The saga of a mechanical newbie: Lessons, what worked, & what didn't. (CORRECTION/REPOST)

  • The Haynes manual should be a mandatory purchase for all car owners. It has opened my eyes. Instantly I have saved many hundreds of dollars because now I know when a repair shop is trying to scam me.

    - Know your limitations. Just because the Haynes manual tells you HOW to do something, it doesn’t mean you can HANDLE it. And just because you know where something is, doesn’t mean you can REACH it. And just because you can reach a bolt, doesn’t mean you can physically TURN it.

    - During an oil change, the oil SHOOTS out from the drain plug.

    - When flushing the antifreeze, refill it at the RADIATOR, not the coolant reservoir. I came “this close” to overheating my car this morning.

    - After flushing and refilling the antifreeze (or any major repair), let the car run for a while and test it thoroughly, like it says in the manual… I would have detected this problem when I had time to deal with it last night, instead of on my way to work, with my two-year-old in the back seat. Oh-so-luckily I had a cell phone in my bag, and antifreeze and a funnel in my trunk.

    - Do not put oil soaked towels in the washer. My laundry room still smells two weeks later (it is slowly going away).

    - Buy lots of rags, both disposible and cheap non-disposible. I’m more environmental than the average bear, but washing the gunk, that originates from your car, out of your linen uses more water than your average weekly river-flow and more chemicals than Dupont makes in a week.

    - Buy lots and lots of work gloves. The ones immersed in PVC (rubber/plastic) for dealing with particularly messy/nasty stuff (like oil or coolant), washable thinsulate-leather ones for general work, and the plastic dipped ones for medium mmessy ones. Go to your tool super-store.

    - Buy decent tools. A 75-piece socket set for eighteen bucks is probably junk.

    - And finally, because you are truly saving money, you can buy lots and lots of tools and justify much of it to your wife!


    Repairs I did successfully:

    - Two oil changes

    – The Honda Fit drain plug points parallel to the ground, which makes aiming the oil into the drain pan a pain. My Civic at least points down at a 45-degree angle.

    – The Fit?s filter is conveniently located. My Civic?s is not.

    - Replaced the disc brakes on the front of my Civic. Took a while, but not that bad. I can do it in half the time next time.

    - Replaced my cabin air filter. There was NO filter currently in my car. I was shocked.

    - Replaced my air filter.

    - Rotated my tires.


    Repairs I mucked up or were over my head:

    - Tried to drain and refill the antifreeze. Drained from the plug at the bottom successfully, but could not reach the engine block drain plug (located next to the equally-inconvenient oil filter). So I messed up the draining part, then didn?t fill it right either.

    - Tried to adjust the parking brake. Broke the plastic panel in the back seat (luckily you can?t tell too much). The panel as described in the manual did not match my actual panel, and I couldn?t access or turn the bolt anyway. When I did turn it, it just twisted the steel cable?and I couldn?t get another hand-or-tool in there to do anything about it.

    - Tried to check my back drum brakes. Could not get the stinking things off! Whacked it with a rubber mallet, a regular hammer (more gently) and tried to (gently) pry it off with two flatheads. Sheesh! Am going to ask a shop to show me how to get it off, when I have them do other work for me.

My favorite mistake was jacking the car too high for an oil change. It’s a good way to miscalculate the placement of the drain pan. If you believe in good gas mileage, you won’t believe how far a quart of oil can go. Antifreeze; it’s usually the first lesson we learn about doing things wrong the first time.

Good post! Most of us would be reluctant to mention the jobs we botched. A good friend once told me that his kids would only get inexpensive used cars during their school years so they would become familiar with repairs & maintenance. The kids ended up appreciating their forced learning process.

At some stage you find your own level of competence and patience. The most elaborate job I’ve done was to overhaul a “stovebolt” straight six Chevy engine; grind the valves, put in new rings, bearings, timing chain, and a few other things. I had the use of a shop owned by a friend and his advice when I got stumped by some item.

