5 garage projects that look simple . . . but aren’t

Who would have thought you could combine a toolbox, workbench, and engine stand? Kyle Smith

As each of us progresses from rank novice, timidly swinging a ratchet with both hands, to a DIY superhero who can diagnose a non-running engine based entirely on an internet comment, we encounter projects that build skills and confidence. Some of those projects go exactly as planned. Others are surprisingly infuriating.

The second kind of project hides complexity at every step. It demands special tools you didn’t know existed and techniques often learned only by doing.

Haven’t run into these jobs? You’re lucky. Here’s a brief list of projects where, as they say, There Be Dragons. Consider yourself warned.

Tom Perazzo Porsche 911
Brandan Gillogly

1. Building a roll cage

It’s just some welded tubes, how hard can it be? And yet, that isn’t the best attitude for building a device that might save your life. (Or, if you’ve done a really poor job, take it.)

A properly designed roll cage is just that—designed. Correctly tying a cage to a car’s body and/or chassis is critical if you expect the end result to have any safety value. This means deep consideration of things like tubing material, type, and thickness, but also the angles of those tubes and the placement of their nodes and footer plates. Geometry and load transfer are critical here, and with a roll cage, they hang on everything from tubing placement and bend radius to whether that floor supporting your main hoop will punch through in a roll-over.

Add in the required welds—they need to be structurally sound, with the right penetration and bead—and you have a complex recipe that can seem simple at first. If you don’t want the whole thing to turn into steel toothpicks when you need it most, educate yourself first. Or leave it all to a professional.


2. Sizing custom wheels

Loosen lug nuts, remove wheel, bolt new wheel on, done. At least, if you’re lucky.

If you’re fitting truly custom wheels, you’re likely playing a game of measurement. A game that needs half a dozen reference points to really work. Wheel diameter, width, and backspacing are all variables in a system, and changing any of them can drastically impact a car’s steering response, handling, and ride quality. To say nothing of the clearance between wheel and tire and body and suspension under full compression and full droop, or how the sidewalls deflect while cornering and what they might rub.

At the bottom of all this is the danger of conventional wisdom: Wider tires aren’t always better, a wider track isn’t always better, a shorter sidewall isn’t always better. There’s a lot going on.

3. Reassembling a differential

It’s only two gears, how hard can it be? Pretty hard, as it turns out. Hypoid gears, like those in automotive axles, are quite picky about lash—the amount of play between a pair of meshing gears, like a differential’s ring and pinion. Too much or too little and the gears will wear prematurely, or make noise, or even bind.

Add in the need to properly preload the bearing holding the pinion gear—some diffs make this harder than others—and you’ve got a complicated process. One that can cost a lot of time and money if you get it wrong.

Austin Healey 1275 on workbench
Kyle Smith

4. Making an engine actually leak-free

A multitude of factors go into this one. Machining. Surface prep. Cleanliness. The right chemical sealant. The right torque, the right fasteners. Using the right seals—sometimes that means a factory piece, sometimes not.

The older the engine, the harder it gets. Old-world solutions like cork gaskets, rope seals, and oil slingers conspire against you at every turn. That’s before you factor in gaskets and seals that might look identical to original parts but aren’t made as they once were. (Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.)

Sometimes, modern materials can solve the problem. A dab of the right silicone or sealant might be all that’s needed. Other times, stopping a leak can mean using a hammer and a dolly to straighten an oil-pan rail, or taking material off a warped manifold face to true it. Or even just having the self-restraint to not overtighten bolts and crush a gasket too much.

If it was easy, all engines would be leak-free. And we know that’s not the case.

5. Headliners

They’re the finishing touch on any interior. Placement means that good work here is often underlooked. After all, a headliner lives above your head, and who looks up while driving?

A hung headliner takes a careful touch and careful planning to assemble. Bows must be tensioned at the right time, and any trimming of the headliner material must be judicious and careful. Cleanliness is paramount. Stretch the headliner’s various sections at the right time and in just the right direction, you won’t get wrinkles. Or maybe the whole job goes perfectly, but a small mistake at the end forces you to start over and order new fabric.

“Headliners,” as Hagerty editor-at-large Sam Smith says, “are like building a ship in a bottle: Straightforward, if you know the tricks. And it looks like magic if you don’t.”

If you’ve never tackled it before, the job can be mysterious and frustrating. Even the one-piece molded headliners of modern vehicles can be infuriating, as you never quite know just what, exactly, has to come out of the interior (sometimes it’s everything) simply to wrestle that large ceiling tray in or out of the car.




Of course, these jobs are just a sample. A virtually endless number of projects look easy but can, if approached casually, check up your confidence. Have a story or project to share? Tell us in the comments below!

Leave comment
Read next Up next: Never Stop Driving #32: Ken Block, the Driftmeister


    The only one I’d have pegged as relatively simple (but can be deceiving) is wheels. Sealing leaks would be second, but I know from experience that can be a PITA. Hmmm…. maybe FINDING leaks would be harder than it appears! Sealing them aren’t usually so bad once you know what to seal, but depends on WHAT needs sealing. Rope crank seals in older cars are notoriously difficult. I usually tell my Rambler friends to expect the engine to “mark it’s spot” even after a rope seal has been replaced — which is a lost art. A small spot is expected, just not a puddle. I’ve done all the math for front wheel spacers and still ended up with spacers that were too thick! Left something out of the equation somewhere I’m sure, but it was long enough ago that I don’t remember what I didn’t do now.

    Educations and practice is key to many things.

    I have done many graphics on cars over the years. Race cars to Trans AM birds on the hood.

