Things You Should Never Do (When Working on a Car)

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A good mechanic often has the scars to prove it. My friend Tim – a professional mechanic with years of experience – just acquired a new one the other day. While removing a bolt from a hard-to-get-at place, a jagged edge caught flesh and took a good sized chunk out of his ring finger (ironic, given he is in the final stages of a divorce).     

This kind of thing happens if you wrench long enough. Or even soon enough. Which it probably will, if you don’t avoid some of these common mistakes:

* Using a tire jack to raise the car … and then getting underneath the car –

This one can cost you more than the tip of a finger.

The jack that came in the trunk your car is for emergency use only. To change a tire only. And even for that, it’s sketchy. Jacks-in-the-trunk are usually light and flimsy. They are designed not to be sturdy but to take up the least amount of room in the trunk and add the least amount of weight possible to the car while being just serviceable enough to let you swap out a tire when you have to.

It is amazing that a shyster lawyer hasn’t won a huge payday over these things, which are probably more inherently unsafe than any explosion-prone Pinto ever was.tire-jack-1

If you need to raise the car with the intention of crawling under the car, get a floor jack – which will be heavy and sturdy and most of all, stable. But even so, only use it to raise the car. Use jack stands to support the car. Which should be sitting on a level concrete surface – not grass or anything soft that could sink or give way. Keep the floor jack in place once the jack stands are in place. It’s your back up/just-in-case.

There is no such thing as being overcautious here. Three or four thousand pounds of steel, glass and plastic can maim or kill you in ways you never want to find out about.

* Not using safety glasses –

When you are lying on your back, looking up at a greasy engine, grease (and dirt and metal shavings and other such) seems to naturally be attracted to your

By gravity.

Rust chips are a special treat.

In addition to the damage done your eyes, you’ll probably also bonk your head on something as you curse and try wriggle – half-blind – out from under, to get to a sink (or the doctor).

Safety glasses will also prevent aerosols like carburetor/throttle body cleaner, brake cleaner and so on from backspraying into your eyes.

* Not using gloves –

Surgical (nitrile) gloves, especially. Not because you want to avoid getting your hands dirty. Because you want to avoid getting cancer.nitrile-gloves

Used motor oil is toxic. It contains trace heavy metals and other not-good-for-you things. Gas is also laden with compounds not agreeable to life. Your skin, meanwhile, is very permeable. Put the two together. Permeability and toxicity. You have just increased your odds of something unpleasant coming your way, eventually.

Even if you don’t get cancer, you will get gnarly skin. Gas especially dries out human flesh – which not only doesn’t look good, it feels bad.

Wearing nitrile gloves prevents this and also makes clean-up much easier. They’re cheap and disposable. And – best of all – they’re thin, so your fingers retain their sense of touch (which you sometimes lose when wearing heavier/thicker gloves).

A box of 100 costs about $5.

*Using the wrong tool (or no tool) for the job –

This one probably everyone’s done at one time or another. Because at one time or another, we either didn’t have the right tool on hand and were too impatient (or poor) to get it. Or just didn’t know any better.wrong-tool

Sometimes – usually, once you’re experienced enough to know how to improvise – you can make do with a tool not originally meant for the job, or even make a tool. But it’s a fine line between that – and just forcing something. It takes a few years of wrenching before you come to appreciate the difference.

For example, I’ve made a transmission cradle out of scrap wood and – along with a spare floor jack – used it to safely lower and then reinstall a transmission. But that’s not the same thing as using a metric socket on an SAE standard head bolt because it’s “close.”

And “no tool”? Some jobs specify, as an example,  that a specific tool like a torque wrench be used – to tighten a fastener to a precise measure. Very experienced mechanics can often come very close without using a torque wrench, by feel, but even they (assuming they’re good mechanics) don’t go by feel when it’s critical to know for sure – as when torquing down a cylinder head, for instance. Do a job like that by feel and the chances are you’ll be doing it again.


*Not having patience – 

This is the most important one of all because it’s the one most likely to result in Bad Things if you aren’t. Right next to getting mad – which usually accompanies impatience. As Mr. Tagomi from Philip Dick’s alternative history novel, The Man in the High Castle says: “Remain calm, sir. Do not lose your equipoise.” mr-tagomi

Unlike operating on a living thing, your car won’t die if you pause in the middle of surgery. You may need to hitch a ride – but that’s not fatal. What is fatal – to the health of your car – is proceeding when you don’t really know what you’re doing.

And, mad.

Stop. Go read the manual – or ask someone else’s advice. Take a break, have a cup of coffee. Come back to it later.

This will increase your chances of  actually fixing the car. And a fixed car tomorrow beats hell out of a broken car today.

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  1. I once had to get a steering gear box for my 1991 Caprice Classic Police car model. GM’s price $1,110. The Stering Gear Co’s rebuilt price :$165. Good rebuild too. Ive dropped tools on the outside of the engine where they get stuck on the outside of the engine. That’s why I have a grabber with the claw. I also have a magnetic grabber that came with a separate magnetic mirror. I found this. The best fall ins were the ones were things JUMPED into the toilet after “taking” a big… Tha’s why a grabber is in my house in the hall closet. (It’s not queer even though it’s in the closet. Why do we say “taking”? I don’t this stuff anywhere, I want to leave it behind. Stupid pun, stupid pun.

