How to Equip Your Automotive Workshop

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A major objective of country self-sufficiency is freedom from the consumerist rat race—in particular, $45 per hour, often unreliable auto repair services. We keep our engines running ourselves.

How to equip your automotive workshop with the right kind of tools. A tool kit for self-sufficiency in auto maintenance and repair.

How to Equip Your Automotive Workshop

I hear a lot of new-to-the-country people claim that they
enjoy working with wood or garden seedlings, feel
compatible with the warmth and vibrancy of life, but are
put off by engines…by inanimate metal. I felt that way,
too, when I first quit the city for a life on the land.
Fossil–powered machinery seemed contrary to the
earthly values that motivated me, and engine exhaust and
the humming of gears were too reminiscent of city smog and

But once hard reality skinned the romantic gloss off
country life, I came to realize that, just as a modern
farmer is as much or more heavy-equipment operator/mechanic
as husbander of the land, self-sufficient country living is
as much keeping trucks and tractors running as it is
gardening or cutting firewood.

Country life is by definition lived far from town and from
convenient services like auto repair shops. But this very
distance makes us even more dependent on reliable vehicles
than townsmen. Perversely, a major objective of country
self-sufficiency is freedom from the consumerist rat
race–in particular, $45 per hour, often unreliable auto
repair services. We keep our engines running ourselves.

An Approximation of Life

And there is a satisfaction to maintaining machines. They
aren’t alive, but they approximate life in their mechanical
way with metal-on-metal components running at high speeds
and high temperatures… prevented from grinding one
another into iron filings only by precision tolerances and
a thin film of oil or grease. Auto work consists of
replenishing those lubricants, refining fine tolerances
between moving parts, and replacing worn components before
they fail (and leave you stranded at night, 50 miles from
home, in a raging snow storm). The tasks include raising
heavy weights to work on what’s in or under them, and
removing, adjusting, and replacing metal, plastic, and
rubber parts. To do the work you need tools to grip the
fasteners that hold the parts together plus jacks, hoists,
and ramps to elevate the work, and a place to get it all
done most efficiently.

The equipment is different from common household and
woodworking tools, but choosing and using it is as
satisfying as any other hand craft. Following is my list of
tools a countryman needs to keep the homestead wheels
turning reliably. Not that you should expect to overhaul
engines or change transmissions in a home shop … unless
auto mechanics becomes a paying trade or personal
avocation. The time and expense of obtaining the
specialized equipment and skills of a mechanic are too
great for servicing a single old farm truck, the passenger
car, and your garden tractor. However, using the equipment
that I’ll describe for a conscientious program of
preventive maintenance and minor repairs should go a long
way to assure that you’ll seldom, if ever, have to
perform–or pay to have a pro perform-really major
vehicular surgery.

First Things First

In more than 30 years of busting knuckles on my cars,
trucks, tractors, and assorted farm machinery-I have never
yet had the one “tool” that is most desirable: a
weather-tight, heated garage with a concrete floor. A lot
of work is performed lying flat on your back under the
vehicle. Doing so in mid-winter on wide-spaced barn
floorboards is mighty chilly. Doing it on a dirt floor that
melts into three inches of greasy mud in spring is worse.

Plus, drive-on ramps to raise a vehicle’s front end for oil
changes, hydraulic floor jacks that hold heavy axles off
the floor for tire changing and brake work and jack stands
needed for more serious under-chassis jobs will sink into
mud and wobble dangerously on uneven old boards. And, in
case you learn to enjoy auto-repair work and want to
attempt really major jobs (like me), you’ll find that
transmission jacks and engine cranes needed to handle the
heaviest components of a vehicle won’t move at all on dirt
or boards. Neither will “creepers,” those low platforms
with castors that mechanics use to glide around
effortlessly under a car. (Laying plank “roads” over
rough-board floors or sinking planks into the dirt will
work-sort of-but a truly flat and level floor is better.)

