Vehicle Jacks and Their Usage: An Ultimate Guide


If you’re starting on your next big automobile project or simply working on your car in your spare time, sooner or later you’ll need access to the undercarriage of your car, and for that, you’re going to need one thing: a jack. Jacks are designed to lift your vehicle safely off the ground and are mechanical or hydraulic.

That little one that came with your vehicle (the one that hibernates in your trunk) really is only there for emergencies, and shouldn’t be used for all proper maintenance work. 

There are a few major types of jack: the trolley, the bottle, and the scissor jack. Fundamentally they all do the same thing but as you will see they function in different ways. In all cases, start off by locating the proper jacking points on your vehicle (pointed out in your owners’ manual, or you can find them online) and make sure your car is parked on a firm, even surface.

Make Sure You Use Jack Stands

Jack stands are specific devices that are designed to fully support your lifted vehicle’s weight. While the car jack does all the heavy lifting, you will need to steady the car on your jack stands in order to safely work under it. NEVER crawl under a vehicle that is only supported by the jack alone!

Some car kits will include both a jack and stands, but you can buy them separately, and sometimes you will need to. Jack stands to vary by weight and height, and you will need to make sure you are using the proper jack for the proper job.

Scissor Jack

The old-fashioned scissor jack (also called the jackscrew) is probably the one you picture when you hear the word. This is the cheapest, smallest option available and typically the jack you’ll find in your trunk next to your emergency spare. It comes with a handle to wind the arms apart, which then lifts up your car. Position it under the jacking point and wind it clockwise until the car is lifted up off the ground. When you want to lower your car back down, turn the jack back the other way.

Floor Jack

The floor jack (also called the trolley jack, garage jack, or service jack) is your safer, more stable option and is often the choice of professional mechanics. It has wheels, which means you can roll it easily into position. Before you do, start by making certain the lever is turned to the right, which you can do by using the end of the handle.

Insert the handle and pump the jack until its cradle reaches the jacking point. To lower it back down simply take the handle and twist the lever counter-clockwise, taking care to slowly lower the vehicle safely.

This hydraulic jack is best suited for a garage or workshop space and is your most reliable and professional jack. This is the one you will typically see at your local auto body shop or tire replacement center.

Bottle Jacks

The bottle jack (sometimes called a whiskey jack) works similarly to the trolley jack, using hydraulic force to lift the car. Its bonus is that it is smaller and easier to store than the trolley jack, but is not quite as stable. As with the others, make sure the lever is correctly set to the right, then unscrew the top of the jack to the correct length; your instructions should tell you how far you need to extend it. Then, position it below the jacking point, insert the handle, and pump until the car is raised to the proper height. Lower it the same way as the trolley jack. 

The bottle jack is ideal for trucks and 4WD vehicles.

Most importantly, you should never rely on any jack alone while working beneath a car, and should always use axle stands for support. Many people will also use a block of timber to help cushion the impact of the vehicle’s body on the relatively small point of impact of the jack.

Hi-Lift Jack

If you’re working on off-road, recreational, or farming vehicles, this is the jack for you. This is extremely versatile when it comes to lifting, levering, pulling, or winching. Hi-Lift jacks were originally developed for farm work and are made of a pair of climbing pins that climb up the height of the jack (on some as high as six feet) by a specialized ratcheting action, achieved by a manual pumping mechanism. These specialized jacks are less common but will suit your specialized purposes. 

Exhaust Air Jack

Exhaust air jacks are a specialized type of jack that inflate using the air from your vehicle’s exhaust. These jacks come with an inflatable sack and a long hose that attaches to your car’s exhaust pipe. You can put the sack anywhere under the chassis without worrying about jack points (unlike other types of jacks). Once the sack is inflated, one side of the car will be lifted safely off the ground. The air is held inside by a one-way valve that you also use to deflate the sack.

This is the type of jack that’s best for off-roading vehicles and can be used on all different types of surface terrain. Because of the larger surface area afforded by the jack’s contact point, these are especially great for softer ground such as mud, sand, or snow. They are lightweight and take up little space when not in use.

There are many different types of specialized jacks (probably more than people are commonly aware of) and you want to make sure you are utilizing the correct jack for the correct job. Whether it’s a personal project or necessary car maintenance, using the right jack will make the work easier and safer. Make sure you consult your vehicle manual, your local auto mechanic, parts store, or internet resources if you need to know more about properly using your jack. 

Author: Kathryn Fowler

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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