5 scary scenarios DIYers face

Halloween is right around the corner, and any number of scary ghouls and goblins will soon be at your door asking for sweet treats. The holiday got us thinking about DIY experiences that don’t leave our minds so easily. A few projects still keep us up at night, and the thought of repeating certain procedures can provoke a cold sweat. We aren’t saying cars are cursed or possessed—we’ll leave that to the movies—but we all know at least a few vehicles for which it was hard to prove otherwise.

From losing tools to stripping threads, here are the scariest scenarios we’ve encountered in the garage.

Using a spring compressor

Rob Siegel Spring compressor
Rob Siegel

The McPherson-strut front suspension design has a lot going for it, like easy installation and cost-effectiveness. Sadly, changing springs or dampers in McPherson struts can be a terror. A spring this powerful is essentially a pipe bomb, and cheap or home-fabricated spring compressors that underestimate the spring’s stored tension are legitimately dangerous. Just the thought of hearing a creak from the spring compressor and seeing a spring shoot off at full force gives us nightmares that would make most horror flicks look tame.

Discovering rust under a paint bubble

GMT400 rusty fender
Kyle Smith

You would never pick at a scab, but sometimes you can’t help but give a light poke at that discolored spot on the quarter panel of your classic. Next thing you know, your finger has promoted inner fender to the prestigious status of outer fender. The damage only gets worse from that moment: Iron oxide takes over, a pestilence that no spooky campfire story could ever conjure. Rust is a threat that hangs over everything in your garage. You’ll start seeing the brown-ish red everywhere, until even your mixed drink seems to include red rum. It can drive a man insane, that rust.

Losing a bolt

Honda XR250R engine disassembled
Kyle Smith

We all know what it’s like when the bolt or tool that you just had in your hand is—poof—gone. A portal to the fifth dimension opened, swallowing that one small but critical piece of your project. The thought of where that piece of hardware went will haunt you. I’m not scared of Casper, but I am terrified of where that piston pin circlip might have gone.

Stripping a bolt

stretched bolt
Kyle Smith

At last, final assembly. Your workbench is covered in perfectly clean, ready-to-assemble parts. You painstakingly kept all the threads of all your fasteners clean, but somehow a hard-to-reach bolt that only requires 35 foot-pounds of torque just … won’t … tighten. All of a sudden, “righty-tighty, left-loosey” becomes “righty loosey, lefty also loosey.” The split second your wrench meets no resistance, the horrors of dealing with the consequences come into sharp focus.

Burning through paint

polishing Corvair Gif
Strong arms are good for the lack of power steering, and they are built from the hand-buffing of just one mid-century hood or decklid. Kyle Smith

The paint on a vehicle can get really shiny if you remove enough of it to eliminate scratches, scrapes, and other imperfections. However, the mere thought of burning through the paint of their beloved classics has kept thousands of owners from so much as looking at an electric polisher. Thanks to modern compounds, this automotive horror story no longer needs to strike fear in your heart. Random-orbit polishers and diminishing-grit compounds allow you to be gentler with paint than ever before, even if the process requires a certain touch and understanding, and the fear of burn-through lingers in the room like a ghost.

What would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.




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    Getting about 90% through a time-critical repair and realizing you forgot to get that one thing… ten minutes before the parts store closes.

    One thing I learned about dropped bolts is that it never actually bounces the direction your brain thinks it went

    Replacing a wire harness without instruction guide and forgetting to take pictures of the old harness install points

    Replacing a generic ‘GM musclecar’ harness in a car someone already ripped the factory wiring out of and started 10% of the install… luckily the owner had the factory service manual

    How about old plastic electrical connectors. The service manual or video seldom covers the the correct way to take apart and they almost always break before you find the way forward.

    Exactly, for me they end up bouncing or rolling into the most difficult location to find/get them, like exactly in the middle of my lowered truck!!!!

    I FOUND a random 10mm the other day and felt like I had found the other end of that infamous worm hole. Some guy in Ireland probably scratching his backside and saying something that rhymes with took.

