Is It Hard To Change Your Own Oil? Beginners guide


I’ve been a mechanic for what feels like forever. My father ran his own garage and I think I did my first solo oil change at about age twelve and I was a skinny little thing!

Changing engine oil is one of the easiest vehicle maintenance chores an owner can do. To successfully change the engine oil, follow these 8 steps:

  1. Warm the engine
  2. Remove oil drain Plug
  3. Remove oil filter
  4. Replace oil filter
  5. Refit the oil drain Plug
  6. Fill with oil
  7. Idle engine briefly
  8. Check and top up oil level

In this post you’ll understand how to change your engine oil and I’ll steer you away from some common first time oil change errors.

1 Warm The Engine Before Oil Change

Cold oil moves slowly, not only that. A cold engine causes contaminates to settle on the bottom of the oil pan, draining when cold doesn’t remove them.

Before draining engine oil, drive a vehicle or idle the engine until it reaches operating temperature. Hot engine oil drains freely and that helps remove more oil pan contaminates.

2 How To Remove Oil Drain Plug

Removing the oil drain plug requires climbing under the front of the vehicle and in many cases will require jacking the vehicle to gain access. Many will require the under engine plastic splash guards removed before you can access the oil drain plug.

Some vehicles will make an access hole specially for oil plug draining, so check for an access port hole before removing the splash guards. SUV’s and trucks may be easier to work on because of their elevated height. 

Climbing under a vehicle I understand isn’t an option for everyone, however an oil change may still be possible. Many vehicles will have an oil filter on the top side of the engine, and that presents an opportunity to perform the oil change without climbing under the vehicle or removing splash covers. Sounds good right?

Oil siphon

Performing an oil change without climbing under the vehicle will require an inexpensive tool called a gas and oil syphon, you can check it out on the tools page. They come equipped with a durable long flexible hose which sucks the oil from the engine’s dipstick tube.

If your oil filter is fitted under the car, you might as well drain the oil in the regular fashion as you’ll be climbing under anyway.

Here’s how to remove oil in the traditional way. Removing the oil cap before draining helps the oil flow freely.

To remove the oil drain plug follow these simple steps:

  1. Jack the vehicle and support with axle stands
  2. Remove engine splash cover
  3. Have a suitable low profile oil catch ready
  4. Use a ratchet and socket for greater leverage and access
  5. Turn plug anti-clockwise to remove

3 How To Remove Oil Filter Without Making A Mess

Oil filters come in two main flavors, the old school metal screw on type and the later cartridge filter type. Removal procedure is slightly different for each and I cover them below. 

The messiest type of oil filter is a metal screw-on type fitted top side of the engine. As you may already know opening these guys causes the contents to spill down the side of the engine and onto the ground, what a mess. Here’s a simple mechanics hack to prevent all that clean up time.

To remove a metal oil filter without making a mess, pierce the metal filter casing with a small chisel. The piercing allows trapped oil, drain back to the oil pan. Your filter is now empty and ready for mess free removal.

Oil filter insert

How To Remove Cartridge Type Oil Filter

Cartridge type filters are the more common type filter fitted today, and they are usually fitted on the top side of the engine. To access the cartridge filter however, we’ll need to remove the oil filter housing cap.

Early type cartridge filters may require a large oil filter adapter. You can pick one up on Mechanics tools page, they’re not expensive and make removal easy.

Most later type cartridge filter housing caps may be removed with a regular ratchet and socket. Turn anti-clockwise to loosen. When removing the cap, the cartridge may come with the cap or remain in the housing, it depends on the design.

Simply pull the filter from the cap or remove it from the housing and discard safely.

How To Remove Oil Filter Without Tool

Removing a metal oil filter without a tool isn’t difficult but is a little messy, you’ll need an oil catch and few shop rags. Sometimes oil filters aren’t that tight, so it’s worth simply trying with your hands trying to loosen. If that doesn’t work we’ll need to go all MacGyver on it.

To remove a metal oil filter without an oil filter tool, follow these steps:

  1. Take a long flat head screwdriver and hammer
  2. Pierce the metal filter casing about halfway down
  3. Allow oil drain from the filter
  4. Drive the screwdriver into the pierced hole and out the other side
  5. Turn the screwdriver anti-clockwise to loosen
  6. Use gloves to spin off filter as torn metal is sharp

4 How To Fit Oil Filter

Oil filter

Fitting a regular spin on metal oil filter is easy, but like many jobs there’s a trick to help prevent problems with oil leaks later.

To fit a metal oil filter follow these simple steps:

  1. Clean the oil filter housing
  2. Lube the O-ring filter seal with fresh oil
  3. Fill the filter with fresh oil if fitted vertically
  4. Screw on by hand
  5. Tighten by hand, do not use tool

Fitting Oil Filter Cartridge

Fitting a cartridge type oil filter is more work than a metal filter type and requires a few extra steps.

