Some More DIY Don’t Do’s… Learned the Hard Way

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Maybe you are thinking about doing some of the upkeep your car needs yourself. It’s a great way to save some money – and can be very satisfying, too. But it’s important to know what you’re doing – and do the job the right way, with proper tools and proper procedures. Hurting yourself – or hurting your car – will quickly turn you off to the idea of DIY maintenance.

Here are a few tips to help keep it fun – and keep you (and your car) from becoming one of the walking wounded:

*Never scrape, grind or drill without wearing eye protection –

There’s nothing like a metal shaving in the cornea to focus one’s attention on the true value of a $5 pair of safety goggles. Wear them  whenever you are working with power tools – especially grinders and saws – or lying on your back underneath the car fiddling with something above you. Gravity just loves to drop loosened crud directly into your eyes. It’s no fun, son – and it can cause permanent damage.

*Wrong tool for the job –

A classic mistake born of cheapness – or laziness. Using wrong-sized or too short/too-long tools can and will cause skinned knuckles and much frustration. The upside is you will probably have busted whatever you were working on, too. To prevent the pain – and ruined parts – figure out before you get to work what tools you’ll need to do the job you’re thinking of undertaking. For example, installing brake shoes requires special tools to seat the springs that hold the friction materials to the backing plate; without them, you’re stuck with pliers and vise-grips – neither of which works especially well even if you have them (and you probably don’t).

You don’t necessarily have to buy the full monte NASCAR mechanic’s tool set to do a job. In fact, many auto parts stores will let you rent or even borrow for free some specialized tools (such as gear pullers, etc.) that you may only need to do this one job – and which you may not need to use again for years. This is much more cost-effective than buying a tool you may only need to use every 10 years or so.

*The shocker –

Your car is a mini-electricity plant, with its very own generating system (the alternator) and power amplification tower (the primary and secondary ignition circuits). The coil turns the 12 volts ginned-up by the battery and alternator into 30,000-50,000 volts to fire the spark plugs. It won’t kill you because the amperage is low but the jolt will definitely get your attention if you are foolish enough to stick your fingers where they shouldn’t go. The more serious danger is that you’ll accidentally short/fry-out your wiring harness while trying to install something.  To avoid this disaster, always disconnect the negative cable at the battery (ground) before doing anything that invloves your car’s wiring/elctrical system. Reconnect the negative cable when you’re done working and you should be ok.

While we’re on the subject of electricity: Jump-starting any late model computer-controlled car can be a risky thing. The power surges/spikes that occur can damage sensitive electronic components. Be sure you exactly follow the specific procedures recommended in your vehicle’s owner manual. Don’t connect the cables in any way except the way – and in the order – recommended by the owner’s manual. The safest thing to do in the event of a dead battery is remove it, have it recharged or replaced and then go about your business. A few hours’ hassle is worth it if it means you skate by $1,800 worth of damage to your multiplexed wonder wagon.

*The Force Fit –

When some part doesn’t seem to want to go where it’s supposed to, it’s easy to get angry – and start pushing and twisting and hammering. Don’t do it! If something isn’t happening the way the repair book says it should, step back, grab a beer (or coffee, whatever) and ponder it for awhile. It’ll come to you. Examples include bolts that won’t turn in (caused by dirty threads), “press fit” components that aren’t budging (likely needs some light Lithium grease or Vaseline or removal of slight surface rust with emory cloth/light sandpaper) – that kind of thing. Force that nut and you’ll strip the threads or (much worse) snap the stud off in the hole. Bang on something that’s supposed to pop in pretty smoothly (wheel bearing races, steering wheels) and you can cause seriously expensive damage.

*Sharp things –

Watch how you handle knives and razor blades. A locking blade (preferably housed in a scraper) is the safest way to avoid arterial bleeding and a trip to the emergency room. This is just common sense but it’s amazing how many of us only get it after we hurt ourselves once … or twice.

* Respirators/filters –

Want lung cancer? Diminished mental capacity? How about kids with flippers? Then don’t spray paint (even if it’s in cans) work on brakes or sand anything, etc. without wearing a face mask/breather that will keep dangerous particles and vapors from getting into your lungs and from there to your bloodstream. You can buy disposable-type masks for less than $10 a pack at Sears. A good filtered respirator face/mask with replaceable filters costs about $50. Much cheaper than an oxygen tank.

