Wrenching: an activity where the participant fixes, maintains, or modifies a machine with the help of tools. Some people are paid to wrench while others do it for fun. An even larger group probably wants nothing to do with it but there exists a demographic consisting of people who know about it, have seen it, and are interested in it… but never have done it. I was in that last category until a combination of forces melded together and I finally got my hands dirty. There are many misconceptions about wrenching and numerous barriers to entry, but also an abundant number of reasons to try it out which can help you save money and be better prepared in an emergency.
I love vehicles and for a long time envisioned myself working on my ride-to-be, but after I bought my first car 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.
(Note: I originally wrote this post for the online car community OppositeLock in April 2015. I’ve updated some of the content and changed the images in this iteration. You can find the original post here: http://oppositelock.kinja.com/why-you-can-and-should-wrench-on-your-ride-1697914931)
A while ago Justin Hughes wrote an article where he weighed the options of doing your own work on your vehicle 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 a terrible mindset to be in, and if you have ever wanted to work on your vehicle but never committed to doing so you should read on.
I want to first say that I agree with what Justin said in his article. I am not trying to convince anyone that they should attempt to fix every problem that arises with their vehicle on their own. Nor am I saying that this want should even exist with everyone. I want this write-up to be a kick in the butt to those who have hesitated about wrenching because, even without any previous experience, you can still accomplish many tasks and feel good about it after. I’m living proof of that. And even though my DIY resume is short I’m eager to share and learn more.
Let’s start by discussing some of the reasons that stand in the way between you and wrenching.
Sources of Opposition
Family and Friends
I was surprised when many people I consider close gave me funny looks and called me crazy when I first disclosed to them that I wanted to change the oil in my car by myself. Clearly I surround myself with the wrong type of people, but there is a chance you will experience the same thing. And it’s so very annoying.
I told my sister 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.
As described further in this post, vehicle-specific forums are a great place to ask questions and glean information from knowledgeable people. Unfortunately many forums have members that mean well (in most cases) but don’t know how to transfer information to someone unfamiliar with the subject matter. Ask the wrong question or reveal your inexperience and you may receive discouraging replies. I bet the situation would play differently if you were face-to-face with them but anonimity is one of the perks, and caveats, of the Internet. Your best bet is to just ignore these people or even find a different source of information.
“You are your own worst enemy”. Read the introductory paragraph of this post. If you don’t set your mind to doing something or if you hesitate, you’ll never get anything done. Furthermore, many people may be more mechanically inclined than they give themselves credit for. Perhaps you played with Lego as a kid, or assembled IKEA furniture, taken on some renovation projects around the house… various experiences can contribute to your wrenching abilities.
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 heated, covered, private area can be very nice but you should not lean on 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 still jack up your car or use ramps. “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 and my serpentine belts in my underground garage – but you might want to avoid attempting some particular jobs in a place you don’t own. For example any oil or fluid change has the potential to get messy and it would be inconsiderate of you to leave a giant stain on someone else’s property. Although it’s now less common than before, you can sometimes wrench 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 aren’t the owner of the area or if there are rules against it.
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. Many of you may already have enough tools to get some work done on your ride (screwdrivers, wrenches, ratchet and sockets, etc… you can actually accomplish quite a bit with even a simple toolkit because many vehicles use screws and bolts in common types and sizes) but for argument’s sake let’s say you have absolutely none. Tools go on sale all the time and you can pick up good quality stuff at discounted prices if you wait for the right moment. This strategy works 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, and so on. Department and hardware stores are the obvious places to look but sometimes it’s also worth browsing online retailers like eBay and Amazon. Keep an eye out for tool sets or kits – these are almost guaranteed to give you the best bang for your buck and have the added benefit of ensuring interoperability between parts. Lastly, do keep in consideration the quality of the tools. There are established brands that demand a high price and will most likely outlast your vehicle (perhaps even yourself). But you’re not running a shop, you’re just doing some occasional wrenching; don’t spend more money than you need to on the best brands, but avoid buying the cheap stuff that can break and will need to be replaced which will end up costing you even more.
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 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!
There is one more piece to the puzzle and there’s no better way to put it than to use the old adage “time is money”. As fun as it is to wrench, you could be doing something else with the several hours (or days) that the job at hand requires. Once again, you must decide for yourself if wrenching will be worth your time or if you’re better off letting someone else handle the work for you.
In today’s world this is simply no longer a valid excuse. I refuse to accept it, because you will find an abundance of tutorials for the specific job you want to do with a high chance there will be one for your exact vehicle model. YouTube is also a goldmine. If that’s not enough you can post questions on vehicle -specific forums and overly-eager members will try to help you. However, be wary of forum people – they could be wrong, and 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). Don’t forget that your owner’s manual can contain valuable information and you can also pick up a repair manual which is typically fairly decent in describing each step in sufficient detail. 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). Personally, finishing a job invokes a greater feeling in me than the actual steps involved which is probably why the section above is so short. I won’t attempt to sugarcoat it: putting a working machine under the knife, rendering it inoperable, tacking on some parts, and hoping that you don’t have any leftover screws at the end of it all, is nerve-wracking. If your car didn’t just roll off the assembly line there’s a chance you’ll go head-to-head with stubborn bolts, seized joints, and rust. You will struggle but if you’re persistent you will overcome these obstacles and that is something to be proud of.
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. If you’re just changing your oil these costs may be minimal but if you’re replacing your shocks and struts it can be significant. In many cases buying a specific tool and doing the work yourself will still be cheaper than handing it over to a 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. If you are educated enough to know what a job entails you will be able to sniff out a dishonest mechanic who tries to upsell the amount of parts that need replacing or quotes an unreasonable amount of labour time. Or, you will simply 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. Don’t knock it, 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. 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.
Budget extra time for setbacks
If your car is older you will come across rusted screws and seized 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 PB Blaster 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’d argue it does not have to be with your vehicle; go ahead and take apart a radio controlled (RC) car as one option. Within ten minutes of unleashing my first gas-powered RC 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”). Apparently the scaled down dune buggy didn’t appreciate ramming into a curb at full speed. I genuinely learned quite a bit from repairing my little RC car, plus it was majorly fun.
No RC car? How about a bicycle? Bikes may be down one engine but still contain several mechanical systems that are more interesting than you may think. Pick up an old clunker to tear apart, recondition, and put back together.
Another possibility is to start wrenching on a motorcycle if you’ve got one. Due to their size and fewer number of components motorcycles are easier to work on 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 last option.
Start with your current car! Do it now!
This builds upon the previous point 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.
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 wrenched before, I hope that this write-up convinces you to change that. It’s fine to be nervous but there are plenty of ways to get help and assistance and many ways to benefit.