Fix It Your Self Auto Mechanics

 

How to Become a Fix It Yourself Auto Mechanic

For many people, the cost of owning an automobile can be quite high when you factor in: insurance, licensing, fuel, maintenance, and repair costs.  As a result, many people have an interest in fix it your self auto mechanics.  Anyone that has taken their car in to an auto repair shop or dealership knows that it can be a real eye opener when you get the repair bill!  Many people feel intimidated by the whole idea of becoming a fix it yourself auto mechanic, because they have just never done it before.  Fear of the unknown can keep people from trying new things.  It is true that some people seem to be natural "motorheads".  However, if you really investigate, you will find that they were not born that way, but rather they acquired the skills and interest over the years while getting hands on experience.  In other words, most anyone can learn to be a fix it yourself auto mechanic if they have the motivation to do so, and the willingness to learn what is necessary to get the job done.  It's like a lot of things in life... hard work and persistence can pay off.

There are a few important things to know about fix it your self auto mechanics...

1) SAFETY FIRST!  First and foremost, you need to be aware of safety concerns.  You are thinking about working on a machine that weighs 1000's of pounds.  If you need to work under a vehicle, be sure to use a proper jack to lift the car and be sure to support the car on adequate jack stands.  Be sure to jack the automobile at the proper jack points on the car.  Refer to the owners manual that came with your car for information about where you can safely jack up your car.  If your repair or maintenance work does not require the wheels to be freewheeling in the air, then you can also drive up on a set of car ramps.  Ramps can be an easier and safer way to elevate one end of the vehicle. You simply drive right up on the ramps to lift the car.  Whatever you choose, remember that most normal sized cars probably weigh in the area of 2000 - 4000lbs (that's 1 - 2 tons).  Older full size cars can weigh more.  Full size pickup truck and vans can also weigh much more (maybe as much as 3 - 4 tons depending on the specific model).  When selecting a jack, jack stands, or ramps, be sure to choose them with proper weight ratings.  The jack and stands will usually have the weight ratings clearly displayed on them.  If in doubt, buy a bigger jack and jack stands than you think you need.  That way, you will have an extra factor of safety while lifting and supporting different vehicles.  Another point about jacking cars... make sure the parking brake is ON, and on automatic transmission cars, make sure the shift lever is in the PARK position.  In addition, try to put blocks or wedges (wheel chocks) under at least 1 of the tires that will remain on the ground - to help prevent the automobile from rolling.  Here's another BIG safety issue... NEVER WORK UNDER A CAR THAT IS ONLY SUPPORTED BY A JACK!  Let's just say that you don't want to see what would happen if a heavy vehicle fell down on top of someone that was working underneath.  No need to go into details, but suffice it to say it would not be pretty and would probably be the last mistake that person ever made.   Even though it's not that common, a jack CAN fail.  Don't take a chance.  Never trust only a jack.  Even if the jack does not fail, if the car is not properly secured on jack stands, the car can start to roll and tip off the jack.  Yes, it's true (don't ask the author of this article about how he knows)! 

Another safety area that you need to be aware of are danger points on the vehicle.  Keep in mind that when a car has been running, areas of the engine and exhaust system can get very hot.  You can get 3rd degree burns by touching a hot part of the engine.  Also, when an engine is hot, the engine coolant (water/antifreeze mixture) will get very hot in the engine cooling system.  DO NOT OPEN THE RADIATOR CAP (or a cap on a coolant bottle since some are also pressurized) WHEN THE ENGINE IS HOT!  The boiling hot water can spray out and severely burn you.  If you need to work on the engine cooling system (hoses, thermostat, radiator), then wait until the engine has completely cooled off BEFORE you work on the system.  Another important safety concern is moving parts on the engine.  Do NOT work on an engine that is running if at all possible.  The radiator cooling fan can turn on unexpectedly.  The moving belts and pulleys can be a real hazard to your fingers.  If for some reason you need to have the engine running while you are looking and listening under the hood, the be sure that there are no loose sleeves, jewelry, long hair, and any other loose items that could hang down and get caught in a belt and pulley.  If this did happen, it could pull your hands, arms, or face into the moving parts of the engine.  Again, not a pretty picture.  Turn the engine off and let it cool down when you will be working on it.  When working as a fix it yourself auto mechanic, remember that the most important thing is SAFETY!  If in doubt, then slow down and assess the situation.  Don't get in a big hurry.  Stop and think.  No sense saving some money by doing repairs yourself, but then end up spending it on doctor bills (while getting painful injuries)!  

