What’s In Your Mental Toolbox?

When you get your start working on cars, there is a long list of things you avoid doing. That’s totally understandable, as you have to get a good basis in the fundamentals before you can tackle more specialized projects. I’m sure that somewhere there is a long-forgotten sketchbook full of crude stick figures that Michelangelo scribbled years before he painted the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

As we gain experience, we invariably cross a few of those things off of our lists, while others remain invariably carved into stone. For example, I’ll show you the list of service items for which I would have taken my car to a professional during my late teens:

  • Bodywork and paint
  • Upholstery
  • Electrical and stereo
  • Air-conditioning
  • Timing
  • Alignment
  • Mounting and balancing tires

As opportunities arise and you meet the right people, you pick up skills and the necessary experience to do things the right way. For example, I don’t feel nearly as overwhelmed by the prospect of timing a car, assuming that I have the right vehicle-specific tools and a quality manual. That’s a situation where having the right tools, as well as the right information, can empower you to take on a job you’d otherwise leave to a professional.

At other times, you just need an opportunity to try something difficult where the stakes are low. I had never even thought of upholstering my own car before I saw some fabric I liked and decided to experiment with a set of door panels I was planning on replacing anyway. It didn’t matter if the panels were ruined, and the material was a cheap section of remnant, so I had fun and experimented. It paid off, and I’m looking forward to my next upholstery project (more than likely the headliner and pillar trim in the E34 wagon).

However, the longer you go without these opportunities and skill-building exercises, the more you start to convince yourself that you’re never going to be able to perform certain tasks with any degree of competence. Here’s my list as of a few weeks ago:

  • Bodywork and paint
  • Electrical and stereo
  • Mounting and balancing tires

Let’s start with the last one. I don’t own either a tire mounting machine or a balancing machine, let alone having the space for them (or a big enough air compressor to run the former). A boy can dream, though; I have used these devices, and I understand the principles of how they work, but when it comes time to swap tires, I’ll gladly pay someone sixty bucks a set to get the job done while I read a magazine in the waiting area.

Electrical work, on the other hand, is something that has always confounded me. With the aid of Rob Siegel’s excellent book on the subject, I’ve got no excuse not to go out there and get elbow-deep in a misbehaving wiring harness. Heck, Rob even went so far as to personally inscribe my copy, because he knows how intimidated I am. This is pure laziness on my part, with a healthy dose of anxiety mixed in. When the next opportunity arises, I’m taking it. You hear that, E34 stereo system? I’m not afraid of you anymore.

Finally, we come to bodywork and paint. My standards are incredibly high, and I’ve gone long enough without doing it myself that I’m far too intimidated to attempt the work on a car I really love, like my E34 Touring. However, a new neighbor just moved in, a Dodge enthusiast from way back who currently daily drives a 400-horsepower PT Cruiser. We’ve hung out together several times, and on one of those occasions, he was repairing the rust on his wife’s PT Cruiser, welding new rockers in. I mentioned that I had new rockers on the way for my car, and asked him what he’d charge me to weld them in. He turned down the offer, opting instead to teach me how to do it myself. I’m excited for the opportunity, and when I tackle that part of the project, I’ll bring you guys along every step of the way.

In the meantime, though, what’s missing from your mental toolbox? As 2018 winds down, what do you want to learn in 2019?—Cam VanDerHorst

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