    • Hi Mike,

      Yup! Many expensive to replace components can be rebuilt for much less.

      This includes, of course, engines. If you’re a decent wrench, cab be patient and read a manual, you can go through an engine for few hundred bucks in parts and machine shop labor … vs. (typically) thousands for a new/factory remanufactured one!

  2. My absolute golden rule when doing anything mechanical is this:

    NEVER pull ANYTHING towards your face.

    Wrenches, bolts, caps, dipsticks, drain plugs, hoses etc. This becomes more difficult when working under a car. Nonetheless I (and hopefully you too) never violate this rule no matter how difficult the workaround is. There is no particular tragic story that led me to this rule. Just the good horse sense I was lucky to inherit. But there have been dozens of times that things have gotten hairy and I’ve avoided potentially catastrophic mishaps by never violating this rule. Wrenches slip, fluids drip, stuck things can come unstuck in an instant. You never want your face in the path of any of these. It’s one where you might not get the chance to learn from hindsight. If you’ve lived this long it’s likely you already follow this rule. But if not I’d suggest you stop borrowing time and begin following it immediately. It will save your vision, hearing, looks and likely your life.

  3. I was for years jealous of my ex-sister’s boyfriend Eric who managed to get himself an Austin Morris because the previous owner was crushed underneath it while doing “repairs”. The year was 1970 something and he paid around $150 CANADIAN for it. He finished doing the oil change and the car ran like a dream. Or was it a nightmare? Nahhh… like a dream, or as close as you can come to one, having an English car in North America.

  4. I’ve always viewed working on my cars/bikes as a character building experience, an opportunity to work on my biggest personal flaw- the lack of patience.

    It has always helped me in that regard, when I get to a point that I’m frustrated enough I let the problem “sit”, sometimes for 10 minutes, an hour, or a day and when I come back to it with a clear mind I usually solve it very quickly.

    I vary the length of the break depending on factors such as:

    1. Could there be a better way or tool that I need to take a break to figure out.
    2. How difficult is the job I’m doing?
    3. My level of frustration and the time required for it to go away.

    So working on my own stuff has helped tremendously with personal development in addition to saving me money or improving a design.

  5. A little off topic since there usually are not shafts rotating when you’re working on a car, and thin gloves are not as susceptible, but FWIW:
    Machinists and farmers are aware that you have to know when to wear gloves and when not to. Never wear gloves near a rotating shaft or machine spindle (e.g. a drill press). If your glove gets caught, it can wrap around the shaft and injure/remove your fingers, hand, or worse.
    On farm and lawn equipment, don’t wear gloves or loose-fitting clothing near rotating shafts, and make sure PTO shafts have proper guards. Yes, the new plastic ones are maddening when you’re using a grease gun, but resist the temptation to leave them off. A lot of farmers have lost limbs or been killed by PTO shafts. It looks innocent because it turns so slowly, but if it catches your clothing it will not stop for anything.

    • Mark “the Bird” Fidrych would agree with you Roland.

      “According to the Worcester District Attorney’s office, a family friend found Fidrych dead beneath his ten-wheel dump truck at his Northborough home around 2:30 p.m, April 13, 2009. He appeared to have been working on the truck at the time of the accident.[12] Authorities said Fidrych suffocated after his clothes had become entangled with a spinning power takeoff shaft on the truck. The state medical examiner’s office ruled the death an accident, according to a release from the Worcester District Attorney’s office.[13]

      Joseph Amorello, owner of a road construction company who had occasionally hired Fidrych to haul gravel or asphalt, had stopped by the farm to chat with him when he found the body underneath the dump truck. “We were just, in general, getting started for the [road-building] season this week and it seems as though his truck was going to be needed. It looked like he was doing some maintenance on it”, Amorello said in a telephone interview. “I found him under the truck. There’s not much more I can say. I dialed 911 and that’s all I could do.”[14]”

    • I’m with Eric. You can get a proper four post lift for not much more than that.
      It might be good for someone who doesn’t have the space for the big lift though.

      • Any recommendations of what to look for or brand, Eric or Brent?
        For right now working in the parking lot or at buddy’s garage, a portable lift would be an improvement, but a real one eventually would be the ticket.

  6. Good story about patience; grease monkey in the next stall is getting punked by fasteners in aluminum cylinder heads. He decides to take out the frustration on the metal workbench with the hammer. Hits the bench, hammer head snaps off and hits the windshield. Interesting commentary erupts from said grease monkey.
    The fun days of turning wrenches.

    • Good one, Curtis!

      Did I ever tell you guys about the time I was working on an engine install and accidentally dropped a large bolt down the open distributor shaft hole?

      • eric, drop a large bolt down the distributor shaft hole. I can’t quit laughing. It had to be “one of those”. One of those are those things that happen beyond belief, esp. at the time. I’ve had many of “one of those” and some I had a vision of it happening. Probably you weren’t even near the hole when you lost your grip.

