More often than not, car owners will pass their vehicle off to a mechanic based on the belief that they themselves aren’t sufficiently qualified to perform a repair. And it’s a shame. Because although there are plenty of fixes that do, of course, require a certain level of automotive expertise, many are easily completed with some patience and a couple of hand tools. In other words, the only thing that’s really preventing someone from doing their own maintenance is the boldness to get to work and the persistence to get the problem sorted.
But how do you know what repairs you should (or should not) be doing? More importantly, how do you know what equipment you’ll need to make the fix? If you find yourself asking these questions, don’t worry — we’re here to help. Having wrenched on cars a good bit ourselves, we’re confident that we can get you off on the right foot. From jumpstarting your battery and changing your oil to flushing your antifreeze and replacing your spark plugs, what follows are 10 essential car repairs everyone should know. Along the way, we briefly go into each fix (saving you the specifics as every vehicle is different), also providing a short buyer’s guide to give you an idea of the necessary tools. So crack open a beer, roll up your sleeves, and prepare to get your hands dirty.
Before you embark on any automotive fix, you should first make sure that you have some basic safety gear in your garage. Glasses and gloves are a must no matter the size of a job, as you’ll want to protect your eyes and hands from toxic chemicals. Obviously, there may also be times when you’ll need masks, aprons, and other heavier-duty equipment, but these essentials will suffice for pretty much any everyday repair.
Scott Shop Towels
Cleanup is an inevitable part of working on your car, so it’s always a good idea to keep a roll of towels at the ready. Super strong and absorbent of everything from water to oil to grease, these Scott shop towels will quickly become your best friend.
Disposable Vinyl Gloves
It’s important to keep your hands covered when dealing with harmful fluids like antifreeze and oil, so a pack of gloves is never a bad look. We prefer disposable options like the ones pictured here, as heavy-duty reusable work gloves are a pain to keep clean. By starting with a fresh pair every time you dig in for a fix, you’ll be able to keep your car much tidier in between repairs.
3M Safety Glasses
It only takes one drop of fluid or a fragment of metal to land in your eye and you’ll be ruing the day that you decided to skip on wearing safety glasses. This pair from 3M is perfect for DIY work, as they’re durable, scratch-resistant, and coated with a handy anti-fog treatment.
Changing Your Engine Air Filter
Changing your car’s air filter is possibly the simplest maintenance task you can perform, easily completed in just a few minutes with little to no tools. For your engine to run efficiently, it needs to breathe clean air, so you should try to change your filter around every 30,000 miles. Fuel-injected vehicles tend to have rectangular filters like the one we have pictured below, where carbureted cars typically have one in the shape of a ring.
K&N Performance Engine Air Filter
While this air filter from K&N is a good deal pricier than some of the competition, the performance gains are more than worth the added expense. Providing up to 50% improved airflow compared to disposable alternatives, it can go 50,000 miles between cleanings and save you as much as $250 over 10 years. Just be sure to get one that’s compatible with your car; the one we have here is for Subaru vehicles (like the Impreza or the Forester) from 2003-2019.
Changing Your Battery
There’s nothing worse than walking out to a dead battery, so you should try to be proactive about its maintenance. For all of its headaches, thankfully it’s an easy fix. In fact, you only need a set of wrenches and drivers to disconnect the terminals.
Klein Auto-Ranging Multimeter
Having a multimeter on hand means that you can keep an eye on your battery’s voltage. It also allows you to diagnose electrical problems to see whether a low charge actually is the problem. We’d recommend an auto-ranging multimeter like this one from Klein, as it handles a lot of the calculations for you; in no time at all, you’ll be doing everything from finding faulty switches to testing hot wires.
When changing your battery, the most important thing to buy is, well, a new battery. You’ll want to double-check your cold-cranking amps (CCA) and voltage specifications first, but we typically prefer AGM (absorbed glass mat) cells like this one from Optima. With no acid to spill and far superior cold-weather performance, it’s a battery that’s totally worth the slight premium in price.
Changing Your Brake Pads
Ensuring You Can Stop
If your car squeals, squeaks, or grinds at the touch of the brake pedal, your pads are likely due for a replacement. In most cases, brake pad swaps only require you to remove the wheel and loosen the caliper assembly to get to the retaining clips. As such, you should make sure that you have access to a level work surface and a stable jack so that you can elevate your vehicle above the ground.
