I love cars and for a long time envisioned myself working on my ride, but after I bought my first vehicle reality set in and my grand ideas of playing mechanic flew out the window. Recently, however, I decided to take the leap and began wrenching on my car. If you’ve been wanting to do the same perhaps this write-up will help convince you.
A while ago Tavarish posed a question asking Jalops why they might not wrench on their own cars. At that time I fell squarely into that category of gearhead - the kind that knows all the horsepower figures but only opens the hood to top off the windshield washer fluid. I expected a follow-up article from Tavarish in which he’d bust many of the myths about working on a car. It never came (or I missed it) but Justin Hughes wrote a little piece where he weighed the options of doing your own work versus taking it to a shop. I really liked how he began his final paragraph:
Which Is Better?
In my opinion, neither. They’re just different means to the same end. I would never consider someone to not be a true gearhead because they don’t wrench on their own car.
“So, does this mean I’m still a real gearhead? Hooray!” I exclaimed. But this victory didn’t feel sweet. For years I had wanted to work on my car but every time I had an excuse. The truth was that I was just scared: scared of breaking something, scared of doing a sub-par job, scared of hurting myself, and scared of looking stupid. Let me tell you that this is the dumbest mentality to have, and if you have ever wanted to work on your car but never committed to doing so you should read on.
(Full Disclosure: I agree with what Justin said in his article. I am not trying to convince anyone that they should attempt to fix every problem their car has on their own. I want this write-up to be a kick in the butt to those who have hesitated about wrenching because even without any previous mechanical skills you can get some stuff done. I’m living proof of that. And even though my DIY resume is short I’m eager to share and learn more.)
Sources of Opposition
Family and Friends
I was surprised as to how many people gave me funny looks and called me crazy when I told them that I wanted to change my own oil. Clearly I surround myself with the wrong type of people, but chances are you will come across the same thing. And it’s so very annoying.
I told my sister that I want to change my own oil and she called me nuts and told me to go to a garage. I told my mom and she said I shouldn’t waste my time and offered to pay for half of it. I told a friend and he gave me a blank stare and asked “why?” Do yourself a favour and don’t listen to these people. They don’t get it and almost anything they say will be negative. They would never work on their own vehicle because they don’t want to get dirty and they can’t be bothered - in other words, they don’t care. However, you do, and that’s what matters.
“You are your own worst enemy”. Read the introductory paragraphs of this article. If you don’t set your mind to doing something or if you hesitate, you’ll never get anything done.
This is perhaps the easiest and most go-to reason someone can use in the argument against wrenching so I want to tackle it first. The truth is you don’t need a lot of space to work on your car. Sure, a covered, private area can be very nice but you should stop using this point as a dealbreaker. “I’ve only got a one-car garage! It’s too narrow for any work!” I call BS. There’s enough space to maneuver if you park dead centre and you can even jack up your car - the only “trick” is to position your jack on a slight angle (as opposed to being completely perpendicular to the car) in order to have enough room to pump the handle. “I only have an uncovered driveway! I can’t work out in the open!” Once again, BS, since I changed my spark plugs and put in my intake on such a driveway. You might have to wait to get a sunny day but... so what? “I don’t have any private space! I live in a condo!” This one can be a bit tricky. Some jobs you can do almost anywhere - I changed my in-cabin air filter in my condo’s outdoor visitor parking lot. Other jobs, however, you might want to avoid doing in a place you don’t own. For example an oil or any fluid change has the potential to get messy and it would be asshole-ish of you to leave a giant stain on someone else’s property. You can usually do some work in the parking lot of a car parts store and they won’t mind (you also get the added benefit of help being nearby).
Another workaround is to rent a bay at a garage. These self-serve garages seem to be popping up so do a search to see if there’s something like this available in your area. They’ll even rent tools out to you.
Moral of the story: stop using space as an excuse, but be reasonable about the jobs you do if you don’t own the land.
