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  • tim5229

When to Step Back from a Repair

Updated: Jan 7

One of the best habits to have when working on any portion of a repair or rebuild is knowing when it’s time to take a step back from a task that is starting to go south on you.

To paraphrase what is often miscredited to the Greek physician Hippocrates and the original Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm to your car” advice applies equally well in the health of all things whether it be your fellowman, or your current rebuild project.

Just as an aside, the “First do no harm” quote has not been translated in the original Hippocratic Oath of which Hippocrates is generally credited as the author. Rather, elements of the phrase are implied in the actual oath. Some Historians believe that Hippocrates did not really say or write this quote.

According to a website, “The first known published version of "do no harm" dates to medical texts from the mid-19th century, and is attributed to the 17th century English physician Thomas Sydenham.”

Okay, now that I have that out of my system...let's focus back on the topic.

Stepping Back from a Repair

Recognizing when it is time to step away from a repair can be one of the best non-treatment treatments you can do to your car. Good reasons for stepping black include:

1. When you are tired.

2. When you are feeling out of sorts, frustrated, and/or angry.

3. When you do not have the exact tool(s) you really need for the job.

4. When you do not have the replacement part already on hand.

5. When you are unsure of what you are doing is the best way to go about it.

6. When you run into the first sign of trouble.

Experience has taught me that whenever the first sign of trouble in a repair begins to rear its ugly head, I should be hearing warning bells signaling me to stop whatever it is I am doing, put down the tool, step back and reassess the repair.

Sometimes, just sitting down and doing nothing but looking at the repair for 10-15 minutes is enough. Sometimes, taking a walk will clear your head and clarify the source or reason of the problem. And sometimes, the situation just calls for a cold beer.

The point to be made here is that like in battle, sometimes your best option is to retreat momentarily, assess what is happening, re-marshalling your forces, and approach the problem with a new plan of attack. Unfortunately, it is human nature to attack a problem head-on until something gives or breaks---the old “Don’t force it, get a bigger hammer” approach.

An Example of When Stepping Back was the Right Move for Me

While dismantling the FE 360 block I reached the point where it was time to remove the exhaust manifolds. This is the most bolt-treacherous part of any build due to the extreme heat and excessive rust exposure environment of the cast iron exhaust manifold. It can be so bad that it takes on a life of its own making an older engine extremely cantankerous when it comes to giving up its exhaust manifolds without a fight. Namely: broken manifold bolts that snap despite the amount of loving care you attempt to torque one loose.

Good or Bad or Unnecessary, This is How I Did It

My initial attempts were well thought out and included not only using a recommended commercial rust penetrating spray, but also concocting a mechanic’s brew of homemade rust penetrating solutions courtesy of Popular Mechanics magazine on rust penetrating solutions options for DIY mechanics.

Application consisted of rolling the block one side at a time and liberally applying both the commercial and homemade magic to the bolt heads where the head meets the manifold over the course of three days repeatedly to give the penetrants enough time to work their way under the bolt heads and into the threads.

The fourth day was “Breaking Bar Day,” and I approached each bolt with both fervor and some amount of trepidation. The end result was removal of the exhaust manifolds with only 1 bolt snapped off at the block’s surface.

After researching everything I could on how to remove a recalcitrant broken engine block bolt, I decided to step away from the problem when it came to me a seventh reason needed to be added to my list:

7. Step back when there’s an expert on hand with the better tools and more experience on just this problem…and especially if it will cost you nothing extra.

Your Best Friend: The Machinist

What my research into the problem revealed was that broken bolt removal requires one or more of any number of attempts that include Easy-Out bolt extractors, drilling out the remaining bolt piece without damaging the block threads, and/or drilling out a new hole and installing a thread repair coil also known commercially as a “HeliCoil.”

Regardless of which repair method you choose to use, much of the time you will eventually have to go the “HeliCoil” route as the threads of the bolt hole wind up damaged from the bolt removal and/or are damaged anyways from corrosion that made them difficult to remove in the first place.

The biggest difficulty in all of the methods is having to be dead center on the bolt---not an easy task. Furthermore, when you wind up having to resort to the “HeliCoil” installation, you will also have to ensure that your hole is drilled straight and that the tap ran into the oversize hole is applied straight as well. Again, not an easy task for a DIY garage.

When I brought my block in for its magnaflux inspection followed by general machining if all was well with the block, and discussing with the machinist what all would be done, I casually mentioned I had one broken bolt that needed repair. The machinist looked at me and asked, “Only one?!” He was used to having customers with at least half the manifold bolts broken off.

The next question was whether I had attempted to extract the bolt. When I told him I thought about it but decided against it, he told me that was the best thing to do. Apparently, the job is much harder for a machinist after a customer has botched up the bolt extraction. Especially when someone tries to use an Easy-Out to remove a broken stuck bolt and winds up usually breaking off the Easy-Out inside the broken bolt which is much, much harder to drill out than if it had been left alone.

Turns out, I could have busted all of the manifold bolts and it would not have made a difference in my machining service since broken bolt extraction and repair are covered with the typical crankshaft, cam, cylinder honing, and decking of the block.

The Least You Need to Know

As officer Callahan from the movie “Magnum Force” famously stated, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” so it is with car rebuilds and repairs when it comes to learning when to stop and do nothing further until some additional thought, some deeper investigation, and maybe even some help presents a solution to prevent a repair from blowing up in your face.

In other words, “Be the repair and not the problem” by first doing no harm.

A Man's Got to Know His Limitations (1973)

Excellent videos to consider learning from, related to this post:

(1) Best Damaged Thread Repair? Let’s Settle This! Heli Coil, TIME-SERT, E-Z LOK, JB Weld, HHIP, Loctite---Shows why a HeliColi type repair is superior to everything else when it comes to thread repairs.

(2) How To Install a HeliCoil---Demonstrates clever trick for ensuing your tap is straight while making a new threaded hole.

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