10 Essential Tools for the Backyard Mechanic
Depending on your perspective, 1975 was the beginning, the end, or the beginning of the end. In that year Bill Gates founded Microsoft, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, and Chevrolet installed the first ECU (electronic control unit) in its Cosworth Vega.
The era of fixing most any automotive problem with a screwdriver, hammer, electrician's tape and creative invective was gone. The ECU, an analog gizmo with a tendency to short out and die if you looked at it sideways, set the stage for near total computerization of all vehicles to come.
In the 21st century, it's nearly impossible to perform major auto surgery without diagnostic machines and a garage full of high-dollar gear. However, you can successfully tackle countless minor problems with a bit of knowledge, a few repair manuals and variations of 10 essential tools.
1. Let There Be Light
Engines are crammed into ever-shrinking engine bays. The resulting weight reduction aids fuel efficiency, but hinders visibility when the time comes to tinker with your car's beating heart. Thus, you need a good light. Consider a powerful LED, rechargeable work light. It's bright enough to reveal the hidden bolt you've been fumbling for in the dark.
2. Jacked Up and Creeped Out
Many repairs take place underneath a car, meaning you need to lift it. Invest in a high-quality, wheeled hydraulic jack that holds at least half the weight of your car. Purchase good jack stands capable of supporting your ride's entire weight (having a car fall on you is no fun at all).
Make life more pleasant by purchasing a multi-position shop creeper with adjustable headrest. You'll slide under the car with ease, and lying on a creeper is more comfortable than sliding around on oil-soaked sheets of cardboard.
3. Socket to Me
Socket and ratchet sets are mandatory. Acquire ratchets in 1/4-, 3/8-, and 1/2-inch drives. The wise, shade-tree mechanic has a set of regular length and deep-well sockets in both metric and English measurements. Don't forget a 13/16- and 5/8-inch sparkplug socket. Extensions and swivels are further advised, as they allow you to access otherwise inaccessible bolts.
4. The Plier Brigade
Variety is the spice of life. Your pliers collection should include regular, channel locks, needle nose, wire cutters and, most importantly, vise grips. You'll use them all.
5. Another Round of Screwdrivers
What's true for pliers goes double for screwdrivers. Amass a variety of flathead and Phillips screwdrivers in various lengths. There are times (such as when working on sensors) that a Torx screwdriver is invaluable.
6. Wrenching Experiences
Wrenches, with one open and one closed end, are just as important as sockets. Newer vehicles usually feature metric bolts, and wrenches ranging from 7 mm to 19 mm should suffice. English-measurement wrenches are needed on older vehicles. Ratcheting wrenches will save you time, headaches and bleeding knuckles.
7. A Torque in the Road
You need a torque wrench, even if you think you don't. Virtually all bolts are designed to be tightened to a specific torque. Several wrenches are better than one, but start with a 1/2-inch clicker style rated to crank between 50 and 250 foot-pounds.
8. Oils Well That Ends Well
Replacing an oil filter typically requires a strap-type, oil-filter wrench. Some vehicles sport cartridge-style filters, necessitating a specialty wrench. Check your vehicle before purchasing.
9. Hammer Time
Whether smacking out of necessity or stress relief, a few hammers are integral to your tool arsenal. Ball-peen hammers are recommended for general bashing, as well as for freeing a stuck brake rotor. A rubber mallet is called for in areas you prefer to leave un-dented.
10. Prying Eyes
Pry bars and breaker bars come in all shapes and sizes, and will aid you in pulling apart tight components. They're also great for leverage when tightening belts.
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