To fit a cartridge type oil filter follow these simple steps:

  1. Remove the O-ring seal from the filter cap (and base if applicable)
  2. Oil new seal with engine oil and fit
  3. Be sure the new seal is seated correctly (fit base seal if applicable)
  4. Slide new cartridge into housing and seat it
  5. Apply engine oil to threads of filter cap and fit
  6. Turn clockwise to tighten

When screwing the cartridge plastic cap home, every two turns, back it off a half turn. This helps prevent the O-ring seal binding or pinching while being fitted.

A torque wrench is used to tighten a fastener to a specific measurement, known as ft. lbs. (Feet Pounds) or in metric it’s known as Nm (Newton Meters). A tool known as a torque wrench is used, I wrote a whole post about it here “Torque wrench for lug nuts”.

When tightening the cartridge oil filter cap, note the cap is made from plastic, finesse is required. Torque spec is usually printed on it, somewhere around 10-15 ft. lbs. sound correct. If you’re not using a torque wrench, just run down until it seats and apply a little force until it’s snug. That’s all it needs.

5 How To Refit Oil Drain Plug

Oil drain plugs can be the cause of a ton of trouble, they are frequently over tightened which can lead to oil leaks and worse stripped threads. We’ll avoid both today.

To fit an oil drain plug, follow these simple steps:

  1. Clean the magnetic tip of the plug
  2. Fit a new oil plug crush washer
  3. Screw the plug home by hand until seats
  4. Torque the plug to spec (15-18 ft. lbs. normal)
  5. Clean the bottom of the oil pan with shop cloth

A new crush washer is advised when fitting a new oil drain plug. The crush washer as its name suggests deforms to the shape of the oil pan and plug and creates a perfect no drip seal. Using the old washer risks an irritating driveway drip.

Fitness is also required when tightening the plug, many oil pans are soft alloy and threads can strip easily. A torque wrench is used to tighten a fastener to a specific measurement known as ft. lbs. (Feet Pounds) or in metric it’s known as Nm (Newton Meters).

A tool known as a torque wrench is used, I wrote a whole post about it here “Torque wrench for lug nuts”.

The tool generally isn’t needed, although it is good to have one. Just go ahead and tighten the plug by hand until it seats and then turn the plug a quarter turn to tighten.

Car oil filling

6 How To Fill Engine Oil

This is the most critical step, forgetting this step would be a very expensive mistake. Your engine would seize solid not long after starting. Oil quantities are super important as too is the type of oil.

The oil type for your vehicle is generally well marked, either on the oil cap or in the driver’s handbook. Your auto parts store can look this info up when you’re gathering your parts.

Your oil cap is easy to identify, it will be marked oil or an oil can symbol.

To fill engine oil follow these simple steps:

  1. Remove oil cap
  2. Fit clean funnel
  3. Add oil
  4. Check level

Adding too little oil or too much is bad for your engine. So using your dipstick get the level close to the upper mark which indicates the full correct mark. We’ll need to add a little more later after we start to idle the engine.

How Much Oil To Put In Car When Empty

Oil quantity is important, too much oil can damage oil seals causing oil leaks and performance issues. Too little oil however is worse. Oil as you know helps lubricate and cool your engine, without oil the engine’s internal components will fuse together. 

Lack of oil is the worst type of mechanical problem your engine can have, it’s usually terminal.

7 Idle Engine After Oil Change

Idling the engine after oil change is normal practice in the workshop, even when we know exact oil quantities. We don’t idle for long just until the oil light goes out and we never rev the motor.

Idling the engine briefly after an oil change allows the oil system to fill the oil filter to capacity. The oil level normally drops after the filter fills and may require an additional oil to bring the oil level to the upper full mark on the dipstick.

8 How To Top Up Oil

After shutting the engine down, allow five minutes for the oil to drain back to the oil pan. Now go ahead and remove the dipstick and check level. You’ll need to add some, but only add a little at a time, it’s easy to over fill at this point.

If we overfill the oil by a large amount we’ll need to repeat the process of draining some off and that’s messy business.

Now’s a great time to check for any signs of oil leaks, we don’t expect any but it’s better to find them now rather than by the side of the highway.

Reset Service Reminder Light

Dash lights

Reset your service reminder in your drivers display. A quick YouTube search on resetting the service reminder light for your vehicle type is often the fastest route to resetting.

Alternatively buy a good quality service tool that does it all, resets service messages, reads codes, clear codes, tests components, recalibrates throttle bodies and much more. Check out all my favorite tools on the Mechanics tools page.

Mark the date and mileage, oil type and any other works carried out in the maintenance section of your driver’s handbook. This helps you keep track of your next oil change but also helps to maintain the value of your vehicle.

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty years, I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of classic car ownership, from tires to roof aerials and everything in between.

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