So, save your pennies for a concrete floored garage, or put
hard-floored, sheltered motor vehicle workspace right up
there with a big garden area and a weather-tight stock barn
on the list of features you look for in a new country

Second to a hard floor on my list of priorities is a
battery charger and a heavy-duty extension cord long enough
to reach from the vehicle’s parking place to a convenient
household or barn electrical outlet, plus at least one free
standing battery maintained in good, fresh, and fully
charged condition (kept indoors in winter), and a set of
jumper cables. I don’t know how many times I’ve come out,
already late for an appointment in town, only to find a
vehicle with a stone-dead battery-occasionally from a short
in the wiring or suddenly defunct battery, but usually from
headlights left on overnight, a car door left ajar and the
dome light on all weekend, or just from sitting unused for
too long.

It is time-consuming and embarrassing to have to telephone
a neighbor to bring his truck over to give you a start, and
if you must call out a service truck from town, it’s
expensive to boot. Unless you have and are willing to
abuse-another vehicle for a jump start, you’ll need a spare
12-volt battery or batteries, plus a way to charge them,
and jumper cables to transfer juice from the spare battery
to the dead battery in your vehicle.

Often, severe cold will reduce a battery’s efficiency; when
I need to start a vehicle in sub-zero weather, I routinely
hook up jumpers and a fully charged spare battery carried
out from the warmth of the house.

A good-enough spare battery will cost $10 used from a
junkyard and $30 new from the auto section of any discount
mall store. Or better, get a fresh, new, top-quality
battery for the truck. Clean up its existing old
but-still-good battery for emergency use.

To spark your vehicles, get Exide, Delco, or another brand
name you recognize, or buy from a local retailer you trust.
Like tires, conventional lead acid batteries are still
relatively low-tech and easy to make, so fly-by-nighters
can cobble them together. But they aren’t easy to make with
consistent reliability, and poorly built connectors inside
el cheapos can develop shorts between cells.

Get a five year-warrantied battery and plan to replace it
after four years. Be sure the purchase date is punched into
the tag on the battery, and put the sales slip/warranty in
a safe place so you can get a prorated refund if the
battery fails prematurely.

Jumpers and Chargers

Don’t waste money on a set of mall store-cheap jumper
cables with thin six-gauge or even “heavy-duty” four-gauge
copper cable. They will waste much of the starting
battery’s power through electrical resistance, and can heat
up and possibly harm your vehicles. Go to an auto parts
supplier like NAPA, or look in a mail order catalog and
invest as much as $65 in 15- to 25-foot, really thick,
two-gauge cables with rust-resistant, zinc-plated, even
jawed 500 amp-clamps at each end.

A charger is a simple 120VAC-to-12VDC transformer that has
no moving parts, and it needn’t be fancy; a little $20 mall
store version will slow-charge any battery overnight. Be
sure it is designed for large auto size 12-volt batteries,
not little motorcycle or snowmobile batteries. However, a
better charger for about $50 will shut off automatically to
prevent overcharge and can develop a good 7.5- or 10amp
surge to perk up a battery that is not completely run down
in just a few minutes. With a quick top-charge you can
often be on your way and let the alternator finish the
battery-charging job while you are on the road. To keep
stored batteries charged, you can get plug-in or
solar-powered trickle chargers for about $15.

Tire Care

Third essential is a tire-changing/repair kit: a good jack
and wheel-lug wrench, a tire-repair kit, and an air
compressor. Country roads and drives are loaded with nails,
glass, and “sharps” of all kinds-all of ’em yearning to
puncture a tire. As often as you find a dead battery in the
morning, you’ll find a dead-flat tire-or more often, one
that’s half down from a slow leak: a small puncture or one
still partly sealed by the object that did the damage.

First, get some Fix-A-Flat–spray-paint-type cans of
compressed air plus a sealant that will repair most flats
long enough to get you home or to a service station. Keep
one in each vehicle’s trunk or glove compartment for road

Get a good jack as well. The crummy little bumper jacks
that come with most vehicles are for emergencies only. Get
a $20, 4-ton hydraulic hand-jack and a $10 “+”-shaped,
four-socket lug wrench for each vehicle and if you can
afford it, a $100+ wheeled trolley-type floor jack if you
have a concrete floor shop. The handjacks have a screw
extension that will raise them high enough above the floor
to reach most any vehicle’s axle. But, the longer they are,
the less stable. I have several footsquare x 2inch-thick
oak blocks to raise the jack off the ground so it needs
only to be pumped a few times to do its job. The blocks
also provide a firm, stable base in snow or on soft ground.

