Working on Cars – Tips That Might Help

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working on cars leadExperience is a great teacher. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years working on cars that may help you avoid hassles when working on your car:

* Remove the fill plug before you remove the drain plug –

This applies mostly to manual transmissions and rear axles, which typically have a drain plug mounted somewhere near the bottom of the case and a fill plug located higher up, often on the side of the case. A beginner’s mistake – one that can lead to extreme frustration (and possibly, expense) is to remove drain plug – and with it, all the fluid (gear lube/transmission fluid) and then discover that you can’t get to the fill plug.

Or can’t get it out.

Now, you can’t refill the transmission (or axle) with fresh lube. Which means… you can’t drive the vehicle.

Hence: Always locate – and remove – the fill plug first.tranny 1

Usually, the fluid/lube level will be at or just below the level of the fill plug, so it will not come gushing out when you remove the fill plug. But it will facilitate faster/more complete draining once you remove the drain plug. And – most important of all – you’ll know you can refill the case before you drain the case.

Helpful extra: Many transmission/axle drain and fill plugs can often be removed using a 3/8 or 1/2 inch socket extender. The “boxed” shape of the extender exactly fits the drain plug bolt and is deep enough for a secure (non-wobbly) fit. Use the largest (longest) driver (or breaker bar) that’ll fit in the space available to loosen the drain/fill plugs. They are often very tight. Leverage is your friend. Dousing them with PB Blaster or similar penetrant about 30 minutes before trying to loosen them also helps.

But whatever you do, don’t force them – or you might end up with a truly hideous scene. A cracked/broken case, for instance – which will take many dollars to remedy.

* A light coat (or dab) of Vaseline –  gasket pic

Is just the ticket for holding a gasket in place while you line parts up. Particularly case covers with lots of bolts, such as differential covers and automatic transmission pans. In addition to making it easy to get parts together properly, it will also make it a lot easier to take them apart again, later on. The gasket will not have to be scraped off with a razor blade. Just peel it off.

No fuss, much less muss.

Vaseline can also be used to hold small parts in place during installation – such as the little check balls in an automatic transmission’s valve body – that would otherwise fall out of place and drive you nuts.

* Start all bolts/spark plugs, etc. by hand (and wiggle as you turn) –

Few things can ruin your day like cross-threading a spark plug  or  bolt. It hasn’t happened to me in years because I’ve learned to first make sure the threads are clean (you can use a wire brush for this) then begin turning them in (righty, tighty) by hand, wiggling them slightly at first to help seat the threads. You’ll soon develop an instinctive feel for proper (and improper) engagement. Only when you’re sure the spark plug or bolt is threading properly should you bring out the ratchet or wrench. Be extra careful when tightening a plug on an aluminum cylinder head. Just slightly tighter than hand-tight is usually safe – and even if it’s not quite there, it’s far better to leave it a bit loose than too tight.cross thread

Smart move: Invest in a torque wrench to be certain you’ve tightened whatever it is just enough … but not too much. A good one will cost you about $50-$75.

Much cheaper than pulling a head to fix a ruined thread.

* An old syringe can help you keep your brake (and hydraulic clutch) fluid clean –

Probably the most effective way to avoid expensive brake (and clutch system) problems is by keeping the brake/clutch fluid clean. This will help keep lines from rusting from the inside out, internal seals from disintegrating and much reduce the likelihood you’ll be stuck with a big bill for new brake calipers, an ABS pump or hydraulic clutch slave cylinder – among other things.Make sure that your brake fluid is full

But people frequently neglect to even check the fluid level in the reservoirs (the brake master cylinder reservoir and the clutch fluid reservoir) even though both are usually very easy to identify  and access and usually do not require tools to top off. Both also use the same fluid – brake fluid (be sure to check the type your vehicle uses; e.g., DOT3 or DOT4, and so on; the info will be in your vehicle owners manual).  This fluid should be in the clear/translucent to honey yellow range. If it’s dark brown or black, it’s contaminated – and should be changed out.clutch 2

A full fluid change requires “bleeding” the system, but an easy way to extend the changeout intervals – and keep the fluid clear/translucent for much longer – is to use a syringe to suck out most of the old fluid in each reservoir, then refill with fresh. The best syringe is a larger one. Remove the needle and fit a short section of rubber tubing of the same diameter on the nipple. Use an old cup to “spit” the old fluid into as you go (be careful not to spill the old fluid as brake fluid is a very effective paint stripper). As you get near bottom, take care not to completely drain the reservoir. You will (or should be able to) see  a little pinhole. This is the intake for the fluid lines and you do not want to uncover it/expose it to air as that may allow air into the lines – and if that happens, the system will need to be bled.clutch 1

