by Paul Abelson, technical editor
There are two types of people; those who classify people into two types, and those who don’t. And there are two types of owner-operators; those who do their own maintenance, and those who take their trucks to professional service providers. Actually, there is a third type; those who do some preventive maintenance like changing oil and making minor repairs, while going to shops and dealers for major work. I’ll bet most of you fit that category. I fit it, but working on my car and van. If I had a truck, I would fit it, too. I won’t get into the pros and cons of each alternative. That’s not the purpose of this article. But if I were going to do my own work on a big truck, here are some tools I would definitely have in my truck shop and why. By the way, I do have a lot of them already, so I speak from experience.
The first thing I think of when it comes to tools is a great big mechanics tool chest on wheels, with separate drawers for sockets, pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers, electrical tools and just about everything you can buy at a hardware store and heavy-duty parts jobber. All of us have some form of relatively portable tool chest with a bin for power tools and drawers to keep types of hand tools segregated. Here’s a tip that will help your tools and tool chests, large and small, last longer. Invest in rubber mats to line the drawers and bins, and in socket and wrench organizers to hold your tools. If you want a kit to take in your truck, but your current toolbox has gotten too heavy, check out the rolling toolboxes from Stanley. They have heavy rustproof plastic construction, and some models have metal reinforcement. The boxes are lightweight, and the wheels and folding handles make them easy to move on the ground. They’re at Lowe’s, The Home Depot, Sears Hardware, Wal-Mart and probably at your favorite hardware store, too.
If a do-it-yourself truck owner is going to do any repetitious work at all, some cordless power tools will make any job easier. Besides a cordless drill with adapters for sockets, I have a reversing, ratcheting 3/8-inch socket wrench. It doesn’t take too much room in my traveling toolbox, and it has come in handy many times. If you use cordless tools, remember to recharge them when they need it, but don’t keep them on the charger if they have nickel-cadmium batteries. NiCad batteries develop a memory and charge only to the level demanded over time. If you use one for only five minutes, after a while a full charge will give only five minutes use. Let them run down fully, then recharge them.
Air tools are far more powerful than even the newest 18-volt professional grade cordless tools. Medium-duty compressors with 15 to 22 gallon air storage are just a few hundred dollars. They are great for any number of tasks, from airing tires to powering impact wrenches. I’ve also used mine to power an air drill converted to a buffer-polisher. If you plan to grease your truck, an air-powered grease gun is far more effective than hand-operated pump guns, and easier to use, too.
I must admit I’m partial to Campbell-Hausefeld’s new advanced technology (AT) air tools. The tools are lighter, more ergonomic and, best of all, the air exhaust doesn’t blow debris back in my face. Air tools also can be used on the road with a chuck adapter for your airlines. But you’d better have your engine running or you’ll run down your air supply.
A wet-and-dry vacuum is a handy tool for cleaning the shop or the cab after spending time on the road. An extra long (12 foot) hose extension and a set of crevice tools will increase the usefulness of your vacuum immensely. If you’ll be working under your truck, useful items include a creeper, a bottle jack and jack stands. Creepers come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Features to look for are the type of padding, an adjustable headrest, sturdy casters and polymer wheels. Creeper seats with built-in tool trays also can go a long way (pun intended) toward making you more comfortable in your garage.
When you need to raise your truck, whether to change a tire or to unload the suspension for greasing, bottle jacks offer the greatest lifting power volume for volume. Even the 10-ton models are reasonably light and compact for easy storage. For safety, always place jack stands under any raised vehicle before you go under it.
The fully equipped shop should have a starter cart. Any charger powerful enough for a set of truck batteries will have to be mounted with wheels and a handle. The best ones, those that deliver at least 1,500 cold cranking amps (measured at 0 degrees F), are quite expensive. You can compromise, but only if your climate allows.
If any serious battery testing or electrical work is going to be done, a good digital multi-meter is a must, and a carbon pile battery tester is a good idea. A completely rundown battery will still read over 12 volts if there’s no load on it. The carbon pile tester stresses the battery with a high resistance load so you can make accurate measurements. (See the article on principles of electricity on page 68 of this issue.)
The most accurate way to test battery fluid and/or coolant is with an optical refractometer. I find mine easy to use and a great timesaver. It gives the specific gravity, or relative density, of the fluid being tested by measuring how much any light passing through the fluid is bent or refracted. You just put a drop of fluid on a glass plate, close the cover and look through the eyepiece. Anti-freeze protection for both ethylene glycol and propylene glycol coolants can be read directly in degrees at the line between the gray light and the bright light. Battery condition is given as a percentage of charge. Be sure to wipe the glass clean after each use.
One tool on my own shopping list is a bore scope. This tool uses fiber optics to let you look inside things that would otherwise be inaccessible. Removing an injector and looking inside a cylinder to determine the condition of the walls is much quicker and easier than removing the heads. I borrow one from a friend to check for sludge build-up in the oil pan when I drain my oil.
Uneven temperature can be an excellent indicator of problems. If brake temperatures vary, you probably have one (or more) out of adjustment. If a tire’s temperature is unusually high, it probably is low on air. Radiators should show a smooth and even decrease in temperature across the core. Variations could indicate cooling problems. The easiest way to check temperatures is with a Raytek infrared thermometer. The more expensive models have laser guides and narrow cones of sensitivity, but even their lowest priced model will read only a 6-inch circle at 3 feet.
Somewhere on a desk or shelf should be the latest book of Recommended Maintenance Practices from TMC. Whenever you face a problem or a situation out of the ordinary, checking the RPs is the first step. They’ve been developed over the years by maintenance pros, so they contain a wealth of timesaving information. While at that desk, have pencil and paper handy, to jot down measurements or note the parts you’ll need to order.
That covers what I think the well-equipped non-commercial garage should have, but I’m sure I omitted someone’s favorite time and labor saver. I’ve got a few favorite tools, although they’re not exactly essential. Stanley makes a few nice items. One is a ratcheting 3/8-inch drive wrench that can work on a 45-degree or 90-degree offset, or unlock so it can crank a nut on or off. Another Stanley tool is a socket drive extension that grips the socket firmly, just as many socket wrenches do. Having the locking extension prevents losing tools in the far crevices of an engine compartment, or in some confined space, never to be seen again.
I’ve broken my share of nuts and bolts, and I hate having to drill in order to insert an extractor. Hanson tools has a new extractor set. The tools are like sockets with hardened steel teeth that bite into the nut or bolt from the outside. They make the removal job much quicker. Of course, removal probably wouldn’t have been needed if I had used a torque wrench instead of a cheater bar.
Chemicals and compounds help make work easier. There are a number of good penetrating sprays and oils. Remember to give them time to penetrate when you use them. Anti-seize compound is often called for when torquing nuts and bolts, especially in hot areas. Di-electric grease is useful whenever making electrical connections. I spread Truck-Lite’s NYK into sockets before attaching the plugs. This prevents moisture from getting in and allows the metal to make a good contact. It also prevents corrosion.
Finally, with all the sensitive electronics on today’s trucks, the last thing you want is to create a short. There are several makes of fully insulated screwdrivers, coated with vinyl right down to the blade tips. If your hand slips, as mine often has, you won’t have any problems if the tool contacts a connector or a battery cable.
These are a few suggestions for the well-equipped shop. Since we’re coming up on the holiday season, you might want to leave this page open somewhere where it will be noticed. Don’t forget to indicate your choices with a highlighter.
Paul Abelson is Land Line’s technical editor and freelances from his office in Lisle, IL.