Also, get several awl-and-rubber-string flat-fixer kits
that repair most punctures in modern tubeless tires. You
brush soap suds over the tire; bubbles will point out the
puncture. Then, usually without removing the wheel from the
car, you can dig out the nail, thread a length of gum
rubber through the eye in the awl’s pointed end, work it
into the puncture, and fix the tire for good and ever.

Pressurized Air

I recommend keeping a little $20 mall store mini air
compressor in your vehicle. They plug into the cigarette
lighter and are slow to inflate a road flat, but are
reliable. For shop use, though, everyone should have a
large line-powered compressor.

A compressor’s capability is rated by the cubic feet of air
it can move constantly at a given pressure. A gas or
electric motor powers a pump that pushes air into a steel
pressure vessel, shutting off and turning on automatically
to maintain the pressure set by a pair of valves-one to set
the tank pressure and one for pressure in the air hose.

Air-flow is determined by the tool in use. A tire will
inflate happily with any pump that can develop 100 pounds
of pressure in a closed vessel (such as a tire or football)
with minimal air flow. To operate normal-duty air-powered
mechanic’s tools, however, requires constant output of a
minimum four cubic feet per minute at 90 psi.-an entirely
different proposition demanding dimensionally greater

However, high-capacity compressors are expensive, and for
more than 25 years I kept tires inflated and blew out fuel
lines and gummed-up carburetors with a chugchugging old
piston-pump on an ancient electric motor that I hooked to
an old propane tank. It took forever to get up to 50 or 60
pounds of pressure, but served the use.

The best small compressor I have found for sale today is
Black & Decker’s Air Station Inflator/Compressor, a
high-speed, small displacement electric pump that develops
tire pressure quickly and sells for under $50. If mated
with a small portable air tank (about $30), it would make a
good basic farmstead air supply for occasional use.

You’ll pay $150 minimum for a constant-use,
pressure-switch-equipped compressor on a big, wheeled tank.
More powerful, more easily carried are compact, somewhat
lighter-weight professional models used by painters. With
two small tanks, or pressurized air contained in a tubular
frame-they cost $250 minimum A set of the four or five most
popular tools in small homeowner-size and okay quality
costs another $120. My compressor and tools are made by
Campbell-Hausfield, a low-to-medium-price brand found
everywhere-in mail-order catalogs, the auto departments of
Sears/J.C. Penney/Ward type stores and in larger home
centers and hardware stores.

Once you have air, you’ll never know how you functioned
without it. A high pressure compressed-air gun will blast
dirt out of spark plug sockets and brake drums, clean out
foot wells and luggage space, will unclog carburetor jets
and fuel lines … as well as fill the kids’ bike tires (if
you are very careful not to over inflate them), plus
inflatable boats and air mattresses, soccer balls and more.

In the shop, an air-powered impact wrench will remove
frozen lug nuts and ease tire changing greatly; an air
hammer, die grinder and rotary disc grinder will speed
blacksmithing and body work; an air-powered ratchet-wrench
will remove stuck or rusted nuts or studs; an air chisel
will cut rusted-together exhaust pipes; and the compressor
can power paint guns for autos as well as paint and stain
the house, squirt wasp nest remover into the eaves, and do
much more around the home and barn. For less cost than its
equivalent electrical counterpart, you can get nearly any
tool in air-power: circular and reciprocating saws, metal
shears, lube-guns, sandblasters and high-pressure-sprayers.

The individual tools, a set of black-steel sockets for the
impact wrench, a 50-foot length of air hose, and a set of
couplers will cost between $25 and $50. All told, equipping
yourself with good homeowner quality”air” and the tools to
fit will set you back $400 to $600. Northern Hydraulics is
the best mail-order source I have found for compressors and
air tools.

