Photo: AutoZone

Here in the U.S., car parts stores rent out specialty tools for free, making wrenching accessible to the masses. It’s wonderful thing, especially since there are so many amazing tools to choose from. Here’s a look at some of the hardware you can borrow from your local auto parts retailer without spending a penny.

Right now, I’m in the throes of a major wrenching ordeal, and my budget is pretty much nonexistent. Luckily, my local parts stores have been lending me tools that I’d really hate to have to buy, since they’re expensive, and I use them so infrequently. For example, here’s a compression tester I borrowed just a couple days ago:

That compression gauge helped me learn how well the piston rings, head gasket and valves are sealing—important indications of how healthy my engine is. Too little compression, and the engine may struggle under load, burn oil, burn coolant or not run at all.

My Grand Wagoneer’s AMC 360 made 120 psi in the three cylinders I checked the other night, which is just at the bottom of the “acceptable” range. If the other five cylinders measure the same, then this will be great news for the health of my motor.

Another awesome tool I recently rented from AutoZone was this ball joint press set:

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Ball joints are what allow the front wheels to turn left and right when a driver rotates their steering wheel. If ball joints go bad, the wheel could potentially fall off the vehicle, which is why I always replace these critical parts before embarking on grand adventures with vehicles that have unknown service histories.

Two years ago, I used the rental tool (and a giant metal plate) to replace Project Swiss Cheese’s (my $600 Jeep Cherokee’s) ball joints before driving from Michigan to Utah and back:

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And this year, I’ve already removed and installed new ball joints into my $800 Jeep Grand Wagoneer’s steering knuckles in preparation for my upcoming off-road adventure to Utah. Here’s a video of me putting AutoZone’s tool to the test:

I’m probably only going to change my vehicles’ ball joints once every five or six years, so buying this $200 ball joint press set just doesn’t make a lot of sense. So instead, I handed those $200 to AutoZone for the company to hold onto, invest (or whatever it is they need to do for this whole “lending” thing to be profitable) while I’m at my house wrenching. When I bring the tool back, I’ll get my deposit back in full.

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Another fun tool I rented was a “ridge reamer” shown above, whose job it is to remove the “lip” on an engine’s cylinder walls created by the piston rings’ up and down motion.

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Once I had removed that ridge, I used a rental cylinder hone to smooth out the cylinder walls to ensure a nice seal for my new piston rings:

Here’s that O’Reilly rental tool clamped into my drill, slowly removing material from my cylinder walls:

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With the ridge gone, and the cylinders nice and smooth, I installed the pistons using a rented piston ring compressor tool:

Photo: O’Reilly

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Here is one of my 1948 Willys CJ-2A’s pistons being plopped into its bore using that ring compressor:

But that’s not all; I’ve also rented tools like this $120 socket set for axle nuts that I only rarely need to remove:

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And I’ve borrowed a spring compressor a number of times to remove coil springs:

Photo: AutoZone

Here’s my friend Santiago using such a tool to remove Project Swiss Cheese’s front coil springs:

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I’ve also rented a thread chasing kit a number of times. It requires a $95 deposit, but it’s worth it, as the tool has been a champion in all of my off-road builds, cleaning up my many rusty bolts and corroded threaded holes and giving them new life. It even restores compromised threads, having saved my bacon more times than I can count when replacing a half-stripped bolt would have required a major teardown:

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Another tool I’ve luckily not had to purchase is this crankshaft pulley holder, which allowed me to remove the harmonic balancer bolt from my infamous 1995 Honda Accord, whose timing belt I was servicing at the time:

But even with the bolt out, removing the crankshaft damper is often not straightforward, and requires a puller tool like this one:

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Here’s a video of that borrowed tool in action, yanking the damper off my 250,000 mile 1992 Jeep Cherokee’s crankshaft:

As I live in Michigan, I’ve had to deal with a lot of rusted brake lines over the years, but luckily, I can buy a roll of steel brake line, slide on a fitting, and use a rental flaring kit to form the ends of the line for a perfect seal:

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Here’s a picture of me flaring the end of a new brake line I had installed on my $600 Jeep Cherokee, Project Swiss Cheese:

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Another tool I find myself using quite often is the radiator pressure tester kit to test my radiator caps and to make sure my cooling system is free from leaks (this thing demands a $250 deposit, so among tools to definitely bring back, this one is at the top of the list):

Photo: AutoZone

Plus, I’m also a fan of fuel pressure testers, which measure the pressure in the fuel rail. I’ve used this gauge to determine if my engine had a faulty fuel pressure regulator or a weak fuel pump:

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I’ve also borrowed a slide hammer like this one to try to pull out pressed-in wheel bearing from a Saturn Vue:

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I could continue going on and on about all the expensive tools that I haven’t had to purchase because Advance, AutoZone or O’Reilly offers them as loaners (click those links to see the stores’ full loaner-tool offerings). Everything from Onboard Diagnostic scanners for my old OBD I Jeep to tie rod end pullers to torque wrenches, the list of tools available for rent is truly staggering.

And if you still don’t believe that, check out this “ultra violet leak kit” that uses a special dye to help you find a leak in your A/C system:

Photo: AutoZone

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There’s even a special tool to help owners of Ford Triton V8s fish out spark plugs that they’ll almost certainly break into their cylinder heads (Ford 4.6-liter and 5.4-liter modular motors’ spark plugs are notorious for breaking during removal):

Photo: AutoZone

And, if you’re still not amazed by the sheer comprehensiveness of car parts stores’ loaner tool programs, just look at this cool diagnostic kit that you can use to test relays and electrical circuits:

Photo: AutoZone

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It makes sense for these stores to offer these tools, as if you can get the tool from their store, you’ll likely also buy whatever parts you need there, too. Plus, there’s a chance that you won’t return the part, in which case, you’ve bought it, since the deposit is the same as the tool’s purchase price.

Since the tools are often used, I’ve had a few instances where I’ve gotten home, just to find that the compression tester is broken, or the thread chaser is completely stripped. So it’s definitely worth inspecting the tools before leaving the store.

But the occasional bad tool notwithstanding, these rental tool programs have been a godsend, and have let me tackle jobs quickly, and on a tight budget. Because of these loaner tools, I’ve gone many years without ever having to take my vehicle to a shop, which means I have more money in my pocket, and a whole bunch of new wrenching skills.