Engine Building Basics

Equip Yourself For Success

Every veteran racer or seasoned mechanic remembers their first engine build. Building an engine for the first time is a long, rewarding process that can greatly enhance your car’s performance on the road and can spur the development of a life-long hobby. However, it’s critical to the success of your engine build that you review your service manual to ensure you’re set up with all the necessary tools and parts before you start spending time and money on your project.

As a longtime expert in engine building, we at Regis Manufacturing have put together this engine building basics guide to point you in the right direction as you begin your engine build. Review the information below to get prepared for your engine build, and browse our online store for any tools or parts you need along the way! We’re with you through your whole build, just as we have been for engine builders across America since 1957. Happy building!

In this guide, we’ll review several core aspects of engine building, including:

  • The typical engine-building process
  • Things to consider as you plan for your engine building project
  • Tips and tricks for getting the best engine for your money
  • How to test your engine build
  • The tools and parts you’ll need for a successful engine build

So, you’re interested in getting into engine building? Good for you! Engine building has been around as both a hobby and a profession for practically as long as cars started being mass-produced in the early 20th century. Whether you’re a street or amateur racer looking to take your car to the next level or simply an auto enthusiast looking to gain more hands-on knowledge and appreciation of your vehicles, engine building can be a truly rewarding experience — if you know how to operate in the workshop.

Engine building can be expensive if you go in without a firm idea of what you’re doing. Individual parts may not be expensive, but with all the components within a single car engine, your costs can add up quickly if you start buying parts and working without a plan in place and a goal in mind. We’ve compiled this Engine Building Basics guide to help get you started on the path towards your first engine build. Review the elements of the engine building timeline, check out our tips for how to save money and make your engine build go smoothly, and check out our online store for quick access to all the tools and parts you’ll need along the way!

Engine Building Timeline

Before diving into your first engine build or even buying anything, you should take some time to plan out your work and determine the scope of your project, and ultimately, the goals you’re hoping to accomplish with your engine build. How powerful and souped-up do you want to go, can you go with your engine build? If your build is for racing purposes, when do you need to have your engine ready? There are a number of questions whose answers will guide your engine build and purchasing decisions, including:

  • Budget: How much can you realistically afford to spend on your engine build? Take a look around the Regis Manufacturing site to get a general idea of what to expect to spend on the parts you want, then factor in the cost for either hiring a local machine shop, or the cost of renting the necessary large tools and garage space (if you don’t have them) for hoisting and lowering your engine into your car for assembly once its upgrades have been completed. Don’t forget the cost of the engine itself if you’re buying one!
  • Function: What is the primary intended use(s) of your engine build? Are you building a high-performance engine with the goal of improving your results on the race track? Are you trying to increase your engine’s horsepower to beef up your muscle car? Simply trying to achieve a healthier, longer-lasting engine for your car? Determining your goals for your engine build are critical, as different types of engines need different parts and internal adjustments to perform to their maximum capability. High-performance engines used in racing, for instance, need to be adjusted to generate maximum compression for a fast start.
  • Necessities: Do you have the necessary space, time, and infrastructure to complete your engine build? You’d be surprised, but some first-time engine builders will excitedly rush into a project before realizing they don’t have the garage space or large tools necessary to complete an engine build and hoist the block in and out of their vehicle. For those in racing, you must also consider if you have enough time to complete a quality engine build. You should have plenty of time to build in the offseason, but if you’re trying to build an engine on the fly in the midst of racing season, you’re going to have to act quickly and decisively, and hope that any technicians or machine shops can squeeze you into their schedules.
  • Support: Do you know any experienced mechanics or racing professionals that can help guide you through your project? We highly recommend seeking out the help of a trusted friend or experienced professional when completing your first engine build. Engine builds aren’t especially difficult when you know what you’re doing, but engine assembly requires specific torquing and adjustment of various components within your engine, and an experienced engine builder is invaluable for learning how to assemble and inspect things the right way so you don’t make mistakes you end up having to fix later. Experienced engine builders can also advise your pre-build planning.

Once you’ve established your goals and budget for your engine build project, it’s time to get started! Any good build begins with acquiring the parts and arranging any special service needed to complete the work. For your first engine build, we highly recommend hiring a machine shop in addition to selecting your parts. Read more below to find out why.