Electric Power Tools

Lacking “air,” you’ll find that many of the
electric-powered hand-held tools used in woodworking and
farmstead maintenance will find a use in the auto shop. If
they tend to stay there, buy one for the shop only. A
high-power, V-drive highspeed electric hand drill is
essential and a bench-mounted drill press is helpful; you
can get a rugged if inelegant imported 8 inch travel-drill
press and a 3 inch drill press-vise to hold work on its 6 inch wide
table for under $100-a real bargain considering what it can

You’ll want a set of good quality high-speed drill bits.
Avoid those metal boxes of cheap imports that come in
dozens of X,” sizes you’ll never need. They don’t last
long in metal. Do keep a supply of several 1/16 inch bits (even
top-quality, U.S.-made small bits snap easily) two or three
1/8 inch, 1/4 inch, and 3/8 inch bits plus a good-quality 1/2 inch, a 9/16 inch, and
5/8 inch and half inch. You’ll also want grinding stones in several
shapes to mill down metal parts as well as steel and brass
wire brushes to remove rust and scale.

A major step beyond handheld grind-stones on a drill is a
twin-wheel bench grinder with a coarse stone on one side
and fine-grit on the other. You’ll find that you are
constantly shaping metal for all kinds of auto and farm
purposes. Before I got into blacksmithing, I made knives
and garden tools out of saw blades and old spring steel
with nothing but a bench grinder and a hand drill. Went
through a lot of Carborundum … but it worked.

Get the largest grinder motor you can manage. Small
fractional-horsepower hardware-store models lack torque to
keep going when the work gets heavy, and their high-rpm
wheel will kick out or chip thin work like knife blades-and
it revolves so fast it can heat metal faster than it grinds
it down. Electric motors last practically forever and a
huge, old, slow-turning, 1hp motor picked up for a few
dollars at a barn sale is ideal even if it needs a spin of
the wheel to get started and takes a while to get up to
speed. Replace an antique power cord if it’s a dry and
cracked rubber-insulated wire covered with frayed cloth,
ending in an ancient Bakelite plug.

You’ll need a sturdy table or work bench to mount the
grinder on, but it needn’t be level, square, plumb, and
flat like a woodworking bench. I use an assortment of
oak-plank benches and old (recycled) fiat-faced, solid-wood
entrance doors bolted to the shop wall in back and
supported in front on wood-post legs. The bench should also
hold the biggest steel jawed bench vise you can manage.
Buy, or fabricate from sheet stock, a set of copper vise
jaw-plates to hold plastic and soft metal that would be
marred by the vise’s roughly-serrated steel jaws.

Hand Tools

All country households have a junk drawer holding (amid the
odd rubber bands, tacks, chewing gum wrappers and outdated
store coupons) an odd assortment of pliers, screwdrivers
and wrenches. Inherited with the house or bought to install
curtain rods and repair leaky water pipes, they seldom have
precision-shaped, hardened-steel jaws or bits suitable for
serious automotive work. Cheap, wrong-sized or ill-shaped
tools will only frustrate you, and can damage the work.

Here is my suggested list of hand tools you really need,
some you should have but can live without and some that are
luxuries but worth it if you have a few spare dollars.
Unless otherwise indicated, get the absolute best quality
you can find. Nothing is as sweet as applying the right
tool to a job and having it work. Nothing is more
frustrating than having a sloppily made wrench or socket
slip off a bolt so you bruise your knuckles, or bruise the
head of a nut so you can never again get a good purchase on

You must have tools to fit both inch measure and metric
fittings. The world is slowly adopting the universal metric
system, but so long as there are fine old American and
English-made vehicles in service, we’ll need tools and
fasteners in inch-measure approved by the Society of
Automotive Engineers (SAE).

An all-American/Canadian car should be all-ASAE, a Japanese
vehicle all-metric … in theory. But, in today’s global
economy vehicles are assembled from major components made
all over the globe, which in turn may have sub-components
made who knows where. A General Motors truck assembled in
Canada can have an engine assembled in Malaysia Out of U.S.
and Japanese components so you’ll have an SAE-made
alternator attached with metric fasteners, an SAE
carburetor fastened to the intake manifold with metric
bolts … and you need tools and fasteners to fit them all.

Wrenches: In time you’ll want a full set of combination
wrenches-the kind with an open-front/four-sided crescent
jaw at one end and a closed 12-point box at the other in
SAE sizes from 1/4 inch to I -1/2 inch or 2 inch in 1/16 inch increments
and metrics in sizes from 4mm to 20mm. You’ll probably
obtain these in several increments as needed: a set of
mid-sizes to start, angled “ignition wrenches” for the
small sizes, and a set of “tractor wrenches” for the big
ones. Accumulate odd and off-sizes as the need arises.

