This article was first published in 2011.
Interested in cars and car modification? Would you like to start fiddling under the bonnet or adding accessories? Or maybe you’d rather be in the shed or garage, making things with your own hands? OK – here’s the common advice that you can ignore!
“Don’t buy those cheap tools”
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read that the first step in getting busy with your hands is to shell out a huge number of dollars on tools. “Don’t bother buying cheap tools,” say the experts. “They’ll just be more trouble than they’re worth.”
But I have found that most times that’s simply not the case – any tool, so long as it is designed to do the job you’re putting it to, is a damn’ useful tool! To put this another way, it is far better to have more cheap tools than a fewer number of very expensive tools.
For example, you don’t have an 8mm open-ended spanner? Or a wobble extension bar for your smallest sockets? Then on many occasions you’ll be in trouble – and in those situations your you-beaut expensive name-brand 10-17mm socket set will do you no good at all!
So if you’re just starting out or are on a budget, concentrate on getting a lot of different tools at a lower price rather than just a few expensive brand-name sets. And that means shopping for tools at variety stores, auto parts chains and supermarkets. In 30 years of intensive hobby use of tools I have never regretted taking that approach.
“You don’t need to read the manual”
Many people think that, when it comes to using your hands, research and study are useless. You know: “Nah, you don’t need to read the workshop manual - it’s a waste of time!” and stuff like that.
But I’ve found that I get vastly better results, achieved much more effortlessly, if I do the research first. For example, where possible, I have always bought the full workshop manual for my cars. Not the cheapy, here-are-codes manuals, but the factory manuals that explain how things work – not just how to fix broken things. (Sometimes these days the disc versions of factory manuals are very brief, but do the best you can to find the detailed stuff. Dealer mechanic intros to new models are good.)
And it’s the same with using machine tools like lathes and mills, or learning how to weld, or rebuilding an auto trans, or rebuilding an engine – having at least some theoretical background in the subject always pays dividends. Of course, it’s no good having only theory and no practical experience, but for me the people who say that ‘theory is useless’ tend to be those without the brain-power to absorb the new information.
“I rebuilt my engine under a tree in the driveway”
To do anything effective with your hands you need a decent place to work.
If you are working on a whole car, you need a firm surface (preferably concrete), a suitable jack and strong and rigid jack-stands. (Yeah, I too have seen people working on grassy lawns with cars supported on bits of cut-off tree trunks – but that’s just stupid.) You don’t need a sealed garage – in fact in places with good climates you might need only a tarp stretched above you. But the minimum space to be really effective when working on a car is a shed or garage sized to hold at least two cars.
When you are working on smaller objects, a workbench is enormously important. It doesn’t matter what it looks like so long as it is stiff and strong. You want to be able to mount a vice on it, you want to be able to hammer on it and you want it to support the weight of whatever you’re working on. Having the surface of the workbench at a height that suits you is also very important.
If you are not in a position to make your own workbench, an old and sturdy second-hand table can be strengthened and made heavy duty by the addition of braces and extra timber. Mounting a shelf under it and placing heavy items on the shelf (even something as simple as bricks) will make the bench much more resistant to moving around, even when you’re pulling on something mounted in the vice.
Finally, ensure you have plenty of natural and/or artificial light available.
“Manufacturers know nothing”
Many people believe, quite genuinely it appears, that car manufacturers are stupid. If only they listened to car modifiers, mechanics and pub experts – well, then they’d build real cars!
But there are usually very good reasons for manufacturers building cars as they do. To put this another way, you can learn a helluva lot by looking closely at what manufacturers have done before you decide to change it. Sure, in some cases it’s just keeping costs low that has resulted in some pretty mediocre engineering reaching the market, but many times the modification that you’re itching to make may well make the car inferior in another respect, one that you haven’t thought of.
So whenever you get the chance, look at car design not with a view to dismissing the approach as stupid, but instead look at it and wonder why the manufacturer chose to take that approach. Whenever I buy a new car, or am in a wrecking yard, or am underneath an unknown car up on a hoist, I’ll use the opportunity to look and learn.
“If that worked, everyone would be doing it”
If you decide to go your own way in a car modification, or you decide to make something unique, you can be certain that people will line up to tell you that it won’t work. And the more ‘expert’ the group, the more certain they will be that it will fail!
Now of course sometimes that advice is correct, but many times it is wrong. People feel offended if someone suggests something that they haven’t already thought of, or that isn’t commonly done. Their immediate reaction is to decry innovation.
And if it’s an idea to which you’ve given just a few seconds thought, maybe in fact you shouldn’t proceed! But if it’s something you have thoroughly researched and have considered carefully, don’t let negative advice unduly influence you.
“Just get out there and give it a go!”
Now this one is kinda like the opposite to the one above. Sometimes, when you considering doing what others have not done, or you’re thinking about starting a major project, other people will imply that you should just stop stuffing around and jump in, boots and all.
Thinking of repainting a car? Well, just get out there are start rubbing back panels.
Considering doing an engine rebuild? Yep, rip her out!
Want to improve the car’s aerodynamics? Just make that front undertray and fit it!
And so on…
But often it’s better to first attempt the same sort of job at a smaller scale. So rather than start rubbing back your whole car, maybe repair a single panel first. Or rather than rebuilding the car engine, start with the lawnmower’s engine. Or rather than fitting the undertray, first do some on-road testing using cardboard taped under the car.
There are many, many cases of where people have bitten off more than they can chew and have ended up disenchanted and with a failure on their hands. So start off small scale and see what those results are like.
Here’s the summary:
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