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Spinning My Tires   is one man's view of the world of cars. Random thoughts, ideas and comments pop up here, all of them related to owning, driving and restoring cars. I've been doing this car thing as long as I can remember, and have enjoyed a great many car-related experiences, some of which I hope to share with you here. And I always have an opinion one way or another. Enjoy.

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A Car Restorer's Holiday Wish List


Every year around this time, my friends and family inevitably complain that I am a difficult person for whom to buy holiday gifts, and they constantly ask me for suggestions. I wonder how I could possibly be construed as difficult, since everyone knows my passion for cars. Get me a tool, a piece of memorabilia, or something even remotely relevant, and I’m happy (heck, I’d probably be happy if the whole Christmas thing went away, too). But somehow, most folks seem to think that a tubing bender or a powdercoating setup just aren’t good gifts. They’d rather buy me sweaters or a quilt or a set of glasses for my kitchen. Somehow those can safely be considered "good" gifts. I’ll certainly appreciate them, thank you very much, but they won’t be cherished like a fine tool, and I’ll definitely remember you fondly each time I grab my new air ratchet. 

So in that spirit of giving, here’s a list of the top ten items that I think no restorer’s shop should be without this holiday season: 

  1. A complete selection of hand tools. A crescent wrench isn’t acceptable on your old car, guys. My father once told me that they are a lazy man’s tool, and I have to agree. You should have a good selection of box wrenches (metric and/or standard, depending on the cars you have), sockets with quality ratchet wrenches (1/4”, 3/8” and ” drives), and maybe even some of those neat box wrenches with the ratcheting ends—those have helped me out of more than a few tight jams. Get some pliers, including needle-nose and vice-grip. Grab any screwdriver you find and buy it. Best of all, these tools are usually sold in sets at decent prices, so it should be easy to amass a good selection of quality tools. And make sure they are name-brand. With tools, you get what you pay for. I love the tool truck tools (Matco, Snap-On, etc.), but even Sears Craftsman are decent, and they all feature lifetime warranties. That’s good enough for me. Oh, and make sure you have a good tool box to organize them so you can get to them quickly. 