To start, get a basic nine-piece SAE set in 1/4, 5/16, 3/8,
7/16, 1/2, 9/16, 5/8, 11/16, 3/4 inches … or an 11-piece
set that adds the expensive 7/8 and 1-inch sizes. Metrics
come in comparable sets: 10mm to 19mm to start. I find a
set of thin wrenches invaluable for getting into tight
spots-get them in as many sizes as you can find. Wrenches
in 1/64 inch increments, with odd-angle heads, or crescents,
or closed-sockets at both ends are nice to have, but
unessential for home mechanics. Good-quality 16- or
18-piece sets run about a dollar a wrench. S-K, the premium
U.S.-made professional-quality brand sold by auto supply
outlets, and Snap-On tools sold from trucks that call at
local shops cost more and, arguably, are worth it.

It is good to have a set of three or four adjustable
wrenches that will let you change jaw width quickly, and
here be doubly sure to get the finest quality you can.
Sloppily made adjustables slip off nuts and bruise more
knuckles than any other tool I know. Be ready to pay more
than $30 for a top quality set.

You will need a set of low-priced monkey wrenches iii three
sizes; get an extra big one too. Plumbers need finely
machined pipe wrenches, but subtlety doesn’t matter in auto
repair where these tools are used to apply brute force to
stubborn fasteners. When you can, pick up a length of steel
pipe that will slip over the handle of the large-size
monkey wrench to apply extra leverage-say, to a
recalcitrant axle nut that hasn’t come off in 25 years. A
set of three goes for $35.

While we are discussing nut-removal tools, get a set of
nut-splitters too to use as a last resort. They cost only
$10 a set and will repay their cost many times the first
time you use them to get a stubborn nut off a stud–a
headless screw with one end sunk into the engine block. If
you put too much force on a nut you can break off a stud
that must then be drilled out. Split the nut and the stud
remains intact.

Ratchet-Handles and Sockets

Another tool where quality is essential is the clicking
ratchet-wrench handle with a little forward/backward switch
and socket quick-release button on top, and underneath on
the business side–a square bit that fits into a round
sockets having 6point hexagonal or 12-point universal
mouths in a variety of sizes.

Handles must be industrial strength and sockets must be
precision shaped to fit snugly over bolt heads and nuts;
must be drop-forged to hold up to great stress; and be
triple chrome-plated to last for years without rusting. You
can fork over $10 and more for a single socket bought from
Snap-On. Sets are much cheaper, but the expense is
justified; a top-quality socket set will last your lifetime
and pass on to your mechanically inclined daughter without
a nick on them.

Handles and socket sets are Categorized by the size of the
square drive bit that holds the sockets. Little 1/4 inch drive
handles are for working in tight spaces where you don’t
need to use much force, and the sets usually come with
small-size sockets. Most of the work you will
do–using small sockets as well those up to
3/4 inch–will be performed with a 3/8 inch handle. Half-inch
drive handles and sockets are for when major force must be
applied (sometimes to small sockets over small nuts). Even
larger drives are needed to work on farm tractors,
18-wheelers and industrial equipment. I have never needed a
3/4 inch -or 1 inch drive handle or sockets badly enough to spend
the megabucks they cost. So far, I’ve found that a monkey
wrench works on the big jobs.

Start off with a 3/8 inch drive handle and basic socket set for
$20 to $30. Then, get 1/4 inch, and finally the most expensive
(and least used), 1/2 inch.

Sockets come in regular and deep lengths. You may want a
set of deep sockets to remove nuts cinched down over
protruding studs or bolts when you gain experience. But
most nuts will come off and go on with less expensive
regular (shallow) sockets-in the same sizes as
aforementioned wrenches.

You will also need 3/8 inch drive spark ping sockets in two
common automotive sizes: 5/8 inch and 13/16 inch. These are deep
hex-sockets that slip all the way down over spark plugs.
They contain rubber inserts at the top to hold plugs’
delicate ceramic insulators.

