Learning how to handle routine maintenance on your car or truck can be a great way to save money and boost your confidence. A lot of the jobs are fairly simple, too. But even something as easy as changing your oil requires the right tools. And you’ll need additional hardware if you plan on doing more of the tasks yourself.
Today, we’ll look at some of the most common tools used by amateur mechanics and professionals alike.
For the nuts and bolts of automotive repair, you’ll need a socket set. These usually contain a variety of sockets and drivers. The sockets are the pieces that fit over the bolt heads or the nuts. With a driver attached, you get the leverage necessary to turn them. The ratchet-style driver is probably the most recognized type, but there are other kinds. This includes some that look like screwdriver handles.
Further accessories include locking extension bars and drivers that can act as torque wrenches. Extension bars fit between a socket and a driver to help extend your reach. The locking mechanism then makes sure that the socket doesn’t accidentally pop off the driver at the wrong time. As for torque wrenches, they’re engineered so that you can apply a specific amount of tightening force to a given bolt. That’s key in certain situations to prevent physical damage from overtightening.
Socket sets are great for a wide range of nuts and bolts. However, if you’re going to spend much time dealing with lug nuts in particular, you should consider an impact wrench. This tool looks like a drill from the outside. But while a typical power drill uses electricity to spin the drill bit, an impact wrench gains extra torque from tiny moving weights inside. The weights act like small hammers with a surprising amount of force. It’s enough to make quick work of lug nuts when removing and replacing wheels. Just remember that an impact wrench may be too powerful for light-duty tasks.
Additionally, many impact wrenches run on compressed air, which means you’ll need an air compressor.
Dead Blow Hammers
We just mentioned small hammers, but there are times when every mechanic wants to reach for a large one, such as when you have to knock loose a sticky bolt or put on a hard-to-install wheel cover. The secret with a “dead blow” hammer is that it has a weighted head and usually is made from polyurethane. The extra weight generally comes from filling the head with a loose material, such as sand or lead shot. This absorbs the energy that would otherwise cause the hammer to bounce back from a blow. You can deliver an impressively forceful impact this way. At the same time, the rubbery covering minimizes or eliminates damage from hitting a softer surface, whether it’s an aluminum body panel or a plastic wheel cover.
On-board Diagnostics Scanners
If you’re moving beyond preventive maintenance and trying to fix a problem, an on-board diagnostics scanner can help point you in the right direction. It’s the special tool that tells you why your “check engine” light came on. In modern-day vehicles, you can plug the scanner into a dedicated port that’s located below the dashboard. Once it connects with your car’s powertrain control module, or PCM, you’ll be able to move through a few simple menus to see an alphanumeric error code. That lets you know what the basic problem is.
Now, an inexpensive scanner won’t decipher that code, but you can find online sources to help pretty quickly. Advanced scanners are becoming increasingly easy to come by. The latest ones use Bluetooth technology and smartphone apps.
And don’t worry about getting a different scanner for a different brand or model. All vehicles built after 1996 have PCMs that rely on the same “On-Board Diagnostics-II” communications standard.
If you’ve never gotten beneath a car, keep this in mind: Things can get pretty dark when there’s something that big between you and your light source. Nor is the view always that much brighter in the engine bay. In those situations and others, the right work light is a necessity. You can buy old-school hand lamps, complete with hooks for hanging on your hood, and there are LED alternatives. Floodlights and light bars, which look like portable fluorescent tubes, are popular in garages as well.
It helps when you’re working under a car if you can get a little extra elbow space. For this, you can pick from a number of good options. The simplest to use are ramps, because all you have to do is drive your vehicle on up. Yet ramps have their drawbacks. Right off that bat, you may not be in a position to move your car in the first place. Or what if you want to take the wheels off your vehicle? You can’t do that with ramps.
You can with jack stands, but you have to be very careful when you position them.
Lifts can provide the best of both worlds. The lifting surface is relatively large, for a stable foundation. In many lifts, that surface also presses against the bottom of the vehicle to allow access to the wheel areas. Of course, you’ll generally need more money and more garage space to enjoy their benefits.