A head gasket is a gasket
used to form a seal
between the head
of most internal combustion engine
s. A very small number of
engines do not use a gasket to seal the head, some use a single metal ring
to seal each cylinder
The vast majority of modern engines use a "flame ring" gasket design. This
consists of a high temperature fibrous sheet, with holes cut to fit the
cylinder bores, coolant galleries and lubrication feed and return
passages. Flame ring gaskets require the use of gasket sealant.
Older engines often use copper head gaskets, These require a somewhat more
accurately machined set of mating surfaces. These gaskets are designed to
be used with no sealants, however various manufacturers make sealants designed
to improve the reliability of this type of gasket.
Many manufacturers require the bolts which secure the head to the block to
be tightened to specification torque settings at regular intervals
(typically every 20-50,000 miles). Failing to observe this maintenance
is the most common cause of head gasket failure. When either tightening
in this maintenance, or in removing or installing a head a proper sequence
must be followed. Generally tightening proceeds from near the center of the
head and alternating to opposite sides, loosening is usually the reverse
order of the tightening sequence. Failure to use the correct order (RTFM),
will usually result in a warped head, requiring machining the surface
In the event that either the head or block needs to be resurfaced, the
dimensional changes introduced may requre the use of a thicker head gasket
to maintain the correct compression ratio. These are available from the
How to diagnose head gasket failures
Generally, when a head gasket fails, coolant or lubricating oil may intermix
or either of these fluids may enter the cylinders.
The most common failure
in a head gasket is at the cylinder bores. Usually this causes coolant or oil
to be drawn into the combustion chamber. Look for either the smell of
coolant (both ethylene- and propylene- glycol have a 'sweet' odor} in the
vehicle's exhaust or for the smell of exhaust in the coolant.
Coolant entering into the cylinders will quickly remove the normal formation
of carbon soot from the interior of the cylinder wall. Visual inspection
of the spark plugs or the top of the piston will quickly identify this
When oil enters the cylinders, it will often cause the spark plugs to foul
which is recognized by a carbon deposit on the plug's electrodes and
insulator. Carbon on the insulators can also cause a plug to not spark
by creating a conductive film on top of the insulator, resulting in a
lower resistance electrical circuit.
The presence of oil in the engine's coolant usually is the result of a
failed head gasket. The oil sump below the engine, however normally contains
some water due to condensation of the the fraction of combustion which
blows past the piston rings. Coolant can be recognized by its color.