Six Things I’ve Learned from Working on Old Cars

Click Here to Begin Slideshow I’m coming up on my 53rd birthday in two months and, except for some time with the Navy, I’ve spent most of those years working on and building cars. I’ve learned a few things in that time about shop life and safety. I’m going to go through some of what I’ve learned and hopefully pass some of it to those of you just starting out in the automotive/automotive performance lifestyle.

Six Things I've Learned from Working on Old Cars

Click Here to Begin Slideshow

I’m coming up on my 53rd birthday in two months and, except for some time with the Navy, I’ve spent most of those years working on and building cars. I’ve learned a few things in that time about shop life and safety. I’m going to go through some of what I’ve learned and hopefully pass some of it to those of you just starting out in the automotive/automotive performance lifestyle.

Keep Your Shop and Work Area Organized

Image by Enilda Aguilar

An organized shop is one that runs efficiently. You don’t waste time hunting around for that tool or part you need; you know exactly where it’s at because there’s “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I like to use the Brother P-Touch Label Printerto label the drawers of my toolboxes - Sockets-ASE, sockets-Metric, Ratchets & Extensions, Screwdrivers, etc.

We didn’t have many electric power tools when I started, but we did use air tools quite a bit. I used a couple pieces of 16 gauge sheetmetal to make a rack for mine. I can’t have a compressor where I am now, but I do have quite a few cordless tools now occupying the air tools racks. I also went out and bought a multi-charger for my batteries so I can have up to six batteries charging at once - I’ll never have to wait for a fully charged battery.

Shed Some Light

Image by Mike Aguilar

Proper shop lighting is also important to maintain a high level of efficiency, not to mention safety. My old shop (new landlord won’t allow me to do any modifications) had two sets of lights that turned on when I flipped the switch - overhead and floor level fluorescents. This meant that I always had enough light to see what I was doing unless I had my head buried in a set of headers or needed to see inside something or under the dash. For those cases I have shop lights with roll-up reels so the cords aren’t underfoot when I’m not using them.

Some Tools You Can Scrimp On; Others You Shouldn’t

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Tools. You can’t get anything done in the shop without them. When I was starting out at my father’s Chevron station I used his, mostly Craftsman, Snap-On, and Mac. We bought those because of their warranties. Later, I found others that don’t cost as much but still are great quality and long lasting. I had friends in those years who would buy the cheapest tools they could find, but they were usually replacing them every few months because they were of very low quality.

I came up during the time of points-type/breaker ignition systems where we had to set the gap on the points. I used a cheap feeler gauge – once. Because the feeler was mislabeled or distorted the gap wasn’t set right and damage occurred. Although I no longer have to set points gap, I do still have to adjust valves from time to time and I still have the Snap-On feeler gauge set I bought in junior high.

Timing Is Everything

Image by Enilda Aguilar

I’ve got two timing lights that I use all the time. One is the fixed type - it has the three leads and a trigger. The other is adjustable - it’s got buttons that allow you to retard or advance the timing so you can see where the best engine performance is and not necessarily where the most economical timing setting is. Remember, automakers aren’t tuning most of their vehicles for racers, they’re tuning for mom and pop who want the best economy.

Likewise, I still have all my old Snap-On and Mac suspension tools - pickle forks, Pitman arm and tie rod pullers, etc. The newest suspension tool I have is my MacPherson strut compressor and it’s over 20 years old. The same with most of my brake tools, although my brake shoe retaining spring tool is a cheap off-brand, because it doesn’t have to go through too many trials and tribulations.

You Get What You Pay For

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That’s not true for my basic hand tools. I was doing some exhaust work once, and grabbed an off-brand wrench and proceeded to bend it almost in half trying to remove the nut and bolt. Another time I used a cheapo wrench on another bolt and rounded it off because the tool wasn’t crafted well enough to be the exact size and the metal was so weak the points were wearing. Trashed.

One of the most important tools types to not scrimp on is electrical tools. Test lights and noids are the only real exception here, as long as the leads are cared for. Although I know that there are other decent brands of meters on the market, I only use Fluke electronic measuring tools - unequaled quality and accuracy, and they last as long as you care for them.

Bodywork and Paint Basics

Image courtesy YouTube
When doing body repairs, it doesn’t matter if you’re beating dents out with a hammer and dolly, using a slide hammer or filling with Bondo - surface prep is rule Number One to a good paint job. If you watch any of the car customizing TV or YouTube channels, you’ll see even the builders making their own panels using yellow or red body filler for final surface prep. This ensures that the surface to be painted is as smooth as a… well, you know.

Once the work is done to your satisfaction, you need to clean the whole area being painted using acetone or some other cleaning/degreasing product that won’t leave an oily or slippery residue on the metal surface. A surface that’s not properly cleaned isn’t going to adhere to the paint very well, and at best you’ll get orange peel. At worst you’ll get paint flaking and peel-off. Make sure the body surfaces are surgically clean prior to putting a drop of paint on them.

Work Clean

Image courtesy Pinterest

When painting, cleanliness and proper ventilation work hand in hand to ensure that the paint job comes out looking good, even if you’re using a rattle can to spot paint. If you leave the leavings from your surface prep on the floor of the paint room, it’s going to end up in your paint and ruin the paint job.

