How to Fix a Locked Steering Wheel

Two Methods:Loosening Sticky LocksReplacing the Ignition Lock Assembly

Steering wheels lock in position as part of a vehicle’s safety features. The main purpose of a locked wheel is to prevent vehicle movement when there is no key, or if the wrong key is inserted into the ignition. This helps to deter vehicle theft, while also providing a strong measure of safety when towing or hauling a vehicle. However, ignition tumblers experience a lot of mechanical movement and force over time and often fail, preventing the steering wheel from unlocking.

Method 1
Loosening Sticky Locks

  1. Image titled Fix a Locked Steering Wheel Step 1
    Loosen up sticky locks with graphite powder. Ignition locks normally become difficult to turn or unlock long before they completely fail. To prolong an ignition tumbler's life, apply graphite powder inside the keyhole when regular vehicle maintenance is performed.
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    Try pulling the steering wheel left and right while turning the key. Tumblers that haven’t jammed solid can sometimes be worked free by pulling the steering wheel left and right while turning the key on and off. This technique usually works a few times before the ignition lock assembly proves unsuccessful at releasing the tumblers lock pin.
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    Use a release agent like WD-40. Applying a release agent like WD-40 may also help to release the steering wheel. However, this is only a stop-gap measure and you should plan on replacing the ignition lock cylinder as soon as possible after the steering wheel begins to jam.

Method 2
Replacing the Ignition Lock Assembly

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    Understand how the ignition lock works. Ignition locks work by engaging a small steel pin inserted into a corresponding hole on the steering column, providing a simple lock effect.
    • When the ignition key is turned forward to the “on” position, this lock-pin retracts into the tumbler (out of the hole in the steering column) and frees the steering wheel.
    • However, if the steering wheel lock-pin fails to retract, the ignition tumbler needs replacement.
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    Purchase a new ignition lock assembly. Ignition assemblies are easily replaced in most vehicles and can be done at home.
    • Vehicle manufacturers don’t change part numbers often and obtaining the correct replacement from part stores, is not usually an issue.
    • Purchase a new ignition lock assembly prior to removal of failed assembly. Compare and verify the replacement is an identical match before attempting reinstallation.
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    Remove the cover covering the ignition. Generally, most vehicles have a split-plastic housing that covers the steering column and ignition lock assembly. Remove this plastic cover by first adjusting the tilt-wheel to it’s lowest position.
    • If it's not equipped, remove the steering column support brace under the dashboard and allow the column to hang.
    • Remove the fasteners from the column cover, separate the two halves and remove.
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    Use an allen wrench to release the ignition assembly. Identify the ignition assembly and remove any components that prevent access to the ignition wire harness connector and tumbler release hole.
    • Ignition tumblers have a tiny hole where an inserted 9/32” allen wrench releases the assembly while turning the ignition key backwards, simultaneously.
    • Release the tumbler and pull the key out along with the ignition assembly, taking care to unplug the ignition switch wire connector together.
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    Ensure the new ignition switch is well-greased. Once the ignition assembly is removed, compare the new switch and ensure they match. Installation is simply the reverse of removal.
    • New ignition switches come pre-lubed from the factory ready to install. Verify the presence of grease on all external moving parts and ensure the new key fits and that the cylinder rotates smoothly in both directions.
    • It does not harm the tumbler to apply a moderate amount of white lithium grease to moving parts, if they are found to be dry.
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    Ensure that the internal lock pins can move freely. Ensure free movement of the the internal lock pins by inserting the key completely in and out of keyhole several times.
    • Sticking lock pins are lubricated using powdered graphite that is applied directly inside the keyhole.
    • Graphite comes in small tubes designed to “squirt” the powder with enough force to reach the back of any keyhole. It can be added when needed.
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    Slide the cylinder into place and reconnect the switch plug. When satisfied the new assembly is correct and properly lubricated, slide cylinder into position and make sure it is locked in place. Reconnect the switch plug and reinstall any parts previously removed.
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    Start the engine to ensure the steering wheel lock disengages. Before securing the steering column (if disconnected) and plastic cover, check for proper engine start and steering wheel lock engage/disengage.
    • Steering column bolts usually have torque specifications which are located in the vehicle’s repair manual, in the specification section.
    • If no torque specs are found, tighten bolts firmly using a long handled ratchet for leverage. Column bolts can not be allowed to vibrate loose while driving, allowing the loss of steering control.
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    Consult your car's repair manual for specific instructions. This procedure is the standard for most foreign and domestic vehicle’s, however there is always new technology and design introduced every year by manufacturers. In the case a vehicle does not follow the standard replacement procedure to replace the vehicle ignition assembly, consult the vehicle’s repair manual for specific instructions.


  • An ignition lock assembly is the terminology used to describe the combination of the keyed cylinder, electrical switches and steering wheel lock mechanism. This assembly is purchased and replaced as a unit and is found at all automotive part stores, or dealerships.
  • A vehicle specific repair manual is helpful, if removal process is not apparent or understood.

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Categories: Car Maintenance and Repair