How Do You Best Learn About Mechanical Stuff?

Well, the thread title says it all. Let’s hear from you. Please share your learning experiences as well.

For me personally, I learn the best by just tinkering with stuff - taking things apart.

I recently helped a friend lift his 1997 Ford Ranger pickup. I now have enormous understanding as to how the Twin I Beam suspension system works. Before now, it was just a black hole of a mystery in my head.

I also bought a used gas powered weedwacker the other day. I took it all apart and now I know just what it takes to make that string whip around so fast.

So, what did you learn and how did you learn it?

Well I’m learning with help from everyone’s favorite Engineer/Woodie Flowers Award Winner and just toying around with stuff. Plus, I’m working on a summer design project involving basic-ish mechanics just to get my feet wet. It seems to be working, but that’s just me.

I basically find old things that are of no use anymore, and try to pull the good components from them out and mix and match, just to see what interesting things I come out with. I’m personally wanting to make some system involving old parts and robot controllers to make an automated machine to get both the pit crew and programmers involved in creating a system.

This is a good thread. There are lots of ways to learn about mechanical stuff. I’ll try to share how I’ve learned over the years.

  1. Alot of stuff has been designed and developed by many smart people over the years. Study what they have done. Know that very smart people, thousands of years ago could build stuff like this.

  2. Know your basics… memorize your trigonmetric functions and conversions. Do your homework and be able to walk through a story problem. I use basic physics and trig every day, while I seldom use Calculus (but other engineers use it more).

  3. Like the guys said above, be confident to take apart stuff and put it back together. I have found out that if a mechanical contraption is not working right, it can often be fixed by disassembly, cleaning, and reassembly. Work smart when disassembling things (label wires, etc.) so that re-assembly goes smoothly.

  4. I get a kick out of assembling things that I buy at stores (grills, kids toys, pre-fab furniture) for my house… I follow the assembly instructions to a tee, and I am often critical of how some engineer communicated his idea through poorly written assembly instructions. Some of these instructions are good, some bad. It is good to know the difference and I am a better engineer from seeing their mistakes in communication.

  5. My mom married a hog farmer when I was 14. My step father is 65 and still works every day of the week, mostly 10-12 hour days. He can fix anything on his farm from electrical work to welding, 'cause he has to. I have worked aside my step-father and I have learned to respect his hard work. He has no care for electronics, computers or all of this robot stuff - but he still respects what I do. I have learned alot from him… it takes hard work to get things done, it takes guts to try things that you may not know how to to do, and you always have to get the job done - no matter what tools or materials you have to work with.

  6. (this is the most important one of all) I have learned very much from the skilled labor who I work with. My job is to design machines for Delphi-Delco production lines. I cannot fabricate parts or assemble these machines… UAW skilled labor guys do this. Some of these guys have been machining parts, wiring robots, and debugging equipment for 40 years. Most of them work hard and know how to make things work. I learn from them. It is a rare time when I release a print package that does not have a mistake in it. If these guys would want to make me look bad, then they could make minimal effort to make my design work, but if we work as a team, then they take ownership in “our” machine and they make the thing work. I look up to these guys and I have learned how many mechanical contraptions work through them. They have seen guys like me come and go often, while they are still there making machines.

So… be curious and have the confidence to learn things by using your hands, do your homework and study hard. But, most importantly, do not act like you are the smartest person in the world. Understand that not only can you learn from other experienced engineers, but also mechanics, farmers, and craftsmen.

Good luck,
Andy B.

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I know it been said, but I’ll just say it again, the Best way to learn is to do, by do I mean Take it apart, and put it back together. Even making stuff from scratch, I loved legos when I was a kid, also lincon(sp?) Logs were another favorite toy of mine. I was always the one in the family who noticed something wasnt working right and tried to fix it. I get it from my Dad, who like Andy’s Step Father worked on a farm most of his natural born life, He was driving tractors when he was 12. I always try to learn as much as I can from other people. Then Later in life put it to good use. Sorry about the post jumping all over the place, I guess what I’m trying to say is, Just take it apart and you will learn more than any book can teach you on the subject.

Hm, I’ll either talk to dad or research online…

Most research somehow ends up here: :slight_smile:

Well said, Andy!

Especially point #6.

Here’s my own extra points.

  1. Play with Legos. They’ve become remarkably sophisticated.

  2. When you disassemble, remember to reassemble. If you cannot do that, you haven’t learned as much about what you’ve taken apart as you might think.

  3. Look at each “feature” in what you have disassembled and figure out what function it satisfies. Are there other ways to satisfy that function?

  4. The math is there to help you understand the mechanics. Once you have a grasp on mechanics, it will shape your thinking about how things work.

Theres been a lot of good advice given here in this great thread. A couple more things:

There are often good books or detailed magazines that focus on the topics that you are interested in. For example, when I was growing up, I was interested in cars and engines, so I spent a lot of time reading magazines like Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding, etc. They often have detailed articles - with lots of pictures - that explain engine rebuild projects. Usually they have more understandable detail than what you might find on the web. And since the magazines are usually entertaining, they do not make you feel like you are studying.

Shop manuals for the various devices that you are taking apart - and putting back together of course - are usually a good source of info that give insight into how or why something works.

I’ll bet many of the engineers in FIRST took their bikes apart hundreds of times - this is probably the first real unsupervised exposure to tools/mechanics that a lot of kids have (I mean, wheres your dad/mom/brother/sister when your chain falls off?).