Cost of Parts and Tools
“Tools are expensive!” Correction: tools can be expensive, if you buy the expensive ones when they’re not on sale. I will briefly mention that many of you most likely already have enough tools to get some work done on your ride (screwdrivers, wrenches, ratchet and sockets...) but for argument’s sake let’s say you have absolutely no tools. Tools go on sale all the time and you can pick up good quality stuff for cheap prices if you wait a bit. It’s best when you’re not in a rush to get something done so you can pick up one set of tools one week, and another the next, etc... Sometimes it’s also worth looking at online retailers like eBay and Amazon for parts and tools.
Car-specific tools also don’t necessarily have to break the bank. I picked up a kit consisting of a 2-tonne hydraulic jack, 2 jack stands, and 2 wheel chocks for under $45 CAD. $45!!! Synthetic oil, a filter, and an oil drain pan kit brought my total bill to around 100 bucks which is only $20 more than what I would pay for a single oil change at a shop. So for an extra $20 I got a jack and an oil pan, which means I will be saving a bunch of money when I’m due for my next change.
Keep a look out for deals. If something goes on sale grab it and at the very least the money you already spent should be motivation to do it yourself.
This is a very personal issue because everyone has drastically different schedules and so I can’t advise you to just “find the time” if you are so busy that you, in fact, do not actually have the time to work on your car. But if you have weekends off or can spare a part of a day then you are good to go!
If you’ve ever been on the Internet you will know that this is no longer a valid excuse. You will find an abundance of tutorials for the specific job you want to do and most likely for your exact car model. If that’s not enough you can post questions on car-specific forums and overly-eager members will help you. However, be wary of forum people - they could be wrong, and (more likely) they might explain things at a level you may not understand (either they want to show off by flaunting their knowledge or they might genuinely be bad at explaining things to beginners). Lastly you can gain some first-hand insight from someone at a shop - whether it is a chain or an independent garage - a friend, or your own mechanic.
Reasons to Wrench
Correction: it can be fun. Usually it’s frustrating and annoying and a bit scary, but...
There is definitely a satisfaction unlike anything else in knowing that you accomplished a task on your vehicle. It’s like solving a physics problem without glancing at the solutions manual, or painting the walls of your house, or mowing your lawn, or doing your own taxes (I can only speculate about that last one).
This may be a primary goal for some or simply a byproduct of an adventure for others. Either way you save on labour costs that would usually go to the mechanic.
Knowing an extra thing or two about your ride won’t hurt you. If something goes wrong on the road you might even be able to diagnose the problem and decide the next best course of action. Or, you simply will have a conversation topic for the office on Monday and your boss might overhear and ask you for some advice and then give you a raise and promotion. It just might happen.
Don’t just follow instructions, know what you are doing
This was, and continues to be, my biggest problem when I try to do some work on my ride. I will always find a tutorial with detailed instructions and try to follow them to a tee. I become so preoccupied with doing exactly what the instructions say that I sometimes forget the bigger picture and this can be problematic when the instructions don’t line up with what’s in front of you. Don’t forget that your car has (probably) been worked on by different mechanics and they could have routed a cable differently, or used a different part altogether, etc. Do your best to look up a tutorial that is as generic as possible or just explains the goal of the job before finding one specific to your vehicle.
Budget extra time for setbacks
If your car is older you will come across rusted screws and stuck bolts and other annoyances that will easily make one simple step that should take 5 minutes into a laundry list of instructions that will take half an hour. This is part of the challenge. If it’s your first time wrenching on a particular part then it will take you longer to orientate yourself and figure things out... it’s natural not to rush things, so keep in mind that just because someone on the Internet says it’s a 2-hour job doesn’t mean it will take you 2 hours.
Don’t forget that you are working on a car
A car is a durable machine. It’s made from metals and can take a beating. Of course, you can easily ruin some of the intricate systems and components of a vehicle but keep in mind that it is not a porcelain doll! Sometimes some good ol’ fashioned elbow grease is necessary to power through a stubborn part. I kept forgetting this initially because I work with computers and dainty electrical systems on a daily basis where a single line of code can in fact cause everything to crash. In the case of a car (or motorcycle, or whatever) this simply isn’t the case for the majority of entry-level jobs.
