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Video 101: How to Set Ignition Timing

Perhaps this would’ve been a good post for a Throwback Thursday.

Fact is this video has been around for a while, but it’s still one of the more comprehensive tutorials on an oft-misunderstood topic: setting ignition timing. Chances are you know that ignition timing can affect engine power and performance, fuel economy, and even engine longevity. You may also know that improper timing can lead to engine vibration and costly damage.

But do you know the basic theory behind ignition timing? Or the differences between initial timing and total timing? Or how to make proper timing adjustments?

This MSD video covers all that, making it a must-watch for newbie gearheads who have never picked up a timing light. It’s also a good review lesson for seasoned wrench-turners looking to revisit the basics.

Check it out:

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  1. Edward Harvey says:

    Hello I was a mechanic in the early 80’s and we disconnected the vacuum tube to the distributer, I guess that is not done now days?

    • Why would someone do that?

    • Brian Silver says:

      Ed, That was a vacuum advance instead of the weights used in more modern distributors. As the vacuum increased the plate in the distributor was advanced.
      Removing the tube gave you a starting advance and reconnecting would show the range. Better than the old advance spark on the steering wheel of the model T.

  2. Thanks, a well done explanation.

  3. Harold Lege says:

    well done,nice exsplanation..I think anyone could understand the basic concept….awesome.

  4. !. It’s not an explosion. It’s a burn.
    2. There’s a washer under the 11/32 nut. WATCH FOR IT
    3. A better way to explain to a rookie about the travel in the distributor is to say: “There’s a certain amount of mechanical travel inside of the distributor. To find out how much, as an example, set your idle timing at 10 degrees. While holding your timing light on the balancer marks bring the rpm’s up gradually until the timing ceases to advance. Let’s say it stops at 36 degrees. To know how many degrees of mechanical travel is in the distributor subtract 10 from 36. Which equals 26. Then divide that by two because your distributor is turning at half the speed of the crank/balancer. There are 13 degrees of travel in this example.” While the information on the side of the box tells you what bushing will give you “X” amount of travel, never trust it. Always put it together and perform the test again. I will have the easiest to understand COMPLETE chapter on ignition timing in my upcoming book. Feel free to contact me with honest questions. Don’t feel bad. I have found in all of my years dealing with the public on this issue that 98% of guys do not grasp ignition timing. It’s never been explained COMPLETELY in any magazine article. It’s always little bits of half information at best.

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  6. What is the dot on the camshaft gear

    • OnAllCylinders Staff says:

      You’re asking about the marks on the timing and camshaft gear, right?
      Those are index marks to ensure you line up your camshaft with the crankshaft position.
      Generally speaking, when properly aligned, those marks tell you that the #1 cylinder is at top-dead-center and the #6 cylinder is at bottom-dead-center.
      In other words, when your number 1 cylinder is at TDC, the bottom, crank gear ‘dot’ should be at the 12 o’clock position, while the top, cam gear ‘dot’ should be at the 6 o’clock position.

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