Sets are the cheapest way to buy sockets and
ratchet-handles. But if your 3/8 inch set contains all 12-point
sockets, buy snugger-fitting hex-head shaped sockets in
most used sizes: 1/4-, 3/8-, 5/16-, 1/2- and 9/16 inch. Also, get
a three-piece set of extension rods in all bit sizes. And,
get 1/4- to 3/8- and 3/8- to 1/2 inch adapters so you can use
one size socket in another driver.

Finally, be sure you have sockets or box wrenches that fit
the square-headed drain plugs in your vehicle’s engine oil
pan and transmission. Removing these brass or soft-steel
fittings continually with adjustables will eventually turn
the plug heads round. If the differential has drain plugs
with square holes rather than protruding heads, get a
differential-plug wrench or socket to fit. To remove the
really tough nuts, get a “T” bar with a sliding 1/2 inch drive
bit or a long, cushion-handled flex bar with a pivoting
1/2 inch drive bit on the end, but no ratchet.

Unless you are more careful than 1, you will forever be
dropping tools down into your vehicle’s dark places-and the
little ones don’t always go through to the floor or lodge
somewhere visible. My truck has a small fortune in sockets
and bits lodged in its crannies. I suggest that if you live
really far from town, you buy duplicates of most used small
wrenches and sockets, or get back-up sets of rack-sold
super cheapos.

It can be more convenient to remove a threaded fastener
with a waggling back and forth hand motion rather than
round-and-round, and there are many places where you will
appreciate having an open socket for the ratchet-handles
that will accept screwdriver bits.


Time was when you needed screwdrivers with full shafts and
handles in all sizes for the only slot-headed fasteners we
had: standard straight-slot (where you have to rotate the
handle a full 180 degrees for each new bite) and Phillips
head where you only need rotate your wrist a more
convenient 90 degrees. Auto manufacturers discovered that
if the 4-point X-shaped Phillips head made screw-fastening
on the assembly line marginally faster, 6- and 8point
star-shaped drives went on and off the work faster still,
while deep, square bits will hold a screw on the tool so it
can be inserted one handed. So now we have a whole variety
of drive bits. Most common are TORX–with a shallow,
round-bottomed hole with eight or so tiny little points
around the edge. You find them holding on inside and
outside trim of vehicles and the pits are so shallow they
bruise if you try removing them with ordinary drivers.

Buy regular shaft-and-handle screwdriver sets in the most
frequently used sizes of regular and Phillips bits. Get
top-quality, long- and short-handled drivers in as big a
set as you can find; driver bits vary in width and
thickness to precisely fit different sizes of screw head.
The more drivers in a set, the smaller will be the
difference between one and the next, so the tighter can be
your driver-to-fitting fits. Ill-fitting driver bits will
ruin screw heads.

I use Stanley screwdrivers purchased at discount from the
mall. The quality can’t be beat and the handles are sized,
shaped, and colored differently for various sizes and
between Standard and Phillips … so you can grab the
correct driver by feel or by looking at the handle, rather
than peering through the under-chassis gloom at the tiny
little bit end. My favorites also have slight ridges on the
bits and are magnetized so they hold screws one-handed.

But for TORX and the other peculiarities, you can buy a
handle-and-bit set from the mall. Driver bits of all kinds
are made to fit into a single handle/holder with a
magnetized hex-socket or put in an electric drill. Get a
set that contains with 1/4 inch- and V-drive sockets to hold the
bits as well, so you can manipulate the bits with your
ratchets. The few bits that you use often for me, Phillips
heads used to drive drywall screws in woodworking-will
bruise quickly, but you can get replacements.

Odd Bits

One type of specialized star-bit that comes on 3/8 inch drive
sockets is essential to remove the bolts that hold on some
Ford and GM front brake calipers from the stone blind
backside (so you can’t see to use imprecise bits). In my
experience, they are impossible to find for sale anywhere
in time and space but in the JC Whitney catalog: stock#
13NT5588U for $8.99. While you are at it, order a Seal
Driver Kit: #13NT21098 for $19.99, with 16 adapters so you
can insert grease seals into front axles, tranny’s, and
crankshafts evenly and easily without ruining the seal or
bearing, losing tube, or all three. If your car is a late
model, you may also find “E”-series starbolts in odd
places, and will need an eight-piece socket set: JCW
#12NT7319T for $14.99.

