Engine building is pretty close to an art form. And like any other performance art, it can be learned through experience. Also like an artist, the best tools just make the task that much easier. Over the years, engine building tools have become far more plentiful and built in numbers that also makes them affordable.

In Part 1 of Our Story on Basic Engine Building Tools, we covered the essential tools that anyone would need to accomplish the task of assembling an engine. This time, we’ll cover more of the necessary gear needed to nudge this task closer to the professional level.

Tools You’ll Need to Build an Engine Like a Pro

(We’ll include a complete parts list of all the tools discussed in this article at the bottom of this post.)

Right from the beginning, a solid engine stand is an item that is often overlooked. Once you’ve amassed more tools, you will quickly discover those inexpensive three-legged engine stands that worked when you were just starting out seem even more flimsy and just not up to your new standards. A solid stand capable of supporting 1,000 pounds is not only important, it makes the job of building engines easier.

We found a bolt-together stand from Summit Racing that is not only rated at 1,000 pounds but incorporates a crank mechanism that makes rotating the engine much easier. An all aluminum LS engine may not need this feature, but an iron-headed big block Chevy can be a tussle to rotate the assembly, especially with the engine inverted.

In Part 1 of Our Story on Basic Engine Building Tools, we acknowledged that investing in a complete set of quality micrometers and a dial bore gauge was clearly a big step. But if you’re serious about building engines, these precision measurement tools are an absolute requirement. The most troublesome step in assembling an engine, once the machine work is finalized, is precisely measuring bearing clearance. This is one step that cannot be ignored without unfortunate and expensive consequences.

Look for a micrometer set that is accurate to 0.0001 inch. There are cheap micrometers on the market but don’t be tempted. It is best to spend the money for precision tools. In dial bore gauges, the same accuracy is required with measurement capability down to the same 0.0001 inch. This is ten times the precision of the less expensive tools that only go to 0.001 inch. It should be obvious why this is necessary.

Moving on to the rest of the engine, we’ve found that it saves time to have several dial indicators set up to do specific jobs. For example, we have one dial indicator specifically for deck bridge measurements and another connected to a magnetic base for crank endplay and also for measuring lifter travel when degreeing camshafts. The precision for these gauges can be merely 0.001 inch since tighter accuracy isn’t necessary.

Another eventual decision will come down to sticking with your original manual piston ring grinder or investing in an electric version. We’ll admit that for years, we trudged along with our manual grinder and it served us well. But the time involved with hand-spinning the wheel proved too tedious. We skipped over the intermediate priced electric ring files and went right to the top end Summit Racing Professional Ring Filer, which has turned into one of our favorite tools.

What used to be a boring process is now not only more precise, it requires much less than half the time. The ring filer sets the gap quickly, and also offers a deburring wheel on the opposite side of the motor to remove the bur from each freshly-filed ring end. Yes, this tool is expensive, but if you build more than one or two engines a year it will radically decrease the time it takes to set ring gaps on custom engines. It’s well worth the investment.

Camshaft degreeing is another area where precision is an important part of the game. There are probably a dozen small eight inch diameter camshaft degree wheels that will certainly do the job.

If you already have one you may consider one of the larger professional wheels as an unnecessary luxury. But try this test on your existing wheel. Place the wheel on a large piece of cardboard and mark all four 90 degree positions with a pen. Then rotate the wheel a certain amount, like 14 degrees. Then check all four positions to see if they all report a difference of 14 degrees. If not, then your wheel is not accurate and should be replaced.

By using a larger wheel, especially one machined instead of printed, there is enough space in between the hash marks to improve accuracy.

Other tools that we use all the time are three jaw pullers for crank timing gears as well as dedicated harmonic balancer pullers. You can’t even begin to work on an engine until the harmonic balancer is removed and there are multiple tools that will do the job. For example, Summit Racing offers multiple harmonic balancer puller and installer tools for older engines as well as a dedicated tool for stock LS engines. If there’s enough reader interest, we could write a full story on just dedicated tools for LS engine building as these engines demand their own specific assembly tools—let me know in the comments if you’d like to learn more about that topic.