How To Select The Right Parts

First of all, let’s talk about engines. Are you modifying your car’s existing engine, or are you buying a new one? If you’re buying a new or used engine to rebuild and install in your car, you’re going to want to do thorough research to assure you’re getting a valuable asset. You’ll want to secure plenty of information about any engine you’re considering buying, including:

  • The engine’s mileage
  • A vehicle history report on the vehicle the engine was used in
  • Details on the engine’s condition and any damage sustained
  • A description of the engine, including what parts it includes, notes on any wear and tear, and indication of whether the vehicle it was used in was front impact or rear impact
  • An assessment of the engine’s compatibility with your vehicle, if you’re buying one that isn’t for your specific make and model of

From there, review the service manual for your engine or the engine you bought to get an idea of the parts you’ll need to acquire to build your engine. If you’re making specific modifications to your engine, you can consult with an experienced friend to get an idea of the parts you’ll need.

Tip

Call your engine’s manufacturer! Most engine manufacturers maintain technical support lines for the very reason of helping engine builders, and they’ll have the most specific and verifiable information on your engine. Even veteran engine builders are known to consult with manufacturers directly to ensure they get precise details correct with their engine builds. Be sure to tell them your intended uses for the engine, and if racing, where and what you plan to race and how fast you want to go.

How To Choose A Machine Shop (And Why They’re Essential For A Successful Build)

When you’re ready to begin your engine build and have all your parts in place, drop off your engine for machine service at a trusted machine shop. We highly recommend hiring a machine shop to complete the more technical elements of your engine build, as they have the expertise, and most importantly, the equipment to reliably handle the more difficult aspects of your engine build. It’s another expense, yes, but do you have the equipment or budget to acquire the high-tech equipment needed to complete highly precise tasks, such as micro-polishing your crankshaft or honing the engine block? Unless you have friends or family with their own machine shop, chances are that you could use the help of a machine shop.

Most budget-minded engine builders work with a machine shop to complete their builds, though finding a quality one can take some time. We recommend searching online for machine shops in your general area that specialize in racing engines, and choosing quality over proximity — meaning that you shouldn’t be hesitant to drive a couple hours to a reputable machine shop if there are no good local shops. Keep in mind, too, that machine shops that specialize in stock engine rebuilds generally don’t have the latest and greatest in technology, or the bug budgets necessary to keep the industry’s finest machinists around. In short, you’ll get what you pay for when you hire a machine shop, but good machine shop service is invaluable — it’s worth the investment.

When hiring a machine shop and delivering your engine and all necessary parts, be sure to be thorough in explaining what work you want done to the machinist. Inform them just what it is you want out of your engine when it comes to performance and quality.

Tip

If you’re building an engine for use in a racing vehicle, be sure to plan your engine build timeline accordingly. You’ll want to get your engine and all the necessary parts and goodies to the machine shop well before the engine assembly phase is set to begin. Racing specialty machine shops are generally busiest in spring — plan accordingly, and expect the work on your engine to take a month, or longer if you do take it in during peak season in March.

While your engine is getting serviced at the machine shop, you can use the time to complete any other work your car may need, such as filter replacements or updating your tires, and prepare for the assembly process by reviewing the engine assembly process and procedures. We’ve outlined the basic steps below, but for a more in-depth look, consider picking up an engine building reference book, such as Engine Blueprinting by Rick Voegelin or Power Secrets by Smokey Yunick. These books dive deep into detail on all the aspects of engine building, from the conventional engine building procedures to the extra steps taken by veteran engine builders and racing specialists. They’re an invaluable asset for any aspiring engine builder.

The Assembly Process

  1. Prepare for your engine assembly by gathering all the necessary engine building tools, as well as any other parts you want to add that you haven’t had the machine shop install for you. Here’s what you’ll need:

    Tools You’ll Need

    • Engine stand
    • Torque wrench
    • Deck plate
    • Piston ring installation tool
    • Piston ring filer
    • Micrometer set (for measuring your pistons and crankshaft journals)
    • Dial bore gauge
    • Dial indicator (for degreeing camshafts)
    • A clean and organized work space
  2. Clean everything twice. You’d be surprised, but most engine builders spend more time cleaning and degreasing their engine block and all of its components than they do actually bolting everything together. Be incredibly diligent about cleaning your engine block before starting assembly — even the slightest bit of dirt or grease could throw off the delicate system you’ve worked so hard to improve through your engine build.

    To properly clean your engine block, you can wash it using hot, soapy water, then vigorously blowing it dry to remove all moisture. Be sure to blow out all the bolt holes, too, using compressed air.

  3. Lubricate all major bearings with oil. Lubricate the insides of all the main bearings, and the lips of all rear main seals.

    Tip

    Before torquing anything, consult your engine’s manual to get the proper torque specs for your engine. Over-torquing the components of your engine can ruin it, and pairing proper torque specs with a few drops of oil on your fasteners will ensure proper torque.

