If you’re a serious motoring enthusiast, and you aren’t rich, sooner or later you’re going to have to work on your baby. She’ll need tuning, modification, or perhaps some repair after an unplanned bit of roof racing.
That means you need a garage, and the will to get the job done. But what do you absolutely need in your garage? What would be a big help? And what kind of a garage would you want if you see yourself going pro?
This writeup attempts to answer those questions. Don’t take this too seriously. You won’t have everything right away. Don’t let the fact that you haven't got one thing slow you up. Keep in mind that in life the journey matters more than the destination.
First of all, you will need a garage. It should be dry, secure and ideally, detached from your home. The reason why detached garages are better is that cars and motorcycles burn gasoline. Gasoline can explode. You are going to open up the fuel system at some point in your garage, releasing fuel vapors. No matter how careful you are, there will always be some risk if you store fuel in your garage. Separating garage from the house cuts your risk. Attached garages are great for your daily driver, but the toys should be disassembled a safe distance away.
The garage should have good electric power. In my view 30amps @ 240volts is the absolute minimum for North America. That's enough for outlets, lights and a small compressor. Sixty amps or even one hundred will allow for lots of extras, like heat and air conditioning. Ideally the garage has its own breaker box, which doesn’t need to be too large. A 20 space panel is enough for everything you could possibly want, but even a four space will prove a blessing because you won’t have to run inside the house to reset breakers all the time. You’ll want at least two discrete outlet circuits for power tools, and a lot of outlets spread around the room. You'll be surprised how many power tools may be used on a single job. Also you want an outlet where you are working, not on the other side of the room. You will want an extension cord now and then, but you won’t want to use them all the time. All outlets require GFCI protection, and must be mounted a minimum of 18” above the floor or they must be treated as a classified location. Then you use expensive, explosion-proof outlets. The reason is that gasoline vapors sink, and if you stay above 18” you’ll usually stay above them.
It’s nice if some outlets are located above a nice sturdy workbench. You can buy them or build one out of plywood and 2x4s. I’d build one, it can be cheaper and you can tie it into the wall and make it stout enough for anything. A table clamp attached to the bench and a bench grinder are really handy, but the clamp comes first.
The room will need lights, and lots of them. My friend Roland’s garage has eight four lamp fluorescent fixtures, six of them on the engine side of the garage. They are angled to face toward the center to minimize shadows. You can tan in there. That’s overkill, but there are lots of small parts in engines and sooner or later you will drop one. Light helps you find lost widgets. Light makes seeing tiny cracks easier. I recommend going with fluorescent lights with natural light bulbs, switched so you don’t have to turn them on all at once. And one of the cheap porcelain lights in the center so you don't have to light everything up when you’re heading into the garage just to grab something. Figure three switches minimum.
Heating and air conditioning are also real pluses. It’s a lot more pleasant when you can work in shirt sleeves, without gloves and you aren’t dripping sweat down into the engine. If you have good electric service, you can get both heating and air conditioning for US$500.
A single or 1 1/2 car is plenty for working on motorcycles. But you will need to get at a car from all sides. A two or 2 1/2 car garage really will make life much more pleasant.
Take the time and money to install good, heavy-duty shelving. I’d recommend shelves stout enough for 3/4” board. Car parts can be very heavy. Engines and complete rear ends my find their way on a shelf. You want the shelf to be rated for whatever you put on it. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did this.
Next you are going to need is a toolbox. A big one with ball bearing races on the drawers. I recommend a tool box kit that is tall as you are. The reason for this is not merely space, but lots of drawers and cabinets help you find the tool you need. When you are working on your toy the biggest gumption trap is not being able to find what you want.
Break down your tools by drawer. Which is a good reason for the big box. Screwdrivers in this drawer, Pliers, wire cutters, tin snips in the next. Drill stuff here. Nut drivers, feeler gauges and allen wrenches. Torx bits. Saws. A professional mechanic will invest at least US$5k in his tools. Buy a big box now and you’ll have room for the later additions. One box for metric sockets. Another for English/SAE sockets. Keep them on rails so you know what’s in use. Always return them to the same drawer, and put the socket back on its rail when you are done. That will save you time.
