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Wrenching Tips: Dressing the Part

Tim Odell July 12, 2012 Wrenching Tips 54 Comments

Previously on Wrenching Tips, we outlined a number of online suppliers that help fill the void left by the extinction of non-chain hardware and auto parts stores. The Speed Shop isn’t dead, it’s just gone online.

This week might seem a bit silly, but still falls in line with our central theme of making hoopty ownership a more feasible and pleasant experience. We’re talking about the difference between “clothes you don’t mind getting dirty” and legit workwear.

Daily-driving a classic has taught me to perform a number of light mechanical tasks without dirtying my corporate cube jockey uniform. Checking fluids, changing tires, even minor carb adjustments are doable in khakis and a blue button-up if you’re careful. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. Today’s about getting a pile of clothes together that’ll do more than just fall apart as you put them to work.

That said, anything you’re planning to wear while wrenching should already be written off as grubby/grimy/greasy/expendable. Once you slide under the car in that shirt, it’s unlikely it’ll see “regular” wear again.

The obvious pick for wrenching clothes are just older clothes that you don’t need or care about any more: the previous pair of running shoes, faded cargo shorts, shirts with holes in them. This certainly makes sense, but I contend that dropping a few bucks for real work clothes is a worthwhile investment.

Let’s start from the bottom up. If I just need to get dirty, my one-generation-retired Chucks are the go-to wrenching shoe. The high-tops laces keep stuff from falling into and accumulating inside the shoes. In black, they mask just how filthy they really are. Also, they provide a modicum of upper foot and ankle protection, as evidenced by a big mid-ankle gash from my angle grinder. Better Mr Taylor’s hide than my own.

My boots are actually a year older than I am, handed down by my dad. They’ve survived 3 summers as a Goodyear tire monkey, countless hours of yardwork and my escalating wrenching activities over the last 5 years. They’re not particularly comfortable, but I always wear them to the junkyard or on any other occasion presenting a risk of Big Heavy Thing V. Tim’s Foot or that might require furious kicking to get the job done. They’re a critical tool when swapping engines or attempting to line up big suspension components.

Movin’ on up, anatomically speaking, I highly recommend a pair of Dickies, Carhartt or Ben Davis
pants/shorts for being actually durable, whereas old Dockers will shred under the briefest of heavy uses. Dickies tend to be the most reasonably priced and have a slide/hook style clasp instead of a button to prevent scratches to whatever you’re leaning on. Also, the lack of a buttons or rivets on the pockets makes for more comfortable rolling around on the ground. If you’ve gotta wear a belt, I suggest putting it on rotated by 90 or 180 degrees, preventing the buckle from scratching your fender while leaning in on the car.

99% of the time I wrench in old short-sleeve t-shirts. Preferably black ones that hide the accumulated stains. Certain ones (a Wells Fargo freebie and my Marshall’s Industrial Hardware shirt) seem to be made of thicker, more durable fabric. If I’m doing welding or grinding, I break out either an expendable long sleeve cotton shirt (now full of small burn holes) or my recently acquired welding jacket (no burn holes…funny how that works). I still have a few old Goodyear shirts, complete with my name patch, but I never found them to have any advantage over an expendable t-shirt.

Should you need some actual warmth, an expendable sweatshirt is nice, but a thrift-store-sourced mechanic’s jacket is better. Look for a place in your town that specializes in institutional uniform type stuff, and you’ll find rack after rack of blue jackets in various states of disrepair. Pick a level of holiness that’s appropriate for your use model.

Obviously I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, but cleaner hands have their benefits. Five minutes of scrubbing so I can deal with a crying kid without leaving hand prints isn’t really feasible. Secondarily, showing up for work at my medical device company day-job with perma-grime embedded in my skin and nails can be awkward. Last but not least, ultra-callous perma-grimed hands tend not to be a big hit with the ladies, particularly in certain situations.

With these things in mind, I wear rubber gloves whenever I can while wrenching, but never while using a high-speed tool like a grinder. It’s too easy for a rubber glove to catch and either (hopefully) tear or (worse) yank your hand into the tool. Be sure to get the best ones available at your local store (I use Diamond Grip), as the crappy ones bring nothing but frustration. When grinding, torching or welding I break out the mechanic’s gloves (or Mechanix®, if you choose) for an extra layer of non-melting protection. I tend not to use them for other jobs as the fingertip seams hinder dexterity and they tend to soak up fluids and never let them go. I’ve lost at least two pairs to oil-soaking incidents (it just never comes out).

Topping things off (sigh…), a hat is a wonderful thing. It keeps grime from accumulating in your hair, provides a storage cup for keys and/or cell phones and minimizes head wounds from sharp corners. Every. Single. Time I work on my Falcon, I smack my head against the hood latch in the engine bay. With a hat on, it’s a two on the Salty Sailor cursing scale; more like a seven without. I like my black flex-fit hat not because I’m claiming on Volcom surf wear, but because the black hides grime and the flex-fit means to plastic strip when I rest my head on the ground.

There’s something to be said for getting the aesthetics right. When dressed in Serious Business work clothes, people seem to take you more seriously at the parts counter or junkyard. The leftover civilian clothes just leaves them unsure if you’re working on your car or actually a homeless person. Obviously you can just use your least favorite clothes for wrenching. However, if you consider your work wardrobe an extension of your tool  collection, having the right tools for the job just makes everything go more smoothly.

What’s your take on proper attire for the garage, driveway and junkyard?

  • m4ff3w

    When it isn't insanely hot (here in San Antonio that is usually late November to mid-January. I like to wrench in a pair of FRC overalls (FRC-ness no longer assumed). But usually it is just too hot. Old New Balance shoes, stained up old shorts, and a freebie t-shirt for normally holy hell it's hot wrenching.

  • "Once you slide under the car in that shirt, it's unlikely it’ll see 'regular' wear again."

    Eh, I work in academia.

    • Once you've entered academia, it's unlikely your clothes will see regular work again.

      • I take great exception to your calumnious use of the word "again."

        • You're right. I assumed the previous owner had a job.

          • Nope. Legally the owner isn't "previous" in the case of stolen goods.

  • Devin

    I'm inept at wrenching and have made peace with that, but I feel the need to say that when it gets colder, I love flannel shirts and want to marry them. Lumberjacks know their shit.

    • OA5599

      Perfect attire for working on Subarus.

      • Funny, I wear mine to work on my Subaru even though I doubt mine is the demographic you are thinking of.

        • You mean lumberjacks? I agree. I come from an Oregon mill town; the preferred term is loggers.

          • What do you call a logger who drives a Subaru?


        • OA5599

          I think I've mentioned to you before that of the women I've known who drove Alfa Spyders, none of them were very experienced at "working a stickshift".

          • I've only known one; she didn't disprove that hypothesis.

  • Ha, I have several Marshall's Hardware t-shirts that I reserve for wrenching duty, both long and short sleeve.

  • jeepjeff

    I use whatever old thing. I've got an ancient plaid long sleeve that I use when it's colder and t-shirts when it's not.

    However, I have a vast array of protective gloves and a trusty pair of safety glasses (if I crawl under the Jeep without them, I'm going to be blinded by dirt/grime/rust particles/accumulated small furry animals falling off the underside of the mechanical bits.

    For gloves, I have a pair of full leather gloves for full hand protection, two grimy pairs of welding gloves (one heavy pair from when I learned to stick weld, and an old pair of TIG gloves, the clean TIG gloves don't go near the truck), an insulated pair of leather gloves (bought them for wrenching in Truckee in the winter, so good), a box of latex gloves and an old pair of weight lifting gloves that I bought before a coach told me never to use them (they provide knuckle protection and they're fingerless). My wife buys shoes. I buy work gloves.

    That said, there's the motor/no motor rule for glove use. If you're using a hand tool or manual power device (ie, you have to expend constant muscle energy to make the thing work, and it stops immediately when you let up), gloves. If there is any kind of motor that you'd have to kill by hitting a switch? NO GLOVES. When I'm spinning wrenches, I'll often have the weight lifting gloves on, but power tools? No. I still manage to get super grimy. Fortunately, permanent telecommute sysadmin. No one ever sees my hands.

    • Kogashiwa

      Anti-grime glasses, very very essential.

