Doing your own car repairs is one of the more satisfying tasks a car enthusiast can be involved in. Bruises and scraped up knuckles seem to be a natural part of this work, and nobody thinks too much about them. Grab the Band-Aids and show your buddies your wounds the next day – it’s a badge of honor!
Unfortunately, there are some more serious risks involved, ones that risk injuries which can’t be fixed with a Band-Aid. The biggest of these is a crushing injury, which is a concern anytime you lift your vehicle up off the ground and get underneath it.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 10,000 people a year are injured using a jack or other vehicle-lifting equipment, and 74,000 are injured by a falling vehicle or vehicle part.
As you improve your repair skills and move beyond what will soon become second-nature oil changes – as well as anything else which can be done on ramps and brakes, which don’t require you to get under the car – you’ll need to know how to work under the car safely when you can’t use ramps.
For that, you’re going to need jack stands.
Worried? Don’t be! It’s not that difficult. We’re here to help you with all you need to know about doing this safely without becoming one of those statistics.
What Kind of Jack Stands Are There?
There are two major types you’ll be choosing between.
But, before we describe them, we want to be very clear about the difference between a floor jack and jack stands first.
A Chant to Remember for Life
A floor jack is for lifting a vehicle only. (For those of you interested in learning more about this, we’ve written a detailed guide on how to use a floor jack properly here).
Jack stands, on the other hand, are for supporting it above the pavement.
You’re going to get tired of us saying it, but it’s really important: NEVER get under a car that is not supported by pairs of jack stands or ramps! Or else, you will literally put your life on the line. If you don’t already have some, check out the top models in our best jack stand guide.
Don’t underestimate that thing you drive around, you know … it weighs around two tons after all! So, if it falls on you, death or severe maiming is more than likely.
Now, to brighten up the mood a little bit, here’s an embarrassing chant we made up to help everyone keep the functions of these two important types of tools straight:
Floor jacks only
can do lifts
and jack stands
Stick that in your brain alongside “righty tighty, lefty loosey!”, and you’ll be good to go.
Two Types: Pin and Ratcheting
Now that we’ve got that clarification out of the way, we can describe the two styles of jack stands you’ll come across: a “pin” type and a “ratcheting” type.
A pin-type uses a heavy steel bar through a hole to hold the stand’s top arm in place against the weight of your car.
A rachet or lever type uses a heavy angled bar to hold that top arm in place. Some ratchet-style ones also have a pin, but one that’s meant to act as a back-up rather than as the main supporting mechanism.
How Many Do I Need?
These things should always be used in pairs. Using these things on only one corner of a car will risk tipping them. Any tipping of the stand can cause one of the legs to buckle.
A car may be lifted one corner at a time, as you do when you change a flat tire, but it’s definitely not safe to work under it if it’s supported at only one corner.
Again, remember that fascinating chant we created above! One is for lifting, the other one is meant for supporting. Hey, at least we think that’s a fascinating chant …
Make Sure You Have the Right Stands For The Job
Jack stands are labeled with a weight rating. To get this part right, you’ll need to know your car’s curb weight. This should be listed on a metal tag mounted in the driver’s side door frame. If the tag is missing, use Google to determine the specs of your particular model and make.
Make sure that the one you’re using are rated for at least the weight of your car, preferably much more. There’s no harm in using heavier ones, though.
Also, here’s a couple of pointers to keep in mind, as far as what you should avoid doing goes.
- Never use jack stands which are rusty, in poor repair, or for which the weight rating is unknown.
- Don’t use homemade or DIY ones. A solid pair that’s professionally-made and rated for an average passenger car costs about the same as an oil change. It’s a small price to pay for safety.
Locating Lifting Points
Once upon a time, all cars and trucks were full-frame vehicles, with the body attached to the top of a steel square tube frame. You could safely lift the car at any point on that frame.
Today, it’s a whole other story. Nowadays, nearly all passenger cars and even many SUVs are unibody construction. Only most pickups and some of the largest SUVs on the market are body-on-frame construction.
Unibody construction means the body’s sheet metal is molded and welded into one piece with the main supporting structures of a car. This means that not all locations on the underbody are equally strong.
So, it’s very important to be sure of your lifting points. Failure to do so can punch through a floor pan or damage your fuel tank!
Your best source for safe jacking points is your owner’s manual. The video below offers some general guidelines applicable to most vehicles, but always be extra sure by cross-checking against information for your specific model.
If you’re unsure about identifying components underneath, get help before proceeding – better safe than sorry!
How To Put Your Car On Jack Stands
We’ll walk you through the procedure in a moment, but first, let’s quickly go over a few notes and another warning or two that you should always keep in mind.
Sorry for repeating ourselves, but this is important stuff, because your life depends on it!
- Working on a vehicle involves risk, no matter how careful you are, but the risks can be mitigated with careful preparation beforehand. When doing any of this, it’s especially important to be rested, not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and to understand the instructions of all the equipment you’ll be using.
