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.

    • Not true, if you scribe the spindle and the upper strut mount bolts under hood, ( a quick mist of cheap paint will do it.. and you install hem lining up the strut to the marking on the spindle and upper mount..
      an extra minute or two will save you from that 89.oo+ 4 wheel alignment.

      As far as needing a air tool and or buddy, maybe if your 90 lb . most people will have no issue turning the nuts down.. and if you break the center nut loose before you remove the struts (don’t remove it just break it loose), there is no need for a helper or air tools, tho air tools are nice.. and with electric impact tool being on sale at tool places for 40-50 bucks, it’s not overly $$$ for those that don’t have nor want an air compressor..
      many might find it’s better to buy a “quick strut” as these have the strut/spring and upper mount/bearing. now after 80k the springs most times are not totally dead but they are muh weaker than when new and have sagged, and the upper mount/bearing nit should be replaced when you do the strut, as these are the cause of that rattle that drives you crazy over bumps. And after pricing the mount/bearing and the strut, the quick strut is many times about the same cost, or just a little more, and not needing to play with a spring compressor and the time to swap the parts to the new one, it makes sense for most. Now if you have a performance car using the quickstrut might not be ideal as it might not have or come with the stiffer spings that most cars with a performance package came with.. and may have to swap the oem springs. to a new strut..

      • Oh, and I forgot, if you live in the land called rustbeltville, a can of PB blaster, and a spray of that on the lower strut nuts/bolt and tie rod (if needed to be removed, most times it doesn’t). a few days or a day before you plan on doing the job, will save you from bolts that don’t want to turn.. and then the day of, after you have it up on jack stands, YOU ARE USING JACK STANDS RIGHT,?? (do not trust the jack with your life,, if no stands cinder block can be used If you fill the holes with concrete first, don’t use these if it still has the holes, jack stands are cheap, and if you’re doing your own auto repairs a good idea t buy a set.. just skip the ones made of thin stamped steel.
        spray them again, and then remove the wheels, hint, loosen the lug nuts before you put it up in the air (jack stands).. and it blows to have to drop the car down to loosen them and then jack it back up.. you only want to break the lugs loose not any farther until you have it up in the air..
        check with your owners manual or google it, for the lug nut torque spec, todays vehicles with slip on rotors and alum wheels this is very important so you don’t loose a wheel while driving.. also , look up the pattern that you tighten the lugs, 4/5/6/8 lugs are all different.. it’ll be in your owners manual, it’s that book in the glove box no one reads..
        if you plan it right you can also do an oil change while you have it up on stands (if doing front shock/struts).. or rears on some cars..
        it’s also a good idea to inspect the c/v boots and front end, and maybe grease it, if they have zerk fittings, don’t trust the quick lube places to have greased them..to many new cars have ungreasable parts, so many don’t even look..
        shocks and struts are an easy job, that can be done in a day even if you’ve never done them before, as long as you line everything up before hand, and already looked up torque spec’s on the nuts/bolts you’ll be undoing.. shocks are not always easier, as many automakers seem to love to make it a r.p.i.t.a to change them.. Crown vic /grand mar. rears anyone..

  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.

  3. All this advice is nice, but if you do not know what you are doing or do not have the CORRECT tools it will bite you!

  4. It isn’t that easy.
    My 2001 Ford Taurus was not easy at all.
    To get the Strut off required removing ball joint.
    Lots of hammering to get it the ball joint loose.
    Then, still the strut could not be removed until
    lower control arm bolt was removed on one side.
    Thank God for U-Tube, Google, and Advanced Auto (free tools)

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