If you’d like to learn to fix cars, you probably don’t want to start out by rebuilding an engine or replacing a clutch in a transmission, much like you wouldn’t start elementary school math learning Laplace Transforms. Better to start off with something a little less intimidating.
A few months ago, I wrote an article recommending the myriad ways to become more knowledgeable with a wrench. Then, a bit later, I suggested some decent, cheap tools to get you started. But there’s one bit of helpful advice missing: where do you begin? Here are five fairly easy jobs to get you started.
I’ve gotten fairly decent at wrenching through the years, but if you’d seen my earliest attempts at fixing my Jeep back when I was just a poor college sophomore, you’d have witnessed someone who had no idea what he was doing. Now, six years later, I’m replacing almost the entire bill of materials of my $600 Jeep XJ.
And it all started with these five jobs.
Change The Spark Plugs
This suggestion does not apply to Subaru owners, because their spark plugs are harder to change than a Texan’s views on gun control. Best to just let those spark plugs be, or have them seek professional help.
But if you aren’t driving a Subaru, grab yourself a 3/8ths inch-drive socket wrench, an extension, and a spark-plug deep well socket, and have at it!
Just remove your spark plug boots, grab onto your plugs with your deep-well socket, and crank them out one by one. If you’ve got an older car, label your spark plug wires so you know which spark plug they go to, or just do your plugs one at a time. You don’t want to mix those up.
Take the new plug, set the gap with a little coin-tool by bending the ground electrode, and re-install using a anti-seize on the threads and dielectric grease on the terminal.
Rent a torque wrench from the car parts store, and torque each plug down to spec. Easy peasy.
Change The Air Filter
Air filters are easy and cheap to change on almost any car, in part because they need to be changed so frequently.
On my vehicles, accessing the air filter requires no tools at all. Simply flip down a few latches, wiggle the top of the air induction box, and you’ve got access to your air filter.
Many modern cars fasten the air-box with screws, so grab a screwdriver, undo some fasteners, and you’ll have a new air filter in no-time.
Change The Oil
When you think of automotive maintenance, you probably picture an oil change in your mind. It’s the most classic of maintenance items, and it’s also the most important.
Change your oil when your oil service light goes on or based on the mileage recommended in the owner’s manual. The process is pretty simple. If your car sits low to the ground, drive it on ramps, park it on a curb, or put it on some jack stands.
Remove your oil fill cap, which is labeled and on the top of your engine, and set it aside. Then slide under your car and remove your oil drain bolt, releasing oil into an oil catch-pan. Once that’s fully drained, put the bolt back in.
If your filter is a metal-can style that sits under your car, slide the catch-pan underneath it, and twist the filter off either by hand, via a special tool, or via a screwdriver poked through the metal casing (that last method is a messy one).
Many newer engines have little paper canister-type filters that sit right at the top of the engine and can be easily accessed with a socket wrench. Simply unscrew the lid and there’s your filter.
Wipe a little bit of new or used motor oil on your new filter’s O-ring, and install it. Then pour your engine oil into your fill hole on the top of your engine, and screw the cap back on.
Then fire up your engine and check for leaks. It’s a straightforward and very rewarding job.
Replace A Bulb
How many people are needed to change a light bulb? That joke doesn’t really apply to automobile headlights, because while one person can do it, some bulbs can be a giant pain in the ass to change, requiring the removal of wheel-liners and a bunch of other components.
By and large, though, changing a headlight bulb is straightforward and easy. If you can’t reach the bulb from the back of the headlight housing, you may have to remove a couple of small items, or unscrew the housing from the front of the car. Many modern vehicles require you to unscrew an access cover in the wheel-liner to get to the headlight bulbs.
Figure out what needs to be done to change your bulb by using the internet or a service manual. Chances are, it’s a totally doable job, even for the uninitiated.
Replace The Brake Pads
Doing a brake job is a bit riskier than changing out a headlight bulb, so I’d suggest you have someone with wrenching knowledge inspect your work if it’s your first time.
But to be honest, brake jobs are bone-simple on almost any car using disc brakes. Just jack the car up on a jack stand, remove the wheel, unbolt the two sliding-pin bolts, and remove the caliper. Then take the pads out, push the piston in with a C-clamp (with your reservoir lid off), slide new pads in, slather some grease here and there, and bolt it all back up using a rented torque wrench.
It’s one of the easiest jobs there is, and because brake pads wear out so frequently, it’s also one that can save you oodles of money.
Let me know how you got started working on cars, and what other tasks you think would be well suited for beginners.