Over the years I learned how to maintain farm machinery since my dad was not that mechanically inclined; his expertise was plants and animals

“Do not put oil soaked towels in the washer” Besides being smelly, it won’t get all the oil out. Also, store a bunch of oily rags together and you can get spontaneous combustion.

If you change your antifreeze on a conservative schedule you don’t have to worry about draining out every little bit. Just drain the radiator and refill. I do the regular green stuff every 2 years, and the long life stuff twice as often as the manual recommends.

Another lesson I thought of: Being under the car is not for the feint-of-heart. Every time I’m under it, regardless how securely it’s lifted, I think of how I am a hair’s-breadth from being crushed.

One of my last repairs at the gas station was one to remember - checked the rear axle lube on a Falcon during an oil change, go distracted, left plug off…you can guess what happened. Came by two months later, that Falcon was on the lift getting its rear axle replaced with another (from the ‘recycler’, not big $$, but a number of hours). So mistakes come with the territory.

Duly noted, about the oily rags.

Some wanna-be-an-instant-mechanics come here and ask to be told “how to do a job an experienced mechanic can do (and in much less time)”! Of course, I’m paraphrasing----but, not by much! At this point, I want to gently tell them, “Get the Durn repair manual!” But, being considerate, I don’t say,-------------“Durn”!

There are some shortcomings in all repair manuals. One, in particular, comes to mind: one is instructed to remove the crankshaft pulley bolt. Simple, right? Not. They could, at least warn you that the Thunder god Thor tightened that bolt, and no mere mortal is going to loosen it, by hand! He needs Thor…or, a good impact wrench!

Safety is very important in car repair. Whenever I see someone has raised their car (truck) in an insecure manner, I ask, “Do you think you can BENCH PRESS that vehicle, if it falls?!!!” Most listen. Some may say, “One’s not fallen on me and killed me, yet!” Well, I have to agree with them on the “yet” part.

Keep studying and one day, you will reach Nirvana, or at least Enlightenment.

Your post is absolutely spot-on. If more people had your common sense most of us would have nothing to do.

I’ve been buying service manuals for every car I’ve owned since the early 70s. They are worth their weight in gold! Haynes are pretty good, but factory manuals are the best. They explain things Haynes skims over, but for most do-it-yourself projects Haynes is very good.

I often recommend to people that they read over a certain procedure in a manual and then decide whether or not they wish to attempt it. Knowing your limits is also very important. There are projects I’ll tackle, and others I’ll gladly pay someone else to do.

If you’re a newbie at this you’re on the right path. Stick with it and you’ll save yourself a ton of money. As time passes you will acquire more and more tools, because you’ll buy them as you need them. Some you will buy and use ONCE, but that’s the way it goes.

With the help of service manuals I’ve removed, torn apart, and reassembled an air-cooled VW engine (machine shop work done by others), replaced timing belts on five different vehicles, replaced lots of brake pads and shoes, replaced a heater core, adjusted valves on multiple vehicles, replaced alternators and starters, and on and on.

Keep up the good work, and welcome to the community. We value your input.

Check timing by hooking light up to plug wire 1 and reading mark located here (pic) loosen distributor nut and turn distributor until mark is in correct place, (Heck my car runs worse) (next page) after disconnecting vacuum advance. :slight_smile:

Where I live both the public library and the local tech college have very elaborate automotive book sections. I have several times gone in and reviewed the work involved as well as the standard hours a shop would charge in order to get a handle on the repair cost, before attempting it myself.

Having said that, I usually buy the Haynes manuals for my cars, as well as my mother-in-law’s car. It makes it easier to discuss upcoming repairs with her.

