How To Disassemble a Toilet In Many Easy Steps

Late last week I noticed that the guest bathroom’s toilet rocked forward and back. This worried me. The Internet confirmed my fears: one site claimed that it could be a cracked flange! That sounded bad! So there was but one thing to do: ask the Internet how to disassemble a toilet.

The Internet claimed that disassembling a toilet to check the flange or to replace the wax ring was easy. Invariably, the same sites that talked about how easy this task was would follow that up by saying, “A TOILET BREAKS EASILY BE CAREFUL!!!!” The sites also varied in how detailed their instructions were, in one case even going so far as to skip the whole “removing the tank” part. As a public service, I’m going to give you the definitive step-by-step guide to disassembling a toilet to repair it. All of the steps you absolutely have to do are in bold. And as a bonus, I’ve included the Studly Meter: a measure from 1 to 10 of how studly you should feel at various steps of the operation.

Repairing a Toilet

  1. Search the Internet for sites explaining how to repair a toilet. Boggle at how many of them are useless.
  2. Since the best site you found doesn’t have an exploded view of a toilet, find one at another site.
  3. Give up, realizing that you could do a better diagram in MS Paint. Try to figure things out as you go. Studly Meter: 1
  4. Simplified diagram of a toiletTurn off the toilet’s water by finding the valve near the floorboards and turning the handle. SM: 2
  5. Start to remove the water line between the valve and the toilet. Realize that you have to drain the tank first. SM: 1
  6. Flush the toilet to empty as much water as possible. Hold down the handle. SM: 4
  7. Remove the rest of the water from the tank using a towel. SM: 5
  8. Realize that you can’t get the towel back out without first removing that float ball thing and its rusty arm.
  9. Unscrew the float ball, remove the towel, and wring it out into the bucket you belatedly remembered to go get. SM: 3
  10. Now remove the water line between the valve and the toilet. This involves finding a crescent wrench to remove the compression fitting at the valve end, unscrewing the water line from the tank end, and getting wet when the leftover water in the line drips on you. SM: 4
  11. Remove the two or three screws that connect the tank to the toilet body. These screws have hex nuts or wing nuts on them below the tank. You may need a screwdriver to hold the screws in place while you remove the nuts, but chances are things are so icky and corroded that you won’t.
  12. Throw those screws and their washers away because they are so icky and corroded.
  13. Lift the tank straight off of the body and put it down gently. SM: 8
  14. Use a plunger to push most of the water in the toilet body down the drain after someone on the Internet tells you to. (Thanks, John B!)
  15. Take the bolt caps off of the flange bolts at the base of the toilet body. Remove the nut from the flange bolts.
  16. Realize that the nuts are causing the flange bolts to spin as you turn the nuts, preventing you from removing the nuts entirely. Look closely at the flange bolts. Realize someone clipped the bolts off right above the nut, causing the bolt to have a lip and preventing the nuts from being removed entirely. Realize that you’re going to have to cut the bolts off. SM: 1
  17. Realize that this is a great excuse to buy a Dremel tool. SM: 10
  18. In thinking about it, since the toilet isn’t actually leaking, realize that you could probably get away with just shimming the toilet to stop it rocking. Try re-securing the nuts to the flange bolts, only to discover that one nut won’t tighten any more. Looks like you’re going forward with disassembling the toilet! SM: -1000
  19. Go to a nearby hardware store. Buy a Dremel tool, a wax ring, a new gasket to go between the toilet tank and the toilet bowl because that old gasket is super nasty — make that two gaskets because there are two sizes and you don’t know which one you’ll need and you’re for damn sure not coming back here again — a new flapper because the old flapper is also really nasty, and new screws to hold the tank to the body. SM: 7
  20. Remember your last experience using a Dremel tool and the cut-off wheels to cut through bolts. Realize that the Dremel tool package you bought has only two cut-off wheels. Buy an extra 20-pack of cut-off wheels. SM: 8
  21. Excitedly show your Dremel tool to your significant other. Be told that the Dremel is perfect for cleaning Birkenstocks. SM: 2
  22. Put on your safety goggles, put in earplugs, and start cutting the bolts off. Watch the dust fly everywhere. Five cut-off wheels later, the nuts are cut off of the flange bolts. SM: 9
  23. Pick up one of the cut-off nuts. Seconds later, drop it because it is hot like the sun. When you leave the bathroom to get some ice to put on your burn, tell your significant other that you touched it “by accident”. SM: 1
  24. Lift the toilet bowl and place it in the tub or something that you don’t mind water pouring into. Rock the toilet back and forth to get as much water as possible out of the bowl and trap. SM: 8
