It’s the classic rhetorical question: “How high is up?”

Luckily, finding Top Dead Center (TDC) in an engine is far less taxing from a theoretical standpoint. TDC refers to the position of the Number One piston relative to the deck surface of the cylinder block. This is used as an indicator for at least two of the more critical aspects in an engine: ignition and cam timing.

It seems pretty easy to find at first glance. With the cylinder head off, all you have to do is look at the piston; once it stops moving you’re at TDC. But it’s not quite that simple and nowhere near “close enough.” We’re talking about building horsepower, not tossing horseshoes!

The reciprocating assembly—crankshaft, connecting rod, and piston—creates an interesting situation when it comes to rotating geometry. Once the piston reaches its peak upward travel, it “dwells” or resides at this location for several degrees of crankshaft rotation. This dwell time will change based on crankshaft stroke, connecting rod length, block deck height, and the vagaries of geometry.

It’s important that we establish exactly where TDC resides in order to establish an accurate position for both cam and ignition timing. Taking all these factors into account appears complex, but it really isn’t.

Long ago, a smart engine builder decided to make this task easy by constructing a Piston Stop to help determine TDC. A piston stop is a simple device that prevents the piston from achieving total travel to the top of its stroke. By using a piston stop and measuring how much travel occurs on either side of our TDC mark, we can quickly determine if our timing mark is accurate.

On most modern V8 engines (made after 1950), the factory will place a single line or hash mark on the harmonic balancer that corresponds with a fixed timing tab placed on the front timing chain cover. We can use the reference to establish ignition timing as related in a previous Ignition Basics story.

The marks on the timing tab can get confusing. For example, there will be a zero mark with hash marks above and below it. On Chevrolet V8 engines, the tab will be located on the left (driver) side of the balancer and the tab will have several hash marks above the zero line reading “Advanced” and one below the zero line reading “Retarded.” If there are five hash marks between zero and 10 degrees on the tab, then each of the marks is worth 2 degrees.

You may have also seen engines with a single fixed pointer that references a series of timing marks on the balancer. This is called a degreed balancer where the timing advance is read off the balancer instead of the timing tab. This operates the same way as the hash marks on the timing tab but requires the pointer (which is often adjustable) to be positioned accurately, especially with performance engines where ignition timing is extremely critical.

The reason this is all so important relates both to new engines as well as older engines where mixing parts can often create errors when it comes to accurately establishing TDC. A classic example is the small block Ford Windsor engine. Over its long production career, Ford has moved the TDC location to three different locations. If all you have is a bag of parts with no knowledge of the engine’s history or which pointer is correct for the balancer, it becomes a frustrating guessing game.  

The small block Chevy did not escape this shift in TDC location. In 1969 Chevy changed the location of the TDC mark by roughly 12 degrees. Since all small block balancers are interchangeable, there is potential for a significant timing error. We will be using an early (pre ’69) 283 cubic small block as our example for checking TDC so you can see why establishing an accurate TDC is so important.

The heads were removed on our particular engine, which makes this operation a little bit easier. We used a homemade piston stop with an adjustable bolt that contacts the piston in the center. There are plenty of aftermarket piston stops if you would rather purchase one rather than make one. To begin, we placed a length of painter’s tape on the balancer with a mark at TDC. We then slowly turned the engine over by hand in both directions and marked the tape across from the zero mark on the tab where the piston stopped on each side of the TDC mark.

In our case, we were using a replacement 6-1/8 inch diameter balancer we thought was for an early engine. As we discovered, this balancer uses the later keyway position for TDC. This placed the balancer 12 degrees off from indicated TDC using the original welded-on timing tab. If we had not bothered to check the accuracy of our combination of balancer and timing tab, it would have made the timing appear 12 degrees more advanced than it really was. An indicated 12 degrees BTDC of ignition timing would really be zero timing advance—which is a huge difference!  

To resolve our problem, we simply removed the early welded-on timing tab and replaced it with a bolt-on timing tab designed to be used with the 1969 and later TDC mark.

If the engine in question has the heads installed, there is another way to perform this test. Summit Racing offers several thread-in piston stops that install in place of the Number One spark plug. The procedure for finding TDC is the same as the piston stop in our first example.

The best way to use a thread-in piston stop is to remove all the spark plugs to make turning the engine over easier. Always turn the engine by hand when using this tool as the starter motor could easily damage the piston or break the tool off inside the cylinder. In fact, never use the starter motor to bump the engine around to find TDC when using a piston stop of any configuration. Always turn the engine by hand with a breaker bar on the crankshaft bolt.