  2. A tool that I find almost indispensable is my buffer/grinder. With a wire wheel attachment, it can clean almost anything, and is especially good at knocking the crud off of bolt threads and unusually-shaped small parts. It’ll strip rust and grease without breaking a sweat, but some wheels on some paints will only burnish the surface, not remove the paint. With a grinding wheel, parts can be ground and chamfered with a minimum of effort. And with buffing wheels (like those found at Eastwood or TP Tools), you can polish virtually any material to a mirror-like shine. When I’m working on the car, I probably use this thing every day. Buy a good one with large wheels (the little grinders don’t have enough torque to really work hard) and long spindles for clearance. Baldor makes some nice units, ranging from 1/3 to 1.5 horsepower, with nice long spindles. Again, you get what you pay for. And always make sure you wear your safety glasses with any kind of buffing or grinding operation!
  1. A blast cabinet. If you can’t clean it with a wire wheel, blast it. It’s like sandblasting in a box—no mess to clean up, and the sand gets recycled. TP Tools offers a great selection of these, ranging from a bench-top model to massive 2-person deals that will clean car doors. The one I bought for my shop cost under $300, and will accommodate everything from nuts and bolts to wheels to suspension components. After using one of these to clean parts, you’ll never use sandpaper, chemicals or a wire wheel mounted on your drill again. 
  1. Air compressor. This one should probably go at the top of the list, since everything else in your shop is built around it. You can’t run a blast cabinet without one, and you can use air power for everything from sanders and buffers to air ratchets and metal saws. Air power is much more powerful than electric, offering more torque for the most stubborn pieces. You can use compressed air to blow moisture and sand out of small orifices on your parts. Compressed air is vital to any painting operation, and a big compressor can even run a sandblaster to clean frames and undercarriages. The most important thing to remember when buying a compressor is CFM. Don’t look at horsepower ratings or pressure capability. CFM is Cubic Feet per Minute, and is a measurement of how much air volume a compressor can move. If you’re running a hungry sandblaster, your compressor had better be able to keep up or it’ll die a hot, painful, expensive death. When comparing CFM ratings, make sure they are at similar pressure levels. Remember, as pressure goes up, volume goes down, so don’t compare Compressor A with 18 CFM @ 40 PSI to Compressor B with 15 CFM @ 90 PSI. They aren’t even close (Compressor B is the better choice), and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll buy a compressor that is completely inadequate for your needs. I’d say that 12-15 CFM @ 90 PSI should be the minimum for a home restorer, and try to get at least a 60-gallon tank for good air supply when you’re using air-hungry tools. 
  1. Lights and extension cords. I prefer florescent lights that don’t break every time you drop them. I also like the cords and lights on reels that I can mount on the ceiling and pull down whenever I need them. That way I’m not tripping over them on the floor. And if you’re really ambitious, get one for your air hose, too, just like the pros. Griot’s Garage has some nice ones, though they’re a little pricey. 
  1. Workbench. There will be times when you remove parts from the car for further disassembly and restoration elsewhere. If you’re using the kitchen table, your wife/mother/roommate/life-partner/whatever will probably not tolerate your hobby for long. A proper workbench is a much better choice. They are available in all different shapes, sizes, heights and materials. I like the ones with the stainless or galvanized tops so that spills are easy to clean up. Wood or laminate tops are fine, too. Also, make sure the working height is right for you—too high or too low can cause your back to ache after a long period of working. Add a stool, and you’re ready to spend an afternoon on that carburetor rebuild you’ve been putting off. Sears offers a good selection for really reasonable prices. 
  1. Engine stand and engine hoist. The hoist is probably optional, since you can rent them when you need them, but make sure you have a safe, secure place to put your engine once you get it out of the car. A quality engine stand is not only convenient (most will allow you to rotate the engine 360), but safe. We’ve all seen engines sitting on old tires or wooden pallets, but if you’re serious about restoration, you won’t treat your vintage iron like that. They are quite inexpensive, so get the best one you can find. Remember, older engines are incredibly heavy (the cast iron straight-8 monster in my Century weighs 862 pounds dry, not counting accessories and manifolds!), so get the heavy-duty 2000-pound model. 
  1. Radio. No shop should be without music. I feel that the atmosphere in your shop will determine the kind of work you do. I like listening to classical music when I work on the car; it keeps me relaxed and focused on the work at hand. If something is giving me a hard time, the music usually keeps me from boiling over. But listen to what works for you. If you have that old single speaker job with a coat hanger as an antenna, splurge and buy a $100 stereo box at the local electronics store. It’ll give you decent service and you won’t care if you spill stuff on it. If you feel ambitious, get one with a CD player so you can set the music to your mood.

  2. Jack stands and jack. If you’re using that old bumper jack from your mother’s ’77 Granada to jack up your vintage car, and are holding it in the air with cinderblocks, you probably deserve to have your legs crushed when the car falls on you. Invest in a quality set of steel jack stands (4 stands, not just 2). Make sure they are not the cheap stamped sheet metal jobs you get for $20 down at the local auto parts store. Get good adjustable ones rated for more than the weight of your car. And to compliment them, treat yourself to a proper floor jack. The better jacks have lifting heights of twenty inches or more, and offer precise valving that allow you to gently lower the car without dropping it suddenly. You’ll probably spend close to $300 for a good jack, but it’ll last forever and you’ll never think twice about whether you could have “made do” with a cheap jack.

  3. Storage. You’re going to be taking a lot of parts off that car—it’ll probably take up 2-3 times more space in pieces than it does assembled. Get some stout metal shelves that can handle the heavy parts and keep them organized and off the floor. I also like the little mini drawer bins for small parts and hardware. I have several mounted on my shop walls with each drawer carefully labeled with what’s inside. A few extra containers for the nuts and bolts you remove will make assembling your prize that much easier when the day comes.

I hope this has been helpful to you (and to anyone wondering what you want for the holidays). It certainly isn’t the end-all, be-all list of tools you’ll need (I think the HotCoat Powder Coating system from Eastwoodwould probably be number 11 on my list--are you listening, Julia?), but it will get you started without a tremendous investment up front. These are only the basics, and depending on what kind of car you’re working on, you may find that there are some tools here you don’t need, and others that are absolutely necessary, so don’t E-mail me and tell me that you’re doing just fine without a blast cabinet. You probably are, but I love mine and wouldn’t trade it for anything. At any rate, I hope you and yours have a great holiday season, and I’ll see you next year.

Happy Holidays from HPE!

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Last modified on 02/11/2005

Thanks, Fidget!