*Gas is not delicious –

If you need to check whether a hose is clogged don’t stick one end in your mouth and inhale. Use a mechanical siphon/vacuum pump and your stomach will be happier.

*Follow the instructions –

Don’t improvise – or ignore a procedure because it doesn’t seem important. It usually is. For example, adhering to such things as bolt-tightening sequences on cylinder heads and looking up the torque values (how tight a bolt should be) rather than simply strong-arming stuff into place. On newer cars with lots of aluminum parts it’s especially important to not over-tighten bolts. That includes wheel lug nuts, otherwise you risk warping the disc brake rotors. Do that once – and face the bill – and you’ll never do it again.

*Ask someone –

If something has you flummoxed, maybe someone else has a better idea. Online, you can scout Forums and bulletin boards (for the make/model vehicle you’re working on). Often, someone else has dealt with the same issue you’re dealing with – and figured it out. Even better, you may know someone who knows cars. Give them a call. People at auto parts stores can be helpful, too. Just confirm they know what they’re talking about before you actually do anything.

And, finally – and most important of all:

*Don’t rush –

The scenario here is beginning a complicated project Sunday afternoon, not taking into account that the car must be operational come Monday morning to get you to the office. Before you know it, the clock on the wall says 11:30 and and you’re hip deep in grease and just discovered you need a part you don’t have to get the car running again. Always  budget sufficient time to do the repair carefully and correctly; to get what you need – and to deal with the unexpected, which if you work on cars long enough you will learn to expect. If you don’t get finished as the deadline draws near, relax. There’s always a ride to be bummed from friends or family – and failing that, a taxi.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. vintage grid girl before multi-million dollar sponsors took over. Ellie Mays from the old days. do these airbrushed cookie-cutter cuties in identical vinyl and polyester outfits even exist anywhere? I hope so, but I’m skeptical.

    PIT BABES – Guácima 2013

    Guácima Hooters Hotties

    If you’re bored of DIY, perhaps a trip to Costa Rica is in order?

    Don’t let the Chimps scare you away from considering all aspects of the market. Looking and thinking is free. Forget the Chimpanzees entirely. It’s the Bonobos that know what’s up!

    Del Rey Hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica

    Del Ray

    Sleep Inn

  2. The top level of DIY is making alterations to real estate and to fixtures.

    I would definitely make a car inspection pit somewhere on your property. Ideally out in a shed if you have land.

    In addition to serving as a safe means to work on your vehicle, you can see that it might serve many other purposes, if you’re able to pull off something like this. Really, any kind of pit is better than buying solutions from a corporate megastore.

    Maintenance Pit Can Serve As
    1 place to hide out, should you need to disappear, or sequester you loved ones.
    2 place to put someone you had to unexpectedly 3S.
    3 place to hide gold, weapons, and high value SHTF items
    4 place to serve as a survival bunker in a zombie apocalypse

    The Car Inspection Pit

    The Car Inspection Pit Part 2

    Tips For A Better Pit

    1 do construction in secret by yourself. ideally locate the pit where noone will be able to determine you’re using it to work on your vehicle. always work on vehicles in secret and when alone.
    2 pit needs to be deep, probably with a false bottom, containing a bunker pit within you maintenance pit.
    3 pit should be completely hidden. put in the extra effort to make it seamlessly indetectable from above.
    4 pit needs to have power with outlets. these outlets are for tools, make sure it appears this is their only use.
    5 have bug out kit to take down into pit. you can use the outlets to power heater, ac, tv, computer, cell phone, fridge, microwave. kit should include bedding, clothes, medicines, whatever else you need.
    6 pit needs some kind of waste disposal, fresh water access, surveillance system, and many other things, use creative thinking
    7 this can be a minor or a major prepper project. it will teach you all the handyman and operational security type of skills you might need, should the SHTF. most importantly, never discuss any aspect of this with anyone unless absolutely unavoidable.

  3. “While we’re on the subject of electricity: Jump-starting any late model computer-controlled car can be a risky thing. The power surges/spikes that occur can damage sensitive electronic components…”

    how is the surge from reconnecting the negative terminal functionally different from (re)connecting the negative terminal when jump starting?

  4. Question: Any recommendations on a good fuel siphon (gas/diesel)?

    This is both a practical question, as above indicated, but also a SHTF scenario. Need something portable and simple. I could carry a politician around with me and use the vacuum generated by all the bloviating, but they’re large, kind of expensive to maintain and I couldn’t handle the noise. I’m afraid they may break if asked to do honest work.