Although not absolutely necessary, I recommend using some plastic sheeting to separate your “paint booth” from the rest of the area. This keeps the paint off everything else and also allows you to control airflow around the car/parts being painted. At the top you should have a way to draw the air up and out. This keeps overspray to a minimum by pushing/pulling it up and away from the surface(s) being painted.

Shop Safety for You and Your Project

Image by Beverly Aguilar

I’ve seen far too many of my friends and coworkers carried out of shops in an ambulance because they weren’t working safely. I’ve seen a shop burned down because they weren’t storing their dirty greasy shop rags in a proper container; they just threw them on the floor in a corner or in a trash can. Foolish and costly mistake.

Distractions are another problem. Tell the family to hold all calls except life and death and from the boss. You can call them back. Unless you have them helping you, ask the kids to let you work without distractions; you can talk during break time. Train yourself to ignore most distractions and if something happens to draw your attention away from the work, step away from the work, especially if the engine is running. If you have to leave the work area, shut the engine off. Music is OK, but turn off your cell phone.

Armor Up

Image courtesy Harbor Freight

My hands are scarred up because we didn’t have mechanic’s gloves for most of the time I was wrenching full time. I wish we had, because my fingers get sore and stiff now because of all those scars. If you’ve got long hair, use/wear something that keeps it no lower than your shoulders and don’t let it hang or blow around. It’ll really ruin your day if it gets caught in a rotating belt. Same thing with sleeves. Keep the cuffs tight or rolled up.

Keep your work area clean and as free of obstacles as you can. You may be carrying something oversized and/or heavy and you don’t want to trip. Roll up the shop light cords when not in use and route them in such a way that they won’t be a trip/fall hazard. Imagine carrying a head over to the engine, tripping on an air hose and dropping the head on that freshly painted fender.

I recommend safety glasses whenever you’re working on your project vehicle, whether you’re tuning the carb or whacking on a tie rod end. You’ve only got two eyes and it’s really hard to replace them. Protect them with a good pair of ANSI (American National Standards Institute) Z-87.1 certified safety glasses.

Don’t Get Shocked

Image by Enilda Aguilar

The last aspect of shop safety I want to touch on is electrical safety. I worked for several years as an electrician and had to call my boss once when one of my apprentices was electrocuted because another shop was using power cords with cracked and ripped insulation. A metal tool she was using hit one of those cracks, and CRACK! Out went the lights in the building and down she went. Thankfully she lived.

Prior to plugging any electrical tool into the outlet, look it over carefully. Is the case cracked? What about the cord? What about the part that plugs in? Are the prongs solidly connected? Are they all there? Never, ever remove the ground prong from any plug. Ever.

Distribute the Load

Image by Enilda Aguilar

Load distribution is also important. Are you plugging a 30-amp tool into a 20-amp socket? Or maybe you’re plugging that 30-amp tool into a 30-amp socket but already have another 20-amp tool on the same circuit? Check your breakers and see what plugs are controlled by what breaker(s) in your shop. If you need more capacity (ampacity), have another circuit pulled. Overloaded circuits cause fires every day.

Tool Safety

Image by Enilda Aguilar

Tool safety is one of my pet peeves. Back in the mid-80s my father and I were doing a tune-up on a Cadillac. The shop manual said a special tool was required for the distributor hold-down bolt. My father told me to just “eyeball it and bend one of my long half inches.” I refused. He did it. And broke the $450+ distributor. I called the parts store and my tool guy. New disty wrench and no broken distributor. What I’m saying here is use the right tool for the job. Screwdrivers are for turning screws, not prying. Prybars are for prying.

The thing here is that any time you modify a tool you weaken it, especially if you use heat to soften the metal prior to bending it. You may get lucky and not have a modified tool break but, again, you’re lucky if that happens in most cases. Use the right tool for the job.

Working Safely Under Your Vehicle

If you do most or all of your own automotive work, you will eventually need to do something under the vehicle. You should never lift a vehicle on an incline like a sloped driveway, even if you block a wheel. If the vehicle won’t fit in the garage, park it on the street. Gravity is not a forgiving thing. Also, use proper lifting points; manufacturers design these into their cars for that exact purpose. Once you’ve got the vehicle in the air, use jack stands to support it, not the jack. Jacks can leak. Solid steel can’t.

Lastly, always block the front and rear of at least one wheel if not lifting all four wheels off the ground, set the parking brake and leave manual transmissions in gear and autos in Park. This will also help prevent the vehicle from rolling and coming off the jack or stands. I forgot this once and the car came down on me because someone bumped it, and it almost crushed my head under the axle.

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About Mike Aguilar 388 Articles
Mike's love of cars began in the early 1970's when his father started taking him to his Chevron service station. He's done pretty much everything in the automotive aftermarket from gas station island attendant, parts counter, mechanic, and new and used sales. Mike also has experience in the amateur ranks of many of racing's sanctioning bodies.

1 Comment on Six Things I’ve Learned from Working on Old Cars

  1. Great write up Sir! My Dad gave the motor oil in my veins! I lost him in 2013 which was 6 years ago yesterday. I will never stop missing him, but I use what he taught me to the best of my abilities each and everyday!
    You had some great tips in this article and I would agree with each and everyone of them!
    Thanks for the interest read Brother!

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