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For philosophical and zombie-apocalypse-preparedness reasons, one ought to understand one's essential tools well enough to fix them. Consequently, the Miss and I have undertaken to change the timing belt on our car, and while we're in there also change the water pump and thermostat and the serpentine and power steering belts.

What is supposed to happen goes like this. Now, I'm not a seasoned mechanic or anything, but a Certain Incident a few years back1 and some electrical work on my motorcycle have served to set firmly in my mind the idea that vehicle manufacturers and mechanics are lazy cheap bastards.

If you skim over the instructions, you will find that they actually seem like a pretty reasonable undertaking: take this off, take that off, etc., until you're at the bottom, then put this on, put that on, etc. until the car is back together. If you're enough of a nerd to have put together your own computer at some point, this basically seems like that except with more tools, more physical effort, and more fluids; and despite prior experience, that is more or less the attitude with which I went into this.

Looking over the instructions, I figured we could do it in 4 hours if we had enough hands and did everything right and encountered no trouble. So 8 hours in the real world, right?

Fuck no, because some asshole stripped 2 bolts and the rest are all rusty. The majority of my time on DIY automotive work, over the course of my life to date, has been spent dealing with stripped bolts and the consequences of preventable corrosion.

A stripped bolt when you're putting together a bookcase from Ikea goes like this: you grab the head with pliers and unscrew it, or you unscrew the nut, or worst case you learn to drill screws out or you toss the bookcase.

A stripped bolt when you're taking a pulley off an engine is your first step down the rabbit hole: you are no longer taking things apart and putting them together, you are actually involved in making and unmaking. Actual metallurgical concerns come to the forefront: you are working with "parts", but it is now very relevant that these are not interchangeable atomic units but rather precisely shaped chunks of bulk materials that may be more or less ductile or brittle and have interactions with one another rather more complex than conventionally covered by the word "fit".

The bolt is not going to come out with pliers or vise-grips; instead, you might:

1. get a propane torch and heat it (this lengthens the bolt and takes pressure off the threads)
2. drill the shaft of the screw and hit it with a screw extractor (and if you're me and you really don't want to continue down the rabbit hole as far as "tapping a new thread into a hole in your engine block" or "drilling a new hole into the engine block and the pulley and tapping that" or "buying a new goddamn engine", #2 is a very scary option, so I saved it for later)
3. drill the head (a deep Allen head) of the screw and hit it with a plumber's extractor (sadly, a stripped 6mm bolt head isn't a good fit for any of those)
4. hammer in a Torx bit (which worked, though saving the Torx bit may be a problem)

And, of course, you don't have these extractors just lying around, and (because you encountered this problem late on Saturday) it's now Sunday and nowhere is open, so you spend 4 hours just getting the tools.

Mind you, this is merely a representative case study. There were easier ones (holding the bumper on) and harder ones (as the bolt shafts currently sheared off in my water pump housing, marginally accessible behind the viscous fan clutch, will attest). What they all have in common is that, if Audi saw fit to put some plastic around these parts to keep the water out or use stainless steel instead of brass, or if previous mechanics had (say) removed the rusted fittings rather than putting them back in with an impact wrench and stripping them, I'd have several hours of my life back, and working on my car would be fun and educational instead of maddeningly frustrating.

Now some people will say "this is what a mechanic is for". I will throw my coffee mug at those people and yell "A MECHANIC FUCKED THIS UP IN THE FIRST PLACE. WHEN I AM DONE THE BOLTS WILL NOT BE STRIPPED, AND THEY WILL BE MADE OF STAINLESS STEEL AND COVERED IN ANTI-SEIZE GREASE. I AM A COMPLETE GODDAMNED AMATEUR AND I WILL DO A BETTER JOB THAN THE GUY WHO WANTS $1500 FOR THIS WORK." which will leave my throat raw, so I will avoid those people.

Moral: friends don't let friends abuse threaded fasteners.

1in which a Chevy van which was being used to move all the possessions of a couple of friends across the country lost its power steering pump as we entered Oklahoma City, and was repaired in an abandoned drive-thru bank over the course of the day
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Aaron D. Ball

December 2010

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