  25. Wonder if your state is one where the plumbing codes require that someone licensed do this work. Shrug and go on. SM: 2
  26. Closeup of toilet flange with boltsInspect the flange for cracks. Finding none, rejoice. SM: 8
  27. Grab a putty knife and scrape all of the left-over wax from the old ring off of the floor and the flange. Tilt the toilet bowl to one side and scrape the wax off of the bottom as well. SM: 5
  28. Realize that the wax is really sticky and nasty. Furthermore, realize that, since you put the toilet bowl straight down into the bathtub, now there’s old wax all over the floor of the tub. SM: 2
  29. Old wax ring on the toiletClean the remaining wax off of the flange and the toilet bowl with paper towels. Rubbing alcohol can help here.
  30. Think to yourself, Is it really necessary to clean everything this carefully? Consider that, if you don’t clean it well enough, you might have to go through all of this again. Keep cleaning.
  31. Put the flange bolts in and lower the toilet bowl over the flange bolts to make sure everything fits okay. SM: 6
  32. Realize that the flange bolts are way too long to fit a bolt cap over them, and that you’ll have to cut them down. SM: 4
  33. Flange with a rag in itRealize that you destroyed the plastic bottom of the bolt caps with the Dremel tool and that, despite your best-laid plans, you’re going to have to go back to the hardware store to buy bolt caps. SM: 2
  34. Put an old towel in the hole in the floor before leaving the bathroom for any length of time, since otherwise nasty gas will come floating up into your bathroom.
  35. Go to the hardware store and buy bolt caps. While you’re there, return the extra toilet tank gasket you bought.
  36. Return home and cut the flange bolts down to size. Make sure the hex nut is on the bolt beneath where you’re going to cut, so you can remove the nut after you’re done, thus re-cutting the threads in case you smoosh them. While doing so, sneeze and discover that, because you forgot to wear a dust mask earlier, your snot is black from the dust and metal bits from cutting the old flange bolts. SM: 3
  37. Slide the new flange bolts into the flange’s slots. Give the flange bolts a quarter turn to secure them. Put the plastic washer that came with the bolts on top of them to keep the bolts in place. SM: 5
  38. Unwrap the new wax ring and put it on the bottom of the toilet bowl, with the wax ring’s round side touching the bottom of the toilet bowl. SM: 6
  39. Realize that you should have been wearing gloves for that last step, and that the wax from the ring is really really really sticky and nasty. SM: 2
  40. Take two straws and fit them on the flange bolts. The straws will help you get the toilet seated over the bolts properly. If the straws don’t quite fit, you may have to cut them slightly on one end. SM: 6
  41. Lower the toilet bowl over the flange bolts, keeping the toilet as level as possible. Once it’s down, rotate the toilet just a bit to spread the wax around. You may need someone down on the floor watching you lower the toilet bowl to help keep it level. SM: 7
  42. Sit down on the toilet for a bit to smoosh the wax ring down some. Then put the plastic bottom of the bolt cap, the flange bolt metal washer, and the hex nut on the flange bolts. Tighten the nuts, but not so much that you crack the toilet bowl. The toilet bowl shouldn’t rock when you’re done. SM: 7
  43. Realize that you bought more plastic bolt caps than you needed. Sigh. SM: 4
  44. Put the new gasket on the bottom of the tank and put the tank on the bowl. Put the new bolts in the tank and tighten. Make sure to put the rubber washer on the bolt before putting it in the tank, then putting the metal washer and the hex nut or wing nut beneath the tank to secure everything. The gasket will smoosh down. Tighten one bolt a bit, then switch to another bolt. Tighten until the tank’s porcelain touches the bowl’s porcelain, but again, don’t go too far. SM: 8
  45. Throw the old flapper away and put the new one in. Put the float ball thingy and its rusty arm back in. Reattach the water line. SM: 8
  46. Turn on the water, making sure nothing leaks. If the water line leaks, tighten the compression fittings again. If the tank leaks, see if it’s coming from the gasket or the bolts, and try fiddling with those. SM: 7, or 3 if something leaks.
  47. Thank your lucky stars that the compression fittings on the water line were fine and you didn’t have to go buy a new water line. SM: 8
  48. Flush the toilet, towels at the ready. When nothing leaks, rejoice! SM: 10!!!!!!!
  49. A day or so later, check back and see if the flange bolt nuts need to be tightened some more due to the wax ring settling.
  50. In doing so, discover that the toilet still rocks, just a little bit. Jam one of the toilet shims under the toilet, fixing the problem. Realize once again that you could have done this from the beginning and probably have been just fine. SM: ah, forget about it.
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52 Comments

