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How To Approach and Manage DIY Work On Your Vehicle

Mechanic stands in messy workshop

The hardest part of any DIY job on your car is often getting up the courage to get started. As you may have seen recently, Haynes research indicates the cosmetic plastic engine cover is the biggest hurdle amateurs face before starting to work on their cars. Even with the latest 21st-Century advances, most cars are still similar to the ones from 30 years ago under the skin, and not that difficult to service at home. In fact, some of the “complicated” systems introduced recently actually make fixing them easier, like standardized OBDII trouble codes.

Here at Haynes we have been taking apart vehicles and successfully putting them back together for more than 50 years. This process is time-consuming, but we feel it is that only way to ensure the pictures and procedures described are accurate. Without some of the tips that follow we would never be able to put these cars, trucks, and bikes back together again properly. Follow our lead and you can quickly overcome your fears and anxieties about fixing your car.

Well organized and labeled workshop
  • Research First - Before you start twirling wrenches, get the manual and review exactly what is involved with the job you are going to be doing. This will set your mind at ease because instead of one big job (changing a timing belt for instance) the manual will break it down into a dozen smaller, easier steps. Reading up on the procedure also will allow you to prepare by buying parts you will need, like gaskets, or torque-to-yield bolts, or special tools.
  • Prepare the Workspace - If you don’t have a dedicated garage and shop, or even if you do, you will need to prepare before you start taking things apart. Depending on the job, you may need a large clear spot on a workbench, or just an empty driveway and some jack stands. For anything but the simplest job, you will need storage to keep bits and pieces organized.
  • Proper Lighting - With the advent of modern LED lighting, you no longer have to work in the dark, even if you are working out on the street. Get yourself one or two battery powered LED work lights and no matter the job it will go much more smoothly.
  • Stay Organized - Before the days of the digital camera and cell phone this was much harder, but now you can practically make yourself a custom Haynes Manual as you go. Take pictures before you take things apart, and at each stage, and when the time comes to put it back together you will have so much more than just “reassembly is the reverse of removal”. Keep a pad and pen handy for writing notes.
  • Keep It Together - Label bigger parts with tape, markers, or color-coded zip ties, so you have more than your memory to guide you. Keep smaller parts in plastic Ziploc bags, or get fancy and buy a small parts organizer at the hardware store. Then keep all the parts to a given assembly in the same area. Keep everything labeled and nearby, so you don’t get an hour into a reassembly, only to discover a part you forgot to put inside. You can even use your notepad to name every part and keep track of which bin or Ziploc bag you put it in
  • Give Yourself Time -  Make sure you have plenty of time to complete the job because you don’t want a broken bolt on a Saturday make you miss work next Monday. One of the biggest pitfalls of DIY mechanics is trying to rush things, and breaking or losing something. If you find yourself getting frustrated or tired, you can take a break and come back fresh, but only if you are organized and not on a deadline.
  • Mark the Parts - Use a marker to indicate which way is up, or left and right, or 1, 2, 3, 4 - so when the time comes everything goes back in the right place. Sometimes when working on a project, the left and right side will use parts that are impossible to tell apart, or a part that can easily be installed upside down. It may not matter which way the part was installed when new, but many mechanics swear by reinstalling parts back exactly as they came apart, like cam journal caps.
  • Proper Surface Protection - No matter what you are working on, you should take the time to protect the surround areas. If working under the hood, cover the fender with an old blanket or dedicated fender cover. Cover the area under the car with a flattened cardboard box to keep spills from making a mess. It is a good idea to have a bag of kitty litter or actual oil absorbing material handy before you start as well. Keep plenty of rags and paper towels handy too.
  • Clean Everything - It can be tempting to rush through a job, especially if working on your daily driver on the weekend. But taking time out to clean the parts and are you are working on will make putting everything back together easier. Cleaning also allows you to more closely inspect everything for other hidden issues that may become a problem later, and you may even figure out why the failure happened in the first place.
  • Compare New Parts to Old - This is another step often missed by DIY mechanics, but still important. Before you toss out the old parts and bolt up the new one, compare them and make sure they are the same or at least compatible. There are occasionally running changes in a model year, or parts can be misnumbered, or misboxed, which leads to the part you have not being the part you need.
  • Use Gasket Sealer Sparingly - If working on any assembly that requires a gasket and the application of RTV or another sealer, use as little as possible. Many times too much will get used inside a motor where it can squeeze out and clog vital oil passages. In other uses, it may not be catastrophic, but it will make a mess.
  • Tighten Fasteners Properly - There is often a fine line between tight enough and broken off, especially for smaller diameter bolts. The proper way to reassemble parts is to install all the fasteners and finger tighten them first. Then, in a diagonal, criss-cross, or other pattern, snug them all up another turn with the proper tool. Work around the same pattern again, and again, until they are all at the proper torque for their size, or the recommended factory torque, both of which are listed in your Haynes Manual.
  • Test Drive - After everything is buttoned back up correctly, it is important to take a short test drive. All mechanics do this, even professionals with years of experience, to confirm that the problem has been corrected and everything works properly. Take a brief test drive now, while you still have all the tools out, and time to fix issues, otherwise you may not make it to work on Monday.