Now that you’ve covered the basics with the 10 essential tools every DIYer must have it’s time to specialize and focus on tools that will help make wrenching easier.
Hydraulic Jack or Ramps
Lifting or raising up your car is an inevitability if at the very least to change your tires. My G35 sedan is quite low to the ground and requires that I use a jack if I want to access the oil filter and drain plug. Although you can use a scissor jack to accomplish this feat (your car should have one in the trunk in case of an emergency) a hydraulic jack will be much easier and exponentially quicker to work with. When shopping for a jack ensure it is rated with enough lift capacity for your vehicle and is low enough to get underneath the frame – these measurements will be listed on the box. Always use jack stands with a jack; I don’t need any decreases in my readership. Furthermore you can’t just stick the jack at any point beneath your car and begin pumping the handle. Consult your car’s manual for the proper lift points as some may be near each wheel, others in the middle of each side, and others still at the front and rear. Use the jack on a concrete surface or similar, like inside a garage, because asphalt is actually soft and your jack will ‘sink in’ leaving permanent scars on your driveway. Jacking a car up for the first time is intimidating and it might be the defining moment when you truly appreciate your vehicle’s heft. Crawling underneath afterwards is even more frightening until you do it several times. Remember: follow instructions, position the jack stands properly, and everything will be fine.
Ramps are a great alternative to a jack for jobs where you need access to the underside of the engine bay or exhaust area. They’re not as versatile as a jack because of their non-adjustable height and single position and won’t actually get any wheels off the ground for tire changes. However, they’re easy to use as you just need to position each ramp in front of the two front tires and drive up (vice versa for the rear wheels). Approach angle is important here as a car with a lip or low bumper might not have enough clearance to make it up without running into the ramp and pushing it out of the way.
Oil Filter Wrench
Ok, so your car is now up in the air and you are on the ground, lying on your back and admiring the rusty, grimy landscape of your car’s belly. Your phone’s about to die from working double duty as a YouTube tutorial player and flashlight. Finally, you make out the oil filter neatly tucked away behind a brace and contort your body to extend your arm’s reach until you feel the metal of the outside can. If you haven’t permanently relegated this quintessential wrencher’s job to a mechanic just yet, you might be tempted to do so when you realize that you’ve come all this way but the filter will not come off. Why not? Well the quicklube place you took your car to 8,000 km (5,000 miles) ago used some NASCAR-spec tools to secure your filter (and most likely drain plug) because they don’t like to follow the manufacturer’s recommended ‘hand tight’ rating. This is where the oil filter wrench saves the day. Personally, I’ve never had an issue with my circular strap-style wrench which adjusts to fit several filter sizes. There are cap-style attachments that get seated onto a socket wrench as well as adjustable jaw and plier options. Use whatever gets the job done. Moving forward, try to use oil filters with an accessible 1″ nut for easy removal with a regular wrench.
Pro tip: measure your wrench in the store before you purchase it by finding a replacement oil filter and testing it out with the wrench you chose.
Believe it or not, certain bolts need to be tightened to a specification other than “as tight as you can get it!” A very common example are a wheel’s lug nuts which many shops like to secure with such force that it requires asking a favour from the Hulk to loosen. Over-torqued bolts stretch which results in less strength and more stress, making them more prone to breaking off and leaving you stranded. There are many other components, such as spark plugs, which must also be torqued to the appropriate value specified by the manufacturer lest you risk stripping threads. In everyday use you will come across three types of torque wrenches.
A beam torque wrench is the most basic and the least expensive option. I purchased one online for about $25 (pictured on the left). This is a tool that will get the job done but requires constant monitoring of the beam and scale which might not always be convenient, or even a possibility. As a result I can’t get too excited about this wrench especially after I picked up my…
Click-style wrench (pictured, right). This is a more sophisticated version that allows you to set a torque value by adjusting the handle. When enough force is applied the internal mechanism produces an audible click which is your cue to stop. I bought a 3/8″ drive wrench which I use to tighten lug nuts.
The last type of torque wrench I’ll mention is the digital kind. A strain gauge measures the force and displays it on a digital display; an alert sounds when the required torque value is hit. Although I can imagine the convenience this brings, I do not use a torque wrench often enough to justify purchasing a digital one – I’ll stick with my simpler (and far less expensive) model.
Last season you properly torqued that bolt and your mind has been at ease knowing that the job was done correctly. Now you need access to a part which requires removal of that bolt. You call to duty your socket wrench and… the bolt won’t budge. Throughout the year rust, dirt, and heat cycles have done their due diligence and melded the metals together, making the bolt a real PITA to remove. So what now? Go ahead, grab your WD-40… and throw it into the trash. WD-40 helps prevent against rust and corrosion but is not a good option when prevention is too late. There are other products available which are more effective at freeing stuck parts: PB Blaster and Liquid Wrench, for instance. A popular concoction I’ve read on many online forums is a 50/50 blend of automatic transmission fluid and acetone although I haven’t personally tested this. Spray the solution onto the problem area and let it sit for 10 – 20 minutes. Ideally, hit those bolts with the penetrating fluid the day before and allow it to soak overnight. Then, move on to item #5.