- Assume the jack stands could fail or the car could fall at any given time, and for one of many possible reasons. Plan accordingly using the tips below for back-up protection.
- Work with someone else on the property and within earshot, so that if the unthinkable happens, there’s someone to act straight away and call emergency services for you.
Now that we got all of that out of the way, on with the show!
Step One: Park On a Level Surface
Park your car on a firm, level surface, such as a flat concrete garage floor or driveway. Working on gravel or grass can allow the jack stand to shift off the vertical and tip.
In hot weather, all that weight concentrated at the bottom of a metal jack stand or floor jack can punch divots into asphalt warmed by the sun or high summer temperatures, so choose concrete.
So, put it in first gear or park, and set the parking brake.
Step Two: Lift it Up
Lift the car using a floor jack rated for at least the weight of your car. We’ve already covered how to jack it up in another article, but here’s what you’ll need to do (briefly):
- Make sure your jack is in good repair and is raising and lowering properly.
- Use wheel chocks on the opposite wheels of the area you’re jacking.
- If you’re planning on removing a wheel to work, remember to loosen your lug nuts before you lift the car. Breaking lug nuts loose after the car is in the air can unbalance it and cause it to tip.
- With your jack below an approved center-front or center-rear located jacking point, raise it close to the car, adjust positioning if needed, and then continue to raise it until the car begins to lift. Continue carefully raising your vehicle until it’s just a bit higher than the working height you need.
- Note: Never lift your car by trim, bumpers, or anywhere that you are not confident is an approved lifting point. If you do so, you can cause some damage or even get hurt yourself!
Step Three: Place Them
You’ll be using two jack stands to support either the entire front or the entire back of the vehicle. As mentioned before, you’ll want to support the car symmetrically and not just on one corner.
When placing these two, keep the car’s weight load as symmetrical as you can.
- Place one each under an approved jacking point at either side of the car near each front or rear wheel.
- Adjust the height of each one if needed, to raise the saddle at the top of the arm close to your vehicle.
- Check to make sure that the ratchet lever or pin is securely in place.
Step Four: Lower It
Slowly lower your jack until the car rests on the stands.
If you hear something give way or shift, STOP IMMEDIATELY! Raise the car back up and check your jack stands to be sure they’re stable. Check your car, too, to be sure nothing has buckled or bent.
Step Five: Check Your Work
Before you start your repair, don’t skip on ensuring that things are stable.
- Place your hands on a bumper and give the car a good bump or wiggle to make sure it’s not going anywhere.
- If there’s any instability, use your jack again to lift the car and adjust the position of your stands.
Step Six: Offset the Danger In Case It All Goes Wrong
You should now be able to work safely underneath. However, we recommend you take two additional steps to protect yourself if – despite all precautions – something goes wrong. I think we both agree that your life is well worth the extra effort.
Provide one of the following as a fail-safe for yourself.
- Leave the floor jack elevated and just a tad below the point you used to lift the car. If the car were to fall, the floor jack should be able to catch it.
- Or, put one of the wheels you’ve removed to work on the car flat on the ground near the rocker panel or lower side edge of the side you’ll be crawling under. This will provide a catch if the car should fall. You may still get injured in this case, but the wheel should keep it from falling all the way to the ground and crushing or pinning you with its full weight.
And finally, it’s a good idea to inform someone nearby that you’ll be working underneath!
They don’t need to be in the garage with you throughout the entire process, but they should be within earshot so they can hear you if you call for help. If you manage to setup another reliable communication channel with them should you need any help, then that’s fine too.
Working alone means there’s no one to call 911 if it all goes pear-shaped and you’re pinned by all that weight.
Step Seven: Getting it Safely Back On the Ground
When you’re all done with your work, follow the above steps in reverse to get your car back on terra firma.
- If you used a wheel flat on the ground as a failsafe, put that wheel back.
- Center your floor jack under the lifting point you used to lift the car and raise it an inch or two above the stands. Don’t lift it more than absolutely necessary!
- Remove your jack stands and put them to the side, somewhere far away where you won’t stumble over them.
- Slowly lower your jack until the car is resting fully back on the concrete, your jack is all the way retracted and can be pulled free.
Wrapping it Up
We know this is a lot to absorb in one sitting, so kudos for hanging in there and going through everything one step at a time! It’s for your safety before anything else, though, so it’s definitely worth the effort.
Some of these recommendations may seem overcautious to you, but we encourage you to take them anyway. It might take you a little longer to set up, but we assure you, your life is worth it. Safety is a huge deal, and of course, we want you around to keep reading our content! (Not that we wish your ride gives you any trouble to warrant that, anyway).
Do you have any questions? Any stories to tell from personal experience? Have you had a close call working on something similar that taught you a lesson about safety? Share in the comments! You never know, your story might well end up saving a life!