2)  GET THE RIGHT TOOLS.  Even the best mechanic will not be able to fix much without the right tools.  The real motorheads are often people that have not only gained a lot of experience working on cars, but also collected a lot of tools in the process!  In fact, some people enjoy tools too much, and have way more tools than necessary to get the job done.  So, you don't need to have a garage full of tools to do your own repairs.  Many auto repairs can be done with basic hand tools and the know how.  So, if you do not already have a good set of hand tools, then this is something that you will want to invest in.  WARNING: Not all tools are created equal!  Anyone that has worked on stuff much and tried to use cheap junk tools knows how frustrating (and painful) it can be.  Just imagine straining to loosen a nut or bolt that is rusted on or stuck good, and have the wrench BREAK and your hand smashing into a sharp edge on the engine.  OUCH!  That's what can happen if you choose cheap junk tools.  That's the way a lot of the cheap Chinese made tools were in the past.  Thankfully, these days even many of the Chinese tools are made better.  There are many different brands available, but generally speaking if the tools have a "lifetime warranty" or state that they are: "drop forged", "heat treated", or "professional", then there is a good chance that they will be adequate for a fix it yourself auto mechanic.  You don't have to go out and buy the most expensive set of tools you can find, but just be aware that it's better to spend a little more on a good set of tools, so you don't have to worry about them failing. 

The fix it yourself auto mechanic should consider the following tools:

a)  Set of combination wrenches (with open and closed/box ends).

b)  Socket set with good ratchet drive (typically 3/8" drive works fine).

c)  Adjustable crescent wrench can be helpful, but does NOT replace wrenches a) & b)!

d)  Good set of screwdrivers (set with both phillips and straight blade heads - multiple sizes).

e)  Torque wrench for tightening critical fasteners with specific torque specifications.

f)  Telescoping magnetic pick up tool for reaching those nuts or bolts dropped in the engine.

Keep in mind that there will be METRIC (mm)  and SAE (inches) wrenches and sockets.  Generally speaking, many older US made cars have the SAE fasteners (nuts & bolts), while foreign made cars will have METRIC fasteners.  There can be exceptions and newer US cars are more likely to have METRIC fasteners.  Depending on the year they were made, some US automobiles might even have a combination of both!  If it's a foreign made car, then almost for sure it will be only metric.  The moral of the story?  Probably best to buy a set of wrenches and socket set that have BOTH metric and SAE sizes.  That way, you should be prepared for whatever nuts or bolts you may come across.  Make sure that whatever wrench you try fits nice and snug on the fastener.  Keep in mind that sometimes a metric wrench will fit on a SAE fastener (or vice versa).  Some sizes are close enough to work fine with either one - like 1/2" and 13mm.  However, some are not close enough and you can strip the outside of the bolt or nut hex.  Make sure you are using the correct size wrench. 

The pictures below show some examples of quality made hand tools that are recommended for automotive repair jobs.  These tools (and thousands more) are for sale online through Amazon.com.  The author of this article has spent a lot of money ordering from Amazon (including expensive tools and equipment) over the years and they are a reliable and trustworthy company.  Another nice thing is that many of the tools are eligible for the Super Saver Shipping when you order items eligible with total order value over $25.  In addition, Amazon runs frequent promotions where you can get a healthy discount (like $25 OFF or even $50 OFF for larger orders) and that is on top of the already good prices and free shipping.  It is possible to get a very good deal on quality toosl this way.  If you are looking for a good place to order quality tools online and have them shipped to your door (for FREE in many cases), then check out some of the recommended tools below.

