Category Archives: Peter’s Stuff

Things Peter is doing, interested in, or otherwise feels like posting

Will I ever learn?

A few months ago a friend was having car trouble.  She was broken down on the side of the road, and her husband was at work in town and couldn’t get there to rescue her any time soon.  She called Liz who went to pick her up.  That’s where I got involved.

Her husband is mechanically inclined and experienced with minor repairs and routine maintenance, but he hasn’t done a lot of troubleshooting of major failures.  He had spent two days doing what he could, trying to figure out what was wrong and get their car back on the road.  In the mean time, she was borrowing our car when we weren’t using it to run to her late-night shift.   In an effort to help them, I offered to go take a look.

Based on the description I got of the way the car was acting when it quit, it sounded bad.    It sounded like a major over-heat.  When I got there, it was obvious there were serious problems…  Just the sound of the engine cranking made it clear there wasn’t much compression.  A quick compression check confirmed that in dramatic fashion.   We were looking at a blown head at least, maybe worse.

A sane person at this point might call a tow-truck, a mechanic, or junkyard and car dealership, but I guess I’m not all that sane.  “Sure,” I say, “we can tear down the top-end, look at the head and cylinder walls, and decide from there how bad it is.”  We towed it to my house and spent several hours stripping the head off of the block, cursing the engineers who designed it every few seconds as we struggled to fit tools and sausage fingers into spaces too small for children’s hands.   At the end of our hard work, it was clear the head was significantly warped, which would account for the crummy compression and fit with the diagnosis of a substantial overheat.  The cylinder walls looked clean, so we took the bet the block was OK and sent the head off to the machine shop.

Along the way, I missed some things that should have tipped me off to what was in store…  When we drained the oil, it looked like no oil I’d ever seen.  It was milk-chocolate brown and smelled funny.    Then, when the machinist went to work on the head, it was so warped that they had to heat it up, press it flat, let it anneal, then machine it.  That was something completely new to me.  Then, the service manual was wrong on several points, and the overall accessibility and serviceability of the car made even simple things incredibly difficult.  The oil and warped head should have clued me in to the fact that the motor got hotter than any I’d worked on before, and the rest should have convinced me that I ought to stop there.  I didn’t.

We got the rebuilt head back and installed it after a few runs to the dealer to get a specialized timing tool, bolts that had sheared off, and random other things I didn’t have in my kit.  After much pain and many skinned knuckles we excitedly turned over the engine.  Such disappointment…  It started, but wouldn’t run without feathering the throttle, and it had no power.  There were no engine trouble codes in the computer, but something was wrong.  In desperation we returned to the compression check (after several hours of head-scratching, troubleshooting, and just plain being stumped).  All four cylinders were about 60% of the rated compression.  While the cylinder walls looked fine, the rings were blown, and the bearings were probably not much better.

$700 in, and it was for nothing.  Now we had to take the block out and get it rebuilt as well.  The first call to the machine shop  stopped that idea in it’s tracks.  They wanted as much as a completely rebuilt long-block just to rebuild the lower-half.   The only logical solution at this point was to order a re-manufactured crate motor and flush the $700, busted knuckles, and hours of work we had already put in.

That was three months ago.  The owners were tapped out with the work we had already done, and Banny (my friend and the car’s owner) decided he had to take a second job and save for a while before they could seriously entertain the possibility.  In the interim, they acquired a cheap junker so they wouldn’t have to keep borrowing cars to get to and from work (30 miles away in the city). That turned out to be one of the smartest moves possible in this sad situation.

They dutifully worked and saved while their car collected dust in my garage.  Last week (two days before Christmas) the new motor arrived.  Thinking it would make a nice, if slightly late, Christmas present to have their car back, we spent that afternoon and a few hours on Christmas eve pulling the old motor. Things went as I SHOULD have expected… as opposed to how I THOUGHT they would.

