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Air Ratchet Attack on Amateur Mechanics

As the old, wrench-wielding mechanics retire and young mechanics crank up the torque on their air tools it gets harder and harder for regular guys like me to perform routine maintenance on our cars using traditional tools. I’m a physically fit 34 year-old man, it shouldn’t take a can of WD40, a hammer, a steel pipe for leverage and a sore back to change my brakes and rotors. I just snapped a wheel lug stud trying to remove my tire and I almost pulled my car off of the jack stands taking off my caliper.

Is it just me or are shop mechanics using air ratchets to tighten bolts so tight that anyone armed with a wrench will be punished with mental and physical pain for attempting to perform a simple auto job at home? I think that its a conspiracy.

To any mechanics reading this… go easy on us weekenders, tighten bolts by hand like our dads and grandfathers did. We’ll still give you plenty of business after we screw something up.


You can see lots of air ratchets on many of the car fix-up tv shows. It’s not going to get better…

Air tools simply make it much easier for someone who doesn’t know the proper use of tools to overtighten nuts & bolts. And in these days of “specialists” (oil change places, tires stores) there are more and more untrained and unskilled kids doing more and more of the work. IMHO the tools aren’t the problem. The lack of proper training, combined perhaps with complacency, is.

Properlu used tools will never cause a problem.

Unfortunately, rust never sleeps. The thing that hasn’t changed in the 40 years since I first started working on cars is rust. I had to learn the hard way that air tools make removing rusty nuts and bolts much, much, much easier - to the point where I can get bolts loose that can’t be done any other way.

As Tom and Ray would say: “It’s the perfect excuse to buy another tool.”

I really never needed an air ratchet…I did however buy a cordless ratchet. Love it. It’s a cheaper alternative.

For some of those stubborn bolts I have a 4’ pipe I can put over my hand wrench or ratchet. You’d be amazed at the torque you can apply with that.

I have to agree with you. I wonder how those quickie oil change places get the old oil filters off that they had put on because I can never get them off without crushing them. I guess they missed the words “hand tighten”.

I wouldn’t feel at all put out if a customer asked me to loosen and re-tighten their lug nuts by hand. Over the years I have done so many times. Usually, after seeing the first two efforts quickly loosen the nuts the customer is happy. A good 4-way is a handy thing to carry. And as for young mechanics, just last night the opinion that “professionalism” seems to be fading from the culture in many jobs was the unanimous opinion of myself and some friends. Does that seem apparent to others? Or are myself and my friends just old and and nit-picky.

No, I think you’re right. Professionalism is fading. I blame, at least in part, the employers. Used to be that if you got a job and were good at it, you’d have the job for life. Now, you’re at constant risk of being “downsized” so the company can bump profits up this quarter. It’s difficult to expect employees to show loyalty (which professionalism is a part of) to their employer when employers do not show loyalty to their employees.

Your view that lack of support and loyalty by employers was mentioned in the recent discussion, shadowfax. But by far the consensus was that young people, even educated professionals, were mistakenly thinking that they would join a group of seasoned professionals and instantly be accepted as equal while they shrugged off any incidental responsibilities. In particular, a nurse with nearly 30 years experience found a patient lying in a filthy bed at the beginning of her shift and took care of the patient. The next day my friend got quite blunt with the nurse who left the patient in that condition and her excuse was that the aides were responsible for that work and they were all too busy.

I do keep a length of pipe in the car to be able to add leverage to the wrench on a wheel stud if I have to. Some are on there pretty tight. Luckily haven’t had to change a tire on the side of the road for a few years. Last time there was no side of the road but the 18 wheeler saw me in time and I was fast.

Sometime back, my wife gave me a battery powered ratchet handle made by Skil. The tool doesn’t have a lot of torque, but the handle can be locked. I can usually break a bolt or nut loose with the handle in the locked position and then unlock the handle and spin the bolt or nut off. When installing a bolt or nut, I use the power ratchet to run the bolt or nut in. I then lock the handle and snug it up tight. I know it doesn’t compete with an air ratchet impact wrench, but for an amateur like me, it works very well.

There is a difference between air ratchets and impact wrenches. Air ratchets look like a hand ratchet but they are air powered. Most aren’t really all that powerful, typically maxing out at 50-60 ft-lbs torque. The gun-style impact wrenches are what you need to look out for- they can easily top 1,000 ft-lbs. Air ratchets are great for running long bolts in and out. Impact wrenches are great for breaking loose stuck fasteners and running them down. In either case final tightening should be done by hand.
For me, I’m a chronic bolt/nut overtightener and recently I have been using a torque wrench for final tightening on everything, including the oil drain plug.

If you’re doing your own brakes and a general DIYer, is it possible no mechanic has ever had a reason to remove your caliper in the past? The reason I mention it is because within the last 10 years or so, I have been seeing more widespread use of locking fluids, nuts and such like on fasteners from the factory. This is a relatively inexpensive way for them to insure no fasteners come loose over time. And they can be a real bear to remove with hand tools, fighting their entire length.

I like my air gun for stuck bolts but you do have to be careful using it because it will snap stuff if you just use it to loosen stubborn bolts and nuts. The thing can do 425 foot pounds so stuff will come off, one way or the other. You can snap things with a breaker bar extension so you always have to be careful for fear of creating more work.
Rather than being temped and rambo things loose, I set it to a lower setting first and hose the area down with PB blaster. The rattling action loosens rusted hardware very nicely.
I never use it to tighten things, with the possible exception of wheels but then I always use a torque stick to limit the torque.

I don’t use air tools. There is no nut or bolt I can’t remove with a breaker bar and penetrating oil. I have a pair of good breaker bars I got for adjusting the chain on a motorcycle without a helper. I’ve had to stand on one of them to remove a lug nut put on by an air ratchet before, but that’s one of the advantages of being overweight.

It helps to have a good pair of mechanic’s gloves to protect your hands.

how about a torque wrench

I’d love one. Thanks!

I’ve never seen a 3/8 drive air ratchet that can overtighten anything but the smallest fasteners…Today, at the factory, critical fasteners are Loc-Tited as a form or liability insurance. You can’t blame the use of air-tools on that…

Bing, I carry a long breaker bar in my trunk just to break the nuts loose, and a torque wrench to reinstall them. It’s so much easier with that breaker bar.

I second goodshepherd, air ratchets don’t tighten things that tight…It’s the impact wrenches you gotta watch. That brings me to the matter of professionalism. I have an Ingersoll-Rand 231 C impact wrench that is VERY powerful, and while I’m not an experienced, pro mechanic, I can easily and quickly install wheel nuts with it and not over torque them. I finish them off with a torque wrench, but I find that a quick spurt with the impact tool will leave them at about 40-50 lb. ft. Air ratchets can be really handy when you have a fiddly nut in a hard-to-reach place. They ratchet even when the nut is loose, so you don’t have to reach in with the other hand to hold anything. Pros use air tools because time is money, and sometimes things can be done a lot more quickly with power tools.