    Anyone know how to get gas out of an underground storage tank at a gas station post-TEOTWAWKI? Just thinking ahead.

    • Manual/portable siphons – some with gallon containers attached – are easy to find at places like Tractor Supply Store and also probably online through various retailers, Have you tried Googling?

      • There’s a gazillion different models/styles out there. Just go to Amazon and search for “siphon” and you’ll see what I mean. Hoping to find a good place to start.

        I know it’s not rocket science, and they’re cheap enough to just buy a few and see what I like best, but was wondering if anyone else had a preference.

        • I have one I like but it’s been out in the shed for years and I can’t remember who made it or where I got it! But – probably – Tractor Supply. Do you have one on your area?

  5. Unfortunately, when working on cars there are two situations. Situation 1 – You don’t need the car immediately for transportation. You can take your time. When you hit a snag, you can do the research and necessary tool and part procurement to do the job correctly. Situation 2 – You need the car NOW. Not good, but it happens. You end up using whatever you can to get the car back on the road.

    I like working on cars in Situation 1, but hate it in Situation 2.

    • That is exactly right and is the difference between the two outcomes, sometimes. For the home wrench we think ahead about these situations and keep our machines in decent order. Personally, I keep every nut/bolt/screw/rubber/plastic/wire/anything clean and moisturized with oil or protectants. Oh, and I don’t over tighten ANYTHING, anti-seize almost EVERYTHING, and loctite only what is NECESSARY. When I know a job is coming (like the exhaust manifold on my Saturn) I begin spraying it and keep it soaked with oil/PB Blast to hopefully make the job easier. I have multiple vehicles and that is really the ultimate key like you said.

  6. The new “green” hybrid electrics will indeed “kill” you. They have more than enough voltage and amps to do so. DO NOT do anything to them. Take it to the geniuses you bought it from, you frickin idiot! I can’t believe they sell them, and I am an ASE master, and if you own one HA HA. I don’t need the grief from these true orphan cars.

    • I have a new Prius this week – the owner’s manual has a whole section devoted to this. What to do (not to do) in the event of an accident and how to properly dispose of the car, etc. It will be interesting to see what happens years from now, when there are “ancient” hybrids still still clunking along in the hands of po’ folks who decide to try to “see what’s in there” and so on…..

        • Being young and po’ is a dangerous combo…. you want to do it right, but you’re inexperienced and can’t afford proper tools… but you’re young, so you try to do it anyway, often the wrong way.

          • Being young and poor made me the mechanic I am. I do very few things wrong and haven’t in decades. If I don’t know how, I buy a book to find out or ask one of my friends who owns a shop. I learn something every time I repair something unless it’s something I’ve done before and there’s nothing else to know except that it needs to be replace. This doesn’t work for brakes since every time they need to be serviced, the rotors have changed, bearings have loosened and several factors may come into play that weren’t there the last time. I learned from experience at a young age to forget wheel cylinder rebuild kits existed and simply paid more for new ones. Rarely do the rebuilds last long and then that costs new wheel cylinders you should have used in the first place, new shoes and always but always, reface your drums and rotors and make sure there’s enough metal to reface since I have refaced drums till they were so big trey ruined all the new parts I had installed. Once you drive twelve miles backward because the drums had jammed going forward from parts that had been installed on drums that were taken out too far, you’ll realize you would have been better off to go to the junkyard and look for a good drum and if there are just none available, bite the bullet and buy new ones of a good quality. The best thing my dad ever did for me was to ban my driving to the old farm pickup(I was too young for a license but had chores to do)and never spend a dime at the shop to have it fixed. I learned about just about all the major and minor fixes on that pickup. I wish I still had it since it was a ’55 Custom Cab Chevy with a wraparound back glass. It had originally come with a 4 speed hydramatic transmission but when I got it it had a heavy duty 3 speed manual with underdrive and was unbelievably tough. You couldn’t hurt those old Chevy inline sixes.

        • For some people, it will be the only thing they win. 😉

          Reminds me of when I wanted to change the brakes on my VW Golf. I could not remove the rear brakes. It turned out I needed a special tool to slowly remove the brakes. Fortunately, I did not try to force it and really mess things up. I got brakes replaced for $80+parts. I watched how the job was done & asked questions. Now I am ready for the next time.