        A guy I knew was working in his carb on a 440 when he dropped a screw. It somehow managed to go down a runner, into the head and through and open valve. It was bad enough to get the intake off and it’s still not there. Then you have a 50/50 chance of which head it went in. Luckily the valve open that was nearest the carb was the one so I was only a single head removal and installation for that tiny screw.

        Another good one was when a guy looked down a well casing and his expensive shades fell off. Sorta like taking off your ring and watch before pulling a calf or palpating a cow and not have a palpation glove.

        • Hahahaha just before a lateral casing run I got the trip nipple from a rotating head assembly jammed up when the compression ring on the BOP loosened in the dark where nobody could see it and allowed the nipple to jam underneath it. I called up to the floor, 10 minutes before my hitch was over, and told the guys on the tuggers to give it all they had.

          Compression ring snapped, a multitude of springs and bolts dropped into the hole and I handed off a 12 day fishing trip to my relief.

          It wasn’t 20 miles down the road on my way to the airport that my 98 K1500 lost a fuel pump- 200 miles from any shop, in North Dakota, mid winter. 200 mile tow bill and the dealer was the ONLY place that would do it.

          I got in a hurry and frustrated, cost Precision Drilling millions, then laughed my way to a failed fuel pump. Take your time.

      • Years back a family, good friends, had a Honda Accord five speed needed a clutch (half did not know how to use one, and wore it out too soon). Knowing I was a good mechainc, they asked me for a quote… I gave them a bargain basement price, being good friends and all. the Boys (four sons) decided THEY could do it and save the money. Ma, who’se ride it was, said sheid pay THEM the same price to do it. Got the greabox out )two days…..), changed the clutch, tore their hair out trying to remove the TINY but rumbly clutch pilor bearing from the bore in the end of the crankshaft…. put it all back together, except they could not find one of the bolts fixing the gearbox bell housing to the back of the block. About four inches long, maybe five, an M 8 x 1.25….. Ma came out to watch the final stages, saw them searching all over for that bolt. She started looking, too…. after a while she asked Hey, guys, could it have gone down THERE? (pointed to the vacant more where the speedometer cable and gear normally fitted to the gearbox). OH, no, Ma, that would be impossible…… no way THAT could have happened. They decided to finish it all up then drive down to a parts house and buy a replacement for that fixing. Car started up, clutch worked…. backed out into the street, down to the corner, left turn, two bllocks, all seemed well.. ujntil they slipped it into third gear…. the sounds emanating from the neter regions of that five speed greabox with aluminium gear casing were indescribable. they walked home, got a different rig and pulled it back home. they began to make plans to remove the gearbox once more.. Ma said NO WAY. Called the hook and had it towed to the Hinda dealer. FIFTEEN HUNDRED BUX and ten days later it ran again. That bolt had served to prepare the layshaft for a new set of dentures on the third gear set….. damaged a few other things such as shift forks, baulk rings, a bearing or three…… the Boys had to pay the extra costs, above what I had quoted for the clutch change job. Sometimes the dear rates chaarged by the pro are a bargain…. and I’d been real nice to them on the amount.

        • Morning, Bevin!

          This particular mauling was non-automotive… I was unhooking a wood splitter from my truck and my finger got pinched while doing that… bled a lot, but superficial wound!

          • Dear Eric,

            The kinds of things that can happen to industrial workers makes me grateful I worked in business offices all my life.

            No industrial accidents to leave one maimed for life. The biggest danger was paper cuts.

            Many of us don’t know how lucky we have it. We’re spoiled, to be frank.

    • Years ago, I was under my Renault R8 attempting to replace the stater. It is a dinky little thing and I was having trouble getting my modest sized hands into the space provided. I started cussing, saying, “I wonder how the @!##! !@#%%!* French do this!” I discovered that my girl friend was sitting nearby on the steps into the house when she said, “I think they start with a good glass of wine.” I pushed out from under the car and there she was, sitting with two glasses and a bottle of wine. I sat next to her as we shared a glass of wine. After finishing my glass, I again got under the car and the blankety-blank starter slipped right into place. BTW: I no longer have that car but I had considered turning it into a three wheeler like the moder Cam-Am Spider.

  7. Other than little cuts and scrapes, the only thing that’s gotten me, and which I’d warn others about:

    DON’T use your chest to brace yourself while trying to exert a lot of force, as in trying to free a stuck nut or part! I did that once (Almost did it again recently, too!) and heard something go “splat”, and was in quite a bit of pain for a while. Think I cracked a rib or something. Took about 2 months to heal. I’ll never forget that sound, though!

    Also, if you cut yourself, especially when the cut area is dirty/greasy, let it bleed a little. This gets all the garbage out, and sort of “self-sterilizes” the wound, and it won’t get infected. (Believe me, I’ve cut my hands 100’s of times while caked with grease and gunk). Let it bleed….then you can stop the bleeding/put a bandaid. Ironic thing is, the bleeding usually stops by itself before you get around to doing anything about it!

    And DO NOT put peroxide or antibacterial cream or anything like that on your wound. Seems like everyone I see doing that, ends up getting an infection. And of course, tetanus shots are a TOTAL SCAM!