We decided to pull the whole engine/trans-axle  assembly as one unit based on advice harvested from on-line forums.   That meant disconnecting the axles from the transmission.  No problem.  I’ve pulled several trannies, re-built many CV-joints, and have always been able to get the axle halves out of the steering knuckle (usually the hardest part for me) by hook or crook.   It didn’t matter what we tried, we couldn’t get them to separate from the hub.  Heat, wheel puller w/ high-torque impact driver, vibration, shock, sledge hammer, combinations of the above, you name it… we tried it.  I’ve NEVER had an axle that was so hard to remove.  In the end we opted to dismantle the entire front-end suspension and never did succeed in doing it the “right” way.  Ugly,  but it worked.

After getting the axles free and disconnecting everything, we hooked up the hoist and pulled the mounts.  I didn’t expect major problems.  I expected to simply crank the assembly up and out.  But then again, I hadn’t expected much of what we had encountered.  We had to remove lots of stuff while the motor was hanging by a chain supported by only a hydraulic ram (not a comfortable position for me).   Even then, we were barely able to get it out by radically tipping, rotating, nudging, shoving, prying, and coaxing it out.  At that point, it was time to clean up for the Christmas eve party with extended family, so we lowered the motor onto a pallet and called it a night, happy that we had gotten that far and confident that one more day would see the car pulling out of the garage under it’s own power.

Plans to use Christmas day to  finish the job were kiboshed by Liz as being too Grinchy…  She’s right, but I would have done it had she not told me no.   The next few days were taken up by work for both myself and Banny, so we didn’t get back to it until Tuesday when we mated the engine and transmission, and transfered parts from the old motor to the new one.  The real fun started yesterday (New Year’s Eve).  Beginning at about 2:00 in the afternoon, we worked until 2:00 in the morning, ringing in the new year with an engine mounted to the transmission and installed in the car. There was still some work to do, but we expected a few hours of connecting wires and hoses, timing the motor, and other minor work would have us on the road again.  The last thing we decided to do before we called it a night was to check the cam-shaft timing.

We pulled out the trusty specialized tool, and went to rotate the motor to the right position (Top-Dead-Center on cylinder 1).  The crank was frozen solid.  Something was bound up HARD.  I knew it wasn’t the motor because we had rotated the crank several times in the process of marrying it up with the transmission.  My heart sank.  It looked like the transmission was the culprit.  Did we really just spend a cumulative $2900 on an engine and a now worthless head rebuild only to have to replace the transmission?  It was time to call it a night. I went to bed angry and frustrated.

A few hours sleep later, and we decided to pull the transmission to get a better idea about how bad it was and to make sure it wasn’t the new motor that had seized.  If you’re keeping track, this would make THREE major removals back-to-back.  Getting up the energy to tackle one of them when you’re a shade-tree mechanic like myself is hard enough.  Doing it over and over again on a car that seems to always have one more trick up it’s sleeves is really hard.

After dropping the transmission out the bottom, both it and the motor turned freely.  We pulled the pan to look for chunks of metal that would indicate a major failure and explain the absolute unwillingness to budge, nothing but the normal fine metal filings on the pan magnet you would expect to see in a transmission with 100K+ miles on it.  We decided to take a leap of faith, hope the bind had been caused by a misalignment, replaced the transmission filter, axle seals, and pan gasket, and put the transmission back in place.

Once again, we figured we were on the home-stretch.  All we needed to do was bolt up the transmission, hook everything back up, fill up the fluids, time the engine, and we’d be done.  The crank and camshafts were factory timed (and verified by us), so all we had to do was time the crank position sensor.    The belt pulley on the front of the motor has a set of “teeth” on it that encode the crank position for the computer to use for setting timing and other purposes.  The pulley isn’t keyed, so it has to be installed with specialized tools to make sure it lines up properly with the sensor.  The factory had supposedly already done that, but when we went to align the sensor, things didn’t match up.  The pulley was off by a few degrees, enough to prevent the encoder tooth from aligning properly with the sensor. To complicate matters, the shop manual was completely and undeniably wrong, so we had to rely on a combination of internet research (a process that devoured several needed hours) and intuition.

The right way to fix the situation would be to remove the bolt that holds the pulley on the crankshaft, re-position the pulley, and tighten it down.  However, as with the axle-halves, there was no budging this bolt.  The shop manual calls for a specialized too that looks like a bent pickle-fork that holds the pulley in place while you unscrew the bolt.  We didn’t have the time or money to go back to the dealer and get a tool that we would only use once, so I went to the scrap pile and cut, welded, and blacksmithed my own version.  Too bad it didn’t work.  Even with extra bracing and reinforcement,  we couldn’t get enough leverage on the bolt to break it free.  You know it’s tight when two full-grown men can’t break it free by putting their full weight on breaker-bars that are over two-feet long.