Also, get a full 18-piece set of “hexkeys”six-sided
bare-metal shafts bent 90 degrees at one end, which you’ll
need to loosen set screws that hold keepers and pulleys on
shafts. You don’t need them often, but you need them
absolutely when you need them at all. They must be of hard,
but springy steel. Mall store versions will bend and bruise
in a single use, so get better quality from Sears or NAPA.
Get an assortment of the little headless, pointy-ended
set-screws, too. Tiny, they are easily lost.


Stanley also makes top-quality pliers that you can find at
reasonable prices at the mall. Get a set of regular
rivet-joint adjustables, a set of mechanic’s pliers with
needle nose, side-cutting, and slip-joint designs in
regular and small sizes. Lock-grips in three sizes are
essential, but name brands are expensive and el cheapos
work fine for the brute holding jobs they are designed for.
Snap-ring pliers have little pins that poke into holes at
the ends of spring-steel rings you’ll find hidden away
holding small parts in place, and that can’t be removed
with any other tool. Get a cheap four-piece set-and get an
assortment of snap-rings with it. The rings are springy and
tend to snap off the pliers and fly away, never to be seen


Probably the best solution to simple under-chassis work
like changing oil is to drive only four-wheel-drive or
high-wheel trucks with little ground clearance. Lower
vehicles must be jacked up.

But, never get under a vehicle that is supported only by a
jack-mechanical car hydraulic. All jacks eventually let go.

To raise low autos off the ground for oil changes and
front-end tube, buy or build a set of drive-on ramps. Steel
ramps work fine if appropriately sized to the vehicle and
anchored securely to the floor. One-piece, $20-economy
models from the mall are okay for small economy cars. For
full-size vehicles, spend $50 for heavy-duty two-piece
ramps. If you have a concrete floor, clean it of oil and be
sure the ramp, grip the surface well. If working on bar c
ground, remove spongy sod under ramp … tamp underlying
soil firm, and level and anchor ramps with blocks or rocks.
Shim them level and lag-bolt them securely if you have a
wood floor. I place concrete car wooden blocks under the
front axle beside the ramps to catch the car in case the
ramps tip or slide.

To support a vehicle by its axles, you need sturdy,
adjustable jack stands. These are even tippier than ramps,
and must he set on a firm, level surface. I place concrete
blocks beside them as a safety measure. For advanced work,
you will want wheeled engine and transmission jacks or a
block-and-tackle suspended from the roof on chains or a
trolley, but that’s a ways down the road for me, and I
presume for you as well.


You will need a hacksaw with a supply of metal-cutting
blades, hammers in several sizes, a set of metal-cutting
chisels, and a set of aligning punches (to poke through
bolt holes so you can insert bolts through adjoining
parts). Also, bolt cutters, a putty knife, and metal files
in flat and round shapes and several diameters. From the
local auto supply outlet get an inexpensive spark plug gap
tool, and if you think you’ll be going onto engines, get a
set of flat-steel feeler gauges and a torque wrench.

Buying bolts and nuts, hose clamps, and gaskets singly from
a hardware store is expensive-and they stock only American
coarse and SAE fine threads in mild steel. You will want
SAE and metric, steel and brass, “T” nuts, “O” rings,
gaskets material and more-in all sizes. Auto supply outlets
stock them, but I suggest saving money and many a drive to
town for a single nut, bolt, or washer by ordering packaged
hardware assortments from the mail order catalogs. Not
“1,001 (low-grade) fasteners for $51.11,” but good quality
fasteners in small lots.

You will want a good-quality hand operated grease gun and
cartridges of axle grease and white grease. Buy a good
brand of engine oil by the case of cans and recycle the
cans. Get squeezable plastic bottles of gear lube that you
can squirt in sideways, an assortment of funnels, including
one with a long goose neck to use to add fluids in awkward
locations. Often you must fabricate a funnel for a tight
squeeze; I cut what I need from a roll of 12 inch-wide aluminum
flashing. (You’ll need tin snips to do that.)