    I, too, ended up with a random rusty craftsman 10mm that didn’t match my set. I like to think it was made from all the ones I lost over the years.

    Accidentally dropping a bolt is the easiest way to find the exact center of your car, cause that’s where it is going to end up!

    Once while working on my Suzuki Sidekick, I found a threaded metal plug sitting on top of the Front Differential. There was just enough space between the differential and bottom of the oil pan to slide my fingers in. I have no idea where it came from, and I got to know that vehicle quite well over the 18 years of ownership!🥹

    I think all 5 of your examples are scary enough, but if I had to pick, I would call a tie. I feel like the spring compressor and loosing a bolt are equally as scary. All 5 are pretty scary.

    That photo of a “stripped” bolt in the story is not stripped, it has been stretched. Either way, the bolt is junk and you’ll need a new one to replace it. The bolt in the photo looks like an ordinary bolt, not a Torque-To-Yield (TTY) bolt. TTY bolts are designed to stretch when tightened to provide more uniform clamping load. They are typically used as head bolts but may be used for other engine or suspension components. Many people don’t know you are not supposed to reuse TTY bolts. Once they have been stretched, it increases the risk of the bolt snapping if it is reused and tightened down a second or third time.

    Forget about Stripped or lost bolts. Broken off bolts in a block, head or intake are my greatest fear. Not easy to fix and often more difficult to get to.

    As a teen I dropped an air cleaner stud down my ’68 442’s running engine and it went into cylinder. Pulled head, cleaned up valve and seat. Got it back together and started it only to find another piece had been thrown across the manifold into the other head. Hard lesson.

    Yes, shearing off a bolt would be mine too. The worst is when you use a torque wrench with the factory spec set, and the bolt gives way before you hear the “click”. You tried to be a good trooper, and it blows up in your face.

    Actually, the situation you describe is a comparatively happy outcome when compared to the alternative, the compromised fastener somehow manages to evade you, then fails as you are test running your completed repair. And one failed fastener should give rise to thoughts like, “if one of these is bad, maybe I ought to replace the rest of ’em as well. Especially if we are talking about highly stressed stuff like head bolts, rod bolts, etc. The assumption is, after all, that if you are torquing a fastener it must be at least a relatively critical interface.

    Except when you think you’ve dropped it somewhere important, somewhere where it can do serious damage, like dropping a small nut down the intake manifold where it can work its way into the cylinder! See “My Cousin Vinny” for Vinny’s discussion of how NOT to rebuild a carburetor, LOL!

    Had that problem on one of my motorcycle exhaust bolts (where the bolts come OUT from the head,and are secured on with a “nut” tightened onto that bolt with the exhaust header in between the two) and while trying to remove the VERY RUSTED NUT,in the safest way possible……………..”SNAP”,there it went with the partial bolt to the floor!!! UGH,stuff of horrors indeed!

    I thought it was just me. My brother in law was a mechanic. I was poor. He’d try to teach me to take care of my car. I broke a bolt off replacing a thermostat. He was able to get it out but here I am 40 years later afraid to do any mechanical work on a car. I just take pride in cleaning, and I learned to not fear a random orbit polisher.

    Had that happen on my Suzuki Gs 500e. Broke off EZ-outs , ex stud. Found a diamond tipped dermal the only thing that would touch it, (and a long time with a cup of water to cool the dermal bit,)

    Close to this is a broken/rusted bolt securing plastic trim or a fibreglass panel. You cannot use heat to release it.

    Catching the car with an errant bolt, jack or tool and damaging paint or denting a panel.

    Finding a small part that needed to be put in about 8 steps ago that you thought you had put in.

    I remember rebuilding a carburetor years ago and having a tiny clip go shooting off into oblivion. I looked all over the bench and floor with no results. I sat down on my stool, closed my eyes, dropped my head and prayed. When I opened my eyes, there it was, right by one of the stools legs. Power of prayer!

    Absolutely the power of prayer, I have done that over and over for lost pieces and knowledge to get something back together!

