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Burning the midwinter oil

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My ’31 Ford speedster often gets neglected during the cold, dark winter months, but this time will be different. Here it is with its hood and radiator removed to make it quicker and easier for me to jump into the projects on my list when I have even the slightest block of time. 

I know that for some automotive enthusiasts, summer is for driving their cars and winter is for working on them. But, if you’re like me, the shorter days that come with fall and winter are hard on projects. After an eight-plus-hour workday, a 45-minute commute home, dinner, and chores, the early nightfall makes it far likelier that I will slump on the couch in front of the TV with a tumbler of bourbon and a bag of chips than head out into the darkness to work in the cold garage. I blame my animal instincts for forcing me to hibernate (and fatten up).

The other night, though, I had managed to get my butt out to the garage for just a half an hour, and as I was finishing up the small project of adding step plates to my ’31 Ford speedster and feeling that slight glow of satisfaction, I decided to think seriously about what I could do to ensure I work on my car more regularly this winter.

Taking a page from my project-managing proclivities, this is what I eventually came up with…

Review what needs to be done and make a list. This transforms the mysterious, amorphous, and overwhelming into the known, delineated, and manageable.

Scraps of paper and napkins are easily lost and don’t make what you are doing feel as important as it should. It’s far better to use a dedicated notebook or computer file. While studies have shown that the physical act of writing actually helps people to think and remember, I encourage you to use the computer if you’re comfortable with it. It’s easier to add to, elaborate on, rearrange, and search a computerized list. And for those of us whose handwriting looks like the indecipherable hieroglyphics of some long-forgotten race, typing ensures that trying to read your own writing doesn’t itself become an impediment to you getting to work.

Then, when all the work is done, this list can serve as the basis for a build binder, which when combined with photos taken throughout the process, is of interest to car-show attendees, potential buyers, or your old and forgetful future self, ages and ages hence, that just wants to be reminded that you were once capable of accomplishing such greatness.

A coworker pointed out how my time-categorized task lists are sort of like a flat-rate manual that I am creating for myself.

Classify the jobs on the list by estimated length of time required to complete them. If you have never done a job before, it might be useful to consult a flat-rate manual, model-specific workshop manual, or discussion-board thread detailing the task. Remember, especially if you’ve never done the job before and it requires specialized tools or procedures, it will probably take you longer to complete as a hobbyist.

Then, break them down into their component tasks and print the list out occasionally so it is never far from view. This is key. Once you’ve done this, you can cherry pick those that fit whatever block of time you have to work with.

Keep in mind that a job’s unique set of tasks can always be broken down further. Just spinning the plug out and draining the oil, for example, can be its own subtask; removing hardware and parts, and bagging and tagging them, another; etc. If you only have three minutes, there will almost certainly be a task you can do in that time; and if you have a list of these tasks at hand, you don’t even have to take the time to figure out what you are going to do.

Some subtasks, like doing research on next steps, can be carried out in locations other than the garage and at other times of the day than after work, and help fill your day with automotive enjoyment while also maintaining overall momentum for the project. There’s a fellow in my car club who even brings small components, like carburetors, to his job to fiddle with on his breaks—and he’s employed in an office.

This incremental method can have unexpected benefits beyond making good use of eternity’s pocket change. When I only have time enough for a small subtask, I find myself not rushing. I’m less apt to do something like cross-thread a bolt, and if I do—because I’m working within a small temporal space with definite limits—I am often forced to step away before making the situation worse, giving myself time to think of the best solution. While I live by the mantra “Measure twice, cut once,” there have been instances when I have carefully measured where a cut or hole should be made, run out of time, and come back later only to realize that, somehow, my marks were incorrect.

One of the step plates I finished adding to my car the other night.

While it might at first appear ludicrously detailed for something so simple, the below task list for my speedster’s brackets illustrates that, while I might not have enough time at the end of a given day to do a whole task, with almost no task taking longer than three to five minutes, I could never justify not ticking off at least one subtask each night, and usually accomplished several.

Task #1: Make brackets with step plates

#1 Subtasks:

  1. Source step plates–indeterminate amount of time because of need to shop for them
  2. Source brackets–indeterminate amount of time because of need to shop for them
  3. Determine best height for step plates–5-10 min
  4. Cut left bracket down (they appeared to have been originally for pretty substantial running boards)–15 min
  5. Cut right bracket down–15 min
  6. Measure location of studs on step plates–1 min
  7. Determine size and threading of studs–1 min
  8. Transfer stud measurements to left bracket–1 min
  9. Transfer stud measurements to right bracket–1 min
  10. Drill step-plate holes in left bracket–3-5 min
  11. Drill step-plate holes in right bracket–3-5 min
  12. Test fit step plates to brackets–1-2 min
    • determine how many fender washers are required to level plates on brackets
  13. Source hardware–during a lunch hour
  14. Prime brackets and hardware–3-5 min
  15. Paint brackets and hardware–3-5 min (each coat)
  16. Assemble left bracket and step plate–3-5 min
  17. Assemble right bracket and step plate–3-5 min

An example of one reason its useful to create task lists using a computer. When I test fitted the step plates to the brackets, I learned that I would need to use fender washers to level them. I was easily able to add sourcing them as a subtask to my list.

Task #2: Mount brackets with step plates

#2 Subtasks:

  1. Determine best mounting location on frame–5-10 min
  2. Source mounting hardware–during a lunch hour
  3. Mark holes on left frame rail–1 min
  4. Mark holes on right frame rail–1 min
  5. Drill holes in left frame rail–3-5 min
  6. Drill holes in right frame rail–3-5 min
  7. Lubricate holes with white lithium grease–1 min
  8. Bolt bracket assembly to left frame rail–3-5 min
  9. Bolt bracket assembly to right frame rail–3-5 min

Jobs that are broken down into tasks and subtasks also make it easy for helpers to hop in and lend a hand. Here, my brother, Andrew, is cutting down the brackets. As you can tell by his clothing, this subtask was performed earlier in the fall. Lists can also serve to keep track of where you have left off when you’re juggling multiple tasks, fitting them in whenever you can. It’s not as important for obvious things like this, but can be a great help when it reminds you that you have already completed a less-evident subtask like jetting the carb.

When you begin collecting parts and hardware for a given job, make one of your tasks the establishment of a “job box” for it. As you acquire stuff for a job, add it to a designated and clearly labeled container, using the same bag-and-tag method for small items that you do when disassembling something; label larger stuff with tape, if necessary. Then toss in any instructions, printouts of research you’ve done, and reminders you want to leave for yourself; close it up, and store it until you’re ready for it.

Remember, if you don’t have the time to complete the box’s job all at once, you can break it down into smaller tasks and subtasks. Even an effort as seemingly insignificant as gathering the necessary tools and staging the parts in advance of a larger chunk of time is helpful progress and maintains momentum.

This is a variation on a job box; it’s a plastic silverware drawer tray I purchased at a local yard sale. Right now it contains labeled bags of hardware that has been removed in preparation for when I have a larger block of time to finish a cam swap on the speedster.

This helps with organization, ensuring that when you have enough time to begin the job, you don’t have to waste it looking for the necessary parts and hardware. Imagine how much easier it would be to overcome inertia if all you had to do to get started on a project is pop open a box and get to work. It doesn’t matter if you’ve not picked up a wrench in weeks, or if something really stressful in your life just happened to you. A job box gives you a way to start immediately and with almost no thought.

Label unfinished tasks, and leave must-remember notes. This makes it easy to jump back into a job that is on hold, awaiting a larger block of time or for parts to arrive, and helps ensure that mistakes, like starting the car without refilling the radiator first, don’t happen. I am continually shocked (and disappointed) by how much my brain forgets over the course of only a couple weeks.

Even though the speedster is finally nearing completion, there are still several notes like these that I left myself that need to be dealt with.

Take pictures of the area where the work will happen and the parts you will be using. This is a good idea for a few reasons. Most obvious is that doing so will give you a clear, fairly complete, and portable visual of what you are working with, making research more efficient because you will not have to wait until you get back in the garage to check something out.

Also, periodically taking a peek at the images, especially if you are working through a problem associated with them in your head, might lead you to see the situation differently, causing you to notice key details that you might have at first overlooked.

Finally, these pictures can become part of the documentation in your build binder of the work you have done on the vehicle.

As a subtask in my cam-swap job, I removed the timing cover and snapped this picture. Since then, I have used it to help me determine my next tasks, and when a club mate asked if the timing gear is  fiber—an important consideration when switching to a more aggressive cam—I could immediately check and answer him without having to wait to get back into the garage.

Make sure your workspace is itself not an impediment to your efforts. All the normal workshop best practices apply, of course, but they are even more consequential in the darker months. A well-equipped and organized, picked-up and clean space will ensure that you spend less time making room for a project or hunting for tools and parts—or nursing a preventable injury—and more time actually working on your vehicle.

Lighting is more important than ever in the winter. Beyond allowing you to see the tasks you are working on and things you might trip over, plenty of bright light will trick your body into feeling more motivated because it thinks it isn’t working in the dead of night. Wire your workspace with plenty of light, and turn it all on as soon as you get out there. The good news is that LED lightbulbs, which are both easy on the electric bill and Mother Nature, have recently gotten brighter and significantly less expensive.

Avoid standing or laying on a concrete floor—it will quickly sap your body heat, fatigue you, and cause your bones to ache. If you can, build up your workshop floor with plywood, underlain with insulation and a vapor barrier. Alternatively, restaurant supply stores sell half-inch-thick, grease-proof, slip-resistant mats for less than $100 that would work especially well. In the meantime, wherever you are working, throw down a section of inexpensive rubber-backed indoor-outdoor carpet.

Be sure to have a couple of heaters that can crank out warmth quickly. An electric space heater with a built-in fan placed close by—under the bench or car you are working on, for example—will also help when it’s so cold out that your area would never heat up enough in time. Shrink the space you have to heat as much as you can by building walls or creating temporary enclosures, and have some insulated coveralls ready to jump into, so you won’t even have to bother taking the time to change out of your day-job clothes.

I have finished winterizing my workspace by hanging a heavy canvas tarp, sectioning it off from the the main parking bays, laying down a rubber-backed industrial carpet, and making sure I have fuel for my heaters, which are stowed just off to the side until they are needed.

This approach can all be distilled to a single guiding principle: Do everything you possibly can in advance to make getting to work on your car so quick, so easy, so doable that your impulse to bang out a task is stronger than your inclination to hole up in your house.

What do you do to stay productive in the cold, dark winter months?