  4. Install your crankshaft and main caps. Begin this step by greasing the camshaft bearings before installing the camshaft. Note that the caps of your camshaft are sensitive to position and direction. When installing them, snug the caps and then torque them onto your engine block, starting for the center caps first before moving outwards. After you do so, test to make sure that the crankshaft rotates smoothly without seizing up.

    Tip

    Use your micrometers to determine what size of rod and crank bearings you should be using. Your crank’s journals shouldn’t ride directly on your engine block’s main bearings or rod bearings! Instead, you should shoot for a fine, two-a gap. Check your engine’s manual to determine how large the gap should be.

  5. Install the timing belt and degree your camshaft. Reference your engine’s manual, and/or seek help from an experienced friend to align the timing marks correctly. You’ll do this by aligning the timing marks at top dead center and rotating the camshaft’s degree wheel correctly to set the proper valve timing sequences for the crankshaft/piston timing, intake, compression, power, and exhaust strokes.
  6. Install your pistons, piston rings, gaskets, and seals. It’s critical during this phase of assembly to precisely gap your piston rings. Piston rings aren’t made specifically for your engine, and particularly if you’re building an engine for a racing environment, you’re going to need to do the math to determine how much to file down your piston rings based on the size of your cylinder bores and how much cylinder pressure you intend to generate. This is something you should talk to your machinist or an experienced friend about if you’re unsure, as mismeasurement in this area can greatly hinder your engine’s performance.
  7. Install your pistons and rods. Lubricate your rod inserts before installing and torquing your rod caps. As you install your rods, softly snug and torque them gradually in three stages to ensure they’re assembled evenly. You can do this by continually rotating the crankshaft after installing each piston and rod assembly. The goal is free rotation of the crankshaft — if the shaft gets difficult to turn, that indicates that either the last piston in your cylinder or your rod inserts are snagging. Your rod inserts should have each half snug up against the other without having one end slipping below the other.
  8. Install your head gasket, and be sure it is installed in the correct direction if you have a directional head gasket. Don’t forget to bolt the head to your engine block, or you will eventually ruin your OHC belt. Do not use gasket cement unless your engine’s manual specifically says to do so.
  9. Install your valve heads and valve train. Lubricate the bolts for your valve head, then torque them down, paying close attention to the length and location of each bolt. Ask a professional or experienced friend about a three-angle valve job — it can be a fantastic way to achieve optimal cylinder pressure without seeping past your valves. Once you’ve done that, install your valve train, lubricating each part as you go. Torque the train with one round of preload once finished with this step.
  10. Prep your engine for testing. Once you’ve got all the components installed on your engine build, fill your oil filter with motor oil, as well as whatever break-in oil your machinist recommends. Manually operate the oil pump to prime your engine’s oiling system, and fill the engine cooling system with a half-and-half mixture of distilled water and antifreeze. You’ll also want to double check that other necessary components — such as spark plugs, distributor caps, and fuel and air filters — are installed before moving forward to installing your engine build.
  11. Use a hoist to lower your engine build into your vehicle. Get any necessary help you need to make absolutely sure your engine is lowered slowly and level into your car. Once it’s lowered to the proper level, fasten it to the mounting brackets and reconnect all the hoses, pipes, and wiring. Reinstall your car’s radiator and hood, being careful to keep any parts that could melt away from your exhaust leaders.
  12. Perform an initial start-up test. Set your e-brake and block your wheels, then turn the ignition. Check the fuel delivery system if the engine doesn’t start. During this start-up, monitor your oil pressure and temperature gauges. Cut the engine immediately and check for fluid leaks if you get a full oil pressure reading. Cut the engine immediately if you notice anything unusual, or if anything feels off at all.
  13. Once you’ve passed your initial start-up test, break in your new engine by revving up the car to 2,000 rpm to thin out any oil on your camshaft. From there, you’ll want to run the engine at speeds between 1800 and 2500 rpm for the next 20 minutes.
  14. As you’re doing this, pull off the radiator cap to check for adequate flow or any leaks. Do this early in testing before it gets too hot! Make sure that your car’s battery is charging.
  15. At this stage, your engine build is installed and ready for the road for everyday use. If you’re building an engine for use in a racing environment, there may be additional tests you should run to ensure high performance. Consult with your machine shop or a trusted and experienced friend for further guidance on racing-related engine testing.
  16. Finally, be sure to change the oil frequently in your engine’s early life! You should change the oil after your first 100 miles, and then again every thousand miles within the first three to five months of use.

Wrapping Up

And there you have it, you’ve completed your first engine build! To keep your garage fully stocked and to stay equipped for future builds or modifications your engine could need check out our online store! Regis Manufacturing has been producing top-quality engine building parts and tools since the days of hot rods and T-Birds, and we’re proud to have built a reputation as one of the most trusted names in engine building for multiple generations.