Rod bolt stretch gauges are another individual piece of kit for your collection that we consider an essential assembly tool for mid- to high-end engines. Stock rod bolts merely use a torque spec that millions of production engines have proven to be sufficient. But higher rpm performance engines demand better rod bolts and those generally are spec’d with both a torque number as well as a rod bolt stretch number. This stretch number is a far more accurate way to establish the proper clamp load on a rod bolt—but this requires a specific use gauge to measure.

Frankly, in our opinion, this is the only way to assemble a performance engine. Summit Racing offers a very affordable analog dial indicator stretch gauge as does ARP, but if you really want to be high tech, ARP now offers a digital stretch gauge that reads to the fourth decimal place (0.0001 inch).

We have not included a ton of cylinder head assembly tools but among the most useful is a valve spring height mic if you prefer to assemble your own heads. This little tool makes setting the installed height between the spring seat and the valve spring retainer simple and quick. One thing we’d mention is that after using this tool for many years, we used a dial caliper to check its accuracy. This led to the discovery that our height mic has induced an error of 0.020 inch.

Accuracy Counts!

One last tip to fall under the precision tool category is that you should periodically check your gauges for accuracy. Clicker torque wrenches, micrometers, dial bore gauges, dial indicators, and any other precision measuring tool can fall out of calibration after years of use. It doesn’t do any good to use precision tools if the results are not accurate. This is why quality micrometers include dedicated standards to allow you to check the accuracy of the micrometers. It’s the old adage:  “Trust, but verify”.

You may enjoy this article: How to Check the Calibration of a Clicker-Style Torque Wrench

It is beyond the scope of this short tech piece to deliver every engine building tool possible mainly because there are so many and the size of this family of tools keeps expanding. But once you are serious about building engines, you will quickly figure out which tools are essential to the task.

Besides, as hot rodders, who doesn’t like buying tools!


