Whether you’ve been working on cars your whole life or are just jumping into the wrenching game, there are some good habits to culture. Some of those habits are so simple that some of us might have simply forgotten them.
I’ve been working on cars pretty much my entire life, starting out when I was a wee sprout helping my dad do minor work like changing a battery or flushing a radiator. My dad passed away when I was 13 years old, and his guidance was sorely missed when I bought my first car a year later — a tatty 1961 Chevy Corvair 700 turtle-top that my brother helped me nurse home. I learned how to wrench on that car — and boy did it need a lot of work — by way of two factors: a kindly Corvair mechanic who helped me immeasurably, and the Goodheart-Willcox book, The Automotive Encyclopedia, which taught me the basics on how things like suspensions and alternators work.
Since then, I’ve gone through a cavalcade of cars and seeing as I seem to have built a rudimentary level of automotive knowledge, I’ve tried to keep them all up on my own as much as I can. Over the years and all that work — so many black-rimmed fingernails! — I have amassed a few habits and processes that have helped me along the way. As I’m a giver, I thought that you all might benefit from some of the very basic ones, since some are so simple that they might have slipped by.
To that end, here are five dumb tips to keep your wrenching from becoming too… well, wrenching.
1. Bend in the tab on your jack stands so you don’t accidentally drop the base on your foot.
You’ve likely at one time or another tried to pick up the stand by the ratcheting post only to have that pull out of the base entirely. If you picked it up at an angle, that slip may occur at a great enough height to have the base drop on your toes. Ouch!
If you have the standard style of jack stand — you know, like the ones Harbor Freight had to recall a couple of times — then there’s a quick solution to this potentially toe-amputating occurrence. Just push in the little tab on the base that keeps the center column captured and you’ll never have to worry about it slipping out again.
2. If you use an old-school style trouble light, make sure you use the most modern style bulb in it to prevent burns.
I just want to start this one out with the assurance that I am not scared of the dark. Clowns, yes. The dark, not so much. Still, I don’t like working in the dark and that means that I have amassed a collection of different styles of work lamps for various jobs. I even have one of those lights that mount around the head with elastic straps that makes me look like I’m wearing an illuminated jockstrap.
As appealing as that mental image might be, my go-to wrenching light is actually an old-school trouble light. I like this one because it has a metal age that blocks the light from getting in my eyes and an electrical outlet in the handle that also makes it a convenient extension cord.
What I don’t like about it is that when used with a traditional incandescent bulb it tends to become an unwieldy branding iron from the bulb’s heat. That traditional incandescent bulb also represents a significant hazard should the lamp be dropped and the bulb break.
To solve both of these shortcomings, I replaced the old-school bulb in my trouble light with a fancy new LED bulb. It’s both cooler and, owing to its mostly plastic construction, a whole lot more shatter-proof. The LED bulbs are no longer that expensive either — I get mine from the 99-Cent Store. As a side benefit, LED bulbs use less electricity than incandescents, so I’m saving myself money and the planet at the same time.
3. Be kind to your future self by switching all your ratchets to “un-do” before putting them away.
One thing that I’ve taken to do, and which I think might be of benefit to all your future selves, is to set my socket wrenches to “undo” at the end of each project. It’s most likely that at the start of the next project I’ll be taking things apart, only to find out that the ratchet is in righty-tighty rather than lefty-loosey after snaking it into an awkward position. It’s a bad way to start the day. So, I’ve started checking and setting them to the undo position before putting them away. This of course doesn’t apply to my torque wrenches which are always in tightening mode. In fact. I don’t think I’ve ever flipped a torque wrench the other way even once.
4. Keep broken-down cardboard boxes around for use under your work.
I love getting big stuff delivered to my house in cardboard boxes. I especially enjoy it when those boxes are tall and wide while comparably skinny. Those are the best for opening up into a flat, reasonably clean work floor under your car. Also, who doesn’t enjoy that rich, satisfying cardboard aroma?
Not only will the cardboard work floor keep your garage floor or driveway free from any spilled oils or other fluids — something I woefully learned far too late changing the oil on my Porsche — but it also makes for an easily slidable surface to retrieve any dropped nuts and bolts or that 10mm socket that’s always trying to get away.
On a related note about those 10mm tools that always seem to get misplaced…
5. Buy yourself some spare 10mm sockets and box/open wrenches (or other sizes you regularly use) before you actually need them.
Don’t ask me why the 10mm hex is seemingly one of the most common bolt sizes on cars and trucks these days. That’s way above my pay grade. Still, our vehicles seem to be festooned with the dang things and that’s why we’re more often than not reaching for that 10mm socket or a 10mm wrench. Doesn’t it suck when either one of those goes missing? No lie, my decade or more old Craftsman-brand 3/8-inch socket set has all of its original six-point sockets in it with the exception of the 10mm. I do know what happened to it, I dropped the little bugger down one of the dark recesses of my old Audi A6’s engine bay and the car decided to keep it.
Being in the middle of a job and suddenly being without the most necessary tool in your arsenal can really mess up your mojo. After all, who wants to get as cleaned up as needed to make an emergency trip down to the parts store or home center just to get a replacement socket?
Instead, pay yourself forward and buy a few of these tools to keep on hand just in case. Not only will you thank yourself later for having such amazing foresight, but you’ll be set in those auspicious occasions when you might actually need two 10mm sockets, at the same time!
There you go. Five basic tips. They may be really elementary in appearance, but hopefully, you found at least a couple of them helpful and not totally obvious. Now that I’ve shared, what about you? What are your go-to wrenching habits that you think the rest of us should know?