          When I tried to change the oil the 1st time on the same VW, I had to go to the store to get a T-20 Torx screwdriver to remove the under pan. What should have been a 15-20 minute job became about 1 hr. I got better at this and got my time to about 30minutes.

  7. hmm… I have a complete set of the proper brake drum tools and often find that standard tools work better. When the brake spring pliers can’t get it done the channel locks usually work well.

    • Shoot, me has the same tools. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used dikes though to pull springs back on! -doh There is a really cool tool I found though that is excellent for pulling springs (of course I don’t have it) but it’s like a screw driver but has a tip and screws down and locks around the spring. I love it. Matter of fact I am going to find one this week and purchase it.

      • Got two of them, they are worth it! There’s also a couple of tools for the rear shoes on ford trucks, it releases the hold down springs for the brake shoes, very nice! Chase down the Matco Tool truck or the Snap-On truck.

        • My buddy – who is also a professional mechanic – has a number of neat tools, including one for easing the tension on those factory clip-style hose camps that are sometimes located in impossible or near-impossible to get at places. It’s on a flexible cable, too – so you can snake it down to the lower radiator hose (for example) and get the clip-clamp off without torturing yourself. I told him to get me one when the tool truck swings by next time!

    • Never, ever, work under a raised vehicle that is not supported by fixed axle stands. I’ve seen a hydraulic trolley jack fail whilst supporting an E Type jag at full lift. My buddy didn’t bother with stands as he was only going to be under the Jag for a few seconds. Luckily he took the wrong tool under with him and rolled out to get the right one. I never saw him get under a car again without axle stands or a cross beam support.


      • When I was very young (teenager) and first getting into cars and bikes I and several of my “colleagues” did the Darwin Challenge several times – due to both lack of funds as much as lack of experience (and good judgment). When you’re 15 or so and $50 is a titanic sum of money, it is easy to decide to spend that on a set of glasspacks for your first project rattletrap than on the jackstands you’ll need to get underneath the car safely. We just got lucky. A few times, I recall us working underneath a car using the flimsy little tire change jack from the car’s trunk. When I think back on it, I can’t believe some of the stuff we did…. and lived to tell about.

        • I replaced the rear shocks on my car yesterday (money vs time) and I can attest to the value of fixed stands. The pump on the jack failed. (slow fail, but I still would not have gotten out of the car on time and I know my skull cannot support the weight my 2007 Sentra). I had the jack as back up and it did its job saving my neck.

          A shop manual for the car is work the money you spend for it. (Tells you what to do with appropriate pictures)
          Youtube is great if some one did the work that you want to do.

          I never replaced the shocks/struts before, but I really need to replace the on my Nissan. Last winter really highlighted the need. I had a shop look at the shocks/struts and was told they are all no good. (I knew/suspected that since every small imperfection in the road seem the same as running through a pot hole ridden road. They were not doing any cushioning of the ride at all or keeping the wheels on the road either.)

          I was looking for quick struts for my car, but they are unavailable. 🙁

          The Dealer wanted about $1000 just for parts + $100/hr labor
          Local shops ask between $700 to $1200 +local tax. I did not want to spend that much.

          I got a shop manual and order parts online for about $340.
          Replaced the rear shocks yesterday. Took me about 4 hours. With the shop manual and right tools it was not too bad. Passenger side (easy access) was much easier than the driver side (access by feel around the muffler with an extension).

          Advanced Auto has free loaner for the Spring Compressor kit. I got the Strut compressor and Coil spring compressor kit depending on what I need.

          I thought about doing the front struts this morning, but I need the car later today and I do not want to rush the job.

          According to the shop manual I will need to remove part/all of the top cowl to get at the struts (ugh) It looks like it could be an all day event if things do not go well.

          Fortunately I have a torque wrench with good tools so i can do it right the first time.

          If weather is good, I look to replace the front struts Monday.

          Sorry for the long post.

          • Definitely good to do the job yourself. I know I have interest to do the job right. Money saved can be used to get quality tools to work on the car and other things around the house.

            If I had a good car lift and any specialized tools (if they were available) I probably could have done the job in about 2 hours.

            I probably should have worn protective glasses to minimize risk of rust/dust in the eyes.

          • The front struts stymied me. One bolt just would not come out. Had to call on a local mechanic to bail me out.

            Although I was not able to finish the work by myself, it was worth the attempt.


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