I decided to try a backup approach I’d used before on a few other cars, and even on the other motor we had just pulled.  I hung a breaker bar on the bolt we needed to remove, jammed it against a part of the frame, and bumped the starter.  It’s ghetto, and kinda risky because the breaker bar can pop loose, strip the bolt, fly off, or hit other important things like break lines.  I’ve NEVER had this fail to break loose a tight crank bolt until now.  We gave up trying to adjust the pulley.  I’ll never understand why they couldn’t key the pulley like every other engine I’ve ever worked on.

The solution ended up being to modify the position sensor by reaming out the already oblong mounting holes to allow for a broader range of adjustment.  Too bad we didn’t do that sooner.  It would have saved me a few hours, lots of frustration, and some scrap metal for other projects.  That hurdle overcome, we assembled and connected everything else.  After a short break to let the gremlins out, we turned the key.

It started, but ran worse than the blown motor did after we finished the top-end rebuild.  Desperation and frustration were angrily knocking at the door.  However, unlike the first attempt after the re-built head, there were engine codes.  A quick trip to the local parts store to rent a code reader, and we were on the hunt.  After another few hours with a volt-ohm-meter and the wiring diagram (which was only mostly correct) and we found a broken wire hidden inside factory shrink-tubing connecting the coolant temperature sensor to the engine control module.  Turns out that if you feed a motor fuel at 60 degrees F they way it would at -40, it doesn’t run well.  Snip-snip, crimp-crimp, and FINALLY, it started and ran smooth.    It drove home early this evening.

I can almost hear the heavenly hosts breaking out into Handel’s Messiah, which would have been more appropriate had we finished on Christmas day like I wanted to…

Too bad my truck needed work.  Even after all that unexpected time bent over the hood of a car or crawling underneath it, I still had to spend several hours in the garage taking care of overdue maintenance on my own vehicle and cleaning up the mess we made over the last several months.  I’m sore in places I don’t remember using, and my skin is raw from abrasions; bruises; harsh automotive solvents, fuels, grease, and road grime; and the constant scrubbing and washing required to deal with the former.

When will I ever learn…  I should have walked away from this one from the start.  However, I never will.  I enjoy helping people too much.  As much as it can be frustrating, expensive, time consuming and painful, I like fixing cars for other people when they need the help.  Along the way, I got lots of time with a friend in the garage doing “man stuff” as Liz calls it, taught him a few things and tricks I’ve had to learn along the way, and helped put someone back on the road for less than it would have cost to pay someone else to do it (even with the sunk costs put into the original head rebuild).



We must be warned that coffee's hot,
that smoking hurts the lung.
Knives are sharp and spoons are not,
and sunscreen blocks the sun.

We must not eat the non-food pack,
that freshens packaged foods.
Know calories might make us fat,
and sleep might make us drool.

Labels warn that water's wet,
and bullets might go bang.
Signs to warn of dangers met,
adorn each mundane thing.

We used to use our eyes and think,
to see, assess, then act.
Replaced with warnings bold in ink, 
a talisman of words and fact.


If only people understood how un-cool secret stuff really is… Scott Adams came close in this strip:

The super secret squirrels convened
Their meeting in the vault
Each day at noon they gathered there
Discussing who knows what

The watchers all looked in from out
As blind and dumb and deaf
As though they had no mouth or ears
To use for baited breath

Whispers swirled from left to right
Then back around again
Tales of conquests in the works
Cabals of greed and sin

Murmurings of secret tech
Sensors, planes, and tools
Laser guns and mind control
Oh man... it sounded cool

While all along the secret squirrels
Sat bored and languid then
And hour by hour discussed at length
The font for slide one-ten

The Parrot

Almost endless years of school
Countless hours of study
Promotions moving ever up
An awful sense of duty

To be the expert and make change
A constant goal since youth
Use of hands and head at once
Connecting truth with truth

