“How do you fall in love with such a boring, tedious, frustrating pastime???” my coworker Michael Ballaban just asked me, referring to wrenching. He’s no mechanic. Taken aback by the notion that anyone could loath servicing their own automobile, I gathered my thoughts and began writing about why wrenching can, and should, be fun.
We all enjoy cars on different levels. Some of us love pure driving; some of us love working on cars. Michael gets the necessity of car maintenance, sure, and he loves cars and their wonderful, weird history as much as anyone. But right now he doesn’t get how I find so much joy in such an arduous activity.
I totally understand why. Wrenching doesn’t really look like fun to most people, but trust me, it totally is.
Michael just dropped $1,000 on a timing belt job for his gorgeous 2002 Lexus IS300 Sportcross, but just as he had finished hollowing out his wallet and wiping his tears, his mechanic told him that the wagon’s valve cover gaskets are leaking, and that it may cause a misfire (since the spark plugs are located below and between the valve covers).
The good news is that, as the shop told Michael, changing the gaskets is a fairly easy job, and after looking at the step-by-step video above, Michael agrees that it does seem straightforward. But he didn’t think “God, this will be a fun easy job!” like I might have, but instead, thought: “God what a tedious and boring nightmare that looks like that I will surely screw up.”
Michael says the number one obstacle keeping him from loving wrenching is that it’s just boring. “Watching this sumo tournament on YouTube seems like a much more enjoyable adventure,” he tells me.
Before we get into why wrenching can totally be more fun than watching a sumo tournament, I want to talk about the number one thing that nearly kept me from wrenching: fear.
“What if I screw something up?” my 19-year-old self kept thinking while holding the brand new wrench I’d just bought as part of my first socket set, staring at my Jeep’s valve cover in a University of Virginia parking lot.
Yes, my very first “major” wrenching job was actually a valve cover gasket, and like Michael, I had a hard time getting myself to actually do it. But it wasn’t because I found it boring like Michael does, but because I was afraid of the unknown.
Luckily, I took steps that I’ve been recommending to first-time wrenchers for years. I bought a Haynes repair manual, found people who actually knew how to wrench, and asked them if they’d help me with my repair.
I drove over an hour from Charlottesville to Harrisonburg, Virginia to meet up with James Madison University’s car club, Madison Motorsports. Their president, a guy named Jake, walked me through how to replace spark plugs, how to swap out the valve cover gasket, and how to use the repair manual. Most importantly, though, he taught me not to be so worried about ruining things. My 1992 Jeep Cherokee was a big, sturdy machine, and I wasn’t going to do any irreparable damage with my quarter-inch wrench. I could relax.
This step of having an experienced wrencher walk me through my first major wrenching job was the catalyst for all my future wrenching endeavors. It was from that moment on that my fear of wrenching was behind me, and I began tackling jobs that I never in my life thought I’d undertake.
Getting past that initial fear by having an experienced wrencher help me through my first major job was step one my path towards a life-long love of wrenching. Step two was reading through that Haynes manual, checking out parts diagrams online, and watching YouTube to learn exactly my Jeep worked.
It was very easy to be overwhelmed when I didn’t know what parts did what; only when I had a firm understanding of exactly how everything worked, and how it all went together, was I completely relaxed tearing things apart.
Another bit of advice I have for people trying to find joy in wrenching is to avoid waiting for parts to fail before fixing them. If you need a car to get to work, and you’ve let your wheel bearing get so bad the car is undriveable, you’ve a high-stress repair job ahead of you. And nothing sucks more than high-stress wrenching.
I myself recently had to do brake work on my Jeep Grand Wagoneer on days when I should have been driving to Utah for my road trip to the off-road Mecca that is Moab, Utah. Knowing that I had only a day or two to get my issues fixed made the job genuine hell.
Try to avoid that if you can.
Now let’s get to the bit that’s plaguing Michael: it’s boring, he says. Like painting walls. He’s not wrong, but there are ways to make fixing cars enjoyable, just as there are ways to make painting walls fun. My favorite method: invite a bunch of friends over and work together towards a common goal.
The top photo shows a bunch of buddies and me standing in front of my 1948 Willys CJ-2A, Project Slow Devil. Look at those smiles; boy are we having fun. No YouTube sumo tournament could yield such authentic grins.
And just recently, I had a bunch of friends come to my house to help me work on my $800 Jeep Grand Wagoneer. We cranked on some tunes, ate some crappy pizza, drank beers and turned wrenches. It didn’t feel any more tedious or boring than if we’d been playing a game of pick-up soccer, and we all had an awesome time even though we were doing hard work.
Getting into wrenching takes work. In my case, I had to get over that initial fear of the unknown, I had to understand exactly how my vehicle worked, and I had to make sure I was fixing things before they absolutely had to be repaired.
But once you’ve dipped your toes into the wrenching life, loving it is actually quite easy. If you enjoy consuming large quantities of pizza and beer with friends, then there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t love wrenching as much as that dorky guy in the green coverall in the video above does.
And in time, even when you’re all alone, the sense of accomplishment will be enough to make wrenching a genuine joy.