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. mental 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. lemons 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. racecar 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. carnage 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” vortec 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!” wrenching 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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