  1. on July 13, 2006 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    That was funny; I think you deserve a raise.
    Oh, I just remembered why I rent a place instead of buying my own. :)

  2. on July 13, 2006 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Rejoice greatly that step 25 turned out well! We went through this same process, except our flange was broken. At that point, it actually shortened the list quite a bit:

    26. Pay your plumber a lot of money to come fix it.

  3. Mark J Musante
    on July 13, 2006 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Great job!

    One thing I found that helped was using a level on the bowl of the toilet, because the floor will invariably be slightly uneven.

  4. Mark J Musante
    on July 13, 2006 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Jeff: You can get flange tops at Home Depot or other hardware DIY stores. They sit on top of old broken flanges and provide a good mounting surface for the bolts.

  5. Limax
    on July 14, 2006 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for this, Stephen! I’ve been putting off installing a new wax ring in our bathroom… something that the home inspection people found when they were out before we bought the place. The wax ring’s been sitting on the counter all this time. Unfortunately, I got a dremel for Christmas. What do I do now?

  6. on July 14, 2006 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Limax, I’m afraid there’s only one thing to do: buy a second Dremel tool so that you don’t skip any steps.

  7. on July 14, 2006 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Two things:

    1. You were so channeling Mark Pilgrim.

    2. Your SM needs a Sparkline graph at the end.

  8. John B
    on July 26, 2006 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    At some time before step 23 use a plunger to push most the water down the drain.

  9. on July 26, 2006 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Whoa, that’s a great idea that I wish I’d thought of at the time. I’ve added that step to the list and credited you with it.

  10. Dawn Lund
    on July 29, 2006 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I have a leak in my toilet that I am currently trying to fix. It’s a constant leak into the bowl. I don’t know what happened, other than my water bill just doubled and I had to do some checking. Once I noticed the leak I turned the water off to that toilet until I could get to it. Well last night I tried to work on it and when I tried to turn the water back on ….now I have no water to that toilet. Can you lose the prime on a toilet like you can on a sprinkler pump? I have no idea what to do to get the water to come back to the toilet. The shower and the sink in that bathroom work just fine. Help.

  11. JIB
    on July 29, 2006 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Step 30 says it all to me. Without really knowing it, this has been governing my life for years. The fear of having to do it all again has motivated me more than anything else to do a quality job.

  12. cd
    on August 2, 2006 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Having done this a few times, I highly recommend replacing every wearable part when doing this. The porcelain will last, the rubber gaskets and valves will not.

    Have a look at this fill valve part (scroll down past the ads to see it), which not only lasts forever, but can be easily taken apart and cleaned if necessary.

    You can find one of these at almost any hardware or farm supply store, ranging between 10 and 15 dollars, depending upon supply chain.

    I have never seen one of these fail to work, even after long usage. I replaced a couple of toilets a few years ago, and we moved the valves from the old toilets to the new ones, because they are more trustworthy than the float types.

    Also, you can set the water level with a turn of the adjuster screw, so you might beable to save water on each flush, depending upon your toilet’s design.

    http://www.shop.com/op/~PLUMB_SHOP_RPFP285053_MP_Toilet_Fill_Valve-prod-20365838?buy=9

  13. Daffywench
    on August 14, 2006 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    What if you want to remove the toilet and cap off the pipes? Is there any benefit to just pouring concrete down the pipe instead of paying a plumber $500 (yes, that’s the quote he gave me) to cap it off?

  14. on August 14, 2006 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    That was the quote just to install a cap, or to remove the toilet and install a cap? I wouldn’t pour concrete down the thing, because then no one will ever be able to use that pipe again. You could probably cap it off yourself — if the drain pipe is PVC, you won’t even have to solder a cap on. Regardless, I’d see about getting a revised quote if the toilet’s already gone, and check with other plumbers for competing quotes.

