Disclaimer: this section is a bit subjective. People look at turning wrenches many different ways but this is how I see it. I think this will make it seem less intimidating while also giving people a good idea of what to learn and how to do it.
Now you have it home and the real fun begins! First you have to decide what your eventual goal and depth of the project will be. Are you going for a nut and bolt restoration or just a quick clean up so you can start driving? Do you want it to be bone stock or heavily modified? Get a feel for the scope of the project and don’t bite off more than you can chew.
How to work on a car
You may be thinking: “I have no idea to work on cars. It is clearly a black magic art, honed in dingy shops across the world over the last hundred years and passed down from father to son in a secret mechanic order.” That is not true. Working on cars is essentially four things:
1. The overall process
2. The specific task
3. The tricks
4. The tools
I’ll go into each of these things in a bit more detail but hopefully breaking it down will make it less intimidating.
1. The process
This is what’s outlined in a service manual. “To replace the camshaft, first remove all the breather lines from the valve cover, then remove the valve cover, etc.” It’s a simple step-by-step procedure, you can find it in Haynes guides, Chilton guides, the factory service manual, or any of the other service guides for your specific vehicle. You can also find this process in forums or talking to friends. Usually you’ll want to check a few different sources to get a consensus and make sure that any one manual didn’t miss something.
Everything is a process. From changing a brake pad all the way to rebuilding an engine. If you get a good procedure and follow the instructions you can figure it out. There’s very little in mechanics that requires some intrinsic or instinctive skill, like sculpting or something like that. Mostly it’s procedures and patience. Just work your way through some simple and low stakes jobs like brakes to get a hang of it, then jump into more complex stuff.
2. The task
The specific task you’re working on is kind of a sub process. The manual might say: “remove the valve cover” and no more. If you’ve removed a few valve covers you know that means you have to find all the hardware, pull the breather lines, then hit the cover sideways gently with a rubber hammer to break the gasket loose. That’s the specific task. Each probably has specific tricks, like when you pull a speedo drive from a transmission watch out for gear oil that’ll pour out and possibly directly into your ear. (Thanks, dad, for warning me about that.)
Most of these tasks are universal, or at least common between groups of vehicles (domestics, imports, FWD, RWD, etc). If you know how to remove a starter on a Ford Mustang you can probably do it on a Dodge truck. So as you do these jobs, your competency grows. Think of them as tools in your mental toolbox.
3. The tricks
The tricks are what separates even competent amateur mechanics from people who have done this a lot or professionals. They’re real time savers and they’re just kind of universal ‘tools’ for dealing with stuck bolts, stubborn parts, etc. Here are some of them but you’ll have to learn most of it by doing:
- Get the right tools. Not investing in the correct tools can cost a lot of money later on. Specialized wrenches or even universal special tools (valve spring compressors, slide hammers, etc) will usually pay for themselves. A lot of auto parts stores will lend you specialty tools with a deposit.
- Get as much literature as you can. Haynes and Chilton guides are a great place to start, but factory service manuals are usually the best source. Many are available online in various places. It’s best to have a few manuals around as they have different levels and areas of detail.
- Rusted bolts will likely be one of your biggest nemeses. The first line of offense is soaking them in penetrating spray DAYS before you do the job. Even a week might not be too much. If you know you’ll have to take off certain hardware, first assess the risk here. If it’s an important bolt that dead ends into your engine block then shearing it off will be a huge pain in the ass, you’ll have to drill and easy out and possibly damage your engine block. If it’s a nut and bolt set in a place that you can drill it out if it breaks, then it’s really not that important and you might just drill through without even trying to twist it off. First do a good job cleaning the parts you can see with a wire brush then start soaking them in WD40 or PB Blaster every 12 hours or so. This will make an amazing difference. When you go to take them off always use 6-point sockets or wrenches. 12-points are convenient but can round off the bolt heads and leave you in trouble. I’ve found impact wrenches to be less likely to shear off a bolt than using a lot of torque on a wrench like a breaker bar. Impact guns won’t plastically deform (stretch) the metal and if you start with relatively low air pressure (or a setting on an electric impact) you probably won’t break them. If that doesn’t do the trick, you’ll have to use heat. Heat can be an amazing tool for getting hardware off. You’ll need either MAP gas (like propane but burns hotter) or oxy-acetylene for most jobs.
- Be anal about sorting and organizing hardware and parts as they come off the car. If you can’t find it then you don’t own it. Use old coffee cans, jars, or yogurt containers. Egg cartons make great storage for tiny hardware. Also document how things came off. Take lots of photos as you take things apart. I’ll grab a spare piece of cardboard and stick bolts through it in the approximate shape of their bolt pattern. It sucks to have a handful of hardware and have no idea where it goes. Magnet trays are useful for not losing hardware as you take it off.
- Be prepared to spend a lot of time cleaning. You’ll be amazed at how much better a car looks after you detail it. Clean with q-tips, the correct cleaning agents, every nook and cranny. Clean under the engine bay, clean all the parts that come off. If you can, paint or powder coat parts as they go back on. This will make your final product look amazing and promotes good workmanship.
Have fun! Don’t let the project frustrate you too much. Try to be working on a few different parts of the car at once so you can switch gears. The #1 enemy of project cars is loss of interest. Early on try to do something very rewarding, like totally refurbish a small component and make it look great. Then imagine the rest of the car like that. Find like-minded people to wrench with you, put on some good music, open a beer (if you’re so inclined).