Great Post! Welcome to the world of trial and error…and more error. It sounds like you have already learned all the major lessons we DIY’ers learn. Safety should always be your major concern. Working with a more experienced buddy is a great way to build skills. Another great way is to take an adult evening course at your local Voc/Tech high school. I have being playing around with cars for about 30 years and I regularly take the Mechanic courses. Its fun and I always learn something. My Local Voc has a course for complete newbies as well as one for more experienced people (men and women attend).

“Know your limitations” is good advice. Its taken me a long time to learn that one. I no longer do any major work on my daily driver. I estimate the time it should take a Pro and then triple it for my own time planing.

Sears Craftsman has very good tool sets for reasonable money, perfect for DYI’ers.

I keep a supply of terry towels for drying the car. After they get beat, I cut them up for shop rags, dirty them up and toss them…

For your washer…been there done that… Try washing some old towels with a heavy dose of Smooth FastOrange on the longest cycle. “Smooth” has no pumice but the regular stuff works.

I find Haynes to be OK, but generally prefer the Factory Service Manual.

Have you found out how much gas stings when it runs down your arm to the armpit while changing your gas filter? Follow the procedure for reliving the fuel line pressure. Jacking the car up to high for oil change…well I didn’t jack the car up high enough once to get the tranny out from under the car!

We should start a Topic on mess up we have done…and how many trips to the ER.

I did not realize how cold gas is until I was replacing a fuel pump on the snow covered ground at a NAPA at 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon at 4 degrees in Black River Falls WI hoping that was all it was as the parts store would be closed by the time I got it done. No ER. Near ER a friend was doing his brakes, screwdriver slipped, blinded in one eye, it ended up he had just pushed his lower eyelid under his upper eyelid and it stuck there, no serious damage.

“Have you found out how much gas stings when it runs down your arm to the armpit while changing your gas filter?”

Oh my goodness. This had me chuckling for about an hour. And the Thor comment above had me going for another hour.

I’ve learned to ask or seek help before attempting a big job. I had a problem with my 1978 Oldsmobile last year. If it sat for more than a day, I would have to prime the engine to start it. One garage suggested to me that it needed a new carburetor–the carburetor wells were leaking down when the car sat. The cost of a rebuilt carburetor was more than the car is worth. I do have the factory manual and thought about tackling the job, but I spent a whole afternoon rebuilding a simple carburetor on a 1950 Chevrolet pickup and decided this job was too complicated for me. I finally found an old white haired mechanic who said he could do a partial rebuild if necessary. Well, it wasn’t necessary–he found a section of neoprene fuel line down by the gas tank had deteriorated. An 8" piece of gas line and I was rolling again. I was certainly glad I had him take a look.

My own goofs:

  1. Replaced the points on my first car–a 1947 Pontiac. It wouldn’t start–no spark. I regapped the points–still no start. I reasoned that the condenser might be bad so I re-installed the condenser. No luck. After messing around for over an hour, my Dad came along. “What is this part laying on the fender?” he asked. It was the distributor rotor. I had forgotten to put it in.

  2. I rebuilt the engine on my 2 cycle lawnmower along with the carburetor and magneto. Engine wouldn’t start. Checked for spark–was good. Poured gasoline directly into cylinder and engine ran for a few seconds. Disassembled carburetor and reassembled–same problem. Removed fuel hose from carburetor–no gasoline flowed. Looked in gas tank–no gas. Engine ran like a top when I filled the gasoline tank.

The other time I was glad I consulted a professional was when my Oldsmobile was only 22 years old and the driver’s door sagged and was hard to close. I first consulted an independent body shop. They told me that the hinge was badly worn and they would fix it if I would get the part. I went to the Oldsmobile dealer who said it was a problem for their body shop. The manager of the shop came out and told me that they didn’t stock parts for cars that old and maybe I should try wrecking yards. I told her that I had purchased the car new from the agency and that I had been assured that they would always be able to fix it. She said that they didn’t expect me to drive the car 225,000 miles and keep it 22 years. I told her that a promise was a promise. Well, she disappeared back into the shop and out came a big fellow named Bruce. He was carrying a big pin, a sledge hammer and a wrench. He loosened, the hinge, put the pin on it and hit it several times with the sledge hammer. He then tightened up the bolts on the hinge and the door worked perfectly. I asked about the charge. He said, “There is no charge. We guarantee these babies for 25 years or 250,000 miles”. That was 9 years ago and the door still works perfectly. I guess I’m off the warranty, but a professional who knows short cuts can certainly save a lot of time and aggravation.

