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I’m trying to replace an electrical outlet. As I tried to unscrew the screws holding the outlet to the box, the heads broke off; one is basically flush while the other has a little bit of the shaft still visible. enter image description here

How can I attach the new receptacle to the box? I don’t feel confident enough to try to drill out the old screws. I’m not sure what to do.

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    @TylerH, if the screw is so tight that the head sheared off when using a screwdriver, I very much doubt a magnet would be able to turn it.
    – spuck
    Jul 15, 2021 at 16:17
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    @spuck Hence the emphasis on "very" and "might".
    – TylerH
    Jul 15, 2021 at 18:48
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    There's one cable in that box. I'd just replace it. It's a few dollars and takes ten minutes.
    – J...
    Jul 15, 2021 at 19:15
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    If it's a new work box nailed to the stud, what's the best way to remove it without damaging the drywall? I suppose that's it's own question...
    – spuck
    Jul 15, 2021 at 19:50
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    @spuck the drywall opening should be flush to the nailed stud - just slip a thin prybar in and pop it off. If it's screwed, an oscillating tool can slide in there between the box and stud and cut the screws. I'd guess what's there in OP's photo is old work because it's done poorly enough to seem a DIY addition (box is crooked, not flush with the drywall, the cutout is mangled and too small, etc).
    – J...
    Jul 15, 2021 at 21:45

6 Answers 6

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Trying to drill out the screws is not a workable solution for the type of electrical box shown in the picture. The plastic or composite material that the box is made of is much softer than the steel screws. Attempting to drill the screw, especially with a hand drill, will just lead to the drill bit skidding off the top of the screw and digging into the adjacent plastic.

The screw that still has some of its threads sticking out may be able to be removed by clamping onto the stub with a small pair of "Vise Grip" type pliers and turning it with the pliers once gripped on.

enter image description here

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The problem still exists however with the other screw and even if you are able to remove the one with the stub you are still faced with the need that this electrical box will have to be replaced with a new one.

There are a variety of electrical box types called old-work boxes that clamp to the wall board and can be used as a replacement as long as you can get the old box out of the way. That old box is likely nailed to a stud on one side or the other. Removal usually involves removing some wall board and then patching up once the new box is in place. However it is sometimes possible to use one of those hack saws where the blade sticks out the end. You can use it to saw between the side of the stud and the old box to cut off the nails that mount it in place. If done carefully you may just be lucky enough to be able to remount an old-work box in the same hole.

enter image description here

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Another replacement alternative is to mount a new double wide box and then provide a pair of the dual outlets. With careful work you can enlarge the opening just right for the double wide box to fit. This can give you room to work on the removal of the old box even if that means breaking it apart into pieces. Note that there are some clever modern electrical box designs that can mount to the side of the stud using screws that are accessed at an angle from the inside area of the box. Some of these boxes are even adjustable to get just the right wall surface match with the face of the electrical box.

Here is an example of one of the screw mount dual width boxes:

enter image description here

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    I think taking the old box out and replacing with even another single gang old work box should be doable without having the patch the drywall. Just need to carefully cut away the drywall so that the hole is just a few 1/32nds of an inch bigger than the box. The wall plate will be way bigger than the hole. I've never seen that diagonal screw box, what's the advantage of that over the clamp style ones? Seems like holding it in place while screwing it in would be a PIA. Jul 16, 2021 at 12:20
  • I suggested the wider double box because it is much easier to deploy the side screws in the wider box.
    – Michael Karas
    Jul 18, 2021 at 20:56
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Bottom screw: pliers.

Top screw: "mushroom" the plastic around the broken screw by melting it with the head of a common nail held in a propane torch flame for a few seconds. When enough of the screw is exposed, use pliers.

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    next question will be how to replace the melted/mangled screw hole.
    – JDługosz
    Jul 15, 2021 at 22:55
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    Presumably, unscrewing the broken screw with pliers will leave a usable, sorta-threaded hole.
    – MTA
    Jul 16, 2021 at 0:41
  • I wonder if using an old tip on a soldering iron would be more convenient than a nail.
    – UmH
    Jul 16, 2021 at 4:05
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    @UmH It depends a bit on the material, but I've had some success with that in the past. If you scrape the tip before letting it cool down, you can reuse the old tip for more odd jobs like it.
    – Mast
    Jul 16, 2021 at 8:23
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I tried using some PB blaster on the screws, then tried vice grips on the bottom screw. Tried notching the top screw with a Dremel so I could use a flathead on it. These techniques did not work, unfortunately. I’m in a bit of a time crunch, so I didn’t want to try and replace the box and risk having to patch/paint the wall.

I ended up drilling the screws out despite my hesitation. I first used a 1/32” bit, then a 1/16” bit, and finally a 1/8” bit to clean out the holes. The screws were soft enough (likely why they snapped in the first place) that it didn’t take long to drill through them. I swapped out the machined screws on the receptacle with a couple wood screws with coarse threads to grip the plastic. It’s mounted solid and looks great! Thanks for all the suggestions here.

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    thanks for the update. It's usually disappointing seeing the question without knowing what someone ended up doing. Jul 16, 2021 at 12:22
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Drill out or remove the old screws with pliers or cut slits with a dremel.

Failing that, remove the old box and replace it.

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    To elaborate, the bottom screw can be removed just with pliers, but the top is more difficult. I don't think you can just drill it out because the box is plastic and will be ruined if you do, but you can probably remove a small amount of the plastic right around the broken-off screw so as to get a grip on it with pliers and remove it, saving the box and avoiding damage to the wall to replace it. Jul 15, 2021 at 14:40
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    That box looks poorly mounted anyhow, it's recessed too far into the wall, which is probably why the old screws broke. I'd just replace the box, they're cheap enough and anything you do to get those broken screws out is likely to damage the box even further and maybe prevent putting new screws into it. Jul 15, 2021 at 14:57
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If you're looking for a solution that doesn't involve replacing the box, using pliers or a vice grip will work for the bottom screw, as mentioned in other answers.

For the top one, you could try digging out a bit of the plastic around the screw with a utility knife, in order to give enough space to grab the screw shaft with vice grips or pliers, and remove it that way. As long as you don't dig away too much of the plastic, a new screw should still hold.

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The tool you need is called a screw extractor. If you have a 1/16 or 1/32 bit, the extractor works even better if you can drill a tiny pilot hole in the broken screw before using the extractor.

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