11 garage essentials for any DIY car enthusiast

Kyle Smith

A garage is often a compromise between a dumping ground and a professional workspace. What jobs we do and how long each takes is up to us, how prepared we are, and a healthy dose of luck. The last we can’t really control, but the preparation factor is something we very much can.

Our tools are pretty much always at the ready, but breaker bars and gasket scrapers are not the only supplies you need. If you plan to regularly take on automotive projects, you’ll want to keep these 10 lubricants, fasteners, and clean-up materials on hand.

Grease

chassis grease tub garage
Kyle Smith

So many components need the sticky lubrication of grease. Generic chassis grease, in a tub or tube, is critical. If used correctly, it can solve a lot of problems, from capturing shavings while drilling into metal to holding needle bearings in place during engine assembly. A well-prepared garage should never run out of it.

Oil

Mobil 1 race oil on workbench garage
Not all vintage cars leak, but the vast majority seem to magically disappear oil from their crankcases. Kyle Smith

If you run to the parts store every time you need to top up your vehicle’s oil, you’re on a fool’s errand. Buy a few quarts up front. Stash one in the car and a couple underneath your workbench or on the shelf.

I like to keep everything needed for a full oil change on hand all the time, just in case. That decision hinges on the fact my vehicles’ oil filters are not readily available from the local parts store. Your mileage may vary.

Gas

gas containers on garage floor corvair
If you have a lawn mower or other small yard equipment, you likely keep some fuel around. Kyle Smith

Having a gallon or two of fresh gasoline can be handy for diagnosing a poorly running vehicle or priming a car before it comes out of storage. The trick here is to use your garage’s fuel stash often and top up the cans to keep the fuel from going sour.

Remember: Gasoline should not be used as a solvent or cleaning solution. While it’s tempting, since you have some on the shelf, fight that urge. Use the proper chemicals rather than risking a fire that could burn your whole garage to the ground.

Carburetor and brake cleaner

carburetor and brake cleaner garage
Kyle Smith

Since you aren’t cleaning with gasoline, keep actual cleaners around. Between aerosol carburetor– and brake-cleaners, you have two of the most popular and versatile solvents.

Some people use them interchangeably, but brake cleaner can often leave a bit more residue. Will carb cleaner do the same job in a pinch? Yes, but using the right tool for the job is always best practice.

Cutting blades

workbench garage cutting blades
Kyle Smith

Regardless of what project you are working on, and especially if you’re fabricating, there is a non-zero chance you will need to cut something. From hacksaw blades to razor blades, a sharp edge can be critical in rescuing a project.

Wire and some connectors

wiring connectors and bits
Kyle Smith

Most enthusiasts seem to despise wiring projects, but the vast majority of wiring problems are simple fixes. Most electrical issues trace to broken wires or corroded connections, and the best things to stock are a handful of connectors and loops of wire in various gauges.

Unlike most of the other supplies on this list, wires and connectors don’t go bad. Buy in bulk now, and forget about the cost when you dip into the stash.

Penetrating oil

penetrating oils
Kyle Smith

Just like having carb- and brake-cleaners around, keeping your favorite penetrating oil on the shelf and ready will make your life so much easier. I always keep a brand-new can next to the open one. Once I open the new can, I restock. This ensures I will never be mid-project without the ability to break free stuck hardware.

Rags and oil-dry

Spills happen. The appropriate mess-control methods are important to keeping your working environment safe and efficient. Rags are also helpful for cleaning off tools at the end of the day and for plugging inlets that you don’t want to fill with debris—like intake ports, if you’re working on carburetors.

Zip ties

zip ties
Kyle Smith

They aren’t the solution to everything in life, but zip ties solve a lot of problems, from tidying wires to organizing disassembled parts.

Pro tip: Buy black zip-ties. The carbon black added to the resin makes these more UV-resistant than white or clear ones.

Common hardware

spare hardware bin
Kyle Smith

The number of times I’ve needed to fabricate something to replace a stripped fastener … yeah, don’t ask. I now know the bolts and nuts that I’m most likely to encounter on my projects, and I keep these fasteners well-stocked. It’s confidence-inspiring, because, if something happens, I know I’ll save time by avoiding a special order.

Your shop manual

garage shop manuals on shelf
Kyle Smith

It’s not a consumable, but you should always keep a shop manual in the garage. From step-by-step instructions and wiring diagrams to exploded drawings of individual components, shop manuals are a godsend.