  • sudden1

    Heavy long sleeve cotton shirts. Cotton, full length trousers or denim. . Limits the grease to the hands and wrists. Legs get nothing. Screw the heat; really helps in the shower. And washable- repeatedly- just use a lot of Tide or Dawn. Dress like the pros, there's a reason. Been there still do that . Less hair you have the more you need the cap as there is less tactile warning you're going to hit your head. Do this right and ten minutes later nobody can tell what you've been doing. (Dress like a pro, you will feel like a pro, and work like a pro. I will not work on my cars until I dress the part. )

  • For warmth and hand protection while wrenching in the winter, I prefer a cheap pair of neoprene hunting gloves. Thin enough to confer some dexterity while offering decent insulation. That's about the time I also break out one of the insulated flannel shirts with pockets that the Mrs. bought for $2 each at a end-of-winter closeout.

  • OA5599

    I tend to wear motorsports-themed T-shirts when I wrench. The grease stains add credibility.

    Since the article is geared toward the novice DIY-er, you should also point out to never wear jewelry. It can get caught when you reach into tight places, and if your watch or ring happens to bridge something electrically, it only takes a moment to heat up enough to leave a disfiguring burn.

    • jeepjeff

      Seconding the jewelry comment. My wedding ring (only jewelry I wear) goes in a zipper pocket while working in any kind of shop.

    • Ah yeah, good call.

      I was married for about 6 months before I learned the ring needs to come off before getting under the car. It's titanium, but still gets scratched if you're not careful.

      • My dad, now retired, is a life-long mechanic. While at work he never wore his ring. His justification: if it shorts the battery, it will melt, taking your finger with it.
        On weekends he would occasionally wear it, declaring, "today, I'm married!"
        He never wore gloves either: it would take at least a week of vacation before he would regain his "office worker's hands"…

        • Devin

          My dad is a farmer, I have never seen him wear his wedding ring in my life, same reason.

          He also wears so much denim that Jay Leno would think he wears too much denim.

        • It was in the wake of the first LeMons build (CSI car, pre-uberbird) that I started to take gloves seriously.

          My hands were getting to that puffy, calloused working-man's hands style with perma-grime stains in my skin. Also I couldn't get by wedding ring on or off.

          Not that that's really a problem, just…raised a few eyebrows at work.

        • Stu_Rock

          Similar story here. My grandfather was a machinist at Caterpillar. Even though he died when I was only six years old, I do remember him saying never to wear a ring while working.

    • I_Borgward

      I watched my Dad spot weld his metal wristwatch band between a battery terminal and fender once. Yikes! Gotta watch that stuff.

  • sudden1

    Your point is well taken. Common sense…I didn't mean to sound unreasonable.


    I'll back you on the gloves thing..totally. Depending on the job, I have latex gloves, nitrile, jersey, Mechanix, kid skin trucking gloves and plastic-dipped cotton with rubber palm and finger tips. Wearing contact lenses and scrubbing the petrochemical gunk from my hands didn't mix well. Now I barely do anything without them.

    Ditto on the jewelry…again, learned the hard way. Torquing down front suspension job and squeezed the wedding ring flat onto the finger and the pain meter got pegged immediately. Had to get it cut off.

    Never noticed but the remark about getting better service at the parts counter when you are dressed the part..but I think you're right.

  • As a California resident (only recently returning to NorCal), keeping warm while wrenching consisted of wearing a long sleeve shirt.

    This past winter I was finally bouncing off of finger dexterity issues as the temps dropped down into the 40s…which I'm sure garners no sympathy.

    Wrenching tips for midwestern winters: GTFO of the midwest.

    • Stu_Rock

      Having spent most of the first 26 years of my life in Wisconsin, I can say it's just not that bad. There's plenty of insulated workwear to make the temperatures tolerable. Further, everyone has a garage. With a modest space heater, you can raise a detached garage's temperature up to Nor Cal winter temperatures. Honestly, I'd take the winters over the high real estate costs, keeping in mind that rust is the real enemy.

      • 76Mini

        An easy way to keep warm when wrenching in the cold, is to put on as many socks as will fit, keeping your feet toasty will help keep your hands from losing circulation. It sure helped when I replaced an alternator in -2 degree weather in my driveway.

  • I don't wear shorts to wrench. Why? Spiders. I am irrationally afraid of spiders and there are a lot of them in the garage. So, Jeans it is. (yes, I know that they can just crawl up my pant leg, but I have personally killed at least two on the outside of my jeans that would have been on my leg if I had been wearing shorts.

    Also, the vinyl/latex/nitrile gloves suck in the heat of summer. Too much sweat. They sure are nice though.

    • Almost every car I've purchased in the last few year has been delivered with a black widow or two living underneath.