  15. Ed S.
    on September 10, 2006 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    You could use a shop vac to remove the excess water from the tank and bowl rather than getting a million towels nasty. There are fiber-impregnated cut-off wheels for Dremels that don’t break near as easily as the plain red ones.

  16. on September 10, 2006 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Good tip on the shop vac, though I didn’t have one handy. I did use the fiber-reinforced cutoff wheels, but they’re still pretty fragile overall.

  17. Ed S
    on September 10, 2006 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    All the cutoff wheels are indeed pretty fragile. What I have found that works for me is to take it very, very easy on the pressure against what I am cutting, letting the tool do the work. No sooner than I apply some pressure and I am replacing yet another cutting wheel. :(

  18. Judy Huddleston
    on October 28, 2006 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I got stopped at #10. The valve end does not have a compression fitting. I’m told it’s a construction special. The corregated line is attached directly to the valve. Now I’m trying to figure out what direction to turn the valve itself to get it off. At this point I have the whole houses water off. @!*&%

  19. on October 28, 2006 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    You should have to turn it clockwise to tighten the valve. What I’d suggest is to get someone to man the house’s water valve and you stay at the toilet. Turn the toilet’s water line valve all the way clockwise. If you’re not in shouting distance of the person at the house’s water line, call each other on cell phones. Have the other person slowly turn on the house’s water, so that if the valve starts leaking, you can shout to turn the water back off and try turning the valve counter-clockwise.

  20. Johnny
    on November 22, 2006 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Getting ready to do this myself …… Step # 23 seems like the MOST IMPORTANT of all ….. LMAO ….. Thanks for the heads up

  21. Mike
    on November 27, 2006 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    “Thanks for the heads up ”

    Now that’s funny. : )

  22. on December 18, 2006 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Not only was this extremely helpful, it was brilliantly funny!We’ve got a tippy toilet to fix this week and we’re planning to do it ourselves. The last time we had tricky toilet troubles we called a plumber. The verdict? One very foul, scuba diving batman action figure. SM:-10

  23. on December 18, 2006 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Glad it helped! Hopefully it won’t be the Batman this time around.

  24. MD
    on January 26, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Wife has been on my back for months to replace the toilet in our kids’ bathroom. I think I will do it this weekend using your instructions. It’s good to see some humor in a job that might not be so humorous once I get started. Great job!

  25. on January 27, 2007 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  26. GeeZer
    on February 5, 2007 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    Your discussion was both informative and funny, however you seemed so skate over one important issue that might occur and did occur on mine…that is when the flange is damaged so badly (and is in PVC) that it needs replacing. I’m going to try slicing quarter inch slots around it where it mates with the walls of the pipe and then chip it out..I’ve seen flangebuster, but it’s expensive. However, I may regret I didn’t purchase one. Your opinion? http://www.flangebuster.com. Thanks!

  27. on February 5, 2007 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I haven’t had to replace a flange yet, thank goodness, so I don’t have any experience with things like the flangebuster. I’d guess if you’re only going to replace one flange, I’d skip the flangebuster and resign myself to chipping away the flange myself. At this point you may want to get a plumber in for an estimate to have him or her do it for you.

  28. John B (again)
    on February 6, 2007 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Geezer,
    I install floors here in CT. We see a lot of rotted out flanges from condensation running down the side of the toilet.
    To repair this we use something like the repair flange in the following link. I get mine at the local home center.

    http://plumbing.hardwarestore.com/51-291-closet-flanges/super-closet-ring-replacement-606088.aspx

  29. Dana
    on April 1, 2007 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Really funny (and so true!)… but we still don’t know how to dislodge the uber-corroded nut on the bottom of the flush valve…

  30. Leigh Love
    on July 14, 2007 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I am a female attempting to repair a piece-of-junk mobile home which was left on my property. I have learned more about home-improvements than I ever desired. Replacing the wax seal on a toilet has been a NIGHTMARE. (Still is)…At least you have me laughing while I curse the entire male species that put this thing in here in the first place. You are too funny..Thanks. Leigh

  31. Robert
    on August 4, 2007 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Well said! you should tweak this article and send it into Readers Digest… win $100.00 bucks and go buy one of those new turlets at Costco! :^) I’m having fun with the tank bolts being frozen and rusty nasty. Waiting for some penetrating oil and if that doesn’t work… hmmmmm that 79.00 thing at Costco maybe my latest piece of furniture! Take care and thanks for your insighs!