Now that you have a well-lit, comfortable garage the next thing to consider is what to put in it.
First of all, you will need a honkin’ big socket set with 1/4”, 3/8” and 1/2” drives, extensions, deep and shallow well sockets. See the writeup for more details. Get a torque wrench of any needed sizes. Over or under-torquing leads to breakage.
Then you will want screwdrivers, lots of them. Multi-screwdrivers are handy when you have to carry tools, but this is a garage and you will lose the little tips. So get a bunch of good quality screwdrivers, I’d start with a dozen, phillips and slotted, but before you’re done you’ll have devicing and jeweler's and torx screwdrivers by the bunch.
A full set of box and open end wrenches is also needed, because there are times when you won’t have room for the socket wrench. Spares are desirable. And keep a drawer handy for files. You’ll want metal files mostly of all shapes, but wood files work well on plastic.
Next feeler gauges and a spark plug gapping tool. Frankly a set of calipers would also be nice, but wait a bit for them. A tape measure is mandatory. You'll can use it to check wheelbase.
You will need four jack stands and a hydraulic floor jack. This is an absolute minimum. Unless the car is securely on stands you cannot work beneath it. Period. Bikers can get a motorcycle stand, which will hold the bike without its wheels.
You’ll need paper towels, shop rags, which are sold by the hundreds, petroleum naptha lubricant (WD-40), penetrating oil, brake parts cleaner and a bunch of drain pans. A five gallon oil container is useful to store your old oil for recycling. The drain pains should hold gallons and be stored clean, because you'll want to do oil changes, and almost any time you work behind the radiator you’ll remove it. Which is really quite easy. And several funnels for installing fluids. Like gear oil. Speaking of oil, you will spill some. Keep a bag of oil dry, or traditional cat litter to absorb the spill.
And a big, fat shop vac.
Hand cleaner. Better to clean your hands before you enter the house. And same some TV dinner pans for mixing resins and epoxy. They're free and disposable. All you have to do is put them through the dishwasher after dinner.
You’ll want a hacksaw, sawzall, scroll or jig saw and a die grinder (dremel tool) with bits. Keep in mind all these tools will be useful for more than working on baby.
You’ll also want a drill index, with many sizes of metal rated drills. Keep your old coffee cans for storing spare nuts, bolts and washers in. if you can find little filers thats better because the right bit is easier to find. But a really thorough index takes up lots of wall space.
Then a tap and die set so you can repair threaded stuff that gets unthreaded.
At this point you have a pretty well tempered garage, one well equipped for light mechanical work and almost everything on your honey-do list. Now it’s time to think of adding a few extras.
Air compressor and impact wrench set.
Air tools are wonderful for removing old nuts and bolts. And putting them back on. Now is a good reason for you to have installed a breaker box, because it is better if you get a 240V compressor. They’ll take less juice and do more. If you want to use air tools seriously, the compressor needs a minimum rating of 5 horsepower with two cylinders. Otherwise you will run out of air. The little compressors sold at the entry level are really only good for filling tires. Compressors are very noisy in operation, and you may wish to think about that when you locate the compresor. Ideally, you would like a nitrogen cylinder to fill your tires, because nitrogen is much less sensitive than air to temprature changes.
Refrigerator. Working on a car is lot more fun when you have friends and something cold to drink. You can run to the house all the time, but why? Used fridges can be found for almost nothing, and they hold lots of beer. Beer is the currency of racing, and you will be expected to provide for your crew. So long as they stay sober enough until the work is done. Fridges can also keep beverages from freezing in winter.
Frame chains. If you are building a garage, have chains, or some stout steel eyes emplaced in the concrete floor before it is poured. Or chains and in each corner. In racing, sooner or later you will hit something. That’s inevitable. With chains, a come along, and something really solid to hook onto it is possible to fix a great deal of body damage. This stuff is cheap to install during construction, and a real bear later on, so think of it while you build.