Explore and build to meet demand
Reflect on what's been made
More to know you've done it right
Than strictly to get paid

A phantom of some lingering dream
Haunting daily chores
Wants unmet in truthful life
Like salt in open sores

No new ideas are his today
Great works he builds no more
He simply gathers and compiles
Then brings it to the fore

With words they laud and stroke him
Encourage, praise and bless
But in his mind he is a fraud
A parrot or even less


I’ve always liked writing, but rarely get a chance to write things not formal, technical, or even worse… bureaucratic.  Given my background, you’d think anything artistic would have atrophied years ago, and in truth it probably has.  However, though unqualified and not particularly gifted, every once in a while I get an urge to dust off the non-analytical parts of my self and see just how much of it is left.

In a home filled with artistic, musical, and literary talent, I often end up filling the requirement for an audience.  It’s unlikely anyone would ask me to perform when they have access to Liz, Sydney, and Isaac.  Over the years, I’ve been less and less likely to publicly attempt any form of art.  Even deciding to post this to be visible for the three or so people who might  occasionally read this blog has been an internal struggle.

That said, I had a few hours to myself this morning after taking Sydney to her EARLY morning babysitting job, and didn’t want to go back to bed for fear of waking Liz.  The urge came upon me to write, so I did.

Shiftless anticipation
Stirred by clouded foresight
Knowing that life is a journey 
To struggle, to labor, to fight

How many rounds 'till it's over?
Will I overcome in the end?
Have I strength and the power
For these care burdened hours?
Not to crack, not to buckle nor bend? 

Blind in a void of unknowing
There's something required of me
Yet I can't quite descry it
Or even imply it
Such a hungry desire to see...

So reluctantly I've followed 
Paths thought hidden and crookedly bent 
Longing for places I've already been
Guided by signposts unseen
As I wonder to whom I am sent

Certainly something is building
Each step has a purpose occult
Guided to paths I've not wanted
By a prod, a hard nudge, or a jolt

Weakness calls out now to slumber
Says it always works out in the end
Doubting there's life can I touch
Often too weak to do much
Tapped out, no strength left now to lend

Stop on the way and set down your load
Let some other son pick up the slack
Rest for a season right where you stand
Drop the burdens now placed on your back 

Reality's quick with the answer:
Sleep is the prodigal's child
No gift that you claim
Is for those of your name
It is wrong from your neighbor to hide

In answer I cry out in anquish
Fatigue swelling large in my breast
I have done what I can
When is it enough? 
Must I really go on without rest?

When the strength is all gone
And my will neigh to break
A lantern shows dimly ahead
Another's weak glimmer drives shadows away
Their light extinguishes dread

It winks to me comfort and courage
It tells me that I'm not alone
You're smart and you're strong
And you will carry on
We'll continue together 'till done

So into the darkness one nudge at a time
Groping and feeling my way
Hoping and praying the work that I do
Will brighten another's dark day

How to Talk Yourself Into Buying a New Car

UPDATE:  Apparently someone who loves us read this and assumed the accident happened the day I posted the story.  For clarification purposes, and to avoid any more panicked phone calls, this is the accident we were in back in early November 2013.  I know I’m bad about telling y’all about stuff that happens, but you can be sure that if I end up riding in an ambulance again, you won’t hear about it first through a blog I keep mostly to please myself and write things in a format not dictated by my employer.

Liz and I don’t really care for owing people (or institutions for that matter) money.  When we purchased our van several years ago we almost choked on the loan, so it was a great relief when we paid off it and all the other debt we had a few years ago.  For the first time in our married life, we outright owned two cars that were mechanically sound and were likely to remain that way for several years more.

Attempting to be prudent, and get ahead of the certain future need to replace one of the cars, we went through the budget to figure out how much we could save, and when we would have enough to pay for a new car with cash.  Estimating how much longer our car would last based on our experience with previous clunkers and looking hard at the budget, we figured we could save enough in about 4 years and have a few years to spare in case something unexpected happened.   That was a Friday night.

