QOTD: Have You Been Stymied by “Special Tools”?

The other day, as I engaged with my own personal Ship of Theseus – otherwise known as a 2001 Whirlpool Duet washing machine – I encountered the special frustration of the “special tool”. How often has this happened to you in some sort of mechanical endeavor?

Over the past 22 years, I have spent a considerable amount of time working on this particular washing machine. In fact, it receives almost as much maintenance – both preventative and repair – as any vehicle I own.  There are a lot of reasons for this.  First and foremost, I’m a cheapskate.  I believe that this thing cost around $800 when I initially purchased it in response to having a household with a 3 year old and a newly on the scene infant.  $800 was a lot of money 22 years ago, and to me $1200 (which is what it would roughly cost to buy new today, supply-chain willing) is even more money now. Yeah, I know about inflation and the future/past value of money. Still, I find it less expensive to repair this thing than to shell out for a whole new one, so I’m going to keep this machine running until that turns out somehow to be no longer possible.

For the most part, I have replaced nearly every piece except for the outside cabinet, the actual door (I just replaced the door hinge), and the motor. There’s not much more to the machine that that. The thing – like all washing machines – has an electric motor and basically one big moving part.  How difficult can it be to keep up with that?  Oh, and it’s a mechanical device that incorporates concrete into the basic design. That’s cool. I can work on things that involve concrete…a generally forgiving substance.  Although I will note that if one fractures those blocks, that’s pretty much lights-out for the machine unless you happen to find an identical one without a fractured cinder block. The blocks themselves are no longer available. So, I’m especially careful with the cement components of my washer.

As you can see from the photo above, I’ve done my own labeling of various parts to insure quick and accurate reassembly for those times when I’ve reduced it to a pile of parts on the laundry room floor while replacing some bit deep inside the cabinet.  I am well familiar with the insides of this machine, as well as most of my appliances, computers, AV equipment, etc..  Over the years, I have accumulated a pretty complete set of tools to address most repair tasks that go well beyond those related to automobiles.

Yes, I am Spicoli’s Old Man.

The task at hand this time was to replace the cold water inlet valve – two solenoids fused to a piece of plastic – because it was sounding strained and buzzy.  They get that way after 20+ years of sucking up my well water with its high mineral content. As with most of the parts on this thing, if I haven’t managed to scrounge them from similar (although inevitably newer) machines I find on the side of the road or at the town recycling center, aka dump, I can find my valves on eBay or Amazon. OEM parts are increasingly unavailable or are ridiculously expensive. In this case, I found the cold valve for $15 (versus $80 from Whirlpool direct), and the hot valve was only $18.  Even though the hot valve was likely fine, I bought it anyway and figured I’d pm it.  That’s how I do things on this washer, hence the Ship of Theseus, and the fact that it’s outlasted by likely a decade and a half most of its brethren (sistren?) that also launched into the world of mechanical servitude on the first week of 2001.

Anyway, the valve replacement looked totally straight-forward.  Three hose clamps, two sheet metal screws, and three snap in electrical connectors.  I figured that this thing would take about 5 minutes, which put it on the insanely easy end of the washing machine repair spectrum.

That was until I tried to extract the sheet metal screw holding on the cold valve.

This photo shows what I ran into; although it took me more than a few minutes to actually figure out what was going on, since I hadn’t even bothered to pull the thing away from the wall.  But after trying every driver bit I had to get a grip on those screws, I eventually maneuvered my phone camera (it was handier than a mirror at the moment) back there and discovered tamper-proof screws.


These mind you on a device that is mostly held together with quarter inch hex-flange self-tapping screws. Dozens of them, in fact.  There are a few standard torx head screws inside, but nowhere else on the machine are there security screws.  Why on Earth would Whirlpool have put security screws on these two valves that actually cannot be removed (by devoted solenoid thieves?) from the outside of the machine even once the screws are extracted?  I’ve thought about this repeatedly in the past couple of days, and the only thing I can come up with is that this was done specifically to thwart or slow down what would otherwise be just about the simplest repair on the whole washer.