3)  USING TOOLS.  A few general recommendations about using tools.  Outside of the obvious idea of using the right tool for the job (make sure it fits properly), there are a few other important points to remember.  First of all, don't force things.  If you are trying to loosen a nut or bolt and it is really stuck good and won't move, then don't just try to force it.  You can break something or strip the fastener.   On rusted or seized nuts and bolts, try to use some penetrating lubricant like a WD-40 type spray.  Let it soak for a while before trying to loosen it.  Also, make sure that you are turning the wrench the right way!  Remember, in most cases it's: LEFTIE LOOSIE & RIGHTIE TIGHTIE.  In other words, in most cases turning the wrench to the left (counterclockwise) will loosen the fastener, and turning the wrench to the right (clockwise) will tighten it.  There are some exceptions in the case of left handed threads that work in the opposite directions, but these are not as common on most repair jobs.  If you are applying force to loosen a fastener and it is not moving or feels like it is getting tighter, then just stop and think to make sure that you are turning it in the right direction.  With a strong hand, it is possible to strip or break off a fastener.  Then that opens up a whole nother can of worms that you don't want to get into if you can help it!  Remember to apply the rule of moderation.  If you have to really force something, then there is a good chance that something is wrong.  Slow down and assess the situation to see what might be preventing the nut or bolt from moving.  One more comment related to using tools (and also related to safety)... ALWAYS LOOK TO SEE WHERE YOU HAND WILL GO IF THE WRENCH SLIPS OR THE FASTENER BREAKS.  If you are using a wrench to tighten or loosen a fastener, then look at the surrounding areas and imagine where your hand will go if something slips, breaks, or jumps.  You can cut or gouge your hand very badly if your hand rams into a sharp edge with a hard force.  Don't ask the author how he knows about this one too!  OUCH!   

4)  OTHER SUPPLIES.  In addition to tools, there will be a few other supplies that come in handy for fix it your self auto mechanics.  Rags are very important and allow you to clean up your hands and parts that you are working with.  You can buy a bag of rags at the store, or you can use old socks (a favorite), T-shirts, or other old clothing.  If you don't have a rag handy when you need it, then you might instinctively use your pants or shirt to wipe your hands.  The person that does the laundry (you or someone else) will not be very happy about that later!  Also, don't wear your nicest clothes while working on an automobile.  You can/will get dirty.  Even when you think you won't get that dirty, it's amazing how oil, grease, grime can end up on your clothes.  Dedicate a set of comfortable work clothes for when you are working as a do it yourself auto mechanic, and just plan on them getting dirty and stained.  Another useful item is a can of carburetor cleaner spray that can come in handy for degreasing and cleaning parts.  An old toothbrush or small paint brush can also be useful for cleaning up hard to reach areas that you need to work on.  Speaking of cleaning...     

5)  CLEANLINESS.  Keep in mind that an automobile engine is a precision made piece of machinery.  You do NOT want dirt, grit, or grime getting inside the engine!  Dirt in the wrong place can greatly accelerate wear and can lead to premature failure.  Think of fix it yourself auto mechanics as sort of like surgery.  In most cases, you don't need to go to quite that extreme, but cleanliness is important.  And there are critical situations like when rebuilding an engine, where you need to have operating room like cleanliness.  Dirt is destructive to an engine.  On the outside of an engine, grit and grime are normally not a big deal.  However, when you need to start to take apart an engine, then that grit and grime on the outside of the engine can end up inside and cause trouble.  Get a can of engine degreaser and clean the area where you need to work BEFORE you start to take things a part.  For those that understand the importance of cleanliness during engine work, there's not much worse than seeing an engine taken apart with dirt and grit all over the place!  Once you take it apart, it's too late to try to clean it up.  Clean it first - before you begin disassembling it. 

6)  BE ORDERLY.  Another important area when working on an automobile is to be orderly and organized in your work.  It's one thing to have a messy desk (the author is very familiar with that!), but it's another thing to have a disorganized pile of nuts, bolts, and engine parts and not have a clue how to put them back together!  As you take things apart, try to set a side a clean area where you can lay out the parts and fasteners in the order that you removed them.  Just make sure that the dog or young children don't get into your neat and organized lay out (the author knows about this one too)!  Nothing is more frustrating than trying to put things back together, but you can not finish the job because tools or parts are missing - only later to discover that the dog carried them off behind the house, or the kids were playing with them and hid them in a "safe place"! 