  • All great tips, especially the jewelry removal. I'd like to add PPE. Personal Protection Equipment. ALWAYS WEAR GLASSES WHEN WORKING ON YOUR BACK. Nothing slows down a project faster than spending 20 minutes flushing a piece of rust out of your eye.

    • coupeZ600

      I've been insanely near-sighted since I was a little kid, and over the course of my life I've gone from glasses to contacts, back to glasses and then again to contacts, finally back to glasses for exactly the reason you cite (because you never forget to put them on if you never take them off), but one thing sealed the deal for glasses.

      I was riding my Mtn. Bike at night with no light on a trail I thought I knew pretty well when a low-hanging branch hit me right in the lens, deflected straight up my forehead and up under my helmet, removing me all at once from my bike and tossing me back-first on the ground. As I lay there bleeding and busted staring at the broken branch that was still stuck after piercing the top of my helmet and the starry sky above it, I thought that if I hadn't been wearing glasses not only would I certainly be blind in that eye, but I could very well be dead.

      The next day I took a saw and cut what was left of the branch out of that tree, went home and burned it and the broken part and then threw the helmet in the dumpster.

      That was twenty-five years ago, and every time I cuss my glasses I wish I would have saved all three of those.

    • Alcology

      Or gasoline. Didn't go blind and the optometrist didn't mention it.

    • Stu_Rock

      Excellent point. Commenters who have met me know I wear glasses. What they probably don't know is that my prescription is really weak and I don't really need them. Without my glasses, my vision is better than most people's corrected vision. But I've had a few close calls where glasses have saved my bacon–one in a circumstance where safety eyewear was not expected–so now I wear them all the time. On the occasional day that I forget my glasses at home, I feel really vulnerable.

      Plus, the extra visual clarity is fantastic. My neighbor has the similar eyesight and the same attitude as me, and in his words, "it's like seeing the world in high-definition." Optometrists have given me a hard time for wasting their time for such mild prescriptions, but I feel like it's worth it.

      • TurboBrick

        I like your thinking… may I ask, what is your normal vision?

        • Stu_Rock

          It took me a couple days to track down an answer to this. I only know the correction on my lenses, so I can only speculate on my Snellen acuity. Using the negative-cylinder notation, my lenses are:
          left: 0 diopters sphere, -1 diopter cylinder, 57° axis
          right: -0.25 diopters sphere, -1 diopter cylinder, 128° axis
          The "spherical equivalent refraction" gives -0.5 diopters left and -0.75 diopters right, which I would speculate is something like 20/25 left and 20/30 right on the Snellen scale. It seems like most people who wear glasses can barely read the 20/20 line on the Snellen chart even with their glasses. When I wear my glasses, I can read all the lines on the chart.

    • TurboBrick

      Yes, yes, a million times yes. The cheapo impact glasses from HF are like buck fifty. I have stashed pairs all over the house so that I won't have an excuse for not putting them on. I had an eye injury that dropped my vision down to 20/50 on one eye and the scraped cornea made me see everything in a honeycomb pattern. It's back to normal now, but those few months made me really appreciate my eyesight.

    • jeepjeff

      As noted in mine, YES. Essential. Also, prevents you from rolling under your car, getting a mote of greasy rust in your eye, rolling out and then wiping your grimy hand across your face to try and get the dust out and just making everything worse.

  • Van_Sarockin

    Nice writeup. I'm definitely in the moving regular clothes on until they become work clothes, and eventually rags. If the clothes are too nice or pricey, they just hold me back from getting grimy and doing the work. I don't want to have to think about what it cost or if the stain will ever come out, when I'm in the middle of a project. I'll go to Goodwill if I really need a new flannel shirt or some crisp polyblend work pants. I've got clothes for all weather, but an old hoodie seems to have become the preferred outer garment, substituting for the shirtjac. And if it's colder or really grimy and time to roll around on the ground, I've cot an ancient set of cotton coveralls – that really cuts down on the opportunities for rust and grime and liquids to cake you, or for the winds to whistle up you. I always remember the work I've had to do in foul weather so much more crisply than when it's pleasant out. And a wool watch cap isn't so bad either, though I'll usually wear a painters hat. As for gloves, I favor cheap, loose fitting leather gloves – they're expendable and can come off quickly when you need better feel or there's no room. I used to really like $15 smooth leather ranch gloves, but seem to have let that habit slip away.

