The Value of Learning Repair

This month marks four years since I completed the first successful repair project on my truck. My wife and I worked together for 12 very long hours replacing the front struts. Today, I could probably do the same job in less than two hours—including cleanup.

That job also happened to be the first successful mechanical project after I botched a thermostat replacement not just once, but twice while on a camping trip in college. I cracked the aluminum housing both times during reassembly. That early foray into tinkering under the hood ended with a tow truck and rental car.

Getting Stranded in Boone, NC on a Camping Trip

Not exactly the kind of experience that inspires confidence.

Learning How to Wrench

In the years since, I’ve found myself tinkering under the hood and crawling under chassis more than I ever imagined—partly out of necessity, because it’s typically a lot cheaper to do the work myself, and partly because I’ve found that I enjoy doing the work.

So what changed?

  • I found someone who was willing to mentor me. My wife’s Uncle Rick has been a mechanic his whole life, and he has graciously fielded hours of phone calls and texts to help me get through beaucoup sticky wickets.
  • I also acquired a fair number of tools based on the demands of the various projects that I’ve taken on. Having the right tools makes it not only possible, but pleasant to do the work.
  • I learned how to do the research that’s required to learn how to do new jobs and projects (i.e., reading lots of forums and watching a lot of Youtube).
  • I learned that complexity does not preclude intelligibility. Just because a vehicle is an incredibly complex system, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be figured out.
  • I learned that I have patience in proportion to the demands of the work.

The result is that over four years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on about a half-dozen vehicles and complete some projects that would have absolutely boggled my mind earlier.

Valve Head Covers Removed on a 2008 Nissan Frontier

For example:

I helped my sister-in-law change the water pump on her 2013 Toyota Highlander. The job involved:

  • draining coolant
  • jacking up the engine
  • removing motor mounts
  • removing the thermostat housing
  • removing the serpentine belt
  • removing pretty much every pulley
  • removing and replacing the water pump
  • reinstalling everything

I replaced the valve-head covers on my truck to fix an oil leak that fried out the alternator. The job involved:

  • removing the air intake hose
  • removing the intake plenum
  • disconnecting an engine fuel line
  • removing and replacing two valve head covers
  • putting everything back
  • replacing the alternator

It looks all nice and neat in a bullet list, but that’s just the to-do list. The complexity of such a job is like zooming into a Mandelbrot set—it just gets more complex the deeper you get into each task.

On Enjoying the Work

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard shares a story that illustrates beautifully that enjoyment is key for taking any work seriously:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint.”

—Annie Dillard

For me, becoming a household mechanic began as a matter of necessity, and I’ve persisted only because I like the work. I like working with my hands—especially since most of my days are spent pushing pixels in cyberspace. I find manual labor to be an essential counterpoint to knowledge work.

My dad making square bales with a Farmall International Harvester 806

I like the sounds—the rhythmic clicks of ratchets and the metallic pop of a torque wrench that signals the work is done.

I like the smells—warm motor oil, PB Blaster, coolant, brake cleaner, mineral spirits—because they remind me of my brother and my dad. I spent many hours as a kid watching them working on a couple of 1960s International 806 tractors and old hay baling equipment.

I like the smell of blue Dawn dish soap and Fast Orange when I’m trying to get all the grease off my hands.

And I enjoy the process of cleaning my tools and closing up shop after a project well done.

If the satisfaction at doing my own mechanic work was primarily about cost and ROI, I’d probably still do it, but I’d view it with the same affection that I have for say, mopping the kitchen floor. It would be satisfying, but only in terms of the end result—not in terms of process.

On the Value of Repair

We live in an age where just about everything is disposable. We don’t really fix things because it’s not “cost effective” to do so. Replacement parts are hard to find or expensive. Plus there’s the learning curve that goes along with troubleshooting a new problem. But again, the value of repair can’t be measured in strict financial ROI.

For me, learning repair has been a journey of gaining confidence as well as competency. Rick has told me time and time again that “Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgement.” I have had many moments of poor judgement in the garage, and it is precisely at that moment that I reach what seems to be an impasse: I have made such a mess of things that the only way out is to either:

  1. Call a tow truck
  2. Finish the job

There have been a few moments when Option 1 seemed like the only way out. As an example, the first time I tried to change the oil on my wife’s SUV, I discovered that the previous mechanic screwed on the oil filter too tight, and I tried 6 different wrenches over the course of two days to get it out. I finally got it out by hitting it with a crowbar.

Through this journey, I’ve discovered that I have an almost insatiable need to solve problems, so now I know that Option 2 is really the only reasonable choice. I cannot let a problem get the best of me—even if it seems insurmountable. This quality has forced me to learn patience because it doesn’t help anything if you just get mad when things don’t work. It’s also developed my lateral thinking skills and get creative with my limited toolset.

Learning about how my vehicles work has also helped me relax when one of the family vehicle develops a weird clunk or when a dreaded check engine light appears on the dashboard. I used to worry about the wheels falling off or my engine blowing up, but now I’ve learned to relax, take a breath, and think about what could be happening. Sometimes the problem is a bear; sometimes it’s minor, but it’s always something that can be tackled with little gumption and a few tools.

Repairing your own vehicle also has the effect of helping you care about it more. When I outsourced mechanic work to a shop, it was easy to think that my vehicle was too complicated for me to understand; therefore, it’s best left to the experts. At the same time, I generally ignored recommended service beyond oil changes and brake jobs. Now that I’ve seen how nasty a cabin air filter can get, I change them regularly. And now that I know it’s easy (and relatively inexpensive) to swap transmission fluid, I’m more invested in doing that preventative maintenance.

There have been many times during this process that I’ve gotten frustrated and felt like throwing in the towel. That’s just part of diving into a new discipline. It’s not easy because there’s so much to learn, and so much that you don’t realize you don’t know. But when you keep going, you learn a lot about yourself, how you think, how to problem solve, and how to be persistent. And for me, that’s the true value of repair.

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