Torque Wrench Basics

Maintenance matters.

4
orque Wrenches
Shown here are various torque wrenches. The beam-type wrench at the bottom works well for checking the tightness of the alternator belt, but it can be used for many other torque jobs. The center wrench is a clicking-type, 1/4-inch drive. The top is the more generally useful 3/8-inch drive model with a torque range high enough to do prop bolts.

Torque is a twisting or rotational force about an axis such as the length of a bolt. It is measured in foot-pounds, inch-pounds or Newton-meters. These units may also be shown as pound-feet and pound-inches. These are just different ways of saying the same things.

When installing aviation fasteners (nuts and bolts), we use torque to determine how tight the connection made by the nut or bolt in question is. We care about this because a bolted connection is designed to retain its tightness when the design load is applied to it without loosening. This is achieved by placing an amount of tension in the bolt or stud that exceeds the anticipated load. If a connection is too tight—that is, over-torqued—the bolt can fail. If it is too loose, it can allow movement in the connection under load that can lead to displacement of the joint, fatigue and possible failure. Uneven tightness of things such as propeller flanges can cause the track of the prop to wobble, potentially causing a host of problems. Thus, achieving the correct amount of tightness in a nut, bolt or stud is very important.

The question is, how do we best achieve that end?

The torque wrench is the tool of choice for aviation fasteners, not so much because it produces the best results, but because the tightness standards we are required to use rely on torque. Engineers will tell you that we should really be measuring bolt stretch to measure the tightness of a joint. They, of course, are right, but that doesn’t help us much because we don’t have any way to measure bolt stretch in most cases and have no proven specifications to utilize if we could. So, we will concede the point and move on.

Beam type torque wrench
Use the beam torque wrench to measure how much torque it takes to get the alternator belt to slip. If the pulley doesn’t slip until you have reached 100-120 inch-pounds, the belt is tight enough.

Torque Wrench

A good torque wrench is a must for proper airplane maintenance and assembly. For many things, a 1/4-inch drive torque wrench is very handy, but it will not be big enough to torque spark plugs or propeller bolts. You can buy two torque wrenches if you like, but it is certainly more economical to buy one 3/8-inch drive tool that will cover everything. Torque specifications for smaller bolts are usually listed in inch-pounds, but most 3/8-inch wrenches are calibrated in foot-pounds, so if you go that way, you will have to do the conversion.  However, that isn’t really much bother. Just remember that 12 inch-pounds equals 1 foot-pound. When you buy a torque wrench, look for one that will go up to 75 foot-pounds or 900 inch-pounds so you can handle prop bolts.

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Torque wrenches come in two basic types: beam-type and clicking or adjustable torque wrenches. There are now electronic wrenches, too, but having a battery in what for most is a seldom-used tool seems likely to lead to frustration. The beam version relies on the bending of a steel beam to determine torque. A pointer shows torque on a fixed scale attached to the beam near the handle. These tools are inexpensive and reliable. On the other hand, they can be hard to read if the item being torqued is in an inconvenient location. They represent good value but lack the convenience of the clicking torque wrench.

The clicking torque wrench operates by setting it to a specified torque and then using it as a normal ratchet handle until it clicks. At that point, the proper torque has been applied. This type of wrench is more expensive than the beam-type wrench and requires annual calibration (and immediate calibration after dropping) but it is very easy to use in almost any position. These tools are very popular, but having them recalibrated is not so popular. That problem notwithstanding, clicking torque wrenches easily outsell beam-type wrenches. In any case, one or the other of these is a must-have tool for an airplane builder. One comment about clicking torque wrenches: The urge to click the wrench several times for each nut or bolt is almost irresistible for some people. However, all those extra clicks add a little bit of extra torque, so it is best to click only once and move on to the next bolt.

Crow’s feet
Crow’s feet of various sizes can be used in places where it is not possible to use a socket. The Hartzell propeller tool shown on the right is a special kind of crow’s foot made just for torquing the ½-inch bolts on a Hartzell propeller.

When it comes time to torque your prop, you may need a crow’s foot. The Hartzell propeller tool is a special crow’s foot designed to tighten propeller bolts on Hartzell (and other) props. This special tool attaches to the torque wrench and allows you to apply torque to the bolts on constant-speed propellers or on other fasteners where a socket will not fit.  When using a crow’s foot, you will need to adjust the torque setting to compensate for the added length that the crow’s foot will contribute.

torque adjustment needed
To calculate the adjustment needed to compensate for the use of the propeller tool, you need to measure the distance from the center of the ratchet drive to the center of the bolt and then measure from the center of the ratchet to the center of the handle. Here we have 3 inches from the bolt center to the ratchet drive center and 15 inches from the ratchet to the center of the handle.