  32. on August 14, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Thanks. I’m just learning this web design thing. My first blog. I had my website a while back and never knew the best thing to put on it. I don’t even have pictures and stuff. However, I found your popup program and installed it on my blog.

  33. p & L
    on October 6, 2007 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    …THANX a bunch ! ! !

  34. on December 28, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Heh. Being a computer engineer, and a handy-person around houses, I feel compelled to tell you that these, in fact, are the correct steps. However, they make a Foam Seal that is much better, and less icky than wax seals.

    Bravo. You did great. Now, off to buy a new Dremmel.

  35. James
    on February 16, 2008 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    Nice article, helped a lot.

  36. on February 16, 2008 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Glad it helped!

  37. Tim
    on March 30, 2008 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    I am nobody’s handyman, but have learned a lot since becoming a homeowner. Replaced my toilet today, abusing the English language as always on these projects. Your blog was a great help, and the Stud Meter bit is hilarious. When it actually worked out, my stud meter’s needle broke!!

  38. Old school
    on April 30, 2008 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    You should try removing a toilet pan set properly in concrete in one piece???

    Next time a nut won’t screw like it should, try using a threading tool or even screwing a steel nut onto it to recut the thread. Done carefully, this allows nuts to be removed and easily reused. (I usually tip excess water down the hole you leave removing the pan).

  39. Holly
    on May 5, 2008 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Stephen – you made this story so enjoyable to read, I actually look forward to replacing my flange! Thanks for your excellent guidance on how to avoid probs, making my bathroom remodel project just a little bit easier.

  40. on May 6, 2008 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Holly, you bet. I’m glad this was helpful.

  41. dwayne
    on August 25, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    thank you so much for this! solved my toilet problem!

  42. daveguy
    on September 9, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Your link @ the top : “skip the whole “removing the tank” part”

    doesn’t work.

  43. Cathlene
    on February 19, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    I think this was one of the best ‘How To’s’ I’ve ever read! Your ‘tongue and cheek’ style was so enjoyable and funny… and your comments worked great too!!
    Do you write on other subjects besides toilets? :) Would love to read more.
    Any comments on tiling???

  44. on February 19, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Oh, gosh, I’ve been studiously avoiding tiling for years now. I think any how-to I wrote on it would be four or five times longer than this one.

  45. joshua
    on November 4, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    GReat Job you really helped me out My bolts were spinning and I was like hey let me go to the internet! Thanks for the help do you do this for all home repairs????

    Josh

  46. on March 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    I have seen numerous “toilet fixes” on the Internet and many of them scare me because I am sure the homeowner will get himself or herself in real trouble. But your article is thorough and accurate. Anyone following your guide will be patting themselves on the shoulder in no time flat.

    Mike.
    plumbersstlouis.us

  47. on May 21, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I think this was one of the best ‘How To’s’ I’ve ever read! Your ‘tongue and cheek’ style was so enjoyable and funny… and your comments worked great too!!
    Do you write on other subjects besides toilets? :) Would love to read more.
    Any comments on tiling???

  48. HomeTivi
    on June 6, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Wife has been on my back for months to replace the toilet in our kids’ bathroom. I think I will do it this weekend using your instructions. It’s good to see some humor in a job that might not be so humorous once I get started. Great job!

  49. Deb
    on April 13, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    I’m having to fix a leaky toilet for my mother-in-law. She lost her house due to Hurricane Charlie and the company that came in to rebuild for her (on the county’s pay), did a reaall bad job on the plumbing and flooring. Your article has both encouraged me and scared me silly! LOL… since I’m the Ms. Fixit of the house, I do what I have to and hope that I can succeed. Thank you!

  50. on April 13, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Good luck!

  51. Deb
    on April 13, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Whoohoo! Thanks so much.. it worked! :-) *does happy dance*

  52. Nancy
    on April 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    We took our tank off to paint and now are not sure where to place the rubber guards between the tank and bowl ? I assume these are to prevent noise and possible cracking. Why don’t any pictures or diagrams show these. Thanks

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