By using the syringe technique, you can drain out appx. half or more of the system’s total fluid volume without actually bleeding the system. If you start doing this before the existing fluid has been in there too long, it won’t be necessary to do a full bleed as often (or rather, pay someone to do it for you) and you may never have to worry about contaminated brake/clutch fluid – and potentially very expensive repair work.

* Blocks (and other pieces) of wood – 

Use a piece of 2×4 in between the metal of your floor jack and the metal of your car and you’ll avoid dimpling (and scratching) the frame. A flat board of just the right size bolted to the jack pad is just the ticket for stabilizing a large/unwieldy/heavy component (such as an automatic transmission) while you you raise and maneuver it into position. A piece of wood will can also be used to help distribute weight more evenly when raising, say, an engine an inch or so up on side so that you can remove (and replace) a bad engine mount.wood block

The really great thing about wood is that it’s solid, but has some “give” to it. Just enough that it usually won’t scratch what you’re working on  (especially if you put an old towel or similar in between the wood and the metal component being raised or loaded. Also, it’s cheap – and you can easily cut a piece to suit whatever the need happens to be.

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  1. Let us not forget Kano Kroil. I’ve seen millwrights use Kroil when pulling BIG bolts, nuts and studs out of steam tubine casings that have operated for years under conditions that car parts are never exposed to. When I say BIG, I mean bolts the diameter of big block pistons and even larger. These are heavily oxidized fasteners and almost invariably come apart without stripping or galling. PB Blaster and other penetrants are good, no question about it. Maybe Fritz’s acetone and ATF is a wonder to behold (I’ll give it a try sometime). But when you’ve got a fastener, or worse yet a spark plug, that you can’t afford to break off or strip out soak it good with Kroil, wait a few minutes and work it back and forth gently. Unless someone’s been there ahead of you and severely cross threaded it or galled it, it will come out.

    Or even if someone has damaged the threads it may still work. I recently purchased an ’01 F250 Super Duty with a 5.4 Modular V8. Some moron had apparently broken off or stripped out the number 6 spark plug hole, installed a thread repair insert and then managed to gall that. When I tried to remove it, it went about a quarter turn and stopped dead. I didnt’ try to force it, I hit it with Kroil, worked it back and forth and left it alone for a few minutes. Then with some patience and finesse, I was able to remove it without incident. That sure beat the heck out of pulling the head.

    • Maybe you missed it, but Kroil was mentioned below. Kano is the brand name, and Kroil (Kreeping Oil) is the product. And yes, it is the real deal.

  2. A further tip from ample personal experience, especially for engine components exposed to heat: antiseize is your friend. Use a good metal-based antiseize on spark plug threads (wipe off excess), manifold studs, and the like. If you can find it, copper based Copaslip is outstanding; if not, Permatex and others have one that is nickel based.

    Over the years I’ve had far more problems with rusted/seized threads than I’ve ever had with properly tightened fasteners working loose. In fact, I’ve used the red (permanent) thread locker products (Loctite, etc.) perhaps twice in my life. The red must be disassembled with heat. Instead, whenever I’ve really felt a need to use a thread locker, which was seldom, it’s been the blue stuff that can be disassembled with hand tools. I say this because I’ve seen some absolutely stupid stuff done with Loctite, including use when antiseize would be a much better choice.

    • Many are copper based, like Felpro C5A or the spray Never-Seez formula. Felpro N-5000 or Chesterton 725 are nickle based and work particularly well on stainless steel. Some may have graphite and aluminum in the compound along with copper and look like paint grade aluminum dust in suspension (Permatex 81343 is like this).

      Keep in mind that many modern spark plugs are already plated with an antiseize coating and the manufacturers do not recommend using any additional antiseize compound on the threads. If you do, you will need to reduce your torque wrench setting to avoid overtightening. The lubricity of the antiseize will allow the threads to pull much harder for the same torque setting, so you can easily damage an aluminum head. But the same applies for any fastener. I use nickle based antiseize compound on virtually every metal on metal fastener (unless a thread sealant or locking compound is specified), especially lug nuts. I’m just careful not to over-torque. It’s certainly saved me a lot of grief over the years.