    • Dear Nunzio,

      Re: cuts

      Yup. My own experience has shown me that doing too much to a cut in the skin merely slows the healing process.

      Yes. Clean the wound and the area around the wound. But once you’ve done that, do not apply all sorts of antibacterial creams etc. on the wound, and do not swaddle the wound in a heavy layer of gauze that holds in moisture, and encourages the wound to fester underneath.

      The wound wants to stop bleeding naturally via coagulation of the blood. It wants to dry out naturally and form a scab, so that the tissue underneath can heal.

      Doing too much interferes with this process. This is an example of “laissez faire” in nature. It is also a case of the medical precept, “First, do no harm”.

    • grease and oil just “happen to be” antibacterial. One of the better disinfectants out there. Yes, let the bleeding stop naturally, best thing to do.

    • In most cases I feel my fingers are sticky and that’s when I realize I’m bleeding. These are of course small wounds. Clean up with soap and water. Apply pressure until the bleeding has slowed/stopped then apply a bandage, tape, whatever and get back to work.

      The only times I’ve used neosporn(sp?) is after the wound has already begun healing. None of those were working on cars related and much bigger. It does seem to help. But by then the risk of infection has generally passed.

  8. Protect knees, I wear kneepads.

    When doing work on my old cars I look around and oil any rusted bolts/nuts that I might need to loosen on later jobs. I always lube new or rusted bolts/nuts when reinstalling.

    Original owner of 1978 Camaro Z28 – original engine.

    • Liberty!

      You never told me you had a ’78 Z28! 🙂

      One of my favorites, love it long time.

      I had a ’78, also. A long, long time ago. But I can still remember how it used to make me feel.

      Hold on to her.

      I wish I still had mine.

      • And what kept the 350cu in engine going for 38 years – was in Mobil 1, or Amsoil – no it was, wait for it, Walmart 10W-30!

        • Hi Liberty,

          My assumption is that as long as it’s good quality oil and you’re not abusing the engine and the oil is changed regularly… you’re good, synthetic or otherwise.

          Now, that said, I do use Amsoil synthetic in my ’76 TA’s 455. But different parameters apply. The engine is modified and gets used hard sometimes. It is also a 455 Pontiac. These are very long-stroke engines and the bottom end isn’t the stoutest and the oiling system’s not the greatest.

          Also, you cannot buy a crate 455 (or crank) to replace a grenaded bottom end.

          It’s been 40 years since the last ones were made.

          Finding a good used core is neither easy nor inexpensive! 🙂

          • What I look for in any motor oil is the American Petroleum Institute Certification on the front of the container. I also put a FilterMag on all my oil filters.

                • I like the higher speed rear-end. My Malibu had it with a close ratio Muncie. 75mph in 1st. Oh, everybody wanted to drag race and I would and they’d be way out in front of me right away, well, the big power cars would be. Before the end of the quarter though I’d go by them in 3rd gear like they had let off the gas. It was always funny.

                  For the most part the Ford guys had been handed their asses so many times they didn’t even wanna race but the Mopar guys with 440’s and all the goodies would be salivating. Then they’d be mad, real mad and not believing it.

                • My ’78 had the same combo; I added a B&M shift kit and it would chirp the tires on the 1-2!

                  My old ’76 (Trans-Am, not the current one) had the super T-10. That thing had the best gear whine ever. 🙂

                  • Other factory options I ordered on my ’78: AC, tilt, delay wipers, sport cloth bucket seat, rear defog, tinted glass, power locks, roof drip moldings, dual horns, rear speakers, auxiliary lighting, interior decor/quiet sound group, adjustable driver’s seat back.

                  • After I blew my close ratio up, parted the case all the way around, I changed to a rock crusher. I never liked the gears but the gear whine was a lot like that on Two Lane Blacktop.

                    Over a decade later I bought a rock crusher for a hot rod, a 71 Chevelle, that had aftermarket close ratio gears. I never made enough power to hurt it. I wonder if it would have survived that new SS I saw yesterday. I sold my Malibu, stupid thing to do, and the guy who bought it moved the rear fenders out and put some big slicks on it. That ended the rear-end in just a few passes. I felt guilty selling that car. I could have kept it and had it now. I did love to run it hard at night with open exhausts and watch the scenery lit up by the flames and a sound often heard for 10 miles. Even my dad said he could hear me gearing down for curves on the farm road we lived on and opening it up coming out of them and hammering down the straights. I won’t repeat what my mother said, her usual indictment.

        • Haha, yeah! I use Walmart oil, or whatever’s on sale too. Last hooptie I had (for 15 years!) had 276K miles on it, and was still running like new and not smoking nor burning a bit of oil when I sold it a few months ago.

          I change oil every 2500-3000 miles religiously, or every 6 months- whichever comes first. It’s cheap insurance. Have never ever had an engine problem, and have always had high-mile vehicles.

            • Walmart oil had the API seal when I bought it for a car with a front main seal leak. Eventually that got to be more than I wanted to spend so I started using more and more Mobil 1 drained from my Mustang.

