How to Use a Plumbing Snake to Unclog Drains

Depending on the clog, a plumbing snake is affordable and effective

Blue drain snake held in front of under the sink pipes

The Spruce / Kevin Norris

Project Overview
  • Total Time: 15 - 25 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $20 to $40

Slow-draining or clogged drains are easy to clear with a drain auger, otherwise known as a drain or plumbing snake.

What Is a Plumbing Snake?

A plumbing snake, also called a drain snake, or drain auger, is a thin, flexible metal cable coiled into a protective drum and is designed to be put deep into a drain to pull out a clog. A professional snake (or auger) can push or "punch" a clog through to loosen it.

While you may need to call in a plumber for stubborn clogs, most clogs due to soft debris can be snagged and removed by a drain snake. With this simple, low-cost device that you can store in a sink cabinet, you'll save time and money by not having a plumber clear your clogged drain.

When to Snake a Drain

Use a drain snake when your sink, shower, or tub drain is draining slowly or is not draining at all due to soft clogs located up to 15 to 25 feet down the line. Snaking or augering a drain can often solve water drainage problems that cannot be cured by chemicals, plunging, or by using a plastic hair snake.

Drain snakes cannot pick up heavy items such as rings, nor can they cut through obstructions in drainage pipes.

How a Drain Snake Works

A snake's cable can be up to 25 feet long. The end of the cable has a corkscrew-type spring that removes clogs in drains.

Pushed by hand, the cable uncoils from the drum and advances through the drain. When the corkscrew end of the snake cable encounters an obstruction, the drum is locked into place, allowing the cable to turn. By turning, its sharp end snags the obstruction and holds onto it, where it can then be pulled back and removed.

Using Plumbing Snakes in Toilets

To fix a clogged toilet, you will need a toilet auger or a closet auger. This is a special type of plumbing snake that's specifically designed with a rubber sleeve to keep the fitting from scratching the porcelain coating of a toilet bowl. You can use a regular snake (but do not use an electric snake in a toilet) to handle a toilet clog, but it can cause damage to the toilet bowl. Use a toilet auger by rotating a handle on one end that guides a long metal tube and cable into the toilet's drain towards the clog.

Safety Considerations

Wear safety glasses and gloves. If the drain contains drain-cleaning chemicals, flush the drain with water before snaking it, if possible. If water is not draining, be careful when pulling out the drain snake to avoid splashback. Here are a few more important tips on how to safely use a drain snake.

  • Do not pour caustic chemicals into the drain prior to snaking it.
  • Be sure to pull the cable straight out. Turning it counter-clockwise may loosen the obstruction and re-deposit it in the drainage pipe.
  • If the snake is stuck, continuing to turn the drum and cable may cause the cable to kink up and become even more stuck. Lock the thumbscrew in place and turn the drum and cable in reverse, while slowly backing the cable out of the drain.


If you don't have a plumbing snake or toilet auger handy at home, rent one from a home improvement retailer. You'll find small and medium snakes and augers for kitchen and bath use.


How to Snake a Drain

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Drain snake
  • Bowl or shallow bucket
  • Rags
  • Old towels
  • Plug wrench (for tubs and showers)


  • Paper towels (optional)


Materials and tools to snake a drain

The Spruce / Kevin Norris


  1. Remove P-Trap and Access Drain

    For sink drains, reach into the sink cabinet and remove the P-trap. The P-trap is the 1 1/4- to 2-inch-diameter curved pipe somewhat shaped like the letter P. This trap holds standing water to seal the drain against sewer gasses entering your home.

    The P-trap can be removed entirely by hand. Place the old towels on the floor of the sink cabinet. Place the bowl or bucket under the P-trap. Using old rags for grip, unscrew the plastic nuts. Release the P-trap and drain the collected water in the container.

    For tubs, the trap can be accessed through the overflow portion of the drain. A manual snake may be difficult to use here; an electric snake is much better at getting around the trap and down the pipes.

    For showers, remove the drain. First, pop off any screens or covers by gently prying with a flat-head screwdriver. Using a plug wrench, turn the drain counterclockwise to remove it.

    P-trap removed from underneath sink drain

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

  2. Extend Cable

    Loosen the thumbscrew on the drum of the drain snake. By hand, extend the cable and push it into the drain pipe. Stop when you reach an obstruction.

    Drain snake cable extended into drain pipe

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

  3. Snag Obstruction

    Tighten the thumbscrew on the drum. Slowly rotate the drain snake handle two or three times.

    Thumbscrew on snake drum tightened to snag obstruction

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

  4. Retract Cable

    Loosen the thumbscrew once again. By hand, slowly pull the cable back toward you.

    Drain snake cable retracted from drain pipe

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

  5. Clear Drain Snake

    Clear the debris from the end of the drain snake. Twist the debris counter-clockwise to remove it; you may need to use a paper towel or other disposable cloth to remove and dispose of the clog.

    Paper towel removing debris from end of drain snake with bucket underneath

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

  6. Continue Clearing Pipe

    If you believe that there are additional clogs, repeat the process, beginning with the first step. Since you cannot test drain flow without reassembling the sink's drainpipe, it's often best to continue snaking the drain until you have reached the end of the cable.

    Drain snake reinserted into pipe to continue clearing

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

  7. Test Drain Flow

    Reassemble the drainage pipe. Run the water to test for drainage.

    P-trap reassembled to drainage pipe under sink

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

  8. Clean Drain Snake

    After snaking the drain, it is important to wash off the drain snake. Bacteria-laden debris and hair will be contained on the spring and along the cable and should not be retracted into the drum. Also, if the cable is left wet, it will rust. After washing the cable, let it dry.

    Drain snake cleaned off with paper towel in sink

    The Spruce / Kevin Norris

When to Call a Professional

Call in a plumber when the distance of the clog exceeds the length of your drain snake. For some drain augers, this may be either 15 feet or 25 feet.

Drain snakes pick up clogs but cannot cut through obstructions. Call a plumber or a rooter-type service, as their motorized sewer machines can bore through and dislodge solid items stuck in pipes.

Drain cleaning is fairly inexpensive, so if you're at all uncertain about your ability to use the snake or clear the drain successfully, calling a pro is your best option.