  3. One half automatic transmission fluid, one half acetone makes the best rusty nut cutter. I’ve yet to find a squirt bottle or oil can that can last with it inside, though. It is a well known mixture in the farm forums.

    • Use the same bottle the acetone came in Fritz. They’re usually polypropylene. Get a large syringe from the auto shop and attach some plastic tubing commonly used for fish tanks or windscreen washers, it’s the same stuff.

      If you can find a polypropylene squirt bottle all the better. It’s a very common plastic and impervious to petrol, aerostart, carby cleaner, brake fluid etc., which is the type of bottle most nasty chemicals come in, even concentrated acids and ammonia. Even benign stuff like all engine oils.

      You’ll find the same plastic is used on the lids of all paint pressure packs. They make handy dishes for volatile stuff.

      Just don’t use polycarbonate. Even lowly petrol turns that to goo.

      • @Rev – Once upon a time I lived in a Los Angeles apartment complex. One night two broke nimrods in the complex needed gas for their car. So they took the plastic trash container from the kitchen and a hose out to the back parking lot where they siphoned some stolen gas from nearby cars. They got caught when the can disintegrated and about five gallons of gas went on them, their car and the ground. Funniest thing in the world seeing them with the hose in their own gas tank and only about 1/2 of the plastic can leftover to see.

        • Hilarious. It must have been made from styrene plastic. That’s a no-no with anything volatile. It’s also a good way to make napalm.

          Mix styrene foam pellets or box pieces with petrol. Apply liberally as required.

      • Personal favorite for rusty and seized threads is Kroil, a trade name for a type of penetrating oil. It’s hard to get because its manufacturer tries to restrict sales to professionals, but in my experience it has worked near-miracles. I’ve had nowhere near as much luck with other such products such as PB Blaster.

        In my opinion this is better than using inherently hazardous stuff such as acetone, which will eat most plastics quickly, not to mention posing risks to your skin.

        • Kroil is great stuff, I’ve used it for years. It’s not tough to get if you order directly from Kano Labs and just add a made-up company name for a repair shop or whatever to your order. I’ve seen some gun stores that sell it over the counter as well.

  4. When removing drain plugs and fill plugs I always clean the plug and the area around it with a small wire brush or a toothbrush and solvent before removing it. This keeps the little chunks of oil soaked dirt from falling into the hole and interfering with the threads on reinsertion. The mention of the wood blocks is a great idea, but the picture showing the frame balanced on the long edge left me worried. Use two blocks laid flat would be more stable. Nobody likes to think about what might happen if a car was rocked by a passing gust of wind or a mechanic pulling on a wrench. I know we all use jack stands, but still…

  5. Here is one of my favorite tricks: sometimes the top mounting nut on a shock absorber is very difficult to get to. On the Crown Vickys and Lincoln Town Cars the back shock absorber mounting nuts on the top are very difficult to get started simply because of the teeny space between the frame and the gas tank. (Why do engineers hate us so much?). Anyway, if you put a blob of axle grease on your fingertip, then you can stick the nut to your finger, and place it right over the shock mount stud, enabling you to start the nut very easily. A racheting box wrench takes care of the rest.

  6. The filter kits for my old 727 Torqueflites always have folded gaskets. Vaseline works perfectly to keep them in place.

    You can save money buying a beam-type torque wrench, and it’s actually a little more versatile than the click-type. The beamers work quite well.

    • Color me blind but, How is a a beam-type torque wrench a little more versatile than the click-type? Please elaborate.

      Also, you guys talking about this Vaseline trick,…where were you when I needed you when I was mounting this vertical gasket and…. Anyway, when you all say to use Vaseline,… doesn’t it affect the seal-ability of the gasket?
      I coat my gaskets with tacky gooey gasket sealer,…I keep imagining your Vaseline coated gasket to be an Uber squish-out FAIL when it comes to sealing to the surface. …Oil pans? Seriously?
      Vaseline, on gasket sealant, on gasket material, seems,… kinda bizarre.

      • Hi Helot,

        I use Vaseline (very light dabs) in situations where I only need the gasket temporarily held lightly in place to facilitate install. I do not use it to seal anything. The gasket does that. I certainly don’t use Vaseline in addition to gasket sealant! I use gasket sealant in addition to the gasket if the surface is uneven enough such that the gasket itself is not sufficient.

