Is your car pulling to the left or perhaps right as you drive down the road? It may be time for a front end alignment. The front end alignment is perhaps more common than the rear wheel alignment simply because the steering and suspension parts are under the most stress as we turn and corner during everyday driving.
If you are tired of paying $100 every time your alignment gets out of whack, you may want to consider a DIY Alignment. The process is fairly straight forward and simple so just about any handyman can do it. Before getting started there are a few items of consideration that are a must read.
DYI alignments are quick and dirty
For greater accuracy, it is best to let the pros align your steering system. The method that I am about to show you is used to adjust the toe which is the most common adjustment. This is basically the degree to which each wheel is turned in or out. Ideally, when your steering wheel is completely straight, you will have zero toe in or out. Each wheel has its own toe adjustment and will have to be tweaked individually.
Doing a toe adjustment is a quick way to get your car back in line without having to bring it to the shop. Since the toe adjustment is typically the one that goes out, we will only be adjusting this. The alignment shop can also adjust the caster angle and camber angle on some vehicles but not all. They use precision computerized equipment to perfectly align all 3 – toe, caster, and camber on all 4 tires.
That being said, we are technically doing a partial alignment, adjusting the most important part of the steering system on the front end. If you have just installed a new set of tires it is advisable to allow the tire shop to also do a four wheel alignment.
Is you steering system tight? Check components before getting started
Before starting your front end alignment, it is very important to ensure that you are working with a tight steering system. If you steering components are worn out, making adjustments will often yield poor results and your car or truck will quickly return to its original state of misalignment. Any slop in the steering system will allow your wheel to twist and turn in any direction that it desires while driving down the road.
As your vehicle ages, so will its steering and suspension components. Tie rod ends, ball joints, pitman arm, wheel bearings, rack and pinion bushings and a number of other worn components can cause slack in the steering system. If your vehicle is older with higher mileage, several components may be worn. A little slack here, a little slack there will result in excess play which can often be felt in the steering wheel. Do you have to turn your wheel an inch or two before the wheels respond? Odds are you have some worn steering or suspension parts. These must be fixed before proceeding.
Next time your mechanic has your car up in the air, have him check the steering and suspension system. Check it yourself by raising the vehicle and playing with the wheel. Pull it forward, backwards, side to side, push up, turn the steering wheel etc and check where each component meets while looking for a measurable amount of play. Very little to no play should be present in all components.
Incorrectly adjusting your toe can cause more harm than good
As mentioned, this is a do it yourself project but this does not necessarily mean that this task is for everyone. If by any chance after reading these instructions you do not feel comfortable adjusting your cars toe, leave this work up to the professionals. Adjusting your toe can cause your car to pull harder to one side, causing severe wear on the inside or outside of the tires. In addition, this could also cause handling and safety concerns when driving your car.
How to adjust your alignment toe
- Straight 2×4 and a level
- Various sizes of wood shims to level the vehicle
- Two adjustable jack stands
- 20′ or so of nylon string. Preferably florescent in color for easy viewing
- A micrometer
- 2 wrenches used to loosen tie rod adjustment
- Tie rod adjusting tool or channel locks
Park your vehicle on a level surface
To begin, it is important to park your car on a level surface. A garage floor may be a good place to perform this task or perhaps a level driveway. Choose a surface that is as level as possible before beginning this procedure. If necessary, make adjustments to the surface by adding various sizes of scrap wood under the tires. You can use a long 2×4 and a level to determine the amount of shimming necessary to allow the vehicle to rest on a level surface. In my case, no shimming was necessary as the concrete surface that I worked on was quite level.
Run a string to establish a reference point
When you car rolls down the road, the front wheels and rear wheels should be positioned precisely in line with one another. Knowing this, you are able to use the center of the rear and front wheel as a reference point when trying to establish which way and how much your toe should be adjusted.
Before running your string, position the front wheels in the straight forward position and the steering wheel must be completely straight. Failure to do so can cause you to throw your alignment way off.
Run a nylon string from the front of the car to the rear of the car. Make the length of the string slightly longer than the entire run of the tire. Tie each end to a jack stand and position the line where it meets in the center of the hub. Start with one wheel (the rear wheel in this case for purpose of demonstration) and use a micrometer to measure the distance between the center hub and where it meets the string. The exact distance does not matter at this point.
Lock the micrometer in this position and move to the front wheel. Adjust your jack stand and string so that the distance between the string and center hub is precisely the same as what you measured at the rear. Go back and check your rear measurement to ensure that this measurement has not changed. Once you have a string running from the front of the car to the rear, equal distance from the center hub, you are ready to check your toe.
Check your toe and make a determination
Use your micrometer and measure the distance from one side of the lip of your front rim to where it intersects the reference line. Take the same measurement from the opposite side of the rim lip to where it intersects the reference line. Ensure that you are measuring from the same are of the rim when you take your measurements.
Compare the two measurements. The left side of the rim lip and the right side of the rim lip should be equal distance from the reference line. What if they are not?
How to determine which way to adjust toe
- If the measurement from the front lip of the rim to the reference sting is greater than the measurement from the rear lip of the rim to the reference string then you wheel is pointed inwards. This means that you will have to toe out to allow your wheel to point straight when the steering wheel is turned straight.
- If the measurement from the front lip of the rim to the reference sting is less than the measurement from the rear lip of the rim to the reference string then you wheel is pointed outward. This means that you will have to toe in to allow your wheel to point straight when the steering wheel is turned straight.
Using the toe adjustments
After determining whether you need to toe or out, locate the tie rod adjustment under the car or truck. They are typically located in line between the pitman arm and steering knuckle. The adjustment sleeve resembles a turnbuckle with a clamp on each end to lock it in position.
Using 2 wrenches, one to loosen and one to back the other end of the bolt, loosen the adjustment sleeve lock down clamps several turns. From here you are able to adjust your vehicles toe by turning the sleeve.
Take note of the tie rod threads and determine the effects of turning the sleeve one way or the other. Some tie rod sleeves are reverse threaded while others are not. Use a tie rod adjusting tool or pair of channel locks to tighten or loosen the sleeve. If the tie rod attaches to the steering knuckle in front of the tire, turning the sleeve so that it lengthens the tie rod will cause the wheel to toe outward. Likewise, turning the sleeve so that it shortens the tie rod length will cause the wheel to toe inward. If unsure, do a little experimenting to determine the effects of turning the sleeve one way or the other.
If you have determined earlier that you need to move the toe out, turn the sleeve thereby lengthening the tie rod. If you have determined that the toe needs to be moved in, turn the sleeve so that you shorten the tie rod length.
Turn the sleeve one half a revolution at a time and then compare the distance between the rear and front lip of the rim to the reference line. When turned in the correct direction, the distance between the two will eventually become equal. At this point the wheel has been lined up. Now tighten the locking clamps down.
Repeat this procedure for the other side of the car or truck. When completed, your front end should be aligned with both front tires pointing straight forward when the wheel is completely straight. Test drive to ensure that the procedure was done correctly.