Learning to Use the Right Tool

tire wheel
Dad was a car guy. Not in the sense of being an enthusiast, that’s how he made a living. As a dealership manger here in Atlanta, he worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. Except Saturdays, when he usually only put in 10 hours.
As a result, Dad hated cars. This can be particularly annoying when your youngest son consumes nothing but car magazines. When I was 17, he came home to find me under the hood of my Mustang II.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, I was just…”
“Then why is the hood up?”
“I was…”
“Shut the hood and don’t fool with it.”
It’s not that he couldn’t work on a car, it’s that he hated dealing with them, particularly after work. As a result, I never really got an education on how cars work or what to do when they don’t. Instead, that training would come the hard way, at great expense. It would start in my 20s, continue into my 30s and deep into my…well, I’ll let you know when I get there.

One of the biggest challenges for a junior enlisted military member was the acquisition of tools. For years, my tool collection was a mishmash of hastily purchased items, usually bought, as they were needed. The primary decision was made with regard to the lowest possible price. When I couldn’t get what I needed, I got a facsimile. Normally that phrase is prefaced with ‘reasonable,’ but that would be a lie. This is a terrible combination for an aspiring gearhead with a penchant for breaking cars. Most of my repairs were made is haste and often repeated when I failed to fix it correctly the first time. It is possible that my copious use of vise grips on everything spawned the cottage market of bolt removal implements you see populating Saturday morning infomercials. You’re welcome.
Some of my handiwork would send shivers down your spine. A Porsche 924 had a bad wiring harness, so I reworked it entirely with Radio Shack switches and 100 ft. of speaker wire. Fuses? What for? There were the steel wheels I affixed to my GTI after boring out the center with an angle grinder. Machine shops are for suckers! Oh, then the VW timing belt I cut with a Dremel to replace a water pump. I actually did that on purpose. It was no small fee at a real shop to undo that colossal screw-up.
After years of flailing about, I found mentors, learned from some of my mistakes and started investing in a proper collection of tools. These are actual quality tools, purchased at leisure in anticipation of use, rather than reaction. For my first wedding anniversary, my loving wife surprised me with a complete Craftsman set. 14 years later I have that whole set minus a single 14mm socket. I even know where the socket is; I just don’t ever want to talk to that guy again.
A big leap forward came when I moved to Colorado. The large concentration of microbrews resulted in a new device in my garage, a beer fridge. The beer fridge provided respite. Previous to this, any device part or modification that refused to come off or go on would usually invite the most blunt application of a completely inappropriate implement. Now instead of violence, work delays resulted in the opening of a beer. If I didn’t have the problem solved by the second one, I put away my tools and resumed work the next day. The solution would usually present itself naturally, come from a buddy or appear via a Google search.
As I acquired knowledge and implements, I experienced a tendency to view the latest acquisition as the fix-everything solution. For example, after I got a welder, everything simply needed more metal joined to more metal.
My tool collection, while not vast, has at least reached a point where using anything but the right device is unnecessary and stupid.
Rest easy commuting America. The worst of my abominations passed to the scrapyard decades ago, usually by my own hand. They cannot threaten your safety anymore. My daily drivers are serviced by professionals save for fluid changes and other routine maintenance retirement affords me the opportunity to complete.
But now, even in my 40s, I occasionally find the law of primacy affecting my decisions. Sometimes I have to force my self to get up and fetch the proper socket instead of using channels locks or vise grips. It has been a few years since I rounded a bolt being lazy or in a hurry, but only a few years.
But having this “creative” skill set is not without its benefits. Last year I helped straighten the frame of a wrecked Civic racecar at the track using two Suburbans and ratchet straps. When a Saab’s rusty tank straps gave way in nowhere Tennessee, I spent an hour under it with 3-inch tie downs and copious amounts of gorilla tape. It finished the trip.  Somewhere on the Internet there is a photograph of me helping weld in a fuel cell brace wearing shorts and using my hand as eye protection. I saw that car at a race 5 years later and that cell is still secure. And yes, I am the guy that machined a Miata head using a stack of sandpaper and a bathroom mirror at a LeMons race. It lasted almost a whole lap, and netted us “Heroic Fix”
Last month I found myself with doing the rear brakes on a Tahoe after a race in a teammates driveway. He has a well-stocked garage, but not much to speak of regarding tools. I managed a successful pad swap with a handful of sockets, a big screwdriver and some mad skills with a crescent wrench. All while delivering a verbal essay on the ageless nature of Sam Elliot and listening to an actual mechanic politely but loudly request I “hurry the hell up because we are running out of daylight and I am f*ing hungry!”
The procedure was less than optimal but the results were perfect. Not one rounded bolt. In fact we took the Tahoe to dinner and to the best of my knowledge, it still stops just fine.
But every now and again, when I am agitated or I have a self-imposed deadline I have to consciously remind myself to get the right tool to get it done right, not just get it done.
Failing that, there’s always the beer fridge.
Christian “Mental” Ward is a retired Air Force Officer, Supercar instructor (yes that is a real job) and lately has weaseled his way into background acting in Atlanta. If you have an unnatural hunger for stupid car pictures, shameless self-promotion, and short videos of his four dogs, follow him on TwitterInstagram, and Vine.

