5 rules for helping wrench on a friend’s project car

Kyle Smith

Ring, Ring. 

“Hey Friend #1. How’s it going?”

“Honestly Friend #2, not great. Remember that wheel bearing I started replacing yesterday? Well, I’m stuck. Can you give me a hand?”

I’ve taken that phone call. You’ve probably taken that phone call. We’ve all made that phone call. It feels like a reward to receive that call sometimes.

Helping others with their automotive projects is a rite of passage for lots of enthusiasts. It means you have transitioned—even if only temporarily—from student to teacher. Even if it is only due to your possession of special tools or space rather than knowledge, it’s still a little nod of respect to another person to acknowledge when someone else is more prepared for the task at hand than you are. The old saying that “Every smooth-running project is one broken bolt or dropped piece from being a three-day ordeal” is a long-running bit of humor for those of us with grease under our nails, and for good reason. Helping someone through that ordeal is awesome, but whether you’ve never done it before or have done it a thousand times, here are five things to think about before you start turning wrenches on a friend’s car.

Light touch

Your friend called you to help install a new distributor, and while under the hood you notice the valve cover gaskets are pretty leaky, so you go ahead and pull the valve covers off to reseal them while you have the engine apart. Bad idea. Don’t do what they don’t ask you to do. They likely have a plan for the car, no matter how informal, and you might put things out of order by diving into something they were OK with letting be for awhile.

Work as if you are them

Kyle Smith

Your tolerance for misfit might be lower than theirs. Or maybe you don’t care about your paint, but they very much care about it and use a fender cover religiously. Whatever little things like that you can do to treat their car the same as they would is the key to keeping a friend. Sometimes that might mean leaving things a little scruffier than you typically do if you are the perfectionist. Remember, it’s not your project. Heck, it’s not your car. 

Keep an eye on the clock

Kyle Smith

It’s easy to get carried away when you have a helping hand, and suddenly it’s midnight and the missus is pissed. Consider it your job to keep things focused and on track even though you are the help. Have a brief conversation before you arrive or when you get there to level set what the evening is going to entail. That might include some hanging out mixed in with work, but make sure that’s mutually enjoyed. No one wants to have to kick a friend out to keep others in the house happy.

Don’t be a distraction, help

Kyle and Kyle working on Corvair
Kayla Shreves

Maybe your buddy is pretty skilled and really only needs a careful eye to check work along the way. Don’t try to have deep conversations or walk off to tinker with something else in the garage. If you are there to help, help. No one likes someone showing up in the garage and slowing their progress to a crawl when the plan was to knock out a project. It’s no different than your barber. Sometimes the conversation breaks when they need to focus, and you just let it happen because you know the results can depend on it.

If they ask for tools, they get you along with them

Kyle Smith

Loaning out tools is like gambling, and you are not the house. Sometimes you get your stuff back. Sometimes it’s gone forever. Worst case it’s returned in a condition that the borrower didn’t realize is unacceptable. That’s why I’ve implemented a rule that if you need some specialty tool I own for your project, then me and my experience with that tool come with it. When I leave, so does the tool. It ensures my stuff doesn’t disappear or get damaged, plus I know you’re using it correctly. Overkill? Maybe. I hate being the guy who says no though, and this allows me to say yes more.

Have a rule of your own for helping or asking for help? Leave us a comment below. You might just end up helping someone you’ve never met.

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    ‘help wrench’ is not really a concept I am aligned with. Any time I’m involved in wrenching, it generally boils down to try it your way, then get out of the way so I can try it my way. One person in charge at a time, one thought process at a time. Generally if I am ‘help /wrenching’ for a friend, it is because they don’t know how to do it, and yes, because they don’t want to pay a mechanic, so the penalty for free work is I do it my way and they are liable for mistakes.

    Lending tools – you want to borrow my Craftsman 9/16… no problem, but if you don’t bring it back you’ll never borrow another one and you’ll never hear the end of it. Critical tools – I know exactly where they are going, who is using them, and when they are coming back – and that privilege is only for a select few

    I’m lucky enough that friends rarely need to borrow “simple” tools, so that’s why the rule is that I come with the tool. If you don’t own a specialty tool (think pullers or precision engine assembly items) then I come with so you break my tool or use it improperly. If you don’t own it I can’t trust that you know how to use it.

    #1 rule is to work on the car as if it is your own.

    #2 decide if you are assisting or if you are leading. In some cases you are working with someone with similar skills or even greater. You then assist.

    If you are the one with the greater skills you then take the lead and let them assist.

    I have some friends that just need the extra hand so I follow them. Others may have never worked on their cars are the ones to assist you.

    These are generally unspoken rules most enthusiast play by.

    A lot of this depends on just what kind of friends you have.

    In my case most of my friends are well versed with the wrench. We have been a group of car guys since we were kids. We have trusted to drive and even race each others cars over the years and we have even done some dumb thinks together but we know when, where and when to back off.

    Now there are people I know I would not let in the door of my car let alone drive it too.

    As my father told me your friends can make or break you in life. I have seen many have the wrong friends growing up and they are not there today due to who they were with.

    Like cars and tools choose your friends wisely.

    Throughout my “car guy” life, I have been blessed with many friends who’ve both helped me out and asked me for my help (physically pitching in, or lending/borrowing all sorts of things from tools to intake manifolds), and I can’t really think of any rule that’s been more important to me than this: REMEMBER THAT THIS IS YOUR FRIEND.
    This is not a customer. This is not a stranger. This is your friend – and frankly, no tool, no part, no car, is worth a friendship. A friend forgives you if you mess up. You forgive a friend if he or she messes up. If I can’t rest assured that my friendship isn’t at stake, then I won’t ask – nor will I accept if asked – for help. If one is so thin-skinned that they place the value of a lost tool or stripped bolt above friendship, then I submit they don’t really know what “friend” means…

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