              • The first synthetic I used was Mobil 1. It got filthy in just a few hundred miles. I didn’t run it but about 1500 miles cause it was so funky. I don’t understand why Mobil 1 never offered a crankcase cleaner when changing over. It’s been my experience that no matter what synthetic you changed to it would clean all that build-up petroleum oil left in the engine no matter how good that oil was or how often you changed it.

                I switched to Amsoil about 15 years ago and the first engine I changed began using less and less oil the further I drove it(diesel). I might not have stayed with Amsoil but I’ve seen comparisons of filters as well as oil and Amsoil filters are better than everything out there.

                Of course if you’re going to change oil every 3,000 miles it probably doesn’t make much difference what filter you use. Having said that though, before I began using synthetics it seemed like Motorcraft filters did a better job so I changed from AC to those. There actually is quite a difference in filters of any sort but it’s hard to find hard numbers on them except for the Amsoil site which tests them all. Last time I was there Amsoil had a motor oil listed I wasn’t familiar with that showed it beat Amsoil overall by a tiny amount. Well, if they’re that honest, I’ll stick with them.

                I argued with eric for a long time about Amsoil but he done seen the light so to speak.

                • I’ve never had an issue with mobil 1. But two of the cars have had it since new.

                  For some reason my mav consumed more of it than regular oil. So I went back to regular oil. Not sure why. Doesn’t make much sense.

                  Never had an issue of it going dark prematurely.

                • Hello 8, The fact that the oil gets dirty quickly is not at all a bad sign. It means that it has cleaned your dirty engine. If your oil stays clean looking, then it probably isn’t doing its job.

            • I’ll have to look again, but I’ve always seen the API seal on Walmart oil- if it didn’t have it, they’re sales would drop by about 99.8%. It comes from the same place as do the name brands- even contains all but the last few additives that only the very top name-brands have, and unless you’re really pushing your change intervals, you’ll never see a difference.

              Can’t argue with what works. I haven’t bought a vehicle with less than 150K on it in probably 30 years, and I drive ’em for another 150K or more, and I’ve NEVER had an engine problem in my entire life. Been using Walmart oil for ever, and often STP or Fram filters.

              • It better have the API seal! Walmart oil isn’t all that cheap anymore. You can often get NAPA oil cheaper when NAPA’s having a sale. (I love their yearly half-price filter sales, every spring! I get a hydraulic filter for my tractor that costs $70. Just what I save on that one filter alone is amazing! That is one sale I literally mark on my calendar! I go and stock-up on all the oil, air, hydraulic and fuel filters I’ll need for every vehicle I own, for the whole year!)

  9. Kind of dated (though they seem to be coming back)- don’t wear a wrist watch (with a metal band) around a battery. Amazing how you smell the flesh burning before you feel it…

  10. Add to this: Being careless with fire hazards. Make sure you’re doing any grinding, cutting or welding away from anything flammable, clean up gas, oil, paint and solvent spills properly, and wait for a better time and place to have a smoke (if that’s your thing.)

  11. Hi Eric,

    “that a specific tool like a torque wrench be used – to tighten a fastener to a precise measure”.

    C’mon Eric, you don’t need a torque wrench, just follow the “gutentight” method: tighten until it just starts to loosen, then back off 1/8 turn.


    • Unfortunately too many times I’ve used the “tighten til it feels good and snug, then go just a little more till it breaks” method!

      • Hi VZ,

        Yep, it’s a delicate balance. You have to go tight enough so that the head begins to yield, but not so far that it breaks. That way, it’s the next mechanics fault when it breaks.


        • I may be accused of being anal but I even torque lug nuts. Doing a brake job recently I realized the last had been before the new tires the wife got at a place that does plenty truck tires and people who you’d have to explain “torque wrench” to.

          My 125 lb. compressor and 1/2″ impact wouldn’t break them loose. Then I really got pissed when it took a cheater pipe over a 1/2″ breakover handle to get them unstuck. I torqued them to 100 lbs. in a crisscross pattern.

          I see so many people who’ve never heard of torquing sequence. Watch em install a truck rim on an Erie style hub and it looks like it’s on sideways since it is on sideways. At two tire shops I’ve had to teach them how to get those rims off. Hit it on one side and then the other and you might still be whacking them tomorrow but have it lined up where it’s loose, grab each side and slide it off square with the hub, easy peasy.

          Just to show how used to wind we are in west Tx. for once it wasn’t blowing, at all. It was a heavy dew morning and I was inside the breezeway or that day, non-breezeway, building a rail for the back porch. I had two big RV batteries for the boat sitting in the corner I had just charged. I hit a weld with a side grinder. A stream of sparks goes right to the batteries. After the explosion and I quit saying “what?” I realized it had broken the case on one. Now when I fabricate I make sure there are no batteries present.

          • Hi Eight,

            I have a low range (2Nm-16Nm) torque wrench and a high range (15Nm-80Nm) torque wrench. There are many applications on a modern bicycle where improper torque can cause failure on critical parts. Handlebars and forks (including the steerer tube) on high end, modern road bikes are usually made from carbon fiber. Stem bolts (that clamp the stem to the fork and handlebar) are often tiny (M5 X 0.8) and made from titanium. Excessive torque can damage the carbon tubes or cause bolt failure. Either of these can be catastrophic.