Nice job guys.

So, my 5 minute repair now required a 30 minute trip to the hardware store, since I had never encountered the need to deal with tamper-resistant torx screws before.  Worse than the time lost is the fact that my $33 repair job had escalated to a $57 job due to the purchase of a special tool for which I have no other need.  No other need unless I want to take apart the toilet stalls in the next public restroom I visit.  Those too seem to use this style of tamper resistant fastener.  I am sure that toilet stalls are designed by the same people in charge of “valves” at Whirlpool.

The Truth is Out There.

This whole ordeal (Laugh while you can, Monkey Boy…I try hard to keep my threshold for “ordeal” rather low) got me to thinking about the need for, and the use of, “special tools”. Aside from my cosplay as the Maytag Repairman, I’ve often encountered special tools in a variety of automotive contexts. To investigate this further, I took a dive into my collection of automotive shop manuals. I may not own all of the cars anymore, but I can’t bring myself to divest of the shop manuals.  You know…books.

If you want to believe the manual, and sometimes you just have to believe the manual, work on a car like my current 2008 BMW requires an entire garage of special tools.  Above we see six special tools (and a particular variety of Locktite…BMW is all about the specific use of all 31 Flavors of Locktite) specified for dealing with trailing arm bushings.  This is a job I sorely need to do on my car right now, but since I have the manual and it has performed its mission of scaring me off from performing the job, I’ve decided to “wait”.

We all know how that goes…and how it will likely end. Yes, I know that there are innumerable YouTube videos and BMW forum posts where enterprising folks have cobbed together alternative special tools out of things found at Harbor Freight and specially-sized tomato paste cans found only in certain small grocery stores in Beruit, Lebanon or Monkey’s Eyebrow, KY (they had a store the last time I was there, but I hear tell it might could be gone). That seems like more than I want to take on over the weekend.

I can’t help but think that special tools have needlessly multiplied as time has gone by, perhaps for reasons not unlike whatever was behind Whirlpool’s decision to put public restroom fasteners on my washing machine.

Here’s the shop manual section for changing roughly the same set of bushings on a 1972 BMW 2500 (Bavaria). Punch them out, and lube up the new ones before smashing them in there.  Seems much less fearsome to me.  I might even use Dawn dish washing soap instead of poly-glycol. I’m sure that would be just fine.

I bet there is some totally awesome German word for “Dawn dish washing soap”.

My old BMW Bavaria factory repair manual also doubled as a very utilitarian (for mechanics) translation dictionary.  There are three pages of this index, and I never did make it through learning the German terms for all 72 section headings. Although I certainly intended to.

Contemporary (to the Bavaria) American manuals also called for special tools, but in fact these tools really did not seem not terribly special.

The end of each chapter of my 1971 Buick manual displays the GM special tools, and frankly these are nearly all things that I have, just without the GM-specific tool numbers.  I didn’t get them to service my 1971 Buick.  Rather these are largely just things that anyone wishing to work on a car might have.  For the most part.  I suspect that most mechanics who worked on Buicks in the 1970s had the essential tools or know-how to do the job without the various “special” tools mentioned in the manual.  For that matter, I suspect that most mechanics who worked on Buicks at the time had very little need for the shop manual at all…these being the twilight years of pretty much anyone being able to take their car to the guy down at “the service station” to get service done. He may have had one of those Chilton manuals for “American Cars”, but probably he just knew how to get the job done because that what mechanics did.

I’m sure that better mechanics than I have encountered the need for various one of a kind instruments when delving into and rearranging the guts of one vehicle – or appliance – or another.  What have you encountered that has prevented you from starting a job; or worse yet, stopped you cold in your tracks in the middle of a job…until you could go get the oh-so-very special tool?