Archimedes is purported to have said “give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the world”. I’m not sure if he was thinking about stubborn nuts and bolts on a car when he said that, but this principle is what makes the breaker bar such a fantastic tool. There isn’t anything too special about it – it’s essentially socket wrench with a very long handle. The head can usually rotate to accommodate different angles and they will not have a ratchet mechanism. Breaker bars come in different drives and lengths and the longer the bar, the more leverage you have, the more force you can apply to get that bolt spinning like a top. The main benefit of this tool can be replicated by slipping a piece of pipe onto a wrench so you might be able to skip this purchase and make do with whatever you have lying around. That being said, I picked up my 24″ breaker bar as it was bundled with a torque wrench and the two piece combo was on a huge sale and I enjoy being able to easily remove lug nuts with it.
Pro tip: breaker bars can break. If you’re dealing with an extremely stubborn nut or bolt and you notice the handle is bending, stop and re-evaluate the situation. You may need to employ a different technique to loosen the bolt.
If you’ve hosed down that bolt with penetrating fluid and your breaker bar still does not budge, it’s time to get serious. In this case, we’ll do that by adding heat. When the parts are exposed to flame they expand and it may help them break loose. It also creates some space between the threads for the fluid to creep into. Before lighting up make sure that there are no plastic components or fuel/brake lines in the vicinity. Point the flame at the bolt and heat it up along with the surrounding area. Spray some more penetrating fluid onto it and use a hammer or mallet to give it a few good whacks as the force can help shock the bolt out of its seat.
After you’re done feel free to reward yourself by making a creme brulee with the crispiest top you ever did see.
Someone once told me “zip ties can hold mountains” and I believe them. These plastic straps may be small but they are mighty and have many purposes outside the realm of cars and wrenching which is why every household should have at least a few for emergencies. Zip ties will do a great job of keeping errant cables and wires together and in a more extreme case can even keep a bumper from falling off. Note the length when you are purchasing them as well as the tensile strength (load rating).
Fasteners, such as bolts and screws, are subject to lots of vibrations when on a vehicle. Every time you go over a bump, hit a pothole, or simply drive down the road, things shake. The resultant forces can cause fasteners to slowly come undone. Lock washers exist to minimize the effect of vibrations and sometimes have grip (a rough or serrated surface) to prevent unwanted rotation. Even with a washer many applications can stand to benefit from threadlocker – a fluid applied to the end of a fastener’s threads which helps resist the aforementioned vibrations and will prevent the bolt or screw from becoming loose or corroding. Typically the threadlocker’s colour represents its strength and the two most common ones are: blue (medium strength, meant to be serviceable) and red (high strength, not meant to be removed after it is tightened). A small bottle is inexpensive and will last for a long time since only a few drops are required on the threads.
The Internet is rife with commentators from all walks of life bestowing their knowledge and experiences with anti-seize lubricants in various scenarios: when to use it, when not to use it, what type to use, and whether or not the whole thing is a scam. I have no dog in this fight and haven’t used anti-seize enough to possess an empirical opinion. I simply want to educate you, the reader, of its existence and stated purpose and leave the decision to use it as a homework exercise. An anti-seize lubricant is applied to the threads of a bolt or even a gasket and helps prevent galling (wear caused by friction and adhesion) between two metal surfaces. This tends to occur more often when the two metals are different but is also an inherent property of certain softer metals such as aluminum. This lubricant combats rust, corrosion, and other chemical reactions that can occur when you introduce ingredients such as heat, water, and salt to the area in question. In other words, had you applied anti-seize to that bolt when you torqued it down you wouldn’t have struggled so hard to remove it!
Pro tip: torque values apply to ‘dry’ fasteners unless specifically noted. When you apply any type of lubricant to a bolt or screw it turns more freely so be vigilant with how much force you use.
Tire Pressure Gauge and Air Compressor
Modern cars have a tire-pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that monitors the pressure of your tires. Bet you didn’t see that one coming? Newer cars will even conveniently display the pressures on the gauge cluster or infotainment screen, making it a no-brainer to ensure your tires are properly inflated… if the TPMS wasn’t so finicky and prone to failure. The sensors on my car kept throwing error codes even after being replaced so I gave up on using them and committed to checking the tire pressures at least once a month on my own. For just a few dollars you can get a gauge the size of a pen and keep it in your car. I use mine to simply get an idea about the pressure in a tire that looks suspicious so I’m not concerned if it’s inaccurate by +/- 1 psi. However, I spent a bit more money on an air compressor with a digital pressure indicator that allows me to set a value for the desired pressure and will run until it is reached. I prefer this one to my older analogue compressor that was smaller but noisier and ended up overheating.
Once equipped with the tools on this list you will be able to tackle some advanced wrenching jobs!