    • Hi Ross,

      Amen on those trans pan gaskets!

      On the beam type: They work perfectly well, but I prefer the click type because they’re almost idiot-proof.

      • If you use a “click” type torque wrench, always return the torque adjustment setting to “zero” after use.
        Harbor Freight Tools sells excellent “click” type torque wrenches at a very reasonable price. Despite the low price they are extremely accurate (as long as you follow the above advice…

      • There is a new species of digital torque wrench out there. The little guy is about as long as a short 3/8″ drive socket extender and as fat as a 19mm socket. It turns any ratchet into an instant torque wrench & reaches a ton of places a standard torque wrench cannot.
        When using a torque wrench of the standard types, personally i much prefer yhe clicking kind since i find them far more accurate than the beam type. Also, with the beam type, you have to be looking straight at it, not at an angle, to accurately measure torque. This is not an issue with the clicking type or digital kind.

      • Pros – I used to be one- use tiger snot. Weatherstrip adhesive, it used to be yellow, now available in black. Minute amounts only, dries quick & won’t work its way into the transmission. Panther snot? Grease & other such goop can be used in a pinch but too much chance for it to slide out. To get the best seal both flanges must be dry, another reason to eschew greasy stuff. The grease can actually provide a path for the fluid to weep through. Another useful idea: stick the gasket to the removeable cover, it makes it much easier in future if it must replaced. Ever clean an old baked-on, dried-up, hardened-up damn oil pan gasket off an engine block? While oil drips in your face? Make it easy for the next one.

    • Chrysler has reusable o-ring type pan gaskets for Torqueflite trannies. It’s basically a double o-ring seal set in a metal-cored plastic frame. For the 727 it’s part #2464324AC. (There is also a version for the A904/998/999 series Torqueflite.)

      Much easier to deal with than a cork or rubber gasket and seals perfectly. Just be careful tightening the pan down since this gasket doesn’t compress like cork or rubber. It’s the last pan gasket you’ll ever need to buy and well worth the money.

  7. Since about 1970, when I have problems getting a bolt or screw started, I line it up as best I can and turn it counter-clockwise until I feel the first thread drop in.

    That photo of the 2×4 standing on edge looks very scary! Best to lay them down flat and pay attention to the direction of the wood grain . (You probably know that.) Back in 1980, while replacing the coil springs on my 1974 F-150 with a 360 in it, I had a piece of 2×4 laid flat. It split in half and scared the livin’ crap out of me!

    I prefer a thick, hard plastic block (like the thick plastic boards you see on picnic tables in parks, made from recycled milk jugs and such), with a very roughed up surface and some grooves milled in it. If you let the block sit out in the sun a lot (like the picnic tables) a lot of the oil in them dissipates from the surface and provides a better grip.

    Try not to saw up too many picnic tables!

  8. Turkey basters can sometimes come in handy for partial MC fluid changes. Unfortunately, the floats will limit the percentage removed.

  9. When changing the brake fluid for my cars 60K service I stumbled upon a great idea.
    We had two half full 1 gallon plastic bottles of insecticide in our workshop with battery powered spray nozzles, bought at Home Depot. These bottles were previously thrown away when empty, always with still-functional sprayers. I emptied one bottle into the other, took the spray mechanism from the empty and thoroughly cleaned the pick up tube. Stuck the tube into the master cylinder and put the spray nozzle into a metal can. Pressed the button and voila! The master cylinder was emptied about 98% in less than a minute, no mess, no hand pumping- worked like a charm.
    From this point on, one of these little pumps will be in our shop for such work.
    I sell industrial pumps for a living, but the recycled bug spray/weed killer pump idea was a satisfying epiphany for me.

    • Good idea. I still look for my suction bulb when I know my Binks washdown gun can have the pickup hose stuck into any reservoir and empty it quickly if I could just remember it. Just like you did though, you need something to catch it in unless you want a nice fine spray of brake fluid all over the shop. Your method is probably easier to deal with the removed fluid though.

  10. Speaking of jack stands, I detest those drive-on things, esp. with a big pickup. It’s been 30 years or more since I really needed to jack up my pickup for an oil change or grease job but having it a bit higher helps an old man sometimes so I might jack it up a few inches and the worst thing that can happen is it will come down a few inches and still not be near me but I agree with a car, it’s really important to use jack stands. I had a new crosstie so one day I determined the proper angle and cut it in half ending with two ramps that raised the vehicle about 7″. They were heavy but wouldn’t collapse or turn over.