Tire mounter/demounter and balancer.
In racing, you’re going to have a bunch of rims and tires don't last long. Doing the work yourself can save a lot of money. Look for a garage that’s turning into a convenience store and make them an offer for the old stuff. A basic liquid level balancer works great, and your compressor will be enough to operate most mounter/demounters. You don’t need a fancy computerized spin balancer, though they're fast. You’ll also need a set of wheel weights, and a coffee can to store old weights in. Wheel weights may break, but weights don't wear out. Tire mounting and balancing equipment not only saves money down the road, but you can make some money from it doing tires for your friends. A little extra money can do wonders for the racing budget. I have a friend who uses his—admittedly state of the art—system to fund his entire racing program.
An engine hoist and engine stand. If you race regularly you will end up pulling the engine a couple times a year. When it breaks. When the motor needs freshening. When you have to get it out of the way to work on something else. A hoist allows you to do that. You will also want a good quality engine stand, one that will allow you to rotate the engine so the part you want to work on, say the main bearings, is up.
If you have a garage like mine, you may have to modify the joists to use the hoist. The hoist lifts the engine by hydraulically raising a lever. It can go pretty high.
It is possible to use a come-along or chain fall. Possible. But not recommended. Engines are heavy. They are hard to control, particularly when you are lowering the engine back into the car. Right when you need the control most.
A parts washer.
Stereo and TV. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in this garage. It’s nice to work to music. It’s nice to can take time off to watch something like the Paris to Dakar Rally. Your crew are all gearheads, otherwise they wouldn't be there. Taking time for fun stuff is good for crew morale. It will help make up for the long night created by blown engines. A boom box and a used TV are plenty. A friend of mine tapped his house cable so we can watch anything in the garage.
You will eventually want to pipe around from your air compressor and put places to hook on air tools all around the room. You will also want a cylinder leak-down tester. This is like a compression tester only more so, as it tells you if either the valve seals or piston rings are sealing properly.
A welder. A good Mig design is plenty. They come in handy. But don’t weld on a race car unless you really know how to weld. You don't want to learn on your roll cage.
A clean room.
This usually requires building your own, but the truth is that engines are very sensitive to dirt, dust, grit and other bad stuff. If you plan to rebuild any motors, you need a clean place to work. Transmissions often aren’t much better. Some are pretty tolerant, others fade with the tiniest bit of grit. Stainless steel working surfaces and drawers. Lots of small part storage would be ideal. But the big thing is a room you can quickly and easily get perfectly clean. Planar surfaces need to be perfectly flat. If you remove a cylinder head, it is wise to mill it slightly to ensure prefect flatness, and thus a good gasket seal
A bathroom. We all have to go. Your activities will enjoy a higher wife acceptance factor if you don't bring grease and grime into the house.
A carbon fiber prep set. Those are expensive. As are the materials. But you will take body damage at some point. Carbon fiber is both uber strong and light. Nice to be able to fix your own.
Finally, a paint booth. No you don’t really need one. But a cool car deserves cool paint job. If it’s a show car, pay someone to paint it. If it’s a race car, you will scratch the paint. More than once. It may be cheaper to do paint yourself. I know a regional racer who has one, and he’s both safe and fast. No one races without crashing. No one.
Now you have the perfect, dream garage, one that will keep you out of your significant other's hair every night. But you will be able to do almost anything you need. If it's nice enough, you may never want to leave.
Thanks to "Redline" Roland Hahn (ITA, E production), 'Racer Phil" (or "Phil the Slug' on a bad weekend) Alspach (D sports Racer, and A Modified), Bruce 'R.B." Wright (GT-4), The Custodian and Corcis for suggestions SharQ suggests including a hammock. I admit naps helps those all nighters before the big race. But you're there to work. Sleep is for weenies!