Advanced Engine Building Tool List

  • Summit Racing Engine Stand – SUM-908300GA
  • Powerhouse Products Outside Micrometer Set – POW-152006                          
  • Summit Racing Dial Bore Gauge – SUM-900041-01
  • Summit Racing Non-Adjustable Piston Ring Compressor, 4.030″ – SME-904030    
  • Performance Tool Adjustable Band Ring Compressor – WMR-W89410
  • Summit Racing Cam Degree Wheel – SUM-G1057-16
  • Summit Racing Cam Degreeing Kit – SUM-G1056-16
  • Proform Professional Billet Aluminum Degree Wheel – PRO-67490
  • Summit Racing Piston Stop (heads off) – SUM-900191
  • Summit Racing Piston Stop (heads on) – SUM-900189
  • Summit Racing Magnetic Base and Dial Indicator Kit – SUM-900016-1
  • Summit Racing Dial Indicator Stand/Deck Height Bridge – SUM-900061-S
  • Summit Racing Rod Bolt Stretch Gauge – SUM-900015
  • ARP Rod Bolt Stretch Gauge (analog) – ARP-100-9942
  • ARP Rod Bolt Stretch Gauge (digital) – ARP-100-9943
  • Summit Racing Universal Piston Ring Filer – SUM-906795
  • Summit Racing Electric Piston Ring Filer – SUM-906797
  • Summit Racing Pro Ring Filer – SUM-970001
  • Summit Racing Piston Ring Squaring Tool – SME-906002
  • Performance Tool Harmonic Balancer Puller & Installer Set – WMR-W89711
  • Cal-Van Tools 3-Jaw Puller – CAV-952
  • Summit Racing Connecting Rod Vise – SUM-906790
  • Performance Tool Piston Ring Installation Tool – WMR-W80575
  • Summit Racing Oil Pump Primer/Pre-Luber for SBC/BBC – SUM-901015
  • Summit Racing Economy Cylinder Head CC Kit – SUM-980180
  • Proform Professional Cylinder Head CC Kit – PRO-66831
  • Summit Racing Valve Spring Height Micrometer – SUM-900032          
  • Summit Racing Rocker Arm & Lifter Organizer Tray – SUM-900013
Engine Stand in a workshop
A high quality engine stand is a must when assembling engines. This Summit Racing model stand comes disassembled but it only took us about 20 minutes to have it complete and ready to go. (Image/Jeff Smith)
bare Engine block on an engine stand
The stand employs a gear ratio crank to make rotating the engine on the stand much easier. This feature comes in handy when working with heavy engines like a cast iron Hemi or a big block Chevy. (Image/Jeff Smith)
A micrometer measuring kit
Among the essential engine building tools is a quality set of micrometers. The most commonly used mics are the 0 to 1 and 2 to 3 inch versions—but a 4 to 5 is also good for big V8 pistons. Make sure the mics offer accuracy to 0.0001 inch (Image/Jeff Smith)
using a micrometer to measure a crankshaft journal
The first step to determining bearing clearance is to accurately measure both the rod and main journal diameters using a micrometer. (Image/Jeff Smith)
dial gauge kit in box
The second part of measuring bearing clearance requires the use of an accurate dial bore gauge. Most gauges come in a set that will measure between 2 and 6 inches in diameter using adapters. The inside diameter is set using a micrometer to establish the zero point for the tool. (Image/Summit Racing)
using a dial gauge to measure crankshaft bore
The dial bore gauge is set to a given inside diameter using a micrometer to set zero on the dial. In this case, the gauge is set to the crankshaft main journal diameter. When placed inside the main with the bearing torqued in place, the clearance will be indicated on the gauge. In this case, the clearance is very close to 0.0024 inch. (Image/Jeff Smith)
comparing camshaft degree wheel sizes
Degreeing a camshaft is much easier using a large professional diameter degree wheel. Larger wheels are generally more accurate. It’s also best to use a crank nut that will positively locate the wheel which will allow you to easily turn the crankshaft in both directions without affecting the position of the degree wheel. (Image/Jeff Smith)
using a 3 jaw puller on crank timing gear
We’ve found that a three-jaw puller has lots of uses when building engines. In this case, were pulling a cam gear from the snout of a small block Chevy. (Image/Jeff Smith)
using a digital dial gauge to measure rod bolt stretch
The most accurate way to torque a rod bolt is to use a stretch figure. This will require a rod bolt stretch gauge. This happens to be an ARP digital tool, but Summit Racing offers a more affordable dial gauge that also works well. (Image/Jeff Smith)
using a professional piston ring gap filer
If you plan on building multiple engines then one very nice tool is an electric ring grinder. This Summit Racing ring filer tool will make quick work of an otherwise tedious task. The other side of the electric motor mounts a wheel to remove the burrs left on the ring after trimming. (Image/Jeff Smith)
hammering in pistons in a cylinder block
Tapered ring compressors are a great addition to any engine builder’s tool collection. Each bore size will require its own compressor—but they’re not expensive and are incredibly useful and quick. (Image/Jeff Smith)
measuring cylinder head cc volume with a burette and liquid
Measuring combustion chamber and even piston dome volume will require a 100cc burette and a stand. We prefer to use rubbing alcohol with food coloring to make the alcohol easier to see and it also makes cleanup much easier. (Image/Jeff Smith)
an engine block adapter on an engine stand
This slick aluminum adapter plate from Summit Racing bolts directly to the engine stand and to the block bellhousing flange, eliminating the hassle of constantly adjusting those standard lugs on the engine stand. This particular plate is dedicated specifically to small and big block Chevys, as well as Gen III, IV, and V series LS engines. (Image/Jeff Smith)
an engine and valvetrain parts organizer tray
Keeping track of your valvetrain parts is made easier with one of these simple valvetrain organizers. There are various valvetrain organizer trays available at SummitRacing.com. (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.