  • The BEST thing you can wear to work on a car is a pair of coveralls, get the ones with a covered zipper. Nothing to scrape on the car and when you are crawling around under the car you don't have to worry about dirt and grit getting on your back or in your shorts.

    A good hat with a very short brim or no brim is much better than a baseball cap too. For a long time my dad had a box of painters hats. I would cut the bill off and use one of those.

    I second the glasses under the car!

    That being said, I usually work in worn out jeans and old t-shirts. Usually bright (formerly) yellow Glock Sport Shooting Foundation shirts with RANGE OFFICER emblazoned in 3" letters on the back.

    • <img src="http://blog.qtag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Dickies_Redhawk_Economy_Stud_Front_Coverall_44_214-300×300.jpg&quot; width=300>

      Coveralls are awesome. You can even fit them over your "regular" clothes for unpredictable maintenance moments. Dickies even makes a short sleeved version for those in the warm climates. I have worn them in hot and cold, and have always been impressed with how cool they can keep you in the summer, even with long sleeves.

    • jeepjeff

      Welder's hats work pretty well for this kind of thing. Mind you, on a welder's cap, the short brim is meant to go in back (any kind of brim will get in the way of your welding hood).

      That said, if I have a baseball cap on when I'm working, I'll often just spin it around backwards, and cant it so the brim mostly goes down my neck instead of out and away from the head.

  • I_Borgward

    I used to go the worn-out regular pants route, but eventually I got sick to death of how quickly they'd fall apart. And holes have a maddening ability to catch whatever you're walking past. I finally broke down and bought a few pairs of Carhartts specifically for wrenching, and now I'd never go back to holey blue jeans or Dockers. Very comfy and worth every dime. For shirts, I still stick to crappy t-shirts and old flannels. I also have some cheap-o coveralls for really filthy under vehicle work, along with a tuque to keep my hair free of crud.

  • Joe_Btfsplk

    A pair of mechanic's gloves with the fingertips cut off work very well in when you need the extra "feel" on small parts or tools.

  • topdeadcentre

    All good comments.

    Be careful of clothing fasteners. Ever had a belt buckle go skrrrrrrrreetch on a fender? Those little rivets on Levi's jeans poking into the paint? Yeah, owwwwtch.

    I have a belt I use for camping and rock-climbing. Made of nylon webbing, with a flat plastic fastener. I wear it with the buckle on the side. My pants choices are usually dockers, unless it's cold, and then I wear jeans.

  • TurboBrick

    I used dress in the finest "Homeless Choice" lifestyle wear (Thanks, MM, I totally stole that) for wrenching, with my favorite being a bleach stained sweater and a pair of dutch air force surplus mechanics pants that I hemmed with a stapler. Then I bought a pair of cheap zippered coveralls from Tractor Supply and I have to say that they are great for working in the garage and going to the junkyard. You don't have to sit on a towel to drive back home, you get great protection against scrapes and cleanup is easier.

    Do I wear mine? Well that's the problem, getting into a pair of coveralls isn't exactly an appealing proposition in Texas when it's 100F outside. I end up wearing a pair of decade-old shorts and some trade-show giveaway Microsoft T-shirts.

    I need a better hat though, baseball caps keep falling off my head. Maybe someone in the comments section will give me a better idea.

    • Get a welders hat or maybe a painters hat. Sometimes you can find disposable painters hats at paint stores. They come with a paper bill that you can easily cut off.

  • lbreevesii

    let me make a little recommendation. While spending a short time in Virginia I was wrenching on what was hopefully going to be a lemons racer. My next door neighbor was an industrial welder. One day he showed up at the garage with a spare welding cap for me. Let me say- BEST THING EVER!

    Its thick cotton will keep your noggin purdy when you bang it into things, and the long soft bill can keep crap out of the back of your head and hair or be used for blocking out excess light. Its 100% cloth, so it won't scratch, gouge, or poke you when you're laying down under a car.

    Pic for reference: http://www.weldinghatsbypam.com/sitebuilderconten

  • TurboBrick

    Sold! The reverse ball cap works until I crawl under the car and then it just falls off right when I'd need it the most. I will give these a try.

  • OttoNobedder

    Nuthin' to do with apparel, but I do enjoy seeing a Sawzall close at hand when removing an engine!

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