Saturday we left Sydney at home to watch the boys and went out to eat at a decent place in a small town about an hour outside the city.  Dinner was tasty, the companionship wonderful, and the evening generally pleasant.  Since we normally are at least 15 minutes from any grocery store, we opted to make a short detour to the grocery store a few blocks down the road before heading home.

That delay and detour turned out to have significant implications.   As we were headed back home from the store, and right as we were approaching the restaurant we had eaten at earlier in the day, a black pickup turned across traffic headed for the restaurant parking lot.  He didn’t slow down or look.  I had about half a second to react, just enough time to get some lateral momentum going  before we hit nearly head-on.   The sideways motion probably saved us, because I was doing about 55 when we hit, and rather than completely crushing us, the two cars connected, spun round and slid sideways, bleeding off some of the momentum and softening the impact.

We discovered a few things in all this fun.

1. There were shin-airbags in the van behind plastic panels.  Those panels hurt when they get blown out at your shins.

2. Riding to a hospital 45 minutes away on a backboard sucks.

3. Ambulance companies charge mileage for every passenger, even if they are riding in the same ambulance.

4. There is no dignity in an emergency room trauma unit.

5. Syd is amazingly collected when things get stupid.  I had just enough battery in my cell phone to call friends to pick the kids up and to tell Syd that Mom and I were on our way to the emergency room and someone would come get them.  I was immensely proud of the way she handled things.

6. We are blessed to have amazing friends who we can trust with our kids in an emergency and are willing to drive 30 minutes in the middle of the night/early morning to come get us from the ER.

It turns out (and I knew it before we got there) that all the drama was just precautionary.  Liz got out of it with bruised ribs (from the airbag) and a stiff back, and I only had to deal with a pretty ugly contusion where the seatbelt got me on the shoulder.

On the down-side, the car we had just discussed driving for another 5-7 years was a total loss.  Turns out that hitting a truck at 55 mph isn’t a scenario where the vehicle is likely to be fixable.  Wrecked_van

The truck that hit us didn’t fare any better.  It was less than a year old when the owner decided to use it to wreck my romantic evening and hot date.wrecked_truck

Oh, and that money we had planned to put away for a new car… it just covers the loan on the car we bought to replace the busted-up van.  The Lord has a sense of humor.

A Rattlesnake in the Garage

I went out to the garage the other day to look for a tool I had thrown on the pile that has been building since we moved in.  As I lifted an old blanket I saw a small snake coiled up just below my hand.  As afraid of snakes as I am, I surprised myself by not jumping, starting, or even elevating my heart-rate.  Looking at it, it wasn’t totally clear what kind of snake it was, but I decided to pick up a shovel and take care of it either way.

The funny thing about snakes is that when they’re balled up in a tight coil, it’s hard to get to the neck.  When I stabbed it with the blade of the shovel, I missed the neck and caught it right in the middle.  It didn’t like that at all!  It’s reaction left me with little doubt as to what kind of snake it was.  It’s tail (with two small buttons for a rattle) started vibrating furiously, and it’s head started striking repeatedly at the shovel.  Looking at it after I managed to cut the head off, it was obviously a diamond back rattlesnake hatched this spring.

Without thinking about it, I chucked the dead snake over the fence into the chicken yard, and they promptly demolished the carcass, so I don’t have any pictures, but if you grew up where I did, you can use your memory and a little imagination to visualize what it must have looked like.

If you are wondering why on earth a rattlesnake would take up residence in my garage, it might help to know that we had a serious problem with mice in the garage this winter.  It would seem the snake decided to come in to help us thin the herd.  The day after this encounter, we started our adventures looking for a barn cat to keep the mice at bay.  I don’t really like cats, but if it comes down to snakes or cats I’ll take a cat any day, but that doesn’t really say much.

The only other aspect of this tale that is somewhat worrying is Michael’s love for Uncle Mike’s corn snake.  Michael loves to hold and pet Slinkey every time we go over to Uncle Mike’s, and as a result doesn’t seem to have any natural fear of snakes.  We’ve had to reinforce that Uncle Mike’s pet snake is the only good snake, and that he shouldn’t mess with any he finds closer to home.  I hope he understands.  It’d suck to have him learn the hard way that not all snakes like people.  There is more than one breed of poisonous serpent in the area, and I don’t want him to molest any of them.