Here is the formula for setting your torque wrench with a crow’s foot extension on it:

Tw = Wrench torque setting
Ta = Torque to be applied to nut or bolt
L = Length of torque wrench
E = Length added to wrench by crow’s foot extension

Tw = (Ta x L) / (L + E)

Here’s an example. Suppose we wish to apply 50 foot-pounds of torque to a propeller bolt. What wrench setting should we use if our torque wrench is 15 inches long and our crow’s foot extension adds 3 inches to the length of the wrench?

Tw = (50 x 15) / (15 + 3)
Tw = 42 foot-pounds

In other words, set your torque wrench to 42 foot-pounds to apply 50 foot-pounds of torque to the prop bolt. Be sure to use the same units for the length of the wrench and the length of the extension. They can both be in inches or they can both be in feet. Just don’t use feet for one and inches for the other.

Hartzell prop torque
Here a 1/2-inch drive torque wrench and a Hartzell prop tool are used to torque the bolts on a Hartzell propeller being installed in a Glasair Sportsman. Be sure to follow the prop manufacturer’s installation instructions when installing a propeller.

The premium tool makers produce torque wrenches with open-end wrench attachments that work really well for things like prop bolts, but they are pretty expensive for Experimental airplane builders. Sometimes you can find a good used torque wrench of this type for a reasonable price, but most of us will have to forego such a luxury and just use a crow’s foot.

Torques for Fine Thread Nuts and Bolts by Bolt Size

Bolt SizeStandard Nuts
AN310, AN363, AN365
[in-lb]
Shear Nuts
AN 320, AN364
[in-lb]
10-3220-2512-15
1/4-2850-7030-40
5/16-24100-14060-85
3/8-24160-19095-110
7/16-20450-500270-300
1/2-20480-690290-410

Reference: Standard Aircraft Handbook, McGraw Hill, 1999.

torque wrench extension
A short extension is needed to clear the baffles on the O-360 engine.

Fasteners

To properly tighten a fastener, it is imperative that the nut, bolt or stud are in good condition. That means that there are no damaged threads or nicks or worn spots on the fastener. An aviation fastener should have its original cad plating intact and it should be clean—free of oil, dirt, or other foreign substances. Fasteners with minor thread damage can be restored with thread-chasing taps or dies. You should never use a thread-cutting tap or dye to restore threads on an aviation fastener because they remove material, especially at the critical thread root. The best advice is when in doubt, throw it out. Do not reuse questionable fasteners, especially in critical areas. Engine manufacturers will often recommend replacing critical fasteners at overhaul. These recommendations should be followed.

Here is a good test for a fastener. You should be able to easily thread a non-locking nut onto a bolt or stud with no noticeable drag or hang-ups. A good nut should easily thread onto a known good bolt with very little effort. If you can do this, your fastener’s threads are acceptable.

Aviation nylon-insert lock nuts present a special case. The FAA says that those nuts should be replaced when they lose their ability to prevent the nut from loosening. However, there are no specifications for how much locking force they should apply or how to measure it. Again, we are left with the advice to discard and replace any nut that has questionable locking ability.

Most torque numbers are given for clean, dry fasteners. The standard torque tables in aviation handbooks are based on clean, dry threads. Engine fasteners are another matter. Lycoming specifies that engine bolts be lubricated with a mixture of engine oil and 10% STP. Other engine manufacturers have their own thoughts on this. The point of lubrication is to reduce friction between the bolt or stud and the nut. This friction is a potential source of inaccuracy in bolt tightness as determined by torque. High-performance automobile engine builders typically use lubricated threads and bolt stretch measurements to determine tightness whenever possible. This is much more accurate but generally not available to aircraft engine builders.

For aviation mechanics, the point is to be sure you know and follow the engine maker’s specifications when it comes to lubricating threads (or not) and measuring torque when assembling an engine. Do not use generic torque tables for engine bolts. Refer to the Lycoming Overhaul Manual or a similar publication by the engine maker for the engine you are assembling or repairing.

torque wrench short extension
By keeping the extension as short as possible, there is less chance to introduce inaccuracy into the process. Especially on many RV models, there is insufficient clearance to get a socket and extension into position to torque the spark plugs for cylinders Number 3 and 4. In this case, a crow’s foot and an aviation spark plug socket will do the trick.

Standard Torque Table for Aviation Fasteners

When there is no other specification available for torque you can use these standard numbers from the chart on the left.

