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Firing Order: Shop Smells Are Awesome

Posted in Features on July 4, 2016
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Have you ever been in your garage or shop working on your 4x4 and had someone walk in and tell you it smelled funny? Not “haha” funny but nasty funny. To them, shop smells may be weird, but to us wheelers, that smell is awesome and it’s part of wheeling.

For example, what wheeler doesn’t like the smell that permeates the air as metal is being ground? To us, it’s the smell of modifications being made—or stuff being repaired so we can go break it again. Personally, I developed a fondness for that smell back in the ’80s when I worked at a machine shop, and I still love the smell today. I know I’m not the only one. For me, it’s a comforting smell. I feel like I’m in one of my happy places when the odor of metal being cut or ground has permeated my clothes.

Have you ever entered a wheeler’s garage or shop where work routinely gets done and instantly identified and mentally cataloged familiar odors? Like dents on a 4x4 those odors are part of the four-wheeling deal. That gear oil smell may be the result of a diff that grenaded on a faraway trail on one of the best wheeling weekends ever. The slight aroma of engine coolant points to an overheated ’plant in a mudhole somewhere when quitting wasn’t an option. That faint gasoline smell is coming from the carburetor that’s sitting on the bench—that carb was replaced with fuel injection so the vehicle’s engine would run at crazy angles.

Torch work. Generally fun to do and smells great.

It’s funny though that many of the same odors I love in the shop become less attractive when I smell ’em behind the wheel of my 4x4. That gear oil smell I like in the shop gives me a lot less warm and fuzzies when I smell it in the cab of my truck as I’m towing a heavy load. And smelling the odor of coolant while in the backcountry makes me sigh and forces me to mentally calculate the time needed for the engine to cool so I can troubleshoot and repair the problem. And for me, smelling fuel on the trail just creates not-so-pleasant flashbacks to a long-ago bad deal when I gouged a fuel tank on a rock in the middle of nowhere.

Every once in a while I’ll cover an install in a spotless shop. Like, ultra mega clean and organized, similar to one of them fancy NASCAR shops that look more like operating rooms. There are no cool odors. Often they just smell like a potpourri of over-the-counter cleaners and the triple, venti, half-sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato wafting from the office. I walk around sniffing like a hound for 4x4 odors, but I get nothin’. Move along, nothing good to smell here. Hey, I’m all for clean and organized shops, but it’s a bit disappointing. I recently covered a suspension install in a shop that was also a body repair shop. The place was absolutely spotless and smelled like paint. Really threw me off. Confusion reigned in my mind because nothing smelled familiar. It was a long day.

I’ve even been to a motel or two that smelled like a shop. I recall entering a hotel room near Upper Tellico ORV area and the smell of gear oil filled the room. It was clear that the room had been used as a repair shop. I’m not sure that shop odors should be in motel rooms.

My garage presently smells like gear oil (due to recent diff preventative maintenance), WD-40, degreaser, and rubber (a stack of new tires in the corner). I have no problem with that.
–Ken Brubaker

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