The complete beginners guide to changing the oil in your car

The complete beginners guide to changing the oil in your car

Recently (depending on how you define ‘recently’) I wrote an article about why every man should be able to do at least some basic vehicle maintenance. Besides the fact that it saves you money, it’s fun and also makes you feel like a badass.

I’ve written a comprehensive guide about how to change a tyre for guys who’ve never done it before. I’ve also mentioned a small list of items which are a cinch to replace and can get you out of a hefty tow truck bill and a lot of wasted time, if you keep spares stashed in your boot.

This article is all about changing your oil.

This is the main feature of a regular service which may cost a couple hundred dollars, but to do it yourself it cost’s only the price of your oil and an oil filter; generally less than $100 (more often around $50-60, unless you get super flashy oil). A mechanical shop can charge you a hundred dollars or more in labour to change your oil, plus the parts on top (which they’ll often mark up a little bit).

There’s a little more involved in changing your oil (compared to changing your tyre), but it’s still quite a straightforward process that anyone can do with the right equipment. Changing your oil is a good way to get your hands dirty and build your confidence without too much danger of breaking your car. So let’s get into it.

1. The Stuff

Firstly you’ll need your replacement oil and a new oil filter.

Oil filters most often look like this and are about the size of your fist, give or take.

There are different types of oil for different types and sizes of motors, so check with your auto shop about getting the right one for your vehicle.

The tools you will need are, at a minimum:

  1. jack/car stands
  2. ratchet/spanner
  3. oil filter change tool majig
  4. chocks
  5. oil collection tray


Oil-filter majig. There are lots of different styles, ones with chains, leather straps… claws, for fulfilling all your wildest car maintenance fantasies.

Some extra stuff that will make your life much easier:

  1. A can of degreaser spray and some old rags to clean everything up afterwards
  2. A sheet of cardboard to lie on and/or catch any spills
  3. Gloves and safety glasses
  4. A container to dispose of the used oil (I usually just keep old oil bottles and put it in them)
  5. A second collection tray in case the oil filter and plug are not close enough together
  6. Magic oil hand cleaner (it really is magic)

Once you have all of this you’re good to go.

2. Warm the engine

The first thing you need to do is warm up the engine. This will heat the oil up, which will reduce its viscosity (it will be thinner and runnier) and ensure that you get maximum drainage.

Stuff I use is pink, not orange, can get it at SuperCheap or Repco, and I’ve never used anything like it.

Start the engine and let it run for at least 5 minutes. If you want to take it for a spin around the block, even better, this will give it a good cycle around the motor and hopefully collect a little extra debris and will make sure it’s really nice and hot.

3. Assume the position

As with changing a tyre you will have to lift the car up which always poses a risk. Changing the oil takes this a little further because you have to get physically underneath the car, so you really want to be sure it is firmly secured.

To change your oil there’s two ways you can lift your car, you can either use a jack, or you can use ramps. If you want to use a jack, then always use stands after you’ve lifted it up to make sure it’s definitely safe. To get a feel for how to jack a car up, have a look at my post on changing a tyre where I go into more detail.

Invariably the two things you should get into the habit of doing every single time you plan on using a jack is putting the car in gear (or in park if it’s an auto), and/or putting the hand brake on. When changing your oil, if your pride and joy is a front wheel drive then putting it in gear will be useless, because you’re lifting the front up anyway, so triple check that your hand brake is on.

4. A couple of things

Oil is hot; very hot. A couple splashes won’t bother you too much, but a lot will burn you. The motor will also be hot, so be careful. I take no responsibility if you end up burning yourself (duh).

Assume that you will get some oil on you. Oil has been scientifically proven to stick to anything that it’s not supposed to stick to. On top of using rags to wipe everything clean afterward, I strongly advise wearing rags too. The only person I know who can fix a car in a suit, is the transporter.

It’s definitely a good idea to use gloves and eye protection because it is, after-all, hot motor oil (Yeah… I’ve never once used gloves or eye protection).

5. Draining the oil

First things first, you need to find your sump plug. Your sump plug is just a largish looking bolt at the base of your sump. Your sump is a rather conspicuous looking container under your motor. It will look like a container designed to keep your oil, and will have a largish looking bolt poking out the bottom. Put the oil collection tray in place beneath the sump plug. I highly, highly recommend getting a large sheet of cardboard and placing it under the oil collection tray, especially if you’re in a garage and don’t want your nice clean cement floor getting oily.

If the plug is not facing directly towards the ground, but is on an angle, then the oil will come out at an angle. If so you will need to guess about what angle flow of oil will go and place your tray accordingly, but remember that as the oil drains the flow will recede and start to drip slowly straight down, so if you can arrange it to accommodate both, then it saves you having to watch it and move the tray as the flow of oil gradually drips straight down.

Before you undo that sump plug, remove the oil cap from the top of the motor (this is where you pour the oil in). Removing the cap allows air flow which speeds up the process and ensures maximum drainage.