It can also be useful to have a notebook and pen nearby that you can grab (yes, with your greasy fingers) and jot down notes along the way as you take things apart.  If you take step by step notes documenting the sequence of how you took something apart, then it will be much easier to put it back together later - especially if some time passes before you work on it the next time.  It's amazing how much you can forget in a short time.  If you took good notes, you simply follow your list in reverse to re-assemble things.  Also be aware that it is important to put the right bolts back in the right holes.  Sometimes, bolts in a certain are of the engine will be of the same length.  BUT, it is also very common for different length bolts to be used in certain areas.  So, you can have bolts that are of the same pitch and diameter (meaning they will screw into the same holes), but for some reason the engineers selected different lengths at each location.  If you put in a bolt that is too short and tighten it, then it's possible to strip out part of the threaded hole, because you are not getting the full length of thread engagement intended with the longer bolt.  On the flip side, it is possible to try to install a long bolt in the wrong hole and the extra length will not allow the bolt to be tightened down all the way because it will bottom out.  Or worse yet, you try to continue forcing that too long of a bolt into the hole and strip out the threads or crack the casting (if it's an aluminum part). 

One easy way to keep bolts organized is to keep a Sharpie permanent marker pen on hand.  Write a small number on each bolt head and also at the side of each hole so you know exactly which bolt goes into which hole.  This will only work well if you clean up the heads of the bolts and surrounding area on the engine (which you should do anyway!), since most permanent marker will not write on greasy/oily surfaces.  No big deal since you should be cleaning the area up anyway before disassembling anything... right?  RIGHT!  Also, it can be helpful to have some small dishes available (like from small containers from food like yogurt, margarine, sour cream, etc...) to put in bolts or small parts; rather than having them rolling around on the floor and more prone to being lost or misplaced.  If you take the time up front to be orderly and organized in your work, then it can save time later when it comes time to put things back together.  It is very frustrating to start putting something back together and later realize "Ooops, I forgot to put that part back in", and then have to take things apart AGAIN in order to install the overlooked piece (the author is all too familiar with that from past experience)!    

7)  REPAIR MANUAL.  And last, but NOT least... a repair manual is one of the most useful items to have for fix it your self auto mechanics.  Some veteran motorheads have worked on so many different vehicles over the years that they instinctively know a lot about how different cars are assembled.  However, even the most experienced mechanic probably should have a model specific repair manual on hand for the particular vehicle they are working on.  There will be times when it will be important to know in what sequence a particular part of the vehicle should be disassembled and then later assembled, or important to know the specific torque specification on certain nuts and bolts.  Think about it... the professional mechanics at the dealerships that regularly work on the same brand of vehicles use service manuals.  If the professional mechanics need it, then the fix it yourself auto mechanic should have a repair manual too.  By the way, it is possible for the home mechanic to buy the professional factory service manuals, but these are VERY EXPENSIVE and normally way overkill for doing an occasional repair job by a fix it yourself auto mechanic.  In fact, some factory shop manuals have so much detail and are written with technical jargon, that they can be very confusing.  They are written for the professional mechanic.  Thankfully, there are other repair manuals written specifically for the fix it yourself auto mechanic like Haynes and Chilton's manuals.  They are much less expensive and much more user friendly than the professional factory shop manuals.  Both Haynes and Chilton's produce repair manuals that offer very good general information about automobile repair, as well as model specific information that you need to know for your particular vehicle.  Buying yourself a repair manual for your specific vehicle is highly recommended! 

Given the desire and a willingness to learn, just about anyone can become a fix it yourself auto mechanic.  True, there is no substitute for hands on experience, but how can someone get experience unless they actually do it?!?  Equipped with the right tools, the right repair manual, and the right safety frame of mind, you will have the right foundation upon which to build your knowledge about fix it your self auto mechanics.  In the end, you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you fixed it yourself and saved a lot of money too!

 

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