  11. Typo…. can’t get to the fill plug.

    Another reason to remove the fill plug first is that it drains smoother because the air can get in. Otherwise it can gurrgle and gush and make a big mess.

    When removing brake fluid out of the master cylinder I just use the same mityvac pump I use to bleed it. With modern cars that have the clutch slave cylinder in the bell housing it is important to flush fluid out of the MC this way to keep the clutch preforming properly. The clutch dust actually gets past the seals and into the brake fluid. (shared reservoir for the brakes and clutch). This dust then causes problems with high rpm shifts.

      • eric, a friend was at a garage sale and saw a used breast pump for sale. It was complete and looked like new with all the attachments so he bought it for $5. It was the exact same pump as the one the same company made for doing brake fluid changes. The only difference were the adapters(and some of them worked well enough….for brake work that is). He was tickled, a $120 pump for $5.

        If you don’t have a pump there are other options. If I change a wheel cylinder(won’t do a rebuild) or rebuild a caliper of course I’ll do at least both on an axle. I like to drain the master cylinder and refill it to use as a flush. When everything is clean and remounted I have used a large syringe with a piece of vacuum hose that will fit over the bleeder and push the fluid to the master cylinder and close the bleeder valve. I generally tap on the line some with a piece of plastic just to make sure there’s not a bubble near the end of the line. After I refill the entire MC I’ll drain a bit of fluid from each line as someone pumps the pedal to move the brake pads into place just to make sure there are no bubbles, refill the MC once again and it’s a done deal.

          • eric, thanks. I’ve been working 7 days a week for so long I really needed most of 3 days off(had to change trailers and some other stuff Friday but it was easy enough and didn’t take too long and I was able to stop at the local liquor store and get various types of micro-brewery beer to help me along since I was out in the country away from the highway predators), been wonderful and I’ve had more sleep in that time than the last month it seems like.

            • For some reason that post reminded me how much I liked messing around with flatbeds from the dock side and around the plant lot without actually having to be directly under the demands of the D.O.T.

              Imho, trucking really is A Lot like playing football. …Not the kind they play in stadiums, rather, the kind that’s played in back lots and grassy fields. No-holds-bared, the players make the rules, that kinda stuff. For the most part, anyway. Then the Big Fat Head in the sky corporate monster pokes it’s…. along with the evil D.O.T. …. well, I think you know. The rest, can guess. …If Only we were free.

          • Just great! Now you guys are leading me into wanting to buy a breast pump on The Cheap. ..On my own.
            I’ll just cruise the maternity ward section of the garage sales looking for breast pumps.

            …Not. In. A. Million. Years. Did. I Ever. Think. I’d. Be. …

    • “Never, ever, EVER get underneath a car that is held up only by a jack!”
      That is, unless you are not planning to come back out.

    • A few years ago I walked past a driver who was changing a tyre by jacking his car up – on a slope, and without chocking the wheels. When I warned him of the horrible risk he was taking, his first reaction was just to say that there was no risk because he had the hand brake on, and even once I persuaded him to use a chock he was only willing to use the old wheel for that.

      • Insert image of block of wood cut to a 90′ degree angle, here X.

        …But, what the Hell. You’re only going to live once, and, the Bastards are prolly gonna cut it short anyway. Might as well live on The Wild Side and let the consequences be damned …It’s Not like you’ve got children depending on you stay alive,…. do ya?

        • Hmm, I wonder how der Clover feels about terminal children in car seats, and terminal adults in seat belts? Terminal. As in, their doctors says they’ve got only days to live.
          Ah, who am I kidding, Clovers The World Over, they don’t “think”. Not a chance, not ever.
          From the view point of the Clovers of the world: tomorrow, is promised to Everybody!

        • Well, the car was gone with no trace of anything untoward when I walked back some time later, so the driver probably survived that time.

          But tell me, how did you know he was Jewish? He was an orthodox Jew, judging from his attire and from that of his wife (or so I presumed she was), who was watching and would have witnessed any adverse outcome.

          I have only ever seen anything so profoundly lacking in mechanical intuition in a couple of things my mother did, and those were not life threatening in any way.


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