Using your ratchet or spanner loosen the sump plug. You should only need to use the ratchet to break the seal, it should unwind quite easily by hand after one or two turns.

If possible, try to get the plug off without letting it drop into the oil tray. It’s not the end of the world if it does (I’ve never once caught it before it falls into the oil… *sigh*).

As soon as you do this the oil will start gushing out, so make sure as you’re loosening the bolt to keep your hand (and face) clear of the direction the oil will flow out.

6. Removing the oil filter

Once you have the plug off and the oil is happily draining, you can begin removing the oil filter. This thing can be pain to reach depending on your vehicle, you may need to be under the car, or you may need to be looking over the top of the engine. You’ll need your oil filter change tool majig for this. Depending on the type of majig you have for this job, it basically wraps around the oil filter and then as you spin the ratchet it tightens itself around the oil filter, and then starts to loosen and unwind the oil filter. The oil filter is fastened to the vehicle with a thread much the same as a bolt thread. Just keep winding until it comes off. Again, make sure your tray is positioned underneath the oil filter (if it’s too far away from the sump hole, you’ll need a second collection tray). Again, make sure you take the trajectory of the oil flow into account when positioning your oil collection tray underneath the oil filter.

And again, keep your hands out of the path of oil flow and try to keep the oil filter out of the collection tray. Now everything is in place to simply let the oil drain.

Fanatics will empty the oil out and let the car drain overnight (if you’re reading an online oil change tutorial, you’re not a fanatic), but I got things to do, so I usually give it about a half and hour, maybe an hour if I’m feeling lazy.

7. We’re nearly done

After you’ve left the car to drain you’re ready to put it back together. You’re over the hill now, this is generally quicker and easier than the draining part, since there’s no searing hot oil to think about.

Replace your sump plug. Be very careful not to cross thread it. This is easier to do than it is on your wheel nuts. The sump is made of softer metal and it’s often on a more awkward angle.

If you cross thread it you’ll have to replace the whole sump plate before you can drive it again. The bolt needs a perfect seal to prevent oil leaks and if you cross thread it, it won’t seal perfectly.

Don’t panic, just go slowly and do it up with your fingers and you’ll be fine. If the bolt gets tight after a half a turn, or one turn, you’re not on the right angle, so back it off and try again. It should wind on easily with just your fingers, pretty much all the way.

Replace your oil filter. To do this take the new one out of the box and you’ll see the rubber ring seal that goes around the thread. Before you replace it, take a small dab of new oil on your finger and run it around the rubber to lubricate it. This will, paradoxically, allow it to go on nice and easily and tighten without sticking as you turn giving a better seal.

It sounds unintuitive to use oil, when you’re trying to prevent oil from leaking out, but it works, and everyone does it.

I’ll say it again, with the oil filter do not cross thread it. This is even easier again because the oil filter is made of a very soft metal and you have a lot of rotational leverage when turning it even by hand. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell if you’re on a bad angle, it should wind on really easily when it’s on correctly, so you’ll know straight away if you feel any resistance, back it off and start again.

Once your oil filter is all the way on, use the majig to tighten it.

The rule is – do it up as tight as you can with your bare hand, then another ½ – ¾ of a turn using the majig; any tighter than that and you risk over tightening.

8. Refilling and cleaning up

Once your sump plug is replaced and fastened up, and your oil filter is replaced and fastened up, you’re almost done.

Now’s the time to clean up any oil spills, get the oil off your tools, lower the car back down to ground level and get the oil collection trays clear of the vehicle.

Once your car is level you can top it up with your new motor oil. Use about half a 5L bottle, then check your oil level by looking at your oil stick. Then continually add small amounts until it reaches the ‘full’ mark on your oil stick. Wait a few minutes before you check your stick as you have to give the oil a chance to drain and settle before you check it.

As soon as you’ve done this you need to dispose of your used motor oil. Empty your used oil out of the tray and into an appropriate container (I just keep my empty oil bottles and use them to put the old oil in next time). If you have degreaser, this stuff is amazing. After you’re tray is empty, douse it in degreaser then just hose it off (on the grass) and it will be as clean as brand new. Your tools should generally just wipe clean with a good rag.

Some more magic, is the special Hand cleaner stuff you can buy. There’s some I use which is so amazing, I can hardly believe my own eyes when I use it. You just take a dab on your finger, thoroughly wipe your hands with it, and you can see it virtually dissolving the oil before you eyes. Then without using any water just wipe your hands with a rag and they’ll come up totally clean (except maybe under your fingernails). After I’ve wiped off the pink magic hand stuff, then I’ll go and wash my hands with water and soap.

And that’s it; done. Wipe everything down clean, replace the oil cap on top of the motor, put your tools away and make sure you wash your bloody hands and take your shoes off before you go in the house!

Don’t forget to recycle your used motor oil.

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