            Years ago, I was training a younger guy, who showed great aptitude. Anyway, I stressed the importance of knowing the correct torque spec, using a torque wrench, proper tightening sequence and, in multi bolt clamping applications, the need to bring the torque up gradually and to make a “final pass”. Eventually, he got to the point where I was confident that he could do a complete bike build. At my shop, we sold fully custom “from the frame” builds (no out of a box, mostly preassembled bikes), including hand built wheels for every bike. After his first solo build, I was checking over the bike and I asked him about torque specifications. He had a sarcastic streak and commented, “don’t worry boss, I followed the German “gutentight” method: tighten each bolt until it just starts to loosen, then back off 1/8 turn.” In short, he was fucking with me and it became a running joke.

            Over the years I’ve noticed three things that reveal to me that a mechanic is hopeless. First, they brag about their own laziness/incompetence, as if not “needing” to use a torque wrench or tension meter (measures absolute and relative spoke tension in a wheel), makes them superior. Second, they believe that they already know everything. Third, they brag about being fast. Now, I’ve met plenty of good mechanics who were also fast mechanics. But, I’ve never met a mechanic who bragged about being fast who was worth a shit. That’s because their primary value is speed, not quality.



            • I was taught how to buiod wheels by a master bike builder. I never had the luxury of tension guages, but learned how to properly tension a wheel by “feel” and sound. When I had a custom frame built for myself, I built it into the bike myself, as well. Wheels were Ritchie OCR road rims on Campy Record small flange hubs, I managed to get the ONLY set in the US of 28 hole drilling. I built those wheels myself, stainless double butted spokes, brass nipples, back in 2002. I still ride that bike today, probably sixty thousand miles on it. Finally had to replace the reat rim as good ol Tom and ‘da boys” selected an alloy that was too brittle… the rims began splitting in line with the spoke holes, which did not use eyelets. I learned that that was a common flaw in those rims…. replaced them with Mavic Open Pro, should last as long as I am still riding. Have never touched those wheels, and I ride a lot. I’m not a pounder, but do ride hard and fast. Spoke tension meter? Dream on, I’ll never be able to afford one. But I still build wheels… that last.

              • Hi Tionico,

                I’ve taught quite a few of my customers how to build wheels over the years and given them tips on how to achieve good tension and uniformity without a tension meter. And yes, it is possible to build a good wheel without using one. I’m always impressed with the few customers who wish to build their own wheels and I’m happy to help them.

                However, there is a certain type of mechanic who actually seems to believe that not using a tension meter or torque wrench makes them better. This attitude is ridiculous. Also, a home mechanic, such as yourself, tends to be more meticulous and spend more time building a wheel than the type of mechanic who is proud of not using proper tools. I understand why a home mechanic would not invest in a tension meter and I always offer to check the tension for anyone who decides to build their own wheels at home. Being able to compare the “feel” to a known tension helps to develop a better “feel”. Comparing tension uniformity through tone is actually very precise (assuming all of the spokes used are the same and consistent).

                As for cost, the DT Tensio is ridiculously expensive, but the Park TM-1 is not. A professional bike mechanic can buy one for less than $50.00, a consumer can buy one for less than $70.00.

                Anyway, congratulations on building your own wheels, that’s impressive.


          • I just had the pleasure of having to drill the wheel stud out to remove a lug nut on my car. Last time the front wheels were off was when I had new tires mounted 4 years ago, 4 of the lugs came off no problem but the last one decided to wad up into a ball rather than come off (by hand w/ a 1/2″ breaker bar). Couldn’t fit a beefy enough nut cracker in there so out comes the drill.
            I imagine a decent impact would have freed it up (or broke the stud off) but our 1/2″ impact is brand name vagina and the 3/4″ stuff is all too big to fit…

            • I don’t get what those idiots who mount tires don’t get, esp. those who own their own business and do the mounting. I was so pissed those nuts were that tight on those alloy wheels. I’ll run lug nuts up snug with an impact to save time and effort but when I approach the torque spec I finish them not only with a sequence but the mnfct’s rating. I know this is frowned on by some but on most big pickups and such, I use a pure nickel anti-seize. It may make the torque spec slightly off but it couldn’t be by much in my experience of removing them by hand with a flat somewhere away from the shop. I have to fight so much dirt I often replace even trailer lug nuts with cap nuts and that’s the only time you can be sure everything will be ok without some anti-seize. Probably not everyone runs in sand……or quicksand if it rains a bunch but it’s one of those things you learn and then you don’t have stripped nuts, lugs or both.

              I learned something about using wagon wheels on a pickup too. My Nissan had two sets of wheels and tires, all-weather(with big lugs)and mud tires. I was trading one day and had a new set of mud tires on a new set of wagon wheels. I torqued them up snug with the impact and then around them again only to find they needed more torque. I then used the wrench and torqued them, and torqued them and finally got them to specs. Shit, what’s going on anyway? I got in and attempted to leave and that’s when I noticed the rear tires wouldn’t move. So I take them off and find the wagon wheels didn’t contact the end of the axle but the drum itself. I still have the four pieces of two drums I use for chocks and reminders to pay attention. At least I was able to find drums in the wrecking yard off a new pickup wadded up.