    Perhaps that’s why they’re called “Jesus clips”. Often, however, Jesus is just one word of the curse one invokes when the clip goes airborne. And yes, sitting in quiet prayer/meditation often helps in finding the clip. Just remember, it will be in the last place you look!

    When the only socket you own that fits perfectly on the bolt you are tightening comes off the socket wrench and falls into a hole in the frame and disappears from sight
    My 83 Saab 900 ate my socket

    It’s always someplace you never expect. Sometime in a fold in your shirt? After ten minutes of searching on the floor, you stand up and hear it fall off your shirt.

    Or it fell down your shirt and is stuck in the waistband of your pants, between your shirt and undershirt!

    It has worked for me too. Might that mean that the Creator likes old cars, or at least likes us working on them? Crocodile Dundee said that he liked to fish, and as God was a fisherman of men, he and God would be mates . . . “So straight to heaven for Mick Dundee!”

    Absolutely! The power of prayer is real. I have found many lost fasteners, tools, parts, etc., after praying. I’ve received help, too. Just last week I was on the floor on my back trying to install a bolt that was obscure and hard to get to. I tried for over an hour to get that thing in and every time I lowered the bolt and socket on three extensions to try again the bolt would fall and hit me in the face. Finally, in frustration, I said a little prayer and tried again. The bolt zipped right in! Coincidence? I think not.

    I like all the responses to this comment. I too, after frustration have asked the Holy Spirit (whom God calls our helper) to help me find items that went zinging off or help getting a bolt out or in after 20 failed attempts. He has not failed me yet.

    My experience with this scenario has led me to putting carbs into a large plastic dishpan before I take them apart. There is always some unexpected tiny part that falls out.

    I had to reply. I was working with a small specialized odd-shaped spring which flew off from my workbench. I was sure I could never find a replacement and doubted I could ever find it in my little work shed packed with tools, boxes, etc, etc. So I also prayed for help. On a pegboard above the workbench were many hanging tools and all sorts of other stuff. Including a flat two inch square magnet with a hole in its center, hanging from a pegboard hook. Guess what was stuck to the magnet!

    Re: Lost Bolt…
    I knew a service station owner who, when working on a car belonging to a DIYer, would deliberately place an impressive-looking bolt somewhere where it would be found by the driver, but where it would do no harm.
    True story.

    Like the scene in “Ford vs Ferrari” where the guy playing Shelby drops a few nuts and bolts in the Ferrari pit. Great scene!

    True enough. I knew a guy long ago who burned part of his rental house down by cleaning parts in gasoline. The vapors spread out over the floor and hit the pilot light on the water heater.

    The very reason all building codes in the US require any source of ignition in a garage to be over 18 inches off the floor. Above that you will still smell it but it is diluted enough to no longer be ‘explosive’.

    A few years ago in my town a guy was essentially killed from burns suffered from windshield washer fluid. From what I understood, the garage had a big, apparently vented into the closed up cold weather shop, a drum of washer fluid, I suppose with alcohol? He was using a torch on an exhaust and set off the vapors. Guy was in the hospital for several days with burns that killed him. Sad situation.

    Using any strut spring compressor without securing the spring with straps is the best way to meet Jesus! Especially when adding the vibration of an impact wrench

    When your specialty socket falls and gets wedged behind some component or the frame. That’s when the adventure begins.

    My horror scenarios are
    1. How far does that rust really go?
    2. now pricing out the parts I did not buy 2 years ago
    but most of all
    3. my wife finding the credit card charges …

    Yeah, that’s why I’m downsizing a bit not. Getting rid of spare blocks, heads, etc at swap meets. It’ll make the ‘last garage sale’ a bit easier to manage.

    actually, you could find the right lady to be in your life. mine told me “you should just get it” when i was looking at my last hearse…… love that little lady to bits LOL
    garage full of Harleys and still building more

    Biggest fear: sparks from welder or grinder igniting a conflagration, then trying to figure out which of my cars to move first (or last).

