So you can DIY. Should you?

Kyle Smith

Of all the annoying things that people put on a pedestal, one stands above the rest: Doing a project yourself, at all costs.

A few years back, my father’s Model A coupe entered my garage in need of a second lease on life. One of the key upgrades was changing the battery cables. The Model A starter circuit requires massive amperage loads: When firing the 200-cubic-inch four-cylinder required more than 1–2 seconds of turning with the starter motor, the cables got warm to the touch. Considering how slow the starter cranked, that happened quite often.

In such a low voltage system there is only one way to maximize the amperage, and that is to reduce resistance. New, 2/0 gauge cable would solve the problem, so I decided to go order some.

I quickly realized I was looking for a part that didn’t exist—at least, not as a ready-to-install component on the shelf of a nearby store. However, I could buy the parts that comprised the cable and assemble it myself.

The job sounded easy enough—and it was. I bought some bulk cable, a few ends, and the cheapest crimping tool I could find. After five or six whacks with a 3-pound sledge, I had myself a brand-new set of cables. The ‘T had never started better, and the upgraded system continues to be dead reliable.

When a Model T in need of a new ring gear landed in my shop this fall, I immediately noticed the corroded 2-gauge cables. Thanks to the job on my dad’s ‘T, I knew exactly what this one needed.

This time, as I shopped online for cables and ends, I ended up at a website that would custom-build cables. After I priced the parts needed to do it myself, my cursor slipped, clicking the box for “build it for me.” The price of the order rose from $55.97 to $80.11. As I walked across the room to retrieve my wallet, I chewed on that price difference.

old and new battery cables on bench
Kyle Smith

I’ve sunk endless time and dollars into projects of questionable validity. Farm bikes from the 1980s were never meant to road-race—but that hasn’t stopped me. Measuring, cutting, preparing, crimping, heat shrinking, and then finally installing those cables on the ‘T would take about an hour—an hour I could spend fixing the cylinder-head temperature gauge on my Corvair, or prepping one of the motorcycles for a weekend of riding. You know, things I wanted to do. And the cables were produced in Kentucky, right here in the U.S.!

The decision took about 20 seconds. I spent the extra $24.14.

battery cables on workbench
Kyle Smith

I’m not rich, but there is a point at which opportunity cost weighs heavy. Why save pennies at the cost of the one thing you literally cannot purchase? You or I are not any less of a mechanic for making the choice to prioritize our time, and spend it on the tasks we enjoy. The decision doesn’t make us less knowledgeable; in fact, it makes us smarter.

The rewarding feeling of DIY projects is well understood in the Smith garage, but my priority lies in completing projects that enable me to grow. (Or minimizing the risk of damage, in the case of oil changes. I do those myself.) Building a set of battery cables was unlikely to teach me something new the second time around. Sure, I’d enjoy saying, “I built those,” but losing the bragging points was not that big of deal.

Seriously consider outsourcing projects to your advantage. Forgo DIY and instead enlist an expert, shop, or parts order—and feel no guilt. Most of us have have the luxury of choosing what we will become experts on. You may or may not have found where your expertise lies. I know I haven’t. But whether your time is worth anything? Well, you can figure that bit out on your own.




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    This is a calculation that gets more frequently resolved in the direction of “buy” vs “DIY” as I get older. I have better things to do and more resources (Money) to throw at the problem, so I do.

    I suppose there is a point to be made, but really, I’m not sure that I have so many “better things to do” that I can’t spend an hour doing something that I’m perfectly capable of doing, have the tools to do, enjoy doing, and find some peace and pride in accomplishing. If it’s beyond my skill set, sure, I’ll pay someone else. But beyond that, if I can, I will. 🤔

    The real factors are one can I get a replacement, two how long will it take and three is the car where it can sit till UPS or Amazon arrives.

    Best to get a MFG part but when you can’t get one and or time and logistics are a factor you you may have to craft your way to a finished repair.

    A car on a road side can not wait for a part that may be days off.

    I learned this one very well, a long time ago, when replacing an exhaust system, lying on my back.

    The next time I’m seen lying on my back, in public, at least; I won’t be caring about any rust-flakes and crud coating my face…
    Hell; my prankster friends could make me up as Baby Jane Hudson for all I’d care. I’d do at least that for them.

    I agree…I’ve carried diy torch for decades and still do, but now its done when it suits me. At my age laying on my back under a car is less appealing than it once was and there are other things more appealing to do with my time so when there is a car project that requires more time and aggravation than I’m willing to invest, it gets farmed out. Some jobs are just better accomplished with a lift and i don’t have one and never will. I take great pride in keeping things in top mechanical condition and do what i reasonably can. Its a challenge sometimes but therein lies the reward

    I agree completely on all points. I retired after 30 years under the hood as a professional automotive technician and as it is said. You can take the mechanic out of the shop, but you can’t take the shop out of the mechanic.

    I’ve read articles about casting and forging your own pistons – is that DIY enough, or do I need to mine and refine the ore, too?

    Everyone has a unique skill set, and everyone has a unique set of tasks they want to handle. They probably don’t mesh completely. I don’t even want to paint, and I am clueless about upholstery, but I’ve replaced heads and fuel injection, along with many maintenance, repair, and customization tasks.

    Sure, some tasks are cheap to farm out, like the battery cables mentioned in the article, but if you’re well set up for that task (no whacking with a hammer needed), you probably committed to those tasks long ago.

    Greetings. Long ago and far away I remember wrestling a broken, say race anyone, transmission from a modified Chevy, in the dirt with a friend. Broken parts, skinned knuckles, friends and beer. Good memories of diy days gone by.

    I love making wires look original or better than original. I love to heat shrink the connector ends and use a rubber vacuum hose over that. I see those Battery Cables were sweated on and not crimped. I also do this. Nothing like looking at the wiring after its done and the ratification that goes with doing a job like that. Great article, THX.

    I started having the same debate; DIY -vs- “pay the vendor” when I got into my 50’s, and now as I approach my mid-60’s, and am still doing a good bit of wrenching on my 5-car garage herd, I’m more comfortable with clicking the “Build it for me” button. Kyle, care to share the vendor who built those nicely made cables?

    Interesting. Surprisingly had not crossed my mind that the resistance would put enough heat in to melt the solder out. Likely would have soldered *and* crimped but the great debate of soldered joints vs crimped connections will likely never go away completely.

    Well said Kyle. Another cost of some DIY jobs that renders them more expensive than outsourcing is the need for special tools we might use only once or twice. Pretty soon we find ourselves looking for other enthusiasts who need to use our special tool too, just to justify the cost. 🙂

    “The biggest mistake is you think you have time..” Time is free but it’s priceless. You can’t own it but you can use it… Budda. The older I get the more I realize time is one thing I must cherish.

    One of my mantra’s to myself are “20 minutes or $20”, if it’s less don’t do it. And I apply this thought to a lot of tools, supplies, gadgets or materials. Well with inflation maybe it should be $40 or 20 min. Guess I should give my wife the credit she deserves for teaching this one to me.

    I’ve been doing the same for years. My variant is $50/hour, with a fudge factor of how much I like doing whatever it is. And I also should probably bump that $50 up some.

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