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Manual Reading – Manual Labor


Reading and interpreting a service manual is part of a typical day at the repair shop. Probably not the most glamorous part of it, but then what is? Of course, after all the book work you’re still not done. Now you have to take that information and turn it into a working repair and not just words on a page. Obviously, understanding what you’ve read is just as important as doing the actual work, and a great deal of the mechanics time is spent just researching a lot today’s automotive problems, even though labor guides (which are just a guide by the way) don’t include any manual reading or research time as part of the final labor costs. (They should!)


Today’s mechanic is more involved in computer systems and multiplexed data lines than most average consumers realize. The grease and grime is still part of the job, but you can spend just as much time chasing some electrical gremlin or interrupting a scope reading, as well as changing a water pump these days… if not more. It comes down to the amount of research time, as well as the actual “physical” labor time you need to make repairs. It still surprises me how often someone will call and ask, “How much?” to do a certain job on a certain car and expect an exact quote. Regardless of the hundreds and hundreds of possibilities that could detour the repair. Sometimes it’s not a matter of how much but how long… long as in how long it’s going to take to do the book work, reading the manual, and figuring out what the best course of action there is to take. (That’s not in any labor guide either.)

There’s a real difference between reading a manual, understanding what you’ve read, and doing the actual manual labor. Some people can read something and retain that information forever. They can ace any test on any subject as long as they read up on it previously. Then there are people who go to the other extremes. They’re the type of people who have trouble taking a written test, but excel at hands on applications. Today’s modern mechanics needs to be proficient at both. Me, I don’t do as well as I’d like to do in the retaining side of things, never did in school either, but I do have enough of it stuck back in that old noggin’ of mine to know where to find that written info the next time I need it. I know I don’t have one of those photographic memories, and I’m pretty sure there’s no need in trying to stuff any more film up there… ain’t no camera to put it in. I’ve already got too much stuff to try and remember. Now some guys I know, they can remember the firing order on a 327 or the exact oil filter number for a given car. Me…no way, I’ve gotta look it up every time.

I see a variety of manual reading/manual labor related problems when a DIY’r brings their car into the repair shop. You can tell when they’ve glanced over the manual a few times, but couldn’t put the information to good use. Most of the time, you’ll find their manual on the passenger seat with the pages marked. It probably has more to do with watching one of those weekend automotive shows or a You Tube video about how to make a certain repair. It all looks easy on TV. But when it comes time to applying that information to the tips of the fingers… it just ain’t happenin’. Oh, they’ll put a gallant try to it, maybe mess it up worse than it was before they started… but try they will.

One fella brought his truck in after replacing the front calipers at home. As he told me, “It sounded easy to do in the manual. You know, remove a couple of bolts, install the new one, and bleed the brakes. Super easy.” Even though he had read all the description pages and detailed instructions in the manual, somehow it just didn’t work out. And, as usual, his repair manual was on the passenger seat. I made the repairs and even circled the photo in his manual so he could see where he went wrong. (On some cars there is a right and left caliper. If you put them on the wrong side the bleeder screws will be on the bottom instead of the top.)

I figure it’s something like this…anyone can turn a couple of bolts and slap on a few parts on, but there’s a very special ability that can’t be found in the manual. That’s mechanical aptitude. It’s not about reading manuals or being able to turn those bolts. It has a lot more to do with understanding mechanical things. And, these days that includes electronics too. It’s what separates average wrench turners and the true professional in the trade. Oh sure, if you spend enough time at anything you’ll get the hang of it, but sooner or later that lack of one or more of those qualities that separates good mechanics from the average ones will sneak up on ya.

Cars have changed tremendously from those early days of the first electronically driven engines. Today, a repair manual, common sense, and a whole lot of that mechanical ability needs to be applied to most any type of repair. Ok, I know what you’re thinking, “Well, there are some things my cousin Ernie can do and he’s never opened a repair manual.” True, but how far can he go before getting over his head? My guess is when something looks simple and then turns into something that’s not is when cousin Ernie gets in trouble. From past experiences with these “cousin Ernies” … anything is possible.

There are repair manuals out there that are strictly written for the DIY’rs and other manuals meant for the professional. Those DIY manuals are great for basic repairs that aren’t explained in the owner’s manual. Certainly, most DIY’rs would like to accomplish every conceivable problem on their own, but with today’s cars they are far more sophisticated and require a higher degree of understanding and equipment than most DIY’rs are willing to invest in.


I do believe that everyone who owns a car should have some basic working knowledge of how their car operates. Reading a manual is probably one of the best ways to do that, however that’s not to say you need to fix it. Maybe reading the manual will give you a better idea of what to expect at the professional shop. Maybe it would be a good way to gauge whether or not you’ve chosen a true professional repair shop vs. some hack shop.


If, after some in-depth manual reading the problem looks to be too involved for you to tackle the manual labor part of the repair, then it might be time to take your car to the pros. You’ll know who they are, and they’ll know if you’ve read the manual or not… because they have too.

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Gonzo, right on target!


You state that everyone should have some knowledge of how their car operates. I agree, but to what extent should someone take that knowledge and attempt a repair or service. For example; everyone should have some basic knowledge of how their own body works, in order to remain healthy. But we wouldn't watch a video on how to remove a tooth and then attempt to do it, would we? I know this I a far-fetched analogy, but as you state, reading the manual or watch a video will never replace the skill of a trained, talented mechanic.


Oh, thanks for using the term mechanic. Don't know if you did it intentionally, but I like the old term.

I was really trying to bring that exact point to the story. When do you draw the line? Not only how far should a DIY'r or a non qualified mechanic go before saying they've gone past their abilities, but.... to understand that before they start messin' around with the tools. Read first, labor second.


The other part of the story is about how much time is spent on reading up on a repair, or for that matter how much time is spent just hooking up different scopes, leads, scanners, volt meters, etc... to diagnose something. There's no real book time for all of that. I've never read anywhere that stated .5 of an hour to find the best place to hook up the lab scope on no#3 injector. Some of these new GDI engines you can't even get close to the injector leads without a major tear down.


Oh, and a mechanic... is a mechanic. A technician sounds like a lab coat guy. I try to write stories and spread both terms around so that everyone can call themselves what they want to call themselves. (It would make for an interesting story topic though.)

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Yes, your other point about researching a job is well-taken. But again, if I read a medical procedure and a doctor reads the same procedure, who would you want to perform the operation?


Great topic, great post....as usual Gonzo.

It makes ya wonder how many times the doctor didn't read the manual before doing an operation. LOL

But, yes... a DIY'r or newbie auto mechanic straight off the lube rack might need to do more than just read the manual... time for some practical experience, and a few lessons from the old guys.

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      It always amazes me when I hear about a technician who quits one repair shop to go work at another shop for less money. I know you have heard of this too, and you’ve probably asked yourself, “Can this be true? And Why?” The answer rests within the culture of the company. More specifically, the boss, manager, or a toxic work environment literally pushed the technician out the door.
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