    Oh yeah! Was in college and was looking at buddies car. 66 olds cutlas, left front wheel. Set the jack, both hands on the wheel, pulling it by pulling the wheel bearing out and leaving brake drum on the rim. Just as I pulled on it, the jack started to go through the body underside and coming at me. The spryness of youth allowed me to a backwards sitting roll, legs over head! The car landed where I was just sitting!

    My dad called the jacks that came with his pickups “chicken 🐔 jacks”.
    Good for chickens with broken legs.
    I wish I had inherited his Handyman jack.

    So many things can cause stress, but the spring compressing is the truly scary one, and one of the things that can KILL you! I even knew a mechanic that ran his own shop, but wasn’t the brightest, who broke his jaw by not being careful enough around springs! I think he may have also broken a drop light bulb over an open fuel tank and started a fire, too. That can be scary. Bless LEDs! When I first opened my shop, I was using the Harbor Freight hook tools for struts, and that was always scary. I moved on to a Chinese hydraulic compressor tool, but it could also be scary, and only worked on half the units I did. I finally got a Branick wall-mounted machine, and now there’s no more high heart rate for springs!

    Absolutely one of the worst! When I had my own shop, I was changing over a strut when the clamshell type spring compressor let loose (broken weld), and the spring let loose full force. It brushed against my right ear and went clear across the room. I had to sit down for a half hour to stop shaking.
    Of course, nothing compares to an improperly installed split ring on a truck tire.

    True story. When I was in the Army (late 1960s), most of our work was in a motor pool. The trucks had split rims and while there was a cage to inflate tires in, for reasons that can only be explained by the words “US Army”, there was no air connection near it.

    So one of my buddies replaced a tube in one of the tires, and was inflating it from the truck’s air brake compressor. The split rim was facing away from him, which was an acceptable safety practice. He heard the bead set, and leaned into the wheel to check the pressure when the rim let loose six inches from his ears. We stood around for five minutes or so with his ears ringing and discussing how it was good that the rim was facing away when it let go, and then we noticed that the tube was sticking out od the tire, and he reached inside the rim to remove the valve stem when the tube burst, again about six inches from his ears. I don’t recall how long it was before he could converse in normal tones, but it was a while.

    Fifty years ago, with no carburetor rebuild experience or manual, I tried to rebuild the four barrel on my 425 CID Buick. I lost one of those tiny springs – never found it.

    i worked in a little auto repair shop in my home town as a teen. i was told to always chain a split rim when inflating it. i was shown the patch in the roof where one went through that was not chained….. nuf said
    a few years later i worked at an open pit mine. the repair shop had a rebuilt section of wall where a euclid haul truck split rim let go and took out the wall and mechanic

    Been there done that with all of the above. Been an amateur wrench since I was a teenager. Now 90.

    Compressed spring, not automotive. Forty years ago, my wife and I were waked in the middle of the night by a loud THUMP! Fearing a burglar, I did the walk around with a flashlight – no, not a gun. Found nothing. A couple of days later I raised the wooden garage door – with some difficulty One of the counter balanced springs had broken. The broken part had poked through the garage roof!

    About every 8 or 9 years one of the garage door springs breaks and lets loose! Its more of a loud rumble as the spring unwinds.

    Have you ever taken an exhaust manifold off without at least one bolt shearing?

    Or, bolting anything back into place and having it slip off and the bolt dropping into the recesses of the engine?

    Or, getting under the car? I have gotten more and more nervous about that.

    Truly scary indeed! I think stripped (or worse sheared) bolt is the scariest, especially if in an aluminum head or hard to reach place.

    I still remember lecturing one of my friends on how he should be careful not to over tighten as he helped me with dressing an engine for my ’96 camaro. A few months later I was helping him do brakes on his pathfinder and managed to shear a stud for the front locking hub with a 3/8″ rachet. I’m still living that down

    What about hearing that “special oddball fastener” go tink tink tink down the engine compartment, but not hitting the floor..

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