BTW, the rear drums can be removed if you first back off the auomatic adjuster at the bottom of the drum. You can access it through a hole in the bottom of the backing plate, usually plugged with a rubber plug. Sometimes, if this is the first time it’s been done, you’ll see a slug that must be punched out. The reason is because sometimes a groove is cut into the drum from the brake lining on the shoe. The groove locks them together. Backing off the adjuster relaxes the shoe and separates it from the groove.

I got the rubber plug off, but it’s on the back side of the wheel, and I can’t see inside. I stuck in a flathead and jiggled it a bit, but I had no idea what I was doing. It felt like there was maybe a spring in there, but I was afraid because I couldn’t see anything.

There is no way to see. There’s no room for my head. Maybe I can get a mirror and light…

Don’t Try That At Home!

You state, “Another lesson I thought of: Being under the car is not for the feint-of-heart. Every time I’m under it, regardless how securely it’s lifted, I think of how I am a hair’s-breadth from being crushed.”

Me too!

I can do 90% to 95% of all my repairs and maintenance from above. I change timing belts, power steering pumps, alternators, filters, accessory belts, plugs, radiators, etcetera, etcetera, without jacking up the car. When I do jack up the car for brake work or related service, I support it well and do not get underneath.

The cars I have have purchased in the past 25 years never needed exhaust systems. That helps a bunch. I thoroughly check out the American cars I buy for their ease of service/maintenance, especially looking at what I can and can’t do from above. I recently replaced a fuel guage sender from above in my Pontiac through an access panel in the trunk. A $400 estimate turned into a $40 job.

I have 2" x 12"s x varying length planks to drive up on if I need a little lift for oil changing and other minor work that allow me to “reach under” more easily and I don’t feel the car will fall. I always have all the wheels on and the car in park on level ground, wheels chocked.

I can count on one hand the number of times a repair required service from underneath, with the car jacked, over the past 25 years, operating 6-7 cars in our family. When this happens I ship it, rather than do it myself. I always figure that if I get crushed then all the savings become meaningless. I too would get homesick in a hurry under a jacked up car.

This is one of those jobs where experience is the only solution. You are correct in that there are springs inside that you feel. What you really need to visualize is the location of the star wheel which is located about an inch or less inside the opening, and what direction to turn it with the adjusting tool. Sometimes a screwdriver will work, but I find having the right tool here is indispensable. It looks like a screwdriver blade bent an an angle. Not too expensive but worth every penny when you need it. Suggest looking at an illustration to visualize where things are in relation to the opening port. You need to back off the spread of the shoes to allow the drum to slide off. The learning curve is very steep. The next time you do this job, it will be a slam-dunk.

Factory manuals are great – I have them for all my cars. BUT – factory manuals also assume yuou have access to all the specialized tools and equipment a dealer service department would have. Most DIYers, myself included, are not so equipped. So, I also have Haynes Guides for each of my cars.

Fotr example, a factory service manual might say “Seperate hub/bearing assembly from driveaxle using Separator Tool #47-5587/613”. The same step in a Haynes manual might say something like “Seperate hub/bearing assembly from driveaxle using a three-jaw puller available from most auto parts stores”. The latter is a whole lot more helpful to us DIYers. The thing about the Factory Service Manuals is they will have specs and other technical background info not available in the Haynes Guide, and the diagrams can be more numerous, detailed, and helpful. So I make good use of both.