We’ve discovered that some aftermarket heads reposition the spark plug location so a thread-in piston stop does not contact the piston. This is actually a very common occurrence with later model aftermarket heads. In this situation, we’ve used a Moroso on-head valve spring compressor tool. Instead of compressing the valve spring, we use a flat 1/8 or 3/16 inch of piece of steel plate that straddles the fingers of the tool to push down on the valve tip instead of the spring retainer. We adjust the tool to push either an intake or exhaust valve down to roughly half-travel.

The Moroso tool is designed to over-center, which holds the valve in a fixed position. If you are careful, the valve can be used as a piston stop. We emphasize being careful here because clearly you want to contact the valve with the lightest touch possible. This prevents the potential for bending the valve with the piston, which would ruin your whole day. The TDC procedure is still the same using a valve as the piston stop.

Now that we’ve offered several ideas on how to check TDC, you have both the knowledge and the process to check it. Most engines you check will probably be very close, which is good. The idea is to check all your engines so that the one that’s off by 12 degrees won’t go into service with an erroneous TDC mark.

There are several types of piston stops. The large plate is a homemade tool used when the heads are removed. The thread-in stops use the spark plug hole to check TDC with the heads bolted on. (Image/Jeff Smith)
This thread-in piston stop is hollow to allow air to easily escape as the piston rises. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Our simple piston stop uses two head bolts with nuts to hold it in place over the piston. Find a position where the piston hits the stop roughly 20 degrees or so away from TDC. (Image/Jeff Smith)
This Moroso valve spring compressor is normally used to change springs with the heads on the engine, but can be used to verify TDC when spark plug-style piston stops will not work. We fashioned a small steel plate that straddles the tool and contacts the valve stem instead of the spring retainer. The tool then uses the valve as a temporary piston stop to verify TDC. (Image/Jeff Smith)
This photo clearly illustrates how the TDC mark shifted from the pre-1969 (right) to 1969 and later small-block Chevys (left). (Image/Jeff Smith)
To begin, we placed the piston at TDC. Notice where the TDC mark is relative to the early stock timing tab. This is why it’s important to check TDC, especially when replacing parts like a new balancer. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Using our piston stop, we placed a piece of painter’s tape on the balancer and marked the two positions indicated by the timing tab at the zero mark. If TDC is accurate, the two stop marks will be equidistant from the TDC mark on the tape. Note that this one is not even close. (Image/Jeff Smith)
We removed the tape and placed it on a length of aluminum plate to make it easier to measure. The easiest way to determine the real TDC mark is to split the difference in distance. For example, if the difference was a half-inch, then moving the TDC mark closer to the farther stop mark by 1/4-inch would be the true TDC mark. (Image/Jeff Smith)

Instead of modifying the new balancer, we chose to use a 1969 and newer style bolt-on timing tab to the cover. Note that the TDC mark on the balancer and the timing tab are now within one degree of true TDC. You can see the original welded-on tab underneath. (Image/Jeff Smith)
While degreed balancers are nice, they’re usually more expensive. One way to create degree marks on a non-degreed balancer is with a timing tape. MSD makes a nice timing tape that is easy to read, and its adhesive is good enough to stay put for a few years. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Another quick way to set timing and quickly establish TDC is using an adjustable pointer with a degreed balancer. Here, we’re using a Summit Racing adjustable timing pointer on a degreed balancer. It’s difficult to see in this photo, but the orange mark indicates 36 degrees of timing BTDC. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Degreeing a camshaft demands the same TDC process, except you will use TDC on the cam degree wheel instead of on the harmonic balancer. Setting TDC on the wheel is critical because if that position is not correct, all of your subsequent measurements will be in error. (Image/Jeff Smith)
Once TDC has been accurately established on your engine between the balancer and the timing tab, the ignition timing measured with your timing light will also accurate. (Image/Jeff Smith)
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Author: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith has had a passion for cars since he began working at his grandfather's gas station at the age 10. After graduating from Iowa State University with a journalism degree in 1978, he combined his two passions: cars and writing. Smith began writing for Car Craft magazine in 1979 and became editor in 1984. In 1987, he assumed the role of editor for Hot Rod magazine before returning to his first love of writing technical stories. Since 2003, Jeff has held various positions at Car Craft (including editor), has written books on small block Chevy performance, and even cultivated an impressive collection of 1965 and 1966 Chevelles. Now he serves as a regular contributor to OnAllCylinders.