I am going to let you in on a little secret that most mechanics won’t tell you; they don’t care about your car. For most mechanics, your car is just another task to finish in order to get paid, and the quicker and easier the job is, the more they get paid. That’s not to say mechanics cut corners or don’t do good work, but if you really care about your car and want to keep it in top condition, doing basic repairs and service yourself is the best way to make sure repairs to your car are done well.
For many people, the idea of servicing their own vehicle is daunting. Opening the hood on almost any modern car reveals layers of plastic panels, bundles of confusing wires and unfamiliar components that even experienced automotive enthusiasts have to look up to identify. Under all those covers, most cars and trucks share commonalities that, once understood, make it easy to service any make, model or style of car or truck.
A major obstacle for many people who have not received training to service cars is the jargon used. Tools all have special names, and not knowing the difference between a box wrench and a ratchet can make for a slow repair that can quickly erode confidence. Not knowing what components are called, what they do, and how they work can make it particularly intimidating to the novice who wants to service their own vehicle.
To make it easy, you should know that most services on cars can be completed with only a few tools. Today, there are two primary measurement styles used for removing nuts and bolts. The most common measurement world wide is metric. Tools are sized according to millimeters (mm). Virtually all non-US cars and trucks use metric components. Today, an increasing number of American vehicles also use metric components. The other measurement is know as S.A.E, and uses fractions of an inch. Once nearly universal on American cars and trucks, S.A.E- also called standard- has begun to fade from use as more vehicles use components produced from multiple countries.
There are a few basic tools that are absolutely essential to servicing cars and trucks. The novice does not need to buy high dollar tools. For most tasks, an inexpensive set of tools will work just fine and provide years of service without breaking, bending or distorting. Many companies sell tool kits, typically advertised as having lots of components. While these sets can be useful to the amateur service tech, shop carefully. Many of these tool kits include lots of small tools that are of limited use and do not add a lot of value. In many cases, buying tools according to need will provide a better toolbox at a lower cost.
The two most important tools are box wrenches and socket/ratchet combinations. If you work exclusively on one vehicle that uses only metric components, buying a small set of wrenches ranging from about 4 mm up to 16 mm will provide nearly every wrench you will need, and sets can be bought for less than $15 US. If you are working on American vehicles, a standard wrench set that covers from 1/4” to 3/4” will get you started. Prices are about the same, regardless of measurement style.
A ratchet is a tool that allows interchangeable sockets in various sizes to be installed. A lever switches a ratchet from right to left operation, allowing the user to remove and install bolts. Sockets are sized the same as wrenches, in both standard and metric. Buy according to your needs in the same sizes as for wrenches. Ratchets have one other important measurement; the drive size. This refers to the size of the square adapter that sockets mount on. Three sizes are most common and are always measured in standard. The three sizes are 1/4”, 3/8” and 1/2”. The difference is primarily in strength, the larger drive, the stronger the tool. For most service and repair tasks, a set of 1/4” drive sockets will suffice, but it is a good idea to have 3/8” drive sockets if you plan on doing repairs that involve larger bolts and nuts that are tightened down more. If you are doing suspension work, tearing down engines and transmissions and other large components, it might be necessary to acquire a 1/2” drive ratchet and sockets. For about $15 US, you can pick up a good set of sockets and a ratchet.
Other tools that should be picked up include flat and phillips head screwdrivers, at least one pair of pliers and an electrical test meter that measures volts. With these basic tools, almost all service and repair tasks can be completed at home.
Before working on your car, I recommend reading the owners manual. Many helpful tips are included, and the manual helps to familiarize you with the name and location of certain parts, as well as provides a recommended service schedule. Service and repair manuals are available online for virtually every car or truck on the road, and getting one of these manuals is essential to servicing your vehicle. Trust me, mechanics use them too.
The internet has created an amazing bridge between skilled knowledge and amateur mechanics that has never existed before. If your car is making a weird noise, a funny smell, or an abnormal shimmy, you can look it up online. Chances are good, you will get an answer, but I always caution people new to working on cars about seeking advice on forums. Sometimes, information that is provided on forums is not sound or safe, and can result in destroying your car. Even mechanics online will sometimes give really bad advice. Don’t take one persons word. If you can’t find a few people saying to do a repair a certain way, don’t do it. Even better, buy a service and repair workshop manual for your vehicle that provides clear and easy to follow instructions.
Another benefit the internet has brought to the masses is the access to enthusiasts. For every car out there, you will find ten people that love them and know all about them. In decades past, finding these people would be difficult or impossible, but today, they are just a click away. Most enthusiast sites are very helpful with amateurs just getting into servicing cars themselves.
With the right tools to do the job, and information available to guide you in your endeavor, servicing your own car is easy and saves a lot of money. For less than $50 US, you can have a set of tools that allows you to do virtually all services your car will ever need. With mechanics rates running between $65 and $150 per hour, you can see how quickly the home service mechanic can save money. Just changing your own oil twice a year will probably save you the money you spend on tools to do the job.
I like to recommend to people new to servicing cars to start with simple services. Checking the oil, transmission fluid and engine coolant regularly is important to keeping a car running reliably. Over the years, many very good cars have gained a reputation as being unreliable, but in almost all cases, the unreliability is caused by lack of service, not poor quality.
A great resource is automotive parts stores. Often, the staff are trained to work on cars and are happy to help explain what fluids or parts you need, what tools are required and the best ways to accomplish tasks.
Probably the most valuable bit of advice I ever received when working on a car is to take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Take pictures before you start disassembling a component from multiple angles so you can see exactly how each part fits together, where each nut, bolt and screw are installed, and how the overall position of the component is in relation to parts you will not remove. This simple step can prevent hours of frustration trying to figure out how to reassemble something correctly. Take pictures at each step of disassembly, too. An amazing number of automotive components can be installed upside down, backward or incorrectly, causing a failed repair, damaged parts and destruction of a vehicle.
I like to take pictures of a finished repair, as well.
There is no greater sense of satisfaction than knowing you can service your own car. The freedom and independence of knowing you do not have to rely on someone else to keep your car from breaking down is liberating, and the money you can save servicing your own vehicle can be substantial. So, don’t get overwhelmed. Get a good manual, a set of tools, and get dirty. Your car will thank you.