7 Principles of Problem Solving: Bathroom Sink Edition


I don’t really need to write an article about how to remove and install a faucet in a bathroom sink. When you buy a new faucet it comes with instructions that are easy to follow, include illustrations and even have little cartoon drawings of every tool you’ll need. So, that’s not what this is.

When you have to fix a faucet or build a table or put a sliding screen door back on its track, what you’re doing is problem solving. The table isn’t a repair, but you’re solving the problem of where to set your whiskey down – there will also be challenges to your plans (if you made plans) that didn’t show up on paper. So every step of the way, you’re encountering, assessing, addressing and solving problems. Problem solving is a tool in your skill set, so let’s talk about using that tool.

Back to the sink. This is a good jumping off place because the basic instructions are pretty simple and more or less universal. Also, I just did this.

1 – Anticipate Problems

Make a plan for your project. When I build a table I tend to know what I want it to look like and then problem solve my way through the process – but I still have a plan as I approach each step. For a more structured project, like the sink, make your plan a clear one. I know how to remove a faucet, but I also know it’s never as simple as it should be. So when my friend Ted asked if I could fix his leaking faucet, I asked him to send me photos of the fixture and the underside of the sink.

top and bottom

I could see from the pix that instead of the standard 4-inch unit, I was dealing with an 8-inch, wide-spread faucet with separate handles and spout. I could also see that it was a pedestal sink and that the underside of the fixtures would be easy to access. Given this information I knew what tools to bring, where to start and how much time the job should take.

2 – Roll With the Punches

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” (I guessed it was von Clausewitz). Immediately, people began paraphrasing it as the much better, ”No plan survives contact with the enemy.” And then Mike Tyson summed it up with the elegant, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

You can’t avoid getting hit. People tend to want to roll back in the direction of the blow to avoid or at least lessen the impact. But that puts you in retreat and on defense. You have to close the distance and not let that punch rock you back. That doesn’t mean don’t make a plan. It means don’t freeze up when you can’t move on to Step 2 because Step 1 didn’t go like you thought it would. Those sink fixtures were my enemy, and they punched me in the mouth.

3 – Use the Proper Tool for the Job

Some problems come pre-solved for you. Reaching up behind a sink to get at the nuts that secure the faucet is an awkward, knuckle busting impossibility. So someone invented the basin wrench. This tool has a long shaft with jaws at the end that flip from one side of the other, to tighten or loosen a nut.

Basin wrench

It’s perfect for getting up into that narrow space where your hand just won’t fit with a tool in it. So part of problem solving is knowing what’s already been done to make your life easier. If you’re performing a task that people do all the time, chances are good there’s a tool for it. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find out what that tool is and get one.

4 – Unless That Tool Doesn’t Work

There are two nuts to remove under each valve handle. One smaller one holds the water supply to the valve stem and the other holds the valve body to the bottom of the sink. With Ted’s sink, I reached the smaller nuts no problem and removed them with ease. The larger one is further up where it’s narrower and the head of the wrench was too wide to get in there. Now what? The whole point of that wrench is to reach into a narrow space – in fact, into that particular narrow space.

Lean in

Here’s where I took my first punch. Instead of it rocking me back, I leaned in (literally) to analyze the problem. Start asking yourself some basic questions.

What am I trying to do? 

Remove a nut.

What kind of nut?

On a valve stem.

What else can do that?

I need a wrench that can fit over the whole stem and grab the nut like a socket wrench.

Like a shower valve socket?


Shower valve socket

A shower valve socket wrench is obviously for taking apart a shower valve, which you do from the front rather than the back. But with the water supply already removed from the sink faucet the socket could slip right over it. It’s still not designed for tight places, and I had to reach up with a screwdriver to get enough leverage to turn it (and a little WD40 on the threads helped), but without too much effort the first nut came lose. Of course, there are two of these nuts.

5 – Read the Instructions and Follow Them

Just like knowing the proper tool will save you time and effort, knowing how the job’s supposed to be done is an arrow in your quiver. Someone’s already figured out how to do this thing and learning from their experience helps avoid problems in the first place.


If you know me, and especially if you’ve ever spent any time in my shop you know this is a total lie, and that I never read the directions. But in my shop time my first order of business is to discover, experiment, challenge myself and end up with a cool end table – not to repair a sink as well and efficiently as possible. Recently I was handed a carburetor to disassemble, which I’d never done before. I followed the directions step by step because I had to reassemble the thing in working order (and it belonged to someone else). Without instructions I’d still be wondering what to do with all the leftover parts.

Sometimes knowing the instructions happens years in advance, as in my case with the sink, but the principal is the same. Be familiar with the proven way to do the job at hand.

6 – Unless the Instructions Don’t Work

Sometimes you do everything right, and still don’t get the outcome you’re looking for. In the case of the sink, even my solution failed to be a solution, when the nut on the second handle was so frozen the shower valve socket couldn’t budge it.

frozen nut

That’s when you have to reevaluate not just how to do something, but how to think about it. That takes a different set of questions.

What are you doing?

Removing a valve handle.


To put in a new one.

So all you need is for it to be gone?


Can you take it apart instead of removing it?


Disassemble valve

Don’t get trapped by the surface description of what you’re doing. Figure out what the underlying need is and how you can achieve it. If all you’re thinking about is trying to remove that nut, you’ll miss the larger solution – which is to ignore the nut all together. The handle could be disassembled from the top and that nut was still frozen in place when Ted put it in the recycling.

7 – Identify the Actual Problem

We’ve gone through a bunch of steps and solutions to get that faucet off, but ask yourself why you’re replacing it in the first place.

Why am I replacing this faucet in the first place?

It’s leaking.

Why is it leaking?

The valves are shot.

Is this a recurring issue?


What makes valves fail?


There is too much water pressure coming from the street into Ted’s house. The sink I worked on has had multiple faucets replaced over the years, but they continue to fail because the actual issue was never identified or addressed. So set all your steps and instructions aside and ask yourself why you’re even considering taking on this project in the first place. You may be throwing your energy in the wrong direction. This faucet was already blown out by the pressure, so replacing it wasn’t a waste of time, but the next time I go to Ted’s house I’m going to take care of the pressure situation. It’s a simple job that only involves turning a screw the proper number of times in the proper direction, but that’s if there are no problems.

Pressure regulator

Ted is the host of the podcast Learning Not To Swear with Ted Lyde and he interviewed me after I finished with his sink. We talk DIY, parenting, career, problem solving, collar bones and why someone would quit their corporate job to start their own home improvement/DIY/Maker website. Check it out.

And this is what the whole sink repair looks like from beginning to end: