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Get Your Hands Dirty: An Introduction to DIY Car Maintenance Toolbox

Who doesn’t love saving money tinkering around with their car on a Saturday afternoon? Unlike hardcore repairs or stressful breakdowns, maintenance is a leisurely activity. Yes, I did say leisurely.

Another hidden joy of doing my own car maintenance over the years, it allowed me to spend time with my two kids, who, like all kids, were naturally curious about how a car works.

There’s a lot to love about DIY car maintenance.

Maintenance, as my father would say (also a mechanic), is about finding problems before they find you. Our cars are in a constant state of wear, and that wear needs to be monitored. Good DIY maintenance requires a ton of observations. Usually, it’s more about checking stuff than actually doing stuff, if you know what I mean.

But maintenance is a serious business; regular maintenance will help you avoid costly repairs and ensure your vehicle runs smoothly and efficiently.

Okay, let’s look at what basic car maintenance might look like, but before we do, let’s first look at what tools we might need and what DIY maintenance mistakes we should avoid.

Tools You’ll Need

The tools we need will obviously be dictated by the job at hand, but here’s a list of tools every semi-pro maintenance guy or gal will need in their toolbox. While you don’t need all of these tools on day one, collecting them as you progress makes maintenance chores easier and more enjoyable.

  • Toolbox
  • Hydraulic floor jack
  • Axle stands
  • Gloves
  • LED light
  • Eye protection
  • Crawler
  • Oil catch
  • Socket set
  • Combo wrench set
  • Driver set
  • Driver set
  • Pliers set
  • Vice grips
  • Rubber hammer
  • Breaker bar
  • Torque wrench
  • Impact wrench
  • Fault code reader
  • DVOM
  • Oil filter tool
  • Brake caliper tool

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Consumables that no mechanic will be without include:

  • Duct tape
  • WD40
  • Brake cleaner
  • Silicone spray
  • Copper grease
  • Anti squeal
  • Anti-seize
  • Insulating tape
  • Zip ties
  • Disposable gloves

DIY Car Maintenance Mistakes to Avoid

The number one mistake we want to avoid is injuring ourselves or somebody else. The second mistake we want to avoid is damaging our car.

Before we begin any chore, it’s best to assess our ability to complete it safely. As Clint Eastwood might say, we should know our limitations: be they physical, hand skills, available tools, our working environment, our knowledge, the complexity of the chore, or the risk (asking what’s at risk if this goes wrong).

You could say car maintenance chores loosely fit into one of two buckets – Hard or Easy.

The hard bucket contains chores like a timing chain or a timing belt replacement, water pump replacement, and brake fluid flushing. These types of chores are for the seasoned DIYer, as they require hand skills, knowledge, and usually some special tools.

Importantly though, the cost of getting these types of chores wrong is expensive; that’s not to say you couldn’t do it successfully; I wouldn’t advise a chore from the hard bucket right out of the gate.

While some DIYs might not find these types of maintenance chores difficult, beginners without the correct equipment and know-how will.

The easy bucket contains chores like oil changes, filter changes, wiper replacement, etc. This type of maintenance is considered beginner maintenance chores, which we covered here in this car maintenance introduction.

If you are a seasoned DIYer, you’ll find hardcore maintenance and repairs covered in the repair guides section here.

Typical Basic Car Maintenance Chores

The chores covered on the maintenance page are all easily undertaken by the beginner DIY repair guy or gal, which I’ve briefly outlined below.

Air filter replacement – The air filter, located under the hood inside the air filter housing, filters and settles the incoming air that the engine consumes. The filter is important as it filters harmful silica from the air, which would otherwise erode the intake system and engine components.

Bulbs – Bulbs don’t require maintenance; we simply replace them when they blow. I want to say replacing car bulbs is a simple job, and it is once you gain access to the light bulb fitting. The problem is engineers seem to go out of their way on some models to make the chore super labor intensive, and indeed, some late-model vehicles use LED bulbs that aren’t replaceable, meaning you need to buy a new light unit, and that is usually on the spendy side.

Battery maintenance – Batteries don’t require much in the way of maintenance so long as you use your vehicle regularly. The battery is, as you know, charged by the engine’s alternator when the engine is running.

Brake fluid check – Brake fluid doesn’t require much maintenance; we check the levels and change the brake fluid every 2 to 3 years as per our manufacturer’s specs.

Brake pad check – When we check brakes, we generally check all the components; we typically check brake fluid, the front, and the rear brake pad, or shoe lining for wear. Check the rotor or drum condition, and check brake flexi hoses and hard brake lines for signs of damage or corrosion.

Brakes are serious business and do require a good amount of maintenance.

I’ve covered the topic of brake maintenance thoroughly, and you’ll find illustrated step-by-step guides for all the common brake checks and repairs on this page.

Belts – Engines use belts to provide drive to auxiliary components such as alternators (charges battery), A/C pump (cools and dries cabin air), Water pump (drives coolant around coolant system), Power steering pump (provides for power steering). Belts are also known as Serpentine or Aux belts when they drive multiple components or simple drive belts if they drive just one.

Modern cars with serpentine belts don’t require adjustment, and so need little in the way of maintenance.

Coolant level – The coolant system is, as you know, critical for engine health. Any problem in the cooling department quickly makes itself known in both the winter and summer seasons. Typical coolant systems maintenance includes a visual check of the coolant level and the strength of the coolant.

Checking the water pump for leaks and noise and checking the water pump belt. We check and clean the radiator for debris, especially in dusty environments.

Locks and latches lubrication – Lubricating locks and latches will help prevent them from sticking and ensure they operate smoothly. We apply a small amount of white grease spray lubricant or graphite powder to the keyhole and latch mechanism and then work the key and latch a few times to distribute the lubricant evenly. We avoid using oil-based lubricants as they can attract dirt and grime.

Oil checkOil lubricates the moving parts of your engine and keeps them from grinding against each other. It is essential to check your oil regularly; I recommend checking it with every fill of gas or before going on a long road trip.

Oil change – Regular oil changes help to lubricate and protect your car’s engine, reduce wear and tear, and improve fuel efficiency. This maintenance task can also prevent costly repairs down the road. Don’t skip them!

Spark plug replacement – Spark plug replacement is crucial for keeping your car’s engine running smoothly. Worn or damaged plugs can lead to poor fuel efficiency, misfires, and even engine damage. Replacing them every 30,000 miles can improve performance and prevent costly repairs.

Scratch removal – Scratch removal process involves cleaning the affected area, sanding the scratch, applying rubbing compound, and polishing. For deeper scratches, touch-up paint may be necessary. It’s best to seek professional help for significant damage.

Tire pressure check Check the tire pressure regularly. Low pressure can cause your tires to wear unevenly and affect your car’s stability and fuel efficiency.

Tire wear checkYour car’s tires are the only part of your vehicle that touches the road. As such, they play a critical role in your car’s performance and safety. To ensure that your tires are in good condition, check them regularly for any signs of wear and tear.

Tire rotation – Rotating tires, we don’t actually rotate the tires. We rotate the wheels. Meaning we move the wheel to the back and vice versa. Rotating the tires helps even out tire wear, handling, safety, and fuel economy.

Transmision oil check – Checking your transmission oil is important for maintaining your car’s transmission system. Low or dirty fluid can lead to poor shifting, overheating, and even transmission failure. Checking it regularly, topping it off, or replacing it as needed can prevent costly repairs.

Transmission oil change – Transmission oil changes are crucial for maintaining your car’s transmission system. Over time, oil can break down and become contaminated, leading to poor shifting, overheating, and even transmission failure. Regular changes can prevent costly repairs and keep your car running smoothly.

Wash – This might not seem like an important maintenance chore, but just washing and cleaning your car’s exterior will make it look good and help prevent rust and corrosion. Wash your car using a car-specific shampoo, and then dry it with a microfiber cloth. Be sure to clean your car’s windows and mirrors regularly to ensure clear visibility while driving.

Wiper replacement – Wiper blade replacement is important for maintaining good visibility while driving. Worn or damaged blades can lead to streaks, smearing, and reduced effectiveness, making it difficult to see the road. Replacing them every 6-12 months can improve safety and prevent accidents.

Wiper washer fluid top-up – Topping up your wiper washer fluid is important for maintaining good visibility while driving. Running out of fluid can lead to streaks, smearing, and reduced effectiveness, making it difficult to see the road. Topping it up regularly can improve safety and prevent accidents.

You get the idea these are all tasks easily undertaken by the beginner and will save you money; you’ll find the complete list of beginner DIY beginner maintenance chores here.

Sum Up

Proper car maintenance is essential for the longevity and safety of your vehicle. Regular maintenance can save you money in the long run by preventing costly repairs and ensuring your car runs efficiently. But not only that, car maintenance is actually fun!

About the Author

John Cunningham is a Red Seal Qualified automotive technician with over twenty-five years of experience in the field. When he’s not writing about car repair, you’ll find him in his happy place – restoring classic cars

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