When antifreeze is on sale in July, get a case. Also small
funnel-tipped and spray cans of penetrating oil and light
machine oil, and a can of hard bearing grease.

A pop-riveter with a variety of rivet sizes and metals is
good to have, though real body shop tools are not common in
farm shops. Do get a propane torch, several bottles of
propane, and a spark starter. Heating will free up most
rusted on nuts, (and will thaw frozen pipes in the house
cellar, start charcoal in the barbecue, and more.)

For electrical work, get a selection of solid and stranded
hookup wires, a multimeter and a stripping/clinching tool,
and a variety of spade lugs and electrical fasteners.

Finally, keep a supply of tapes and wire. Get electrical
tape in ordinary black-plastic and shrink-tape, masking
tape and the most useful of all: Duct Tape. Don’t get
“Duck” Tape from the mall, but professional, metalized Duct
Tape that contractors use to seal seams on a sheet metal
hot-air heating duct. Get wire in soft steel and brass and
in several gauges.


I hope you find a country place that comes complete with a
beginning mechanic’s heaven: a barn with an undisturbed
old-time-farm machine shop in back. You’ll find massive
screw jacks, jacks, and pry bars, huge old crescent
wrenches, blacksmith’s tools, nut and bolt assortments,
ancient magnetos and kerosene burning carburetors,
oil-soaked orange crates and wooden cigar boxes full of
parts accumulated over several lifetimes of working on farm

Otherwise, you can look for old tools at barn sales, tag
sales, and yard sales in country towns. Be wary of
auctions; you can contract a case of bidding fever and end
up overpaying several times what an item is worth. Often,
you’ll find unorganized assortments of rusty but restorable
old tools, nails and bolts, old iron and whatnot jumbled in
crates, and you can walk off with the lot for a dollar or

Avoid buying no-name or house-brand tool sets from mall
stores. Dimensions are liable to be sloppy, corners rounded
and steel soft. Wal-Mart and other mass merchandisers label
tools with familiar sounding names like Popular Mechanix
and Master Mechanic, but suppliers change and quality

Any time you see the distinctive yellow-and-black Stanley
label, you can be confident of quality. The company’s hand
tools are often the most expensive on a mall-store rack,
but are fine quality no matter where it’s purchased. The
top line of Sears Craftsman brand (it has two or more
quality levels) is also excellent quality and any Sears
retail store will honestly replace any hand tool that
breaks. A couple of years ago, I found what must have been
a 30-year-old Craftsman ratchet-handle in the road. It was
gutted–its innards, dial, bit and pawls, and all, had
somehow gotten busted out. I took it to town and was given
the equivalent currently manufactured (top-of-the-line)
model in trade instantly, with no paperwork, argument, or
hassle, no appeal to the supervisor or even the computer.
Tools from NAPA and other auto supply stores or from
Snap-On trucks are also top quality but are high priced.

Magazine merchandisers and the TV home-shopping networks
sometimes sell name brand tools at what seem to be
super-bargain prices. In my experience, these are invariably
the bottom lines and of inferior quality to the top lines
that cost relatively little more.

Sears, the big auto supply chains, and other
mass-merchandisers sell mechanics’ tool assortments at
exaggerated discounts. They can be top quality … but,
you’ll have a thousand bucks invested in tools, half of
which you will never use and another 30 percent of which
you may use once in a lifetime of amateur automotive
repair. And, not even buying a complete mechanic’s set will
teach you to be a mechanic.

Mail Order

Following are the snail-order catalogs that no gear head
can be without. They sell good quality tools at cut-rate
prices and have a larger variety than any retail store.
Catalogs are free.

JC Whitney, Chicago IL. “EVERYTHING AUTOMOTIVE,” the catalog
reads. Handheld power tools, every automotive hand tool you
can imagine, stereos, gadgets, but mainly 200+ pages of
small print listing a full range of engine, running-gear,
and body parts for everything that rolls from the Model “T”

Northern Hydraulics, Burnville, MN. A full line of
bench and hand-held power tools, large wrenches not sold
elsewhere by mail, air compressors and air tools,
hydraulics components for building a log splitter. Large
selection of one and two-cylinder gasoline engines.