Seized Quill Stem

I thought I’d blog about my experiences freeing a seized quill stem, as while researching on the internet on how to free it there were a few potential solutions listed, but no-one seemed to say definitively which of the kookier methods worked for them.

I bought a second hand bike off a work colleague a few years ago, and found out later that the stem was frozen (an aluminium stem in a steel steerer tube). I’ve put up with it for a while, even though the bike position didn’t suit me, but I finally got around to sorting it as I want to take more advantage of the good weather – it was 13 miles each way to commute to my last job and I was managing to do it roughly once a week last year, but my new job’s looking further away, and I want to try to do it more often so I want to get my position sorted. More importantly, I was prompted by the headset needing servicing.

I’ve tried off and on for the last couple of years to free the stem, without much success, saturating the stem in WD40 etc. A couple of weeks ago I managed to free the bottom quill wedge by backing out the stem bolt and hammering it using an allan key (using a big wrench – if you’ve got a hammer then all you see is nails, and if you don’t have a hammer anything that comes to hand’ll do). This freed the wedge, but not the stem. I didn’t feel confident cycling without the wedge being fastened, even though it was jammed, as I didn’t trust Sod’s or Murphys’s law from freeing at a dangerous moment, so I had to spend an hour trying to hold the wedge in position with an old spoke fiddling to get the bolt to attach again.

There were a number of solutions listed to free a quill stem, including soaking it in penetrating oil, freezing it, using household ammonia, or coke to free the stem. I didn’t really try twisting the stem out via grabbing the front wheel whilst securing the handlebars, as I read that it was more likely to twist the forks out of alignment than actually free the stem.

I got some “Shock and Unlock” from Halfords, which doubled as trying the penetrating fluid solution, and the freezing solution – I applied to either side of the stem (i.e. from below and above) for a week, then filled the stem with a large quantity of this solution, to ensure that it would have had the cooling effect, and then leathered the living hell out of the stem with a hammer, from above, below, and every other angle, to no effect.

I didn’t fancy using household ammonia, as messing with chemicals doesn’t really appeal to me, and I haven’t got anywhere safe I could do it without poisoning the neighbour’s cats. The coke method seemed not worth bothering with – apparently the aluminium oxide is dissolved by alkalis (hence the ammonia), and as coke is acidic this wouldn’t apply. I’m not a chemist though (as you can tell ;-)) but I really didn’t see it working, and I didn’t fancy paying the Coca Cola corporation just to turn my bike into a sugary sticky mess (if I was interested in this, apparently lime juice is more acidic than coca cola, but the claims are that it’s the electrolytic effect of coke that works – it’d be great if anyone lets me know if that actually worked for them).

I followed the advice in this thread and decided to cut it out. I hacksawed the stem off about 5mm above the steerer, which was the easy job. Then I had to cut a slot down the length of the stem. This was initially tricky, as the hacksaw blade only just fit into the inner diameter of the stem, I had to take it easy from the top to get a good angle to get the slot cut. Some threads say how delicately they took it, but I just wrapped the top of a hacksaw blade in duck tape, and went at it.

The aluminium is a lot softer than steel, and it’s obvious when you’re through, so I didn’t pansy around. It took around 4 hours to cut through though, solidly going at it (spread over two evenings). I did badly blister and cut up my nancy-boy office worker hands, so if you’re concerned about that kind of thing it might be worth getting some gloves or taking it easier…

I had to cut a slot totally through one side of the stem, and cut almost entire through the other side of the stem, to allow it to flex enough. I gradually bent the stem in on itself by pinching the top with a pair of mole grips, spraying the “shock and unlock” down as I went. Finally, I grabbed the top of the stem in the jaws of some mole grips, put the front wheel back on to give myself something to turn against, and bugger me, was I surprised when it turned slightly! I gritted my teeth and managed to twist the old stem out 🙂

I got myself a quill stem to ahead adapter but it refused to go down the steerer tube. Before I could fit it I needed to polish the remaining crap out of the steerer tube using some wet and dry.