Like the guys said above, be confident to take apart stuff and put it back together. I have found out that if a mechanical contraption is not working right, it can often be fixed by disassembly, cleaning, and reassembly. Work smart when disassembling things (label wires, etc.) so that re-assembly goes smoothly.

Just make sure you are not taking apart anything dagerous.:slight_smile: A lot of stuff in your house really should never be opened up.

Watch TV

I forgot to mention that like someone else said, you can learn A LOT just from reading magazines, even the ads sometimes. I don’t think I would have gotten into all this mechanical stuff like FIRST if it wasn’t for magazines like Four Wheeler and R/C Car Action.

That brings up another thing, R/C cars can teach you soooo much about all sorts of different things by building them and tuning them.

Another great way to learn is to just spend an hour every now and then looking at exploded views and diagrams of mechanical assemblies.

I agree with the above posts, but I want to add…

See what doesn’t work too. You can learn alot from failure. Look at broken things and figure out why they broke.

This is one of my favorite sites, although more biased toward ergo than mechanical.

hey guys i have learned in most of the ways that have been posted here, from to taking apart different things. My next item to be taken apart on a large scale is a 1990 D.E.C. PrintServer Printer, its massive my dad worked for DEC, then Compaq and now HP so i get top see alot of mechanics and computer things through him and also by a major class in my school. As many of you have heard of Project Lead The Way, well it started in my area, at our sister school Shen ans one of the classes we have at our school is Principles of Engineering. If anyone else has that class or has the oppertunity to take it or any PLTW class, do so they are so awsome and a great learning experience. Also in P.O.E. i have learned everythin g from thermodynamics to Electrics, each unit is a a condensed verion of a full college semesters class. (If anyone want a project form the class or anything from it i have my notes and thigns i can copy for you, as a learning experience) ! Also i have learned many things jsut by tinkering around, including Electric Relays and transformers (partially also to POE). Well if you have any questions visit the PLTW website or im me on aim dezdezdez25


The Ideo philosophy: Fail Forward. By working with what you know, and learning when you observe it’s faults. Don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to learn. Dig in, get your hands dirty, and most importantly- enjoy yourself. :slight_smile:

I have a technoligical encyclopedia,

And i take A-LOT! of things apart!

I started small and watched a lot of people. Most notable was my dad who was a mechanic all of his life. When he saw that I could handle a tool, he gave me something that was already dead to take a apart. At six or seven I was taking apart carburetors if I could loosen the screws. I was bound and determined that if i took it apart I had to put it back together without extra parts laying out. I proceeded from that to disassembling anything that was dead or was being thrown out. That was a lot of vacuum cleaners, bikes, typewriters, kitchen appliances, etc. Not only did I learn what was wrong but why it had failed. Occasionally, I was able to actually make repairs. I also learned that there are somethings that just aren’t worth fixing because they were a bad design to begin with.
VCR’s are a good place to start. Everyone has one and they go bad once in a while. With the power unplugged, figure out how to get the top and bottom covers off. Note the type of screws you remove. Place the machine on a non-conductive surface, like a big piece of cardboard. From this point on, do not touch anything in side the machine! Plug in the power and insert a cassette. Using the remote press Play, fast forward, etc. and watch what parts move and how the tape is handled. Remove the power cord and see if you can get it back together.

Although you definitely learn more by taking something apart and putting it back together, don’t let fear of getting it back together stop you. If you have something that already doesn’t work and it would cost too much to repair it, you have nothing to lose by taking it apart even if you have to drill out rivets or break old brittle connectors. Sometimes sacrificing one device will allow you to learn enough to fix another one.

Also, just hang out with people who know how to tinker. Every mechanic and repairman I know loves to show off his skill as long as you are sincere and don’t try to fake being an expert. If you show interest and want to learn they will teach you.

Also just one final note beware the capacitor. It is one of the most dagerous component to mess with. I went to take apart a microwave once but then I realized that it was not a good idea since it gave a warning on the back. The only thing I realized was that there might be capacitors inside and decided against taking it apart.

*Originally posted by Adam Y. *
**Also just one final note beware the capacitor. It is one of the most dagerous component to mess with. I went to take apart a microwave once **

Not all capacitors are dangerous. They can hold a charge for a long time, but most devices are designed to drain the charge off when the device is not in use.
The capacitor inside a microwave oven is part of a high voltage power supply for the magnetron (the tube that generates the high power RF) This power supply is generally in the kilovolt range (about 3 kv) Likewise the power supply in a color TV is also very high. The picture tube is actually the capacitor and sets these days are in the 30-40 kV range. Since the picture tube capacitor is a glass device, there is little resistance to drain off the charge. If the safety circuitry fails or the set is old enough to not have safeties, then that charge can stay there for months or years. Stay away from high voltage devices until someone shows you how to handle the voltage safely. That means microwaves, TV, computer monitors, neon lights, some back lights, video projectors, etc.

Not all capacitors are dangerous. They can hold a charge for a long time, but most devices are designed to drain the charge off when the device is not in use.

Yeah you usually can tell which devices are dangerous when it says do not take apart. Beam robots also are another good way to figure out how stuff works. They are small and very easy to build. They almost never rely on programming and the always rely on well thought out mechanics to get complex movements out of them.

Taking stuff apart is great to learn how things work BUT! ,This is Not good advice for doctors