There are times when you just gotta do your best MacGyver impression and come up with a clever way to get something done. This can be avoided if you have the proper tools... but it’s also the nature of hands-on work. Keep some WD-40 around. Use a pipe or wrench placed on a ratchet to gain move leverage. Wrap a towel around a hammer to make a faux rubber mallet. The list goes on and the more experience you get the better you will become.
If you have never done this type of work before it is probably best to start out with a very simple job. Gain experience and work your way up. I put in a cold air intake with the help of a friend as my first job, then I changed the in-cabin air filter on my own (just a little tricky but all the work happened in the passenger seat), recently I changed my oil and after that I did my spark plugs.
The second thing to consider is where to start. I’m going to suggest an RC car as one option. Within ten minutes of unleashing my first gas-powered radio controlled car in a parking lot I was headed to the nearest hobby store to find a replacement axle (in the RC world known as a “dogbone”). I genuinely learned quite a bit from repairing my little RC car, plus it was majorly fun.
Another possibility is to start wrenching on a motorcycle if you’ve got one. Due to their size and far fewer components, motorcycles are easier to work with than cars. Changing the exhaust on my motorcycle wasn’t very difficult simply because everything was quite easy to get at. Of course, not everyone has a motorcycle so that brings us to our third option.
Start with your current car! Do it now!
This builds upon the previous points about starting off small. Basically, don’t bite off more than you can chew. In the last month I was on a roll - changing my car’s oil and spark plugs, and doing maintenance work on my motorcycle plus installing a new exhaust. I really, really, wanted to try and replace a noisy bearing on my car’s front right tire and even found an extremely detailed and well-written tutorial for my exact model. But I had to slow myself down and consider the challenging scope of that job. Eventually I decided to hand it over to a mechanic. Hopefully between now and my next faulty bearing I will have gained enough experience to tackle that job.
Have a Friend
Although by no means a requirement, wrenching can be simpler when you have someone to help you out. Even if they know no more than you do it is nice to have a second opinion and a helping hand. Ask around, and you can always sweeten the deal for the other person by offering to do the same job on their car (e.g. if you want to change your oil, ask a buddy to come help out and change both cars’).
Have the Right Tools
This is always difficult to nail down because there will be unforeseen circumstances and you may find yourself missing a socket, wrench, hex key, or whatever. When you find a tutorial specific for your vehicle make sure you have at least all the parts listed. Sometimes they will skip a tool if it’s too obvious to include in the author’s perspective.
Let me offer just one tip: socket wrenches are very handy to have for jobs. They come in different sizes (called “drives”): usually 1/4”, 3/8”, or 1/2” so make sure the socket heads you buy will match the drive of your socket wrench. If you buy a tool set this won’t be much of a problem. Keep in mind that larger sockets don’t always come in 1/4” drive, and smaller sockets might be difficult to find in anything larger than 1/4”. Converters between drives are available.
Wrenching isn’t for everyone. I’d never poke fun at someone who doesn’t want to work on their car and in turn I don’t expect to be made fun of for wanting to do my own work (I’m looking at you, friends and family!). If you are curious but have never done any work, I hope that this write-up might convince you to take action. It’s fine to be nervous but there are plenty of ways to get help and assistance.
I want to offer a bit more help. As I stated it is very important to have a good understanding of the job rather than just the ability to follow instructions - this is something many tutorials lack because they are usually written by someone with experience who might skip some steps or even forego an overview entirely. For example, when I was changing my spark plugs I was at the step where I had to remove the coils. Wait. What’s a coil? What does it do? What does it look like? Do I need to remove them in a specific order? If that article started with even a brief description of the job then I would have all my questions answered. This is why I propose a new style of tutorial that does not get into specific details about a certain car but provides a high-level overview of the job, including its scope, intent, special tools, and tips you can only offer after doing it yourself. I think the tag “noobDIY” sums it up perfectly. I would love to have tutorials like these even for myself when attempting a new job. What do you guys think?