John is a first-time homeowner with questions about basic home maintenance tasks. He has a patient, highly analytical nature. So when he asked if I thought he could tackle a dripping tub shower faucet, I said, Absolutely.

His first-floor bath, which he uses primarily as a powder room, is actually a full bath. It includes a standard 5-foot tub/shower that had developed a slow drip at the spout. You see, with stem-type compression faucets, small stem washers wear and fail, and allow for dripping. These gaskets must be replaced.

Shower/Tub Faucets come in differing configurations

3 Handle Tub Shower FaucetShower/tub faucets, those that service both a tub and shower head, come in 1-, 2-, or 3-handle configurations. Of all, the 3-handle configuration is probably the most common, and is relatively easy to repair.

In preparation for the repair, I lent John one my library’s most popular books, Black & Decker’s Complete Guide to Home Plumbing (Wow! From a penny on Amazon! back there). It contains the exact procedure that John would be performing, minus some key information that may be important to a newcomer.

To get him ramped up, and to help illustrate some of my points, I gave him a quick demonstration on a diverter valve that I had removed some years ago.


Professional Repair – I estimate cost for a professional plumber to fix this type of leak in a tub faucet at approximately $180-$220 (including trip charge).

John’s Cost – two to three hours on a weekend afternoon, approximately $3 in materials, and my fee: $75, which included a hands-on demonstration, access to literature and the required specialty tools, this expanded procedure, and on-call access to me during the procedure.

Do-it-Yourself Savings — $180-$78 for an overall project savings of $102.

For John:

Note if you can, before removing handles, the manufacturer of the faucet. (Sometimes on the handles.)

Rule 1 with plumbing – Don’t force anything.
Rule 2 with plumbing – Use two hands.
Rule 3 with everything — Don’t do more than you have to.

Biggest Risks

(John had asked me up front what I thought his biggest risks were.) Well, damaging the faucet, of course.

1. This could occur when attempting to either break or re-install the faucet’s stem. It is important to stay on top of the stem when removing it trying not to apply any undue lateral force.
2. Another big issue would be cross threading the stem when reinstalling it. (I simply told John to avoid this if he can.)

The Procedure – Fixing a Leak in a 3-Handle Tub/Shower Faucet:

Included are some Amazon Affiliate links to products you need for this job.

Try to determine if it is the hot or cold side leaking
— This may be hard if you do not have dedicated shut-off valves for that faucet. If you do, shut each off independently and see when the drip stops.
— You may get lucky enough, however, to feel that the drip is hot water. If so, just repair the hot side. If drip is cold, I wouldn’t trust it, plan to do both sides.
Cut the water off for the repair. Open both sides of faucet to drain excess water.
Bleed the system. Many systems are equipped with stop and waste values. (More on stop and waste valves.) A waste valve, in this case, allows you to drain excess water from the plumbing pipes. Failing this, and thinking that you probably do not have an eye for this type of value, I suggest opening a spigot at both the lowest and highest points in the house. This will create a venting effect that will allow you to drain most of the water from the lines.
o Place a towel in bottom of tub to prevent damage to the tub. A second towel will come in handy for excess water.
Remove handles. A handle puller is essential here. (The plumbing book might have a depiction for the use of the handle-removal tool – otherwise, read instructions on the back if you need to.)
Remove sleeves, if present. Try to avoid using a wrench. If you must use a wrench, place a towel under the wrench to minimize marring of the finish on the sleeves.
Note maker of faucet.
Ensure that the stem is in the fully opened, full left, position.
— I am on the fence with this, but I would say try to avoid removing the bonnet nut if you don’t have to. You should use an adjustable wrench on bonnet nut if you decide to do this.
From above, spray lube with Liquid Wrench — let sit for one minute.
Remove stem
— Stems are removed using a Stem Wrench. Purchase a Shower Wrench Set and add to your toolbox.
— Ensure that you have matched your chosen wrench to the stem exactly to prevent stripping of the threads.
— Use two hands and try to ensure your force is exactly squared on the stem.
— If you have to strain to get the stem to break free, a few light taps of a hammer on the tool’s handle may be helpful. Helps vibrate it free.
— If you feel like you are straining too hard and might break it, you will break it. Stop. Email JB.
With the stem in hand, go to the home center. This is usually the hardest part of this job. Try to go on an off hour if you can. Look for the faucet repair aisle, and ask for help. They will ask you if you know what kind of faucet it is. (manufacturer)
–While you are there, pick up some thread sealant (also called pipe dope) — this is for the just in case scenario.
3-handle tub/shower faucet artistic
o Unscrew and replace stem washer. It may be necessary to clean the seat with a wire brush to remove any caked-on debris prior to placing the new one on.
Lightly clean threads of the stem.
Reinstall stem.
— Ensure the stem is still in fully retracted position.
— Don’t cross-thread the stem, square it up and it should screw in with little effort.
— Hand-tighten till snug. (This is a change from my earlier tune.)
— Using the stem tool, give it another quarter-turn. Do not over tighten.
— Close the stem, fully right. Do this by temporarily placing the handle back onto the stem.
Turn water on and check for leaks at the stem where it meets the faucet body.
— If leaking, turn water off and try to tighten a touch more.
o Reassemble sleeve and handle.

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In tackling this job himself, John is acquainting himself with the fundamentals of home plumbing repair and the anatomy of faucets, which together will apply to all faucets in his house. While John has yet to execute this procedure (January 13, 2009), I will surely let you know how he does. My apologies with supporting photos.

For tons more information on working with Plumbing, please explore our top level Category, Plumbing. And thanks for reading. ~jb