    I tackled doing clear paint protection on my truck I had done some small projects but this was much bigger. I did my best to educate myself and learned most of my skills were suited to it and there were a few tricks I learned to make for a successful install.

    With the web it is so easy to learn as so many companies have web tech info that teaches much.

    I started out working on cars with some local stock car racers and from there I have learned from a number of people in the hobby.

    Take any opportunity to learn from anyone with a skill you don’t have. Also share what you know as this is how so many of us learn.

    Yup, even thought all these projects are the norm for me pretty much , they definitely do have there pit falls.

    One of my least favorite things to do on a restoration job though is, brake system replacement jobs which usually involves all the lines , hoses , masters, slaves hangers and everything!

    Routing those lines properly from a giant straight piece of brake line and get it perfect, can seem a exercise in futility it seems and is a seriously time consuming thing if you want it concourse/originally placed system.

    Try that one sometime ! Getting everything bent and hung just right and even finding fittings for pre- 30’s stuff can be a real Bear !!

    These are all true, but the one I always let the professionals do is windshield installation in the early cars with rubber channel material. I learned after trying several attempts that everything is not as easy as it appears. Pay the pros, especially if you only have one windshield.

    You missed replacing glass and new rubber . I tried for weeks to replace the rear hatch glass in my 69 E-type. Looked at all the YouTube videos and practiced my swear words with no results. Took it to my mechanic. They said “sure thing, we have a glass guy”. Picked it up 3 days later and was told to NEVER BRING IT IN AGAIN. I experienced a wonderful feeling of justification.

    The fellow I bought my 74 Grand Prix from told me the front seal on the transmission left a drop or two of fluid on the garage floor after each run. His mechanic told him to live with it or he could replace it for a hefty fee.
    After buying it I put in on the hoist at my friends place and we traced the leak to a coolant line adapter at the transmission. Tightened it with tubing wrenches and no more drip. After telling the previous owner he had a word or two with his mechanic.

    My 07 Cayman had the headliner falling a couple years ago. The glue will fail and it’s the foam backing that deteriorated due to heat etc. It’s really an art that requires skill and experience as well as getting the right fabric and foam backing. Not a job for an amateur.

    Heater core replacement should be easy, just pull the heater box, disconnect 2 hoses and reverse the process.

    Not so fast. The problem, especially with older cars like my ‘66 Chevy Impala convertible, is removing the heater box. The inside bolts were easy, notwithstanding having to do it upside down with all your blood rushing to your brain.

    The real problem is the bolts on the engine side. Some are visible but 3 were covered with that gooey black stuff that’s supposed to keep gunk from seeping into the interior of the car.

    The problem is that you can’t see them and the handy Chilton instructions don’t identify them. And when you do realize that there are still some nuts to remove since tugging on the heater box several times and cursing like a sailor (no offense to the Navy) you go back to the engine side to AGAIN search the the elusive nut and bolt location.

    Here’s the kicker. There’s at least 2 or 3 nuts that are accessible only after the inner fender well cover is partially pulled back. (More nuts and bolts) And to make the job even more difficult they too are covered with the aforementioned black goo.

    So after about another hour or so of using a small screw driver to scrape away the goo all the while cutting your arm on the sharp edges of the fender well sheet metal (more delicate words uttered) the offending nuts were removed.

    The reverse process is easier after replacing the core. First there are about 15 nuts and bolts that hold the heater box in place. Talk about overkill. I’d course the was when engineers were less concerned about cost and weight so extra everything was OK.

    After attaching the inside fasteners there’s the engine side to contend with. Guess which 3 nuts didn’t get put back? Yeah, those pesky “extra parts” that always seem to so up at the end of the job. Just put the fender well sheet metal back and call it a day. The heater box was plenty secure and didn’t rattle for the next 50,000 miles so the extra parts really weren’t need in my opinion.

    Total time was 8+ hours. Worst repair ever.

    Here in Silicon Valley we go to Wardell Auto Interior & Tops in Santa Clara for Headliners or other interior restoration. Often you will see a Ferrari, Porsche, and other high end cars as well as classic cars in the shop getting outfitted with the best by the best. Thanks John for your work on my friend’s 1952 Studebaker Starlight Commander Coupe.

    Kyle – I did a headliner on my 2000 SL500. It literally took me a few months to research this repair. It seemed to take even more time to source headliner material with was no longer available from the nice folks at Mercedes Benz. Nonetheless, after a ton of research, I took on this job and I actually started and finished it in one day. If I had to do another one, I could probably knock it out super quick.

    “non-weeping” and Renault engine are oxymorons. Rear crank (rear engine car) seal bears on the generator pulley, not the crankshaft itself. New pulley, new seal. Made it nearly 100 miles before it started to seep. Not a lot, just enough to be messy. Installed a second seal atop the first as there’s plenty of room. That make it over 1000 miles before the seep started. At that point I just kept wiping, and with a 2 quart sump and no filter, oil changes were often enough so it never ran low–at least from that leak.

    BMW M10 engine (2002, 320i, early E30 318i): If you surface the head and don’t have the shop do the upper timing chain cover simultaneously, you have a guaranteed leak in the valve cover joint.

    Ugh HEADLINERS! How hard can it be? Not too hard if you have six hands and a body that’s been limbered up by playing a good old game of Twister first. Not to mention the patience of a saint. After three unsuccessful attempts, it became painfully apparent that I have none of those attributes and ended up taking the Super Bee to a shop.

    I’ve done enough headliners that now I remove the front seats as the first step. Seems like overkill, but unless you are working on a hatchback/SUV/wagon it reduces the stress by like 1,000,000%.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *