Upkeep: Replacing Your Own Shocks or Struts

shocksRecently, I decided to replace the front struts on my old Mercedes, and as I did the job, I found myself thinking:

This really isn’t that hard.

It’s true. For the uninitiated, Suspension work is mostly just bolting and unbolting. I know it’s intimidating to think about taking your suspension apart, but when you get right down to it, it’s probably less complicated than assembling an Ikea bookcase.

And here’s the thing: doing your own suspension work can save you many hundreds of dollars. My rule of thumb is that however much the parts cost, you need to multiply by two or three to get the total cost including labor. If you take those labor charges out, it’s a much more palatable bill. Plus, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you did it yourself, likely with more caution and care than a typical mechanic would take.

So let’s take a bird’s-eye view of how to replace your own struts or shocks. I hope it’ll inspire you to take it on next time your suspension needs a shot in in the arm.

1. Check Whether You Need a Spring Compressor

Let me be very clear about this: when I did my front struts, I knew ahead of time that I would not need a spring compressor. That’s because the front suspension design on my car is such that the springs are separate (and inboard) from the struts, so you can remove the latter without ever touching the former. But on many cars, the struts/shocks and springs are interrelated or integrated, which means you may need a spring compressor to remove the springs. This is serious business: if you don’t remove the springs properly, they can pop off and damage anything in their path, including yourself! You can rent a spring compressor pretty easily, but make sure you understand how to use it before you do. If there’s one part of the job that could come back to bite you, this is it.

2. Securely Raise One Side of the Car

If you’ve got access to an actual lift, great — I’m envious, and so are most driveway DIYers! But if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll want to jack up one side of the car at a time, just high enough to get a jackstand under the jack point behind the front wheel.

3. Remove the Wheel and Extract the Old Shock/Strut

The wheel is easy, of course, but getting the absorber out of there may take some elbow grease. If a spring compressor is required for your job, this is where you’d use it. On my car, there were three bolts holding the bottom of the strut in place, and fortunately they weren’t too hard to break loose with a socket wrench. Up top, the strut extended inside a strut tower with a serious bolt inside the engine compartment; I had to use an impact wrench with a socket extension to get it loose, so if you don’t have one of those handy and you end up needing one, hopefully you’ve got a friend who does.

Note that you may have to hold up the lower control arm if it starts to drop once you undo those lower bolts — so keep an eye on it as you go, and be ready to slide your jack underneath for support.

4. Install the New Shock/Strut

With any luck, this will be as simple as reversing what you’ve done so far. I always recommend using a torque wrench and tightening all bolts to OEM specifications, but I do have friends who swear by the “Good and tight” method, so I’ll leave this to your judgment. Once the new absorber is mounted and tightened, put the wheel back on, lower the car, and simply repeat steps 2-4 for the other side.

5. Don’t Forget The Test Drive!

When you do work on a vital suspension system, you’ll definitely want to take the car for a slow diagnostic drive afterward, just to make sure nothing feels or sounds off. Don’t go careening along a winding road just yet; I’m talking about a nice slow spin through the neighborhood, perhaps wiggling the steering wheel now and then to test transient response. If everything seems good to go, consider the procedure a provisional success!

As you can probably tell, it wasn’t that hard. Just remember that this article is intended as a very broad overview, so you should do specific research on your vehicle before undertaking the job. If there’s anything you’d add from your own experience, I’m sure we’d all like to hear about it in the comments.

Editor’s note: Head on over to Advance Auto Parts first for the best selection of quality shocks and struts, at even better values. We’ll get you back to the garage fast—buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Comments

  1. Don’t forget the wheel alignment! On many vehicles it will be absolutely necessary and the vehicle could even become dangerous to drive at higher speeds, cornering and such until the wheel alignment is done.. and your tires will thank you by not wearing out prematurely.

    If you need a spring compressor, you’re best off having a 200 ft. lb or higher electric or air impact wrench handy. Some of those springs take a fair amount of muscle to do otherwise and you may find they need adjusted a little in and out to get them to fit back in the vehicle.

    Not only may you greatly benefit from having the powered impact wrench but also a fair sized helper to hold the assembly still while you use the wrench.

    An average strength person can’t both use the wrench and hold the assembly still. Maybe if they had 4 hands instead of two, it’s really more about that than strength. It’s a bit tricky trying to mount something like that in a standard bench vise to do it alone with no help.

    Shocks on the other hand, are so quick ‘n easy that everyone should do their own if they have a wrench and some space to do it.

  2. A lot of cars these days have full Macpherson quick struts… so you don’t even need a spring compressor. Just unbolt the whole unit and replace with a whole new unit.

    You just need a socket wrench and maybe a breaker bar if the car is older.

    Yes, it may be a little more expensive, but a lot of times it isn’t much and the hours you’ll save not having to take the strut assembly apart just to replace the shocks is worth the cost to some people.

    I like to use another jack stand to hold the lower control arm. As for support, if you unbolt the top of the strut first, it makes it much easier to hold the assembly with one hand while pulling out the last bolt from the wheel knuckle with the other. The threads at the top of the assembly usually do a good job of keeping it from falling straight down as long as you’re applying some upward pressure.

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