remove the handle screw, pull off the handle and use a crescent wrench to unscrew the packing nut. After unscrewing the stem, remove and replace the seat washer held in place by a brass screw. Pop the stem out of the packing nut and replace the O-ring, the culprit for leaky handles. Reassemble the faucet and tighten the packing nut.

If your faucet continues to leak, the seat may be pitted. Remove the stem and grind smooth the valve seat with a valve-seat dresser, a tool you temporarily screw down into the faucet.

 
2 ×

Remove the cap and handle

 
Step Two // How to Repair a Dripping Two-Handled Stem Faucet

Remove the cap and handle

repairing two-handled stem faucet
Photo by Craig Raine

Richard turns his attention to his two-handled laundry faucet. Here, the dripping spout indicates that the problem's in a handle, so he pops the cap off the cold-water handle to reveal an encrusted screw. To get it off, "push down with all your might—if you strip the head, you're up a creek," he says. But the fused handle is another matter, requiring the finesse of a faucet-handle puller.

 
3 ×

Disassemble the stem

 
Step Three // How to Repair a Dripping Two-Handled Stem Faucet

Disassemble the stem

fastener screw is badly corroded
Photo by Craig Raine

Next Richard has to remove the packing nut, which secures the stem into the faucet body. He loosens it with an adjustable wrench and pulls out the entire stem assembly with needlenosed pliers. The seat washer—a rubber disk on the stem's underside and the usual suspect in a spout drip—looks scarred, and its fastener screw is badly corroded. He's able to twist the screw off without snapping its shank, though he was prepared to drill it out and rethread the hole with his "tap and die" kit, if necessary.

 
4 ×

File and rebuild the stem

 
Step Four // How to Repair a Dripping Two-Handled Stem Faucet

File and rebuild the stem

file away the pitted wall of the faucet washer
Photo by Craig Raine

Before replacing the washer, Richard performs a little surgery on the protruding edge into which the washer fits. He files away the pitted wall and replaces it with a nickel/copper-alloy retainer bowl, which will be held in place by a new washer screw. "Sometimes it's better to rebuild the stem than to rush out for a new part," he says. "Replacement parts for older faucets can be hard to find."

 
5 ×

Inspect the valve seat, then reassemble

 
Step Five // How to Repair a Dripping Two-Handled Stem Faucet

Inspect the valve seat, then reassemble

fastening a new washer with the new brass screw
Photo by Craig Raine

Richard finds an identical-size replacement washer in his collection and fastens it on with the new brass screw. "For a short-term fix—in a pinch—you can flip the washer over if it's smooth on the other side," he suggests. Before placing the stem back on the valve seat (the cylindrical piece that butts against the washer and creates a seal with it when the faucet is off), he removes the seat with counterclockwise turns of a special seat wrench and checks it for burrs caused by scraping and corrosion. "If the seat is badly mangled," he says, "you could replace the washer every four days, but it'll just keep leaking." This one is undamaged, so he doesn't replace it; he just seals it with pipe joint compound and reassembles the handle.

 
 
 

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