Lots of folks out there want to learn to fix cars, but don’t know how. Fear not, clean-handed folks, for we have the answer to how you can get greasy and smelly just like us!
I walk around town in greasy pants, torn shirts, ripped shoes, and grease all over my arms and face. And I drive a ratty old Jeep truck. Most people think I’m a hobo. It’s great! And I’m sure you’re thinking “Man, I wish people thought I was a hobo.” Well, we can help with that!
You see, if you become an obsessive wrencher like me, you often have to make tough decisions like, “Hmm, should I shower today and put on clean clothes?... Nah, I’m getting greased up anyway.” Next thing you know, your old engineering boss spots you at the grocery store and sees you unshaven in your ripped clothes with grease from head to toe. He asks you if everything is okay and offers to give you money. Awkwardness ensues.
It’s really the only way to live, folks. So here’s how you, too, can live this lavish, hobo-esque lifestyle.
1. Buy An Old Clunker
You want a crash course in wrenchin’? Go buy a junker. It is the single best way to learn to fix cars. Especially if you’re young and don’t have much money, because you’ll be forced to do your own repairs.
Coming out of high school, I hadn’t turned a single wrench. I hadn’t changed my oil, I hadn’t changed spark plugs. Heck, I hadn’t even changed my air filter. I was a total noob.
But then I got to college and bought a 215,000 mile 1992 Jeep Cherokee — a total pile of junk. It had rust holes in the rocker panels, a huge exhaust leak, a bad fuel pump, a bad power steering line, brakes that would seize when it got slightly warm outside, filthy brown transmission fluid, and leaky gaskets everywhere.
But it was my only car and I spent all my money on textbooks, so I had no choice but to learn to fix it myself. I also had no garage, so most of my wrenching was done in parking garages or on the street side.
With the help of some friends at a neighboring university, I learned the basics. They taught me to change plugs, replace my valve cover gasket, and change my oil. Just that little bit of guidance was all I needed to get the ball rolling.
That was the beginning of my love affair for wrenching. And now, with my new project, I’m learning quite a lot more. You can learn, too. Just go ahead and buy that Volkswagen Type III Squareback on Craigslist you’ve been salivating over.
2. Buy A Set Of Tools
So now that you’ve got your janky old VW Type III Squareback, you’re gonna want to change the oil, go through the brakes, and do a basic tune-up. So go out and buy some tools.
The heart of any tool set is the socket set, so start there. My first set was a cheapo one from AutoZone. It worked okay for light duty things, but then I had to take my bumper bolts off, and I ended up breaking ratchets and shearing extensions.
You can get a pretty decent socket set from Wal-Mart for $60 or so.
3. Watch The YouTubes
Even if you don’t have a crappy car and just want to know how to change the brakes on your Mazda 3, YouTube has the answers.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to YouTube to learn how to fix something. In fact, I referenced a YouTube video to figure out how to pull the engine from my Jeep Cherokee.
There’s such a wealth of wrenching knowledge on YouTube, it should be one of your first resources for information on how to fix your car.
Be careful, though, and use some judgement. Anybody can post stuff on YouTube, so if some guy on YouTube cuts his brake lines and tells you it will get you better gas mileage because of the decreased brake drag, you might want to turn your brain on and think about that for a second.
Photo credit: BleepinJeep
4. Get A Repair Manual
Repair manuals are step-by-step guides on how to fix things. Get one. You can get a Chilton or Haynes manual for about $25 at any car parts store, or, better yet, download or buy a hard copy of a factory service manual for your car. These books can save you tons of time and effort, especially when it comes to stuff like torque specs and fluid capacities.
5. Get On Forums
Forums are my favorite places to find info. When I’m looking for torque specs, for example, I usually just google it. This usually brings me to a thread on a forum where tons of folks take pictures of their factory service manuals that show all the specs you need.
But they’re also filled with build threads and step-by-step guides on how to complete repairs. Best of all, they’re usually filled with tips and tricks for how to get the job done with the fewest mistakes or injuries.
6. Help Your Friends Or Family
See that guy on the left there? He’s a friend. His friend told him he was wrenching on a Jeep, so my buddy invited me to join them.
Building a network of wrenchers is a great way to hone your skills. As people hear that you enjoy fixing cars, they’ll invite you over. Next thing you know, you’re installing a lift kit on an old CJ.
7. Ask The Clerks At The Car Parts Store
Get to know good ol’ Walter behind the counter there at O’Reilly. He’s worked there for 25 years. He still calls it Murray’s. He’s what you call an “old timer,” and he’s a total genius when it comes to automotive repair. He once fixed a cracked engine block with nothing more than a shoestring and a lollipop stick on the side of the road in southern Chile. Don’t underestimate Walter.
So if your fuel pump goes out on that Volkswagen Type III you just bought off Craigslist, go talk to Walt. He’s a free consultant, and he’ll even sell you the parts you need. Don’t let him sell you those little packets of grease at the counter, though. Those are a total ripoff.
Disclaimer: Some clerks at car parts stores aren’t like Walter. Some know next to nothing about cars, and will tell you stuff like “Yeah, we can’t get you a torque wrench. That’s a dealer-only part.” So use some judgement and try to make sure the guy isn’t full of it.
I find that Napa Auto Parts tends to have the most knowledgeable clerks, but your mileage will vary.
8. Take A Shop Class
Shop class. I never did get to take it in high school, but it sure looked like tons of fun. Wrenching at school? Life doesn’t get any better, really.
I did eventually get to wrench at school for a senior engineering project. Ours was to turn a Volkswagen Jetta into a rear-wheel Drive, mid-motor electric sports car. It was awesome, and I learned a lot about electrical systems, even though I still can’t read a wiring diagram worth a damn.
You can also take courses at your local community college if you want formal wrenching education.
Photo credit: Christopher Sessums
9. Go To The Library And Learn How Stuff Works
Okay, not many people go to the library these days, but you get the idea: go grab some textbooks or hit up Wikipedia or read an engineering textbook and figure out how exactly your car’s electronic fuel injection system works. Once you have a good understanding of the physics and how various sensors work to create a system, you’ll be better equipped to understand how you can fix a problem.
Photo credit: Samantha Marx
10. Read The Garage, Jalopnik’s New Sub-Blog
Freddy (Tavarish) and Andrew are total studs. They’ll talk your ear off about wrenchin’, and they’ll also write tons of cool articles on this here inter-site. The new sub-blog will be dripping with wrenchy goodness and step-by-step how-tos. It’s a great place to learn how to wrench. The comments in the posts are gold. In fact, our commenters are some of the best wrenchers there are.
Topshot photo credit: Emyr Jones