We’re all about making our wrenching lives easier with clever garage hacks—and if that saves us money in the process, then it’s a win-win too.
That said, we put together a list of five (plus one) tips to repurpose some would-be trash into useful shop and garage tools. Take a look at our list and if you’ve got any to add, let us hear about it in the comments section below.
This article is part of our series on automotive recycling and recycled parts.
5 Ways to Repurpose Trash Into Usable Workshop Tools
1. Guitar Strings Make Excellent Feeler Gauges & Tubing Cleaners
Got a pal who’s an aspiring Van Halen? Hit them up for some old guitar strings next time they string-up a new set. Solid steel electric or acoustic guitar strings can double as flexible feeler gauges in tight spots and they have a nice, uniform diameter—your axe-toting friend should be able to tell you what sizes (gauge) they use.
More importantly, the rough surface of larger wire-wound strings in a typical six-string set also means you can gently clean out gunk and deposits in tiny tubing and passages. They won’t rust up with use either. We keep a set of guitar strings in our carburetor rebuild tool kit for this very reason.
Tip: Make sure the strings you’ve got are the more common “round-wound” and not the smooth “flat-wound” design. Also, avoid classical nylon strings for this sort of thing.
2. Wire Coat Hangers are Like an Extra Set of Hands
No offense to Mommie Dearest, but we like wire hangers around here.
They’re sturdy, yet flexible and really, really cheap. We often use them in lieu of a bungee strap when hanging our brake calipers when we’re doing brake/suspension jobs, since they won’t degrade with repeated soakings of brake cleaner. But they’re equally handy in and around the engine bay for keeping wires and hoses out of the way while you work, or serving as temporary supports or quick bracket mockups prior to fabrication.
Better still, you can use wire coat hangers for holding small pieces while you’re painting, keeping your hands clean while you spray away at all the nooks and crannies in an intricate part.
3. Blown Audio Speakers Contain Big, Honkin’ Magnets
Blow your old 6x9s to pieces after some late-night Zeppelin or Wu-Tang?
Don’t just toss ’em into the trash bin—behind those shattered speaker cones are powerful magnets. While it may require some finesse, if you’re able to harvest those magnets, they make great tools.
For starters, you can use them to pick up hardware or metal shavings off a shop floor. They’re especially helpful for holding metal parts in place as you work too. Or, if you want to slap a massive, fold-out wiring schematic or rebuild diagram on your tool chest without it blowing away, a repurposed speaker magnet is a great way to do it.
CAUTION: Strong magnets like this can kill phones, hard drives, ECUs, video screens, and other electronic parts, so make sure you’re mindful of where you use them.
4. A Big, Heavy Pipe Isn’t a Breaker Bar…Try This Instead
OK look, we’re never(!) going to recommend slipping a heavy pipe around your ratchet handle to make a breaker bar, because it’s not a smart or safe solution for you, your tools, or your stubborn bolts. Besides, a good breaker bar isn’t that expensive and can save you a ton of headaches if something goes awry.
That said, an old discarded plumbing pipe still has plenty of uses. For example, we’ve used one to fix a set of bent motorcycle handlebars and extend/divert an oil drain flow under a tight vehicle chassis. And it can be used as a round form to bend the aforementioned coat hanger from earlier in this list—or any other sturdy metal wire for that matter. In a pinch, you can also use a stout pipe to roll the wire (or sheetmetal) relatively flat as well.
Oh, and a nice, heavy pipe is equally handy for keeping Colonel Mustard out of your Billiard Room too.
5. Old Food Containers Keep You Organized
For many projects, we rely on a quality tool organizer and parts tray, but there’s always a lot of clutter on a workbench that can be resolved with the clever use of food containers. Got a quick project that uses a lot of tiny clips and fasteners? Baby food jars or pill bottles can keep things separate and tidy. Or if you’re working on something messy, larger margarine and ice cream tubs can keep spills and other goo contained.
If you’ve got a cat, those big kitty litter buckets are great for storing big spare parts too. Many are stackable and easily stowed away under a workbench.
Bonus Tip! Use an Old Cellphone for a Digital Camera
It’s no secret that taking pictures is a great way to stay organized during an intensive automotive project. Whether it’s checking for bolt locations, bracket alignment, or proper hose/wire/belt routing, a digital camera can save you a ton of time and headaches.
But instead of grabbing your new, fancy smartphone with your grease-covered mitts, check your junk drawer for an old, seemingly-obsolete phone. Even models over a decade old often have pretty decent cameras and will work just as good as your big-buck smartphone—and you won’t stress as much about accidentally dunking it in an oil pan or spraying it with carb cleaner.
As an added bonus, you may be able to use an old smartphone with wi-fi for streaming audio too, so you can fill your shop with tunes.
Got any other clever garage hacks to share? We—and presumably the rest of the gearhead community—would love to hear about them. Let us know in the comments section below.