My favorite approach is to find a .pdf version of the appropriate manual and save it on my computer before printing it off and putting it into a three-ring binder. Original, bound printings are great, but decades of storage can make pages delicate. A self-printed manual can always be printed again if you spill oil on it or otherwise damage it.

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Comments

    A word of caution re brake cleaner . Don’t use around the engine . I had intake gaskets and valve seals replaced in my Silverado 350 and before putting the top end back together the technician used brake clean and rags to clean the valley , then changed the oil . Within 50 KMs the main bearings were contaminated with minute amount of cleaner and were hammering away . After some research we found that the brake clean was the cause . If you have gobs of grease or oil on brake discs , what happens when you hit it with brake clean ? It turns oil/grease to water . We contacted a well known supplier and were informed that one teaspoon of brake cleaner can liquify the contents of your sump .

    Nothing can turn oil or grease to water. Brake cleaner can reduce the lubricating properties to zilch, especially if it has detergents or surfactants.

    A can of starting fluid is a handy portable source of compressed air and quick drying solvent. Great for flushing the carburetor body parts before reassembly, or the final de-greaser for small parts before painting. Buy the cheap stuff with no “upper cylinder lube” so there is no oil residue.
    Just don’t use it to start an engine. … Gary

    Safer on a number of surfaces than brake or carb cleaner, my go to all purpose cleaner that cleans off oily surfaces without harming paint or plastic is CRC Electronic Cleaner. Evaporates almost instantly. Combined with Tub o Towels wipes and you’ve got a safe cleaning arsenal for the garage.

    to me the most important when working on your car is to have some one with you to be on the safe side

    Brake cleaner is a fantastic product, particularly in its stronger chlorinated form. However, brake cleaners should only be used in well ventilated areas and when wearing proper eye and skin protection. Even in non-chlorinated form, brake cleaners are carcinogenic and contain potent neurotoxins that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. When exposed to open flame, chlorinated brake cleaners also form poisonous phosgene gas. Again, brake cleaner is a great product, but it is arguably the single most dangerous chemical product in any shop so it must be treated with respect and used with due caution.

    I used to be a huge proponent of Chlorinated brake cleaner, but … there are numerous studies that present a causative correlation between exposure and Parkinson’s. So, maybe use a solvent filtering mask (Not N95) and gloves Because the non-chlorinated is not as good.

    Because we take them so much for granted we sometimes overlook their usefulness in the garage: take pictures with your cellphone of the items you are working on for future- often very soon- reference when having to put those parts back together

    A good vise is an essential. I own 7. Different sizes and materials. The big old forged vise is immune to beatings with a hammer. The miller vise provides horizontal plane rotation and is great for holding/spinning pieces during welding.

    I usually prefer a manufacturer specific shop manual AND a Haynes manual. Drawings vs. actual photos can make all the difference.

    Fire extinguishers . . . If you have a Kidde (or associated) brand fire extinguisher with PLASTIC handles, Kidde will replace them for free. They are recalled – all 27 million of them! Look for a phone number and read the code, Kidde will send you a brand new one for absolutely free. The plastic handles get brittle and break off, you want a fire extinguisher with metal handles.

    Yep, I took mine on last year for a recharge and the place wouldn’t even touch it. They told me about the recall and it took several weeks but they sent me a new one.

    Oil absorbent for oil / fluid spills….. eye wash for eye emergencies ….. cleaning fluids – car wash, wheel/ tire cleaner, bucket/ wash mitten/ soft/brush/glass clearer/ spray detailer.

    Environmental considerations should be included as essentials. Some form of ‘tunes’ as background works for me. In warmer weather – the next essential would be a chair, stool, or spare scooter chair – for the ‘audience’ that arrives with the sole purpose of telling you how you are doing something contrary to their method – even if they have never accomplished the task.

    I did pretty well on this list. I keep everything on the list handy except for the oil dry / kitty litter stuff. Interesting selection of manuals there on your shelf, by the way! My collection consists of one of those How to keep your Volkswagen Alive (for the compleat idiot) manuals, various ones for Spridgets and other LBCs, one for the Sportster and some others for cars I haven’t owned in a very long time… Just a note on the penetrating oil… Have you ever tried Kroil? Specifically Aero Kroil (the aerosol version). An aircraft mechanic friend of mine turned me on to this stuff decades ago. It can be hard to find, but it is the absolute very best I have ever used.

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