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  1. papamarc Avatar

    Shut the hood. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  2. Bradley Brownell Avatar
    Bradley Brownell

    Sounds like we developed our automotive wrenching education in much the same way.

  3. Hatchtopia Avatar

    Awesome. Glad to have you here. I’m in the same spot with tools. After several moves and not having a proper place to store them, they were in all sorts of boxes, briefcase-looking things and an actual toolbox. Now they are organized properly on pegboard and drawers and I’m astonished by not only the quantity of tools that I posses, but the abysmal quality of said collection.

    1. Bradley Brownell Avatar
      Bradley Brownell

      I just bought my first tool chest for my first garage. I can fill up all of the drawers, but they are just filled with junk.

      1. Frank T. Cat Avatar
        Frank T. Cat

        Same here, got a tool chest for Christmas, have an astounding amount of tools to put in it, but they’re all junk except for literally one ratchet.

  4. bigredcavetroll Avatar

    I was lucky when I joined the military because I already had an almost full ensemble of nice tools. Unfortunately I lived in a barracks’ room and kept them in some big plastic totes that always got stern looks and serious questions every Friday morning during field day inspections. I never got in trouble for having them, but I don’t think my company first sergeants or platoon sergeants ever appreciated them being in there.

    1. Christian "Mental" Ward Avatar
      Christian “Mental” Ward

      One of my buddies bought an beat up Dodge van just to use as a storage shed for his tools and all of the flammable stuff they freaked out about if you kept them in the dorms. Once a week he had to move it or they would tag it “abandoned” and try to tow it.

  5. JayP Avatar

    My dad would get me and my brother tools for Christmas- since the ones we were using and breaking were his dad’s hardware from the Depression era.
    So- the I gave my boy a sweet set of Craftsman screwdrivers this year.

  6. Batshitbox Avatar

    My dad always tried to fix cars, but he was crap at it. My education in fixing cars was more me saying, “Dad, I think that doesn’t go there. I think this goes together like this.”
    People always ask, “Did you learn to fix cars from watching your dad?” Usually, after a pause, I say, “Some of the stuff…”
    I still have 99% of the Craftsman socket set I bought in the late ’80s, including the blow molded case which these days are crap. My girlf is awful about returning tools and I frequently have to lock her out of the toolbox for a month or two.

    1. Scoutdude Avatar

      Well knowing how not to do it is a step to knowing how to do it.

    2. Alff Avatar

      Still have the metric Craftsman set I bought in 1984. Sears has come full circle on their lifetime warranty. After getting two “rebuild kits” for the old ratchet over the years, they presented me with a brand new one after the pawl broke last year.

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        Sadly, most of the Craftsman stuff is no longer made in the USA by Danaher, and is now made in China. The screwdrivers are still US made (at least they were a few months back, when I ordered a 28 piece set). I’ve read reviews of their Chinese stuff, and they generally get low marks, like for the etched markings that wear off on the “professional” sockets. It’s like they thought they had to compete with the junk from Harbor Freight. Sad.
        I’ve bought a couple of pushbutton ratchet rebuild kits on eBay for about $10 each, so I can keep my ratchets going. It used to be that when a ratchet broke, you could go back to the store and get the option of a new ratchet, or a rebuild kit for one cent.

        1. Alff Avatar

          Although I do appreciate the feel of very high quality tools, my own tend to come from Sears, big box retailers and Harbor Freight. I don’t much care if my Craftsman ratchet is not what it once was, so long as it functions as needed and is infinitely warrantied.

        2. bigredcavetroll Avatar

          I’ve started buying most of my tools used now, partly because of that. As added benefits they’re also cheaper, and I feel like I’m conserving some resources (good tools should last a lifetime and then some).

    3. dukeisduke Avatar

      The blow molded cases were okay, except for the living hinges they liked to use. I have an English/Metric 3/8″ and 1/4″ drive set with red duct tape in place of the living parts of the hinges and latch. They later went to a two-piece case (snap together) and a sliding latch (my 1/2″ drive set has that).

  7. Alan Cesar Avatar
    Alan Cesar

    My dad was, thankfully, very encouraging, clever, and an enabler. And though he has an engineering degree, he came from the poor immigrant school of automotive repair. Which means he knows both the right way to do things, and also how to do thing when you don’t have the right tools, parts, or both. Whenever we came upon a situation where we didn’t have what we needed, he’d fish around in the tool box, in the bin full of mixed nuts, bolts, nails, and bars, and look all over the garage trying to find something that would be suited to the job.
    Sometimes it wouldn’t work, but most of the time it did. I like to think I’ve picked up most of his skills from all the cars we’ve worked on together, but he still surprises me on a regular basis.

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