Nylon insert lock nuts and all-metal lock nuts present a special problem. How much torque does it take to overcome the resistance of the locking insert? There is no known specification for this, and it varies as the nut is used again and again. I did my own study to determine the torque to overcome nylon inserts in lock nuts, but this has no official status and did not consider all-metal lock nuts. Here is what I found:

This drag torque should be added to the specified torque to achieve the proper torque at the fastener. For example, add 10 inch-pounds of drag torque to the listed 50-70 inch-pounds of torque for a 1/4-28 nut to achieve the prescribed tightness at the joint.

Nut DesignationDrag
AN365-10324 in-lb
AN365-42810 in-lb
AN365-52415 in-lb
AN365-62420 in-lb

Using a Torque Wrench

Torque wrenches should be calibrated annually or after being dropped on a hard surface. An uncalibrated wrench cannot be relied upon to deliver the specified torque. Even though most torque wrenches come with a ratchet head that can be used to tighten or loosen a nut or bolt, they should never be used to loosen anything. Use a standard ratchet to tighten bolts at least to snug, then switch to the torque wrench. Remove bolts with standard wrenches or ratchet and sockets.

Often the maker of a part will specify that a nut or bolt be tightened in stages. This is especially common when multiple fasteners are involved, such as with a propeller or an engine cylinder. The procedure would be to first snug all nuts or bolts, then torque to one-half the final value using a cross pattern. Finally, torque to the final number, again using a cross pattern in the case of multiple fasteners. Be aware that engine manufacturers often have torquing sequences that are not necessarily obvious. Read the book and follow it.

stabilized torque wrench
If nuts that are hard to access will require the use of a long extension, it’s important to stabilize the wrench to apply the proper torque. Here, Lycoming 5/16-18 exhaust nuts are being torqued to 204 inch-pounds as per the Lycoming Overhaul Manual.

As a general rule, I prefer to use the shortest extension possible in cases where one is required. The longer the extension, the more there is a need to stabilize the head of the wrench with your other hand. This can introduce inaccuracy. In some cases, this is unavoidable but do your best to minimize the use of extensions wherever possible.

Lastly, be sure to have your torque wrench recalibrated from time to time. A professional mechanic should do this yearly. For an amateur builder who only uses a torque wrench two or three times a year, this is probably overkill. But if you have never had it done, it is high time to do something about that.

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Dave Prizio
Dave Prizio has been plying the skies of the L.A. basin and beyond since 1973. Born into a family of builders, it was only natural that he would make his living as a contractor and spend his leisure time building airplanes. He has so far completed three—a GlaStar, a Glasair Sportsman, and a Texas Sport Cub—and is helping a friend build an RV-8. When he isn’t building something, he shares his love of aviation with others by flying Young Eagles or volunteering as an EAA Technical Counselor. He is also an A&P mechanic, Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR), and was a member of the EAA Homebuilt Aircraft Council for six years.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Dave, I am a retired airline Captain and former Italian Air Force F-104S pilot. I have been reading your article on torque wrenches. I think you are the right person I want to share some information on what I invented (and patented) in this particular field. I will be pleased to receive your personal email address.
    Best Regards,
    Enrico Fassio

  2. Dear Dave, I have a Craftsman beam 3/8″ torque wrench which I’d like to use with a Hartzell CS prop on a Lycoming O-360. Am I understanding you correctly that this type of wrench does not need annual calibration? Should ship it for calibration or is that only necessary for click-type wrenches?. Or, optionally, could I take it to my local FBO which keeps a wall-mounted calibration test rig for their A&Ps? They send it out for annual calibration. And finally, after calibration, should I be given an error card for the wrench?

    By the way, I use an Ultimate Propeller Wrench from Anti Splat Aero LLC for a Hartzell CS prop on an O-360-A1A. It is the easiest to use prop wrench I’ve used. I highly recommend it.

    Hope to see you at AirVenture 2021

    Dee Whittington

  3. There is one thing you forgot to mention about click-type torque wrenchs. They should never be stored with a torque setting. They should be set to zero torque because the higher the torque the more the internal spring is compressed and over time this introduces error as the spring is weakened making the setting inaccurate.

  4. I just wanted to chime in and add in a little bit of information about lock nuts. In your article you said, “The FAA says that those nuts should be replaced when they lose their ability to prevent the nut from loosening. However, there are no specifications for how much locking force they should apply or how to measure it.”
    While your statement is correct about the smaller sizes of fastener, AC-43-13 does have a table on page 7-12 for “Minimum prevailing torque values for reused self-locking nuts.” The smallest size fastener it has a value for, however, is a 7/16 – 20 (AN-7) bolt.

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