Irwin C Clamp
Once you’ve installed your new brake pads, you’ll need to adjust the caliper position for the correct clearance. While some vehicles will require a specialized tool to turn the brake pistons, most can be reset using a couple of C clamps. Be sure to loosen the cap on your brake fluid reservoir before you attempt to do so; otherwise, you’ll be fighting against an enormous amount of hydraulic pressure.
Bosch QuietCast Ceramic Brake Pads
These days, most brake pads are either ceramic, organic, or semi-metallic. While each one comes with its own benefits, we’d highly suggest that you go ceramic on account of the material’s low noise, long-term durability, and reliability across a range of braking conditions. These QuietCast pads from Bosch, for instance, feature an advanced aerospace alloy formula and a rubber-cored shim, extending the life of the rotor as well as the pad itself.
Changing a Flat
Getting Your Ride Rolling Again
Most cars come with some kind of flat kit (and a set of instructions outlining tire changes), so we’ll spare you the details here. If you’re not familiar with the process, though, don’t fret. Easily remedied with a jack and a lug wrench, flat tires merely require you to elevate your car and remove the wheel. In most cases, it’s simply a matter of undoing 4-6 knuts.
Big Red Torin Steel Scissor Jack
If you don’t already have a jack in your trunk, you better make sure that you get one for those occasional roadside repairs — otherwise, you won’t be able to get your wheel off the ground. This collapsible scissor jack comes with an extra-wide base for stability, 15 1/8″ of lift height, and 1.5 tons of load capacity. It’s enough for most compacts, sedans, and wagons, then, but you’ll want something a bit beefier for trucks and heavier vehicles.
Dorman Spare Tire Tool Kit
And, by the same token, you’ll also need a wrench to loosen those stuck lugs. Dorman makes any number of different replacement kits, so even if this one won’t fit your car, chances are pretty good that another will do just the ticket. As an added bonus, it comes with a spare handle set for raising your jack.
Changing Your Oil and Oil Filter
Lubricating Your Engine
Changing your oil is an incredibly simple procedure, requiring just a few wrenches, a jack, and a catch pan. After getting your car up off the ground, you’ll want to unplug the reservoir, drain, and — finally — remove the filter. Having ditched the old oil, you’ll then reverse the process and fill up your car with the new stuff.
KarZone All-Purpose Funnel
In order to prevent unnecessary spills and unwanted mess, it’s helpful to use a funnel when filling your car with fresh oil. There’s no need to spend a lot on these (they have a tendency to go missing), though we prefer to have more than one to prevent cross-contamination.
K&N Oil Filter
Obviously, your filter needs will vary depending on your car’s specific requirements, but you can’t forget to swap this guy when you’re in the process of replacing your oil. In general, we’d recommend units from brands like K&N for performance vehicles — the high flow rate and generous filtration capacity allow you to get the most from your engine and prolong your service intervals.
Lisle Oil Filter Wrench
While you won’t need an oil filter wrench very often, it’s one of those tools that makes life a hell of a lot easier come time to complete a fix. In our opinion, looped designs like this one from Lisle are far superior to clamps or pliers. In addition to providing much more even tension (thus preventing stripped threads), they’re also far easier to use in tight, confined spaces.
FloTool 16qt Oil Pan
Needless to say: it’s best to keep spills to a minimum any time you’re under the hood, as oils, coolants, and transmission fluids are all a nightmare to clean from porous surfaces like concrete. Though you’re fine to re-use empty containers when draining the old stuff, a flat catch pan such as this one from FloTool will ensure that you don’t lose a drop. What’s more, it comes with a sealable, leak-proof design that makes transport, storage, and disposal worry-free.
Mobil 1 Synthetic 5W-30 High-Mileage Oil
As was the case with the above filter, this might not be the right oil for your particular vehicle. However, most cars will be happy running some kind of synthetic, and 5W-30 is an ideal weight for the coming colder months. With this high-mileage variety, you’re getting improved wear protection as well as advanced sludge prevention.
Changing Your Spark Plugs
Many manufacturers recommend that you change your spark plugs every 30,000 miles. If you’re not sure when they were last serviced, you can typically tell that they need replacing based on a rough idle or some difficulty starting. Because every car is different, you’ll have to consult your owner’s manual to see everything it is that you have to remove. Above all else, though, just be sure to disconnect your battery first.
Bosch Spark Plug
Though more of a general suggestion than an exact recommendation, these spark plugs from Bosch are bound to do wonders for your ride (provided you have the right fit). Because of their double iridium firing pin, they last up to 4x longer than conventional copper alternatives.