  12. Another tip would be to pull towards you, rather than push away from you. This helps if you slip. Mechanix gloves too, are a good help when breaking out the heavy tools. Here’s what I do: Whenever the 1/2 drive, breaker bar, or wonderbar come out, the gloves go on! One (of the only) good things about getting older: I have to wear my reading glasses when wrenching. They double (somewhat) as safety glasses to keep stuff from falling into my eyes.

    • If you’re using two ratchets to loosen, start the handles at the same position, say both at 6 o’clock, rather than 5 and 7, or worse 12 and 6. You’ll get maximum push and pull, and your hands will stay more stable, decreasing the chance of rounding one off.

    • Tom, sounds like me. Just a couple days ago I found a rusted tool and took it over to the wire wheel, gee, so glad I had my magnifiers with me, safety glasses. All my life I I mechaniced without gloves and now only take them off if I have to, mostly trying to thread something difficult I need the “feel” of fingers. I have some gloves that are cut-proof I use now when using knives for fish or field dress and even final butchering since they help with the cold. Boy was I surprised when the bosses at work were handing them out to “use at home” so we’d leave the work ones there or just not have to see us come in with bandages. They aren’t point proof though but keeping that in mind, you’ll never cut yourself with even the sharpest blade.

  13. Diving headlong into a project without really knowing what’s involved. RTFM (read the fine {service} manual).

    Knowing what parts should be replaced instead of reused. With many wear parts the cost is trivial enough to just put a new one in since you’ve gone to all the trouble of removing it to get to your primary task.

    Paying too much or too little for tools. I’d love to have a garage full of Snap-On tools, but for the amount of mechanic work I do Harbor Freight is a much more realistic budget. I did pay up for lot of old Craftsman basic hand tools years ago, and I splurged on a good quality torque wrench.

    • You Tube is my best friend when it comes to car repairs nowadays. Just about any project or problem I come across, somebody’s done it and created a video. Makes things so much easier when you can see exactly what you’re in for, the little tricks that might not be obvious and so on. Invaluable.

    • Harbor Frights “warranty” sucks. Craftsman sill replace over the counter no cost. I will buy their hand tools, but never again their power tools. I’m done with Harbor Fright stuff. I never know where the stinking receipt is fifteen years later. Craftsman? Find the nearest Sears store, walk in, grab the replacements, set them all on the counter, have a friendly chat with the clerk as he rings the old out and the new in, pick up the sack and walk out. Sears are in nearly every town anywhere in the nation. Harbor Fright are sometimes hard to find, or a long ways away. I’d rather pay a bit more for the tool that won’t break and leave me stranded Saturday afternoon and I’m wanting the car running Sunday morning. Or worse, at the side the freeway fifty miles from the next town. I’ve bought some Proto, but dealers are somewhat hard to find any more. When I find the German Hazett, i particulary the specilty tools for certain cars, I spend the money ahd get them…. worth their weight in gold, at times. Like that funny looking tool to remove the retainer locknut from outboard rear axle bearing at the semi-trailing arms on rear suspensions of Mercedes cars for about twenty years of production. An hour of strained neck and a small drift, or just place the tool and apply pull to the long handled ratchet and in ten seconds its out. And back in, torqued, once the new bearing is fitted.

      • I was once upon a time a craftsman or better type. But the problem is I am not a professional mechanic. I don’t make my living with these tools so the pay back isn’t there for most snap-on and mac unless I get lucky at a garage sale or pawn shop.

        I like having seconds and thirds of tools to keep in cars. As a result HF has filled a need. That second set of tools I need HF. Those tools I’ll use maybe once or once a year or less, HF. Stuff I’ll use more, that I need precision on? I’ll get something nice. Not snap-on nice, but nice enough. I have tools from Snap-on on down to below HF. They all have their place.

        Warranty of course doesn’t bother me much, for typical hand tools I’ll never need a replacement right away, at least for typical tools. I’ll always have some sort of back up. It might make the job harder, but I’ll have a back up.

        • Brent, I’m the same way. No telling how many Taiwan sets of tools I’ve bought because I don’t want to fill every pickup with expensive tools that I lose in the out in the boonies. I still have sets of Snap On and Mac and some really old Craftsman from late 40’s to early 50’s that are a cut above nearly everything else. They were made back when Petol tools were expensive, good quality tools.

          I don’t worry about warranty either since so many times I have backup tools and I don’t need them after driving 60 or 130 miles to get a replacement, I need them right then. It’s the reason I have several of the same size everything. But when it comes to shop tools you can find all those good name brands.

          I wish I got a paper or had some way of knowing where garage sales were going to be, great tools cheap on those. Some of my Ridgid tools were hand me downs and are still good as new although heavily used. Now Ridgid is made in China and I still buy some of their power tools but only because I don’t want to spend 3-4 times as much for the elite brands.

          I still have Torsen and other brands that are defunct…..for some reason. It isn’t because of lack of quality.

            • Ed, A friend who is an HVAC pro was keeping and using my Greenlee KO puller set. I was on a job where I needed it and he did too. So he bought a set from HF that lasted less than a small job.

