Never Get in Trouble Trying to Fix Your Car

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Probably the main reason many people don’t dare do it themselves is they’re afraid of not doing it right. More to the point, they’re afraid of doing it wrong — breaking something, or making a problem worse.

But unlike surgery on people, cars are harder to permanently hurt. If you approach the “operation” from the proper perspective.

Problems arise from one of two causes, usually — sometimes both of them together.

The first is — not knowing what you’re doing, but trying to do it anyhow. This goes for everything from that first teenaged oil change to the first time you try to tear down (and put back together) an engine.

How not to get into trouble?

Never guess, never assume.

Know. Or — find out.

The information — the procedures — is readily available for almost any vehicle. In a library, at your local car parts place or online. What you want — if you’re in any doubt about what to do and how to do it — is a repair manual for your particular vehicle. These range in comprehensiveness and specificity — and the one you want will depend on what you intend to do.

If you’re just starting out — interested in doing some DIY routine maintenance such as oil and filter changes, basic brake work and so on — the Haynes or Chilton’s manuals they sell at most auto parts stores (as well as online, via Amazon and so forth) ought to be enough for your purposes. These manuals typically cover a given model across a number of years of production (e.g., Chevy Camaro, 1993-2000) and may not have fine, year-to-year details that would be important for a major teardown. But they’re fine for walking you through an oil change, brake work and other less-than-Master-Mechanic jobs. These manuals are also pretty inexpensive — about $30 or so.

It’ll pay for itself after you do your second oil change.

If you “graduate” to more involved work — or think you might want to — then you may want to consider obtaining a copy of the factory service manual for your particular vehicle. By “factory” I mean the one published by (as an example) Ford . . . or Honda. And so on. You buy these new from the dealership — lately, in CD form. Or used from various sources — eBay being an excellent place to look. This is something worth buying used — because the cost new can be pretty high ($100 or more). Remember: So long as all the pages are there, it doesn’t make the manual any less valuable if it has some grease smudges on the cover.

The next potential stumbling block is — tools. Not having the right ones.

Or, using the wrong ones.

The Catch-22 facing the first-time DIY’er is that — being a first-timer — he not only hasn’t got much in the way of tools, he probably has no idea which tools he does need.

Figuring out which tools are the right tools is usually pretty easy — if you take the time to find out. The better repair manuals will actually tell you — and some will have pictures. The absolutely critical thing is never to guess — or try to “make it work.” The easiest way to get soured on doing-it-yourself is to get frustrated — and that’s very easy to do when you round off a nut, for instance — because instead of the right-sized socket you tried to get it loose with the wrong-size crescent wrench.

Sometimes, specialized tools are required — even for basic jobs like an oil/filter change. You may find you need — as an example — a filter wrench specific to the size of your vehicle’s oil filter, as well as neat little tools such as “wobble” extenders that give you just that extra little bit of angle/working room to get at something that might otherwise be very hard to get at. I have literally half a dozen different sized oil filter wrenches, because of the wide variety of filter types used in my various vehicles. A good way to find the right one for your vehicle is to go to a car parts place, look up the filter your vehicle takes, get one — and then use it to find the right filter wrench from among the many the store will no doubt have available for sale.

Basic tools for basic jobs are — generally — pretty inexpensive. A socket set with the most common size sockets (SAE, from about 1/4 inch to about 3/4; metric from about 8 mm to about 17 mm) plus a good selection of Phillips head and flat blade screwdrivers should be plenty to get you started. You will expand your tool chest as you go.

If you discover you need something you haven’t got, it may not be necessary to buy the tool. If it’s expensive — or something you are pretty sure you may only need once (or once in a very long while) you can often rent the tool — ask (again) at your local auto parts store. Or, ask a friend. Someone you probably know probably has what you need — and would probably be happy to let you borrow it and might even be willing (as well as competent) to show you how to use it.

The most important thing — above all else — is not to proceed when you are not sure. Stop. Refer to the manual. If that doesn’t help, do not forge ahead. Read more — ask a wider circle. Wait.

Be patient.

It’s less important, in the grand scheme of things, to have the car temporarily taken apart — as opposed to permanently broken.

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One Response to “Never Get in Trouble Trying to Fix Your Car”

  1. Ron says:

    Actually it is easy to "permanently hurt" your car. It is easy for the first-timer to overtighten his oil drain bolt and strip the threads, causing an oil leak that can quickly drain all the oil out of the crankcase while driving resulting in a siezed engine. Follow the articles repeated advice though, "know what you are doing" and you will be fine.