mechanical lessons i’ve learned the hard way

I’m not a great mechanic: I know people who are way better than me and that’s not even touching professionals who do it for a living. I didn’t grow up doing mechanical work and the most “handsy” thing I do at work is touch a keyboard and pen. I’ve got a long row to hoe for improving my skills, but I try. And here’s some things that might help you too.

1) Research what you’re about to do, primarily on youtube and aficionado websites.

I pulled my inner axle and knuckle joint out, replacing various components. To do this, I had my iPad constantly looping through a youtube tutorial, made several posts and viewed nearly all of the 400+ comments on the IH8MUD forums on knuckle rebuilds for my make/model. I knew that I’d need a rebuild kit, saw the tools that people used, and prepared accordingly.

There’s a strong case to be made for owning cars/trucks/boats/planes that people frequently modify and maintain. As where I doubt there’s a lot of folks modding mid 90’s Chevy Cavaliers, there is an enormous amount of information for modding mid 90’s Toyota Land Cruisers, as an example.

2) Speaking of tools: buy once, cry once.

Buy good tools. You may not need “shop quality” all the time but you may indeed need the best in certain situations. Having the right tools can make the difference between a job taking 1 minute or 1 day. It can also be the difference between you hurting yourself or nearby components vs having everything be clean and easy.

Good tools aren’t cheap, take a look at a small sample of mine:

And that’s hardly the entirety of what you need. But even that $650 worth of tools is less than the cost of the labor for having a professional shop do the axle/knuckle job that I did myself. In fact when I added up my tools and materials, I was still under the cost of having a shop do it. And of course in the end I own my own high quality tools, so things really start paying for themselves the more work you do.

3) Wear protection, son.

A nice box of nitrile gloves can be the difference between your hands being eternally filthy or not, and bathed in toxic carcinogens or not. Plus, they offer a smidge of abrasion resistance: drag your hand past a little metal pokey thing and the glove will catch hopefully before your skin will.

I also wear hearing protection sometimes, and not just for super loud power tools. If you have to smash something to death with a hammer, it will be ear-splitting noise. That kind of combined damage is bad for your ears long term. And honestly I find that I’m more likely to really beat the crap out of something with a hammer if I can’t hear it as much.

If you’re laying under a car and messing with things above you, there’s a 100% chance shit will fall in your eyes. If you use a grinder, even just a Dremel, things fly everywhere. For $2 you can have some goggles that will keep your eyes safe and if they get scratched/broken you won’t care.

4) Specialty tools.

In addition to a nice set of core tools, you will acquire various specialty tools. If you do not acquire these and try to use your existing stuff as a “make-shift-good-enough” you can expect lots of swearing, lots of damage to you and what you’re working on, and much more time spent.

Sometimes these tools are cheap: a 4 foot section of PVC pipe can release a birfield joint from an axle in most cases. Other times they can be quite costly like a professional ball joint remover. You can also rent these tools in many instances, if you live in a town with resources for something like that.

You can evaluate your need of specialty tools by researching your project beforehand.

5) Take your time.

If you need to drive somewhere tomorrow, don’t change our your brakes today unless you’re a better mechanic than I am. Being in a hurry makes you rush and you’ll stress out when things go sideways. Not “if” things go sideways, but “when” things go sideways: things always go pear shaped especially when you’re in a hurry.

You’ll also be more inclined to make bad judgement calls and rush.

6) You’ll spend most of your time on stuck bolts, stripped threads, and things you can’t get a good grip on: don’t think this is out of the ordinary.

If you have an object in front of you on a workbench with lots of space and tools about, pretty much anyone can be effective. On your back staring up though a mess of mysterious hoses and brackets, all coated in road grime that keeps falling on your face, things get tricky.

This goes back to good tools, taking your time, and specialty tools: wobble sockets exist because good angles are hard to come by and impact guns exist because rust never sleeps and the last asshole over torqued the shit out of everything.

You may need to cut things off with a Dremel. You may need to use a propane torch. You definitely will use penetrating oils like AeroKroil. You may need to take things apart just to get access to something else (like the power steering fluid reservoir to get to the oil filter, in my truck).   You definitely will get stuck halfway through a project and need to drive/bike/walk to a store or have something shipped to you. Again, this can be reduced by (a) researching in advance (b) acquiring the proper tools and (c) taking your time.

7) Keep a journal; I like Google Spreadsheets.

Whether you keep or one day sell the thing you’re working on, it will be helpful years from now to know when you last performed whatever maintenance. Also, you can keep track of the model numbers for things like oil filters and bearings.

8) Have the actual service manual.

The guides you can pick up at autozone for your car are a lot better than nothing and they are actually a solid starting point. But for real work and answers to nearly every question about your vehicle you want the no-kidding service manual. Often you can find the PDF online for free (as in, like, illegal), or you can buy the phone-book sized version on ebay for ~$100. If you’re really hard pressed you can get it from the dealership in most cases.

9) Use OEM parts unless you have a really good reason not to.

That service manual referenced above assumes you’re using components built to the exact factory specifications. The further you wander from factory stuff, the less you can rely on service manuals and the collective wisdom of all others that have worked on your problem before.

Some things clearly should be replaced: tires have gotten a lot better and if you’re using a 20 year old stereo with 20 year old speakers, it’s a good time to upgrade. But even things that seem to make sense, like oil filters, you might really be better off sticking with OEM. Expect OEM parts to generally be more expensive and harder to pick up. You’ll need to get them shipped or from a dealer, usually with some shipping time as well.

10) Remember, it’s a journey.

If you look at sailing like simply a means of getting from A to B, it’s clearly a terrible approach compared to driving, flying, or even just riding a bicycle. But that obfuscates the point, which is the journey and all the things you learn along the way are what make it such an awesome experience worth doing.

Looking at it another way, just because something is easier doesn’t inherently mean it’s better for you. Things that are a total pain in the ass represent a challenge and some challenges are very much worth accomplishing.

Having a firm grasp of mechanical principles and the ability to function with them is hard to understate given the nature of our world.

And really, buy an impact gun.