Neiko Spark Plug Socket Set
Unless you want to risk stripping your threads and getting your spark plug stuck — they’re extremely fragile — it’s always best to use a dedicated socket with the correct head. This five-piece set from Neiko includes 9/16″, 5/8″, and 13/16″ SAE sockets, as well as 14mm and 18mm metric fittings.
Giving Your Battery a Boost
No matter if you’re driving a classic or dealing with battery trouble, there will eventually come a time when you need a jump. But here’s the thing: a dead battery doesn’t have to leave you stranded. On the contrary, with a set of quality cables or a portable jump starter, you can be back on the road in no time at all.
Energizer Jumper Cables
These Energizer jumper cables come in a variety of gauges and lengths, allowing you to pick a configuration that’s suitable for the size of your vehicle. When you’re asking for a jump, always remember: positive to positive and negative to frame. It also helps to let the working vehicle run for a few minutes before trying to give yours a crank.
NOCO GB70 Portable Jumpstarter
Whether you’re out in the middle of nowhere or you hate asking for help, this NOCO portable battery pack makes for essential contingency carry. With its generous 2000A capacity, it’s good for up to 40 jump starts on a single charge. What’s more, it also comes with a safety light and some charging ports, ensuring you’re always prepared wherever you go.
Changing Your Windshield Wiper Blades
Wash Away the Rain
Without a set of working wiper blades, you won’t be able to remove rain from your windshield, so it’s vital that you change these components early and often. When swapping out blades for yourself, be sure to get the proper size replacement. You’ll also want to take care to prevent the spring-loaded arms from snapping back onto the glass, as this can potentially damage your windshield.
Rain-X Wiper Blades
Put an end to your precipitation woes for good with these primo blades from Rain-X. Along with a set of high-quality rubber squeegees, they also come with the brand’s patented Rain-X water repellent. In practice, such a combination not only wipes your windshield clean but also applies a preventative coating to keep you driving safely.
Flushing Radiator Fluid
Keeping Your Engine Cool
Expert technicians suggest that you change your radiator fluid every five years or 100,000 miles — whichever comes first depending on your driving habits. Before you fill your radiator with fresh antifreeze, be sure to flush out the cooling system using distilled water. Failing to do so will, over time, lead to gunk build-up, blockages, and even an overheated engine.
Arrowhead Distilled Water
In addition to cleaning out your cooling system, distilled water is also used to dilute your fresh antifreeze (assuming it’s a concentrate). The brand itself is unimportant, but you should make sure that it’s free of any additives and that you have enough to create enough mix. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to fill your radiator with a 50/50 blend of distilled water and anti-freeze, adding more of the former if you live in a hotter climate and more of the latter if you’re frequently driving in sub-zero weather.
Prestone Radiator Flush and Cleaner
If you really want to give your radiator a solid once-over, you should be washing it using more than distilled water. Prestone’s Flush and Cleaner offers a convenient 2-in-1 formula that breaks down rust and scaling whilst also removing heavy metal oxide deposits. Just be sure to run the fluid through your engine long enough to rid it of any gunk; 10 minutes is sufficient for a light cleaning, but 3-6 hours will be much more effective for heavier stuff.
Valvoline MaxLife Antifreeze/Coolant
Take the guesswork out of refilling your antifreeze with this universal formula from Valvoline. Guaranteed to work for your vehicle no the matter make and no matter the model, it’s a truly worry-free fix that’ll have your engine running better in no time. The best part is, Valvoline has given it some Alugard Plus, an additive that ensures stable operating temperatures and rust prevention for maximum protection. Oh, and because it’s a pre-made mix, you don’t have to fuss with adding diluted water.
Disguising the Damage
Depending on the degree of your car’s imperfection, there are a number of different ways you can go about applying touchup paint. For smaller scratches and scuffs, a pen is easily your best bet, as you can mask the unpainted area without accruing unnecessary overspray. On the other hand, larger dings and dents may necessitate aerosol cans or airbrush-based sprays to provide sufficient coverage.
Dupli-Color Touchup Paint
If you’re after an all-in-one touchup solution, you can’t go wrong with this pen from Dupli-Color. That’s because, in addition to an abrasive edge for removing loose paint and rust, it also comes with a fine tip for hiding hairline scratches and a broad brush end for painting over larger chips. Top it off with some built-in clear coat, and you have everything you need to make your car look good as new.
The 20 Essential Tools Every DIY Mechanic Should Own
We’ve included a few tools here, but they’re far from all that you’ll need to work on your car. If you’re looking for more at-home wrenching must-haves, head on over to our guide delving into the essential tools every DIY mechanic should own.