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How Camshafts Work

Camshaft Configurations
Damage from a piston striking a valve
Damage from a piston striking a valve

Single Overhead Cam

This arrangement denotes an engine with one cam per head. So if it is an inline 4-cylinder or inline 6-cylinder engine, it will have one cam; if it is a V-6 or V-8, it will have two cams (one for each head).

The cam actuates rocker arms that press down on the valves, opening them. Springs return the valves to their closed position. These springs have to be very strong because at high engine speeds, the valves are pushed down very quickly, and it is the springs that keep the valves in contact with the rocker arms. If the springs were not strong enough, the valves might come away from the rocker arms and snap back. This is an undesirable situation that would result in extra wear on the cams and rocker arms.

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A single overhead cam

On single and double overhead cam engines, the cams are driven by the crankshaft, via either a belt or chain called the timing belt or timing chain. These belts and chains need to be replaced or adjusted at regular intervals. If a timing belt breaks, the cam will stop spinning and the piston could hit the open valves.

The picture above shows what can happen when a piston hits an open valve.

Double Overhead Cam

A double overhead cam engine has two cams per head. So inline engines have two cams, and V engines have four. Usually, double overhead cams are used on engines with four or more valves per cylinder -- a single camshaft simply cannot fit enough cam lobes to actuate all of those valves.

The main reason to use double overhead cams is to allow for more intake and exhaust valves. More valves means that intake and exhaust gases can flow more freely because there are more openings for them to flow through. This increases the power of the engine.

The final configuration we'll go into in this article is the pushrod engine.

A pushrod engine
A pushrod engine

Pushrod Engines

Like SOHC and DOHC engines, the valves in a pushrod engine are located in the head, above the cylinder. The key difference is that the camshaft on a pushrod engine is inside the engine block, rather than in the head.

The cam actuates long rods that go up through the block and into the head to move the rockers. These long rods add mass to the system, which increases the load on the valve springs. This can limit the speed of pushrod engines; the overhead camshaft, which eliminates the pushrod from the system, is one of the engine technologies that made higher engine speeds possible.

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A pushrod engine

The camshaft in a pushrod engine is often driven by gears or a short chain. Gear-drives are generally less prone to breakage than belt drives, which are often found in overhead cam engines.

A big thing in designing camshaft systems is varying the timing of each valve. We'll look into valve timing in the next section.

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