              I’ll buy a vacuum pump rather than borrow one. What I detest is somebody who think they own the only tool around just because it’s expensive and most people won”t buy one. My nephew asked me if I had a screwdriver handy so I handed him my Klein 11 in 1. Since he thought he had one(his employees took nearly every tool at the shop)he said “So this is where my Klein went”. I told him “Sure, you’re the only guy to buy one and they stay in business despite that”. Next thing I know it was missing from my crossover box. At least he didn’t get my Greenlee which I prefer over the Klein. Of course they weren’t identical so the old saying of “you can’t use both at the same time” is wrong wrong wrong. I did use both at the same time, the very reason I had both. I took to using a scribe pencil on tools. Then the thief you’re working with won’t have that tool with him and I don’t offer a replacement for his use. Of course I have lots of tools with company names on them I bought at auction but at least the company no longer exists.

  14. Great advise. A few more things to consider

    1. Steel toe boots or shoes. NEVER wear flip flops while working. I had an alignment rack turnplate (about 30 pounds) fall and land edge-wise on my toes. Had I not been wearing steel toe (from Wal-Mart) boots I would have had at minimum a trip to the ER and possibly lost a tootsie or two.

    2. Compressed Air. This stuff can cause severe injury if it goes in your ear or eye. Also, it can drive the noxious fluids on your hand into your skin and bloodstream. It’s not a toy.

    3. If you think you need a bigger hammer or prybar to remove something you’re probably doing it wrong. Sure, stuff can get seized and rusted but, most things, with a little patience (see above) and thought can be done fairly easily. PB Blaster and Kroil are great but, you can make your own penetrant by mixing automatic trans fluid and Acetone in a 50/50 mix…works wonders.

    • For a stuck bolt or nut, and especially one rusted on, try tightening a wee bit first before you attempt to loosen. Often the threads further in are clean(er) and will more easily allow the nut or bolt to free up. This has saved me numerous times, especially on exhaust manifolds.

      FYI, I have used a sledge to free up parts, but only for splitting suspension ball joints that had been on a Jeep for 25 years. Definitely not out of anger but out of necessity.

      • yep. in a bit, out a bit, rinse repeat until free.
        I have various impact tools now, for fasteners big and small. Makes life easier.

        Air hammers are also very useful. Frees rusted things in a more civilized manner.

        • The 50/50 mix was the thing that finally ate through some Red Loc-Tite. It wasn’t on a bolt, it was on a timing belt crank gear. I was changing a timing belt on a friend’s Miata and found the previous “mechanic” had stripped the crank bolt then apparently used massive amounts of loc-tite on the gear and reinstalled the bolt with an impact. It took making a gear puller to get it off after soaking in 50/50. I thought it was just seized but, when I finally got it off there was red residue around the entire inside of the gear.

          The previous job was performed at a dealer.

          • Heat and beeswax work wonders. The capillary action will suck that stuff right to where you need it. A Miniductor inductive heater works great for heat if you’re worried about fires. Use heat on the head of a bolt to soften loc-tite.

      • applying a sharp blow (yeah, with a hammer, sometimes with a drift between the hammer’s head and the fastener’s head…) directly in line onto the head of the bolt, a few sharp raps, will often dislodge corrosion, break the bond between the fastener and the work, particularly in aluminium housings. Whenever I have a suspicious looking set to remove, I’ll simply make the rounds and whack each head a time or three, often in a pattern like I’d use for retightening. Most often the “stuck” fasteners will release quickly and relatively easily.

        • The can of freezing spray work pretty good when used right. I used it on a truck axle u-bolt getting it as cold as I thought it would get and hitting the nut with a torch for long enough to heat it well above ambient temp. The nut then tightened.

          I always try Kano Kroil first since I’ve used just about everything on the market on stubborn things with no luck and finally discovered Kano Kroil got down in there and did the job.

          Tractor duals often seemed to be welded on. Use all those rust breakers and hitting the end with a big sledge one person after the other till everyone is just done in. Pack ice around the axle and heat the hub and still not get wink. Leave KK on there a couple days, swatting it wherever you could every few hours. It will finally come off and you’ll be amazed when it finally winks.

          And like Tionico said giving every bolt a good rap a few times even without a drift between often makes them loosen. Or you can take a 3/4 or 1″ impact and spin head bolts off and pull the heads off and then get down there to the threads so you can get something to penetrate in them. I won’t re-use head bolts that take forever to get loose anyway. They most likely have started pulling the threads. At that point when they’re out, chase the threads in the block and use new head bolts and that won’t be a problem again, esp. if you use some anti-seize or non-permanent Loc Tite. Several companies make an anti-seize that doesn’t really lubricate and will seal on those threads exposed to coolant(generally the bad boys to remove).

          I like to use a small brass hammer when I’m reinstalling and near the proper torque and checking the final torque. It’s generally not a problem if you’ve chased the threads and used anti-seize on new bolts. It took me a long time before I became a dyed in the wool thread chaser but install that bolt just running it down through the old threads and then chase them and find out the difference and it’s generally a significant one.


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