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How Auto Mechanics Remember How To Put Your Car Back Together

Published on September 10, 2012 under Humble Mechanic

Happy Monday everyone. I hope that you enjoyed the first week of the NFL season. If you are not much of a football fan, I still hope you had a great weekend.

Today I want to answer a question that I get all the time. This question comes from a lot of people. But the first person that ever asked me this was my wife.

After you take something apart, how in the world do you remember how it goes back together?

Well, like all great questions, the answer is “It depends”. There no 1 sure fire way that mechanics remember how to put a car back together. We are all different, and the things that I do might not work for someone (or anyone 🙂 ) else.

Start Smart
It all starts with taking things apart in a smart way. For me, that means I take my time. Each part that comes out, gets placed in order.I usually place my parts right to left. I also keep the bolts with the part. For example, when I take off an engine pulley, I keep the bolts in the pulley. That way I don’t have to worry about getting bolts switched around.

Good Labeling
The first time I did a cylinder head gasket I labeled every part. I used masking tape to mark where every part went. Every hose, every connector got a little strip of masking tape so I knew where they went. Well as you might expect, the boys in the shop spent a few days busting my chops about it.

Now that I have some years under my belt, I would probably joke around with a new guy about that too. All kidding aside, that is a great way to make sure things get put back where they belong.

Take A Picture, It Will Last Longer
This is something that is a fairly new idea. When I started working for VW no one had a camera phone. Now, I know some old timers are saying “They didn’t even have cell phones when I started working on cars”. That goes to show how technology as advanced in the last few years. Now I can snap a crystal clear picture of something before I start. That is something not even a factory repair manual can provide.

Volkswagen Reliability

This is a great example of taking things apart in groups

Removing Parts Together.
The easiest way to remember how to put something back together is, not taking it apart. So what do I mean?If you are removing an assembly, that has parts attached, leave the parts attached. If I am replacing a front brake rotor, I will just undo the caliper and leave the brake assembled. This feeds into my “do as little as possible” mindset.

Those are some of the things I do to make putting things back together go a little smoother. Okay, I am gonna let you all in on a couple of little mechanic secretes. There are a few cheats that we have that most people don’t know about. These also help mechanics put things back together

  • Most electrical connectors are different. This will help mechanics from getting connectors switched around. Warning~this is not 100% of the time.
  • Things want to go back together right. This is especially the case with wiring harnesses. When a harness sits in the same place for years it develops a memory. That makes it really easy to install it in the proper place
  • Manufacturers are consistent. VW tends to use a few different versions of fasteners. Even though there are a million bolts in a car, there might only be 50 different ones. From there, you can generally tell what it does by the size of the bolt. A bolt that holds the suspension, will be different than the bolt that holds the radio in.
  • We forget sometimes. There are times were I just forget where something goes, or how it goes. When that happens I have the luxury of a lot full of Volkswagens. Yep, there are times when the only way to get it done is to check another car. This is where I totally feel for the mechanics in the aftermarket, they don’t have that advantage.

Well, I hope that answers the question for all of you. We all have our own little tricks to remember things. It takes a long time to hone that skill. But if you are a DIYer just make sure you keep everything neat, take a lot of pictures and label everything!

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4 Comments

  1. Warranty Void

    A flat bit of cardboard is great for backyarders, you can push bolts through it and write next to them with a marker and tape down bits like nuts or small hoses and clamps etc.
    Still didn’t stop me from attaching leads in cylinder order rather than firing order though. Derp.

  2. Jeremy

    We are taught in school to LABEL LABEL LABEL. My teacher says “you may look like a newbie on the job by labeling, but you are”. When I did my first timing belt I labeled. It was just so much easier to put things back.

    I did a transmission swap with my tool partner.. we didn’t label there. That was a mess and a half. Like you said, generally you can look at a bolt and remember where it goes. Or the best is when you loose the bolt and you have to dig through a bin looking for the same thread length and diameter

  3. Jeremy (in pgh)

    I don’t often go for bigger jobs myself, but I have been known to use a piece of cardboard and some duct tape donuts to hold things near their written label, or better yet, I keep clean cardboard egg cartons and use the pockets to keep things sorted and not worry about things rolling around if I bump it or have to move it to lock up over night or something.

  4. Marty

    As a DIY type, I’m fond of printing out a service protocol (from either the electronic Bentley manual or the internet) and using a divided, numbered plastic box for small parts. At the appropriate point in the protocol, I pencil in the corresponding number for the plastic box compartment.

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