Some thoughts about working on your car
Working on your own car is the highest paying job that most of us can ever
hope to land. Because of the tax and profit structure under which business
operates, you have to be making $200K+ per year before you can swap an hour
of your time for an hour of mechanic's time. More if you use the dealer.
Granted, the average amateur works at half the speed of a professional. The
professional does this full time, and the amateur burns a weekend on it
every couple of months. No big deal. The professional wants to get the job
out the door and get paid, and the amateur wants the job to be done right.
Niceties like anti-seize (see below) are rarely used in professional shops.
Amateurs rarely cut corners, the pros know what they can get away with,
and they do.
Especially the dealer's mechanics!
Stuff to consider acquiring
- A Haynes manual for your car. They cover most models and are
better than the Chilton's.
- After a while, you'll want the real factory manual. $Expensive$!!!
Try eBay or halfPrice.
- A full set of vice grips. These easily mar steel when clamped hard,
and can damage you and/or your car if you aren't careful when using them.
They are frowned upon by most professional documentation, but they often can
substitute for the many special tools called for by your manual. Avoid the
cheapies, these have to be good. Get real Vice Grips.
- A large stack of rags.
- A can or large tube of Anti-Seize. This is one of the most useful things
you can have around. As you finish up on a job, you cover every threaded
fastener's threads with anti seize. This will insure that they stay tight at
the torque you tighten it to, and that they come off again. Since I
discovered this wondrous goop, I haven't had a stuck lug bolt, spark plug,
oxygen sensor, you name it. I put this on everything with the exception of
head bolts and connecting rod bolts (they spend their lives drenched in oil,
and don't need the protection). After you've done a timing belt change with,
and without anti-seized fasteners, you'll be a fervent believer, too.
- A BIG flat bladed screwdriver. It's almost never used
as a screwdriver, but it makes a capital pry bar.
- A 3-5 pound (1.5 - 2 Kg) short handled hammer. Often called a "drilling"
hammer. Applied to the side of a combination wrench, this substitutes for an
- A good set of combination wrenches. These can fit where fancy sockets
and rackets can't, and on todays cars, there are a lot of tight places.
I use Craftsman, myself, and have yet to break one. Professional friends,
who use theirs about 100 times more than I, prefer Snap-on or Mac.
- Sockets. These are part of almost every tool set sold a the large box
stores, so I assume you've already got a set. Extensions are very useful as
well, as are deep and shallow sockets. Your car will have a few weird
fasteners, like Torx nuts or splined Allen nuts, and you'll have to buy these
from the snap on guy, or a very large hardware store. Try online.
- A flashlight. Very useful in showing you well hidden nuts, even on a sunny
day. I use a mag light, as it doesn't break when dropped, unlike the cheap
- A mirror on a stick. Looks like a large dental mirror. Not as useful as
the flashlight, but sometimes, it's essential
- Keeping clean:
Working on cars is fairly dirty. No getting around it. There are some
things that you can do to keep the filth at bay.
- Surgical gloves tear easily and are uncomfortable for long periods of
time. They can, however, be useful for times when you're dealing with
carcinogens, like raw gas. The stuff we merrily pump into our cars every
week or so is fairly nasty, and anti freeze is quite poisonous.
- Most of the time you deal with oily dirt, not nearly as dangerous. I've
found that using DuPont's liquid glove or most any other liquid soap on
your hands and under your nails before you start work goes a long way
towards an easier clean up. Dry your hands with a hair dryer once you're
throughly soaped them. Note that surgical gloves, as long as they stay intact,
are much better at keeping you hands clean.
- Wear your "grubs" around the car. Worn out clothes work fine, and if
you tear them, who cares? This keeps peace in the family!
- Cleaning the area where you'll be working with and engine spray cleaner
can be a good idea, but be careful with that stuff. It's not a good idea
to spray it near your spark plug wires or distributor, and it's not really
good for radiator hoses or other items made of rubber.
- The night before you're going to do a job, try spraying all exposed nuts
and bolts you'll be taking off with solvent (PB blaster is good).
Expect a disaster.
Disasters happen. You get your brakes apart and a bolt breaks, rendering
the entire car useless. Can you get the offending part off of the car,
take it to a machine shop and have them extract the remainder of the bolt?
Can you drill it out yourself or use an "easy out"? Soak it in solvent
(e.g. PB Blaster), let it sit for an hour, and then grab the stub that's left
with the vice grips and get it out that way? Granted, this rarely happens,
but you should be ready for it when it does. It's hassles like this that
discourage many. In this business, persistence is critical. Don't give up.
This is very important. Take the time to lay out the tools you're going
to use for a job, and put them back when you're done. This will save an
enormous amount of time in searching for misplaced tools.
The plastic fruit trays that Costco sells apples and pears in are wonderful
for holding parts as you take them off of the car. Lacking this, muffin tins
also work well.
Clean parts before you put them back on the car.
Junk yards are a great place to get parts. They are faster and much cheaper
than the dealer. Be careful about getting rubber and plastic parts, however,
as these can and do age, becoming quite brittle and useless.
I've had good luck with "aftermarket" parts as well, sold by the car parts
stores. The last place I go is the dealer, as those parts are usually twice
the price of aftermarket and as much as ten times the price of used parts.