Tricks for retrieving dropped nuts and bolts that disappear into your engine


We’ve all either done it already or it’s bound to happen soon The scenario unfolds something like this: You’ve just pulled the valve cover off the engine. You’re holding something, maybe the valve cover nuts, in your hand. You’re about to place them somewhere safe, but as you swing your hand around, you hit something, a nut pops out, and you watch in mute horror as, in slow motion, the nut arcs through the air, does a triple back flip, and vanishes down into the engine. You empty your lexicon of blue words into the garage air, and know that the next several hours of your life are going to be a living hell.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2018/11/26/retrieving-nuts-and-bolts-from-engine


I suffered a similar dilemma: I dropped one of the distributor cap retaining screws right down the “rabbit hole” whilst pulling the distributor. 1971 Century Coronado, Crusader/Ford FE 427. After beating myself up, and probing everywhere with scopes and magnets to no avail, I’ve decided it’s going to have lo live there until the engine is pulled. No room to drop the pan. I’m hedging my bet with a strong magnet placed on a low, flat spot on the pan. To hold the piece there. I’ll have six months to pray on it until boating season 2019 begins.


I was adjusting the valves on a Fiat Spider and had taken the spark plugs out to make it easier to manually crank the engine over. I finished the job and started to put things back together. I thought about putting the plugs in first but decided to wait just in case I needed to crank the engine over for some reason. I dropped a small bolt which bounced once against each cam cover and disappeared down the number 1 spark plug hole. I walked to Sears and got a magnet on the end of an extendable rod. Unfortunately it was too large to fit down the hole so I cut the magnet out, shoved it inside an old shoe string and glued it in. By then it was too dark to work anymore so I spent the evening practicing fishing a bolt out of a Coke bottle to get my technique down. First thing the next morning I tried on the car - all my practice paid off and I got it out first try. I immediately put the plugs in before getting back to reassembling everything. I never left and open holes blew my work area again.


There’s a great place to buy some extremely strong magnets K&J Magnetics (KJMagnetic.com). Their emails have lots of great ideas for magnets and they sell Neodymium magnets some of which are so strong that you almost can’t pull them apart. I use small disc magnets as tuning indicators on the steel countert hoops of my timpani (don’t ask). I had a small shirt pocket sized telescoping magnet with a very week magnet at the end. I attached a stronger one to the end and and superglued it couldn’t pull off and now have a very effective telescoping magnet to retrieve all those errant steel parts that fall somewhere they shouldn’t be.


Ok…one more short story about a lost nut…I was leaving on a boat trip, my restored 1948 Chris Craft has a mildly rodded 350 Chevy, when on departure, my motor upon startup, sounded like I had grenaded it. It was a horrible racket…

I sat scratching my head and was just about resigned to pulling the motor when I decided to pull my heads to see if I had sucked a valve. Taking the heads off are a lot easier than pulling a boat engine that resides in a cabin.

On pulling my heads I found that I had dropped the stainless bolt that holds the flame arrestor into the carb and it had distributed itself and the corresponding split washer through a couple cylinders…unbelievably it had done no damage. I vacuumed up the shards, reassembled the heads, and the motor has been running flawlessly for years.

Boy did I feel stupid/lucky. Nice to know there are other maroons out there…comfort in company :0)


It is summer 1974 and I am putting my 302 back into my 68 Cougar after a rebuild and performance mods. The engine is sealed up except for the Holley and distributor. Why it was in my hand but it was and that was the 1/2" hold down bolt for the distributor. It fell out of my hand and went right into the distributor hole.

On top of that the engine had a windage tray around the crank and I thought &%^&^^&*$#%$$#. In my anger I grabbed what was nearest to me, a baseball bat while my friends leave the garage, and I wham on the top of the intake. After about 20-30 seconds I heard a plink into the empty oil pan. Ah ha the bolt fell all the way through. I proceeded to finish and start the car. Other than the distributor being 180 degrees off, based on the back fire out the carb, it was turned around and the car started fine.

In 2010 when I decided to remove the oil pan to replace it with a nice clean and painted one there was the bolt back by the drain hole.


I admire your persistence and ingenuity! Thanks for the tips.


One of the best sources for small, powerful, neodymium magnets are old Sonicare toothbruch heads (ones approx 1” diameter with a threded mount). There are a pair of magnets approx 1/8” w x 1/16” thick x 1/2” long glued to a steel plate. They can be broken off the plate to use seperately, or a string can be run thru the gap between them. They’re quite strong & are easily superglued to wands, wire, cable, fish tape etc. for a custom, sanity saving solution.


@phigsmith - Now there is the knowledge I come to these forums for! My significant other uses those toothbrush heads, now I can reuse them when they die.


I used to work on oil rigs. One of the rig hands was using a sledge hammer. It slipped out of his hands. You guessed, it went down the hole. The funniest part was watching him, and two other run over and look down the hole. It was 8000’ deep. The not so funny part, was the hole had just been cased (lined with steel). Normally, after casing you go to the bottom and drill through the relatively soft cap at the end of the casing. But a sledge hammer head will prevent this from working. It took two days to fish it out, using a custom made magnet similar to what you used, just bigger and longer.


@ponyconvertible - A magnet on a 8000’ string? That’s funny to think about, but I could only imagine it was not funny then!


Everyone at our garage was talking about this article…we were surprised at how hardware and tools defy astronomical odds and end up costing so much time to retrieve. I mean, you mostly sit there and watch these things fall and wait for it to hit the floor…but the spark plug/socket/extension down the exhaust is the topper! Thanks for the laughs, Rob Siegel!


The string was made of pipe.


Some of the items I have dropped apparently passed the event horizon of the black holes that exist in automobiles never to be seen again. They are somewhere in another universe.`


My borescope has different attachments to he head such as a hook, right angle mirror and a magnet which has saved me many times.

Nothing glamorous but I was adjusting valves on a Civic and had walked away for a minute. When I got back I couldn’t for the life me find the feeler gauge I was using for the intake side. After searching for an hour or so I came to the conclusion I must have dropped it in the head.

So another half hour of searching and fishing I found the feeler half way down the oil return port down the back of the engine. Never would I have imagined that would have fit down there.