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How to Static Time an Engine

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Author's Note: How to Static Time an Engine

I can't in good conscience actually advise anyone to embark upon the engine timing procedure, even if I'm comfortable researching and reporting on how it's done. Especially -- especially! -- if you think that, just because the engine isn't running, it's safe from damage. Not the case. Timing an engine might actually be relatively simple, in practice -- that's what all my exes said, even as they refused to let me attempt it myself.

"It's simple," they all assured me, "but you don't want to screw up your engine, do you?" (Again, of course, was the unspoken implication that hung in the air with the tang of a chemical haze, until I'd turn on my heel and stomp off, to go wax my wheels or do some other task that didn't have potentially disastrous consequences.) After paying a machine shop to port and polish my valves, though, the last thing I wanted to do was crash them with a sloppy twist of the wrist.

Perhaps after an upbeat and positive overview -- an angel on the shoulder, rather than a devil -- static engine timing might seem approachable and achievable. At the very least, learning how an engine is timed, and why, is more helpful than a curt and superior, "Nope, you can't do it."

Related Articles

  • "Static Engine Timing." Aug. 29, 2003. (March 12, 2012)
  • Allen, Mike. "How to Fix Old-School Ignition Points." Popular Mechanics. Dec. 18, 2009. (March 12, 2012)
  • Allen, Mike. "Mike Allen's Weekly Auto Clinic Online." Popular Mechanics. Oct. 1, 2009. (March 12, 2012)
  • Juran, Ken. "Timing Belt Replacement." Popular Mechanics. Feb. 23, 2007. (March 12, 2012)
  • Markiewicz, Bob. "Using a Timing Light." Briggs & Stratton Racing. March 2007. (March 12, 2012)
  • Suds, Doug. "Pelican Technical Article: Setting 911 Distributor Static Timing." Pelican Parts. (March 10, 2012)

Static Timing FAQ

What is static timing?
Static timing means that the engine's timing is set without actually running the engine.
What is dynamic ignition timing?
Dynamic timing, which is done with the engine running and requires more expensive equipment.
What happens if engine timing is off?
At best, the car will run a little less efficiently than usual, and the engine will probably be somewhat noisy. More likely, the car will run noticeably poor, fuel economy will take a dive and sounds coming from under the hood will express the engine's displeasure. At worst, the engine will slip so far out of time that its moving parts can actually crash into each other, causing the need for a full engine replacement or at least a costly and extensive valve-repair job.
What is a test light?
A test light is a small hand-held tool that resembles a screwdriver with wires coming from the end. One of the wires is hooked up to the power source of whatever is being tested and the other wire provides ground. The "screwdriver" tip is then touched to whatever is being tested for voltage -- if there's power, the test light will show results by illuminating a small light bulb embedded in the handle. This simple little setup is insanely useful for static timing, and also often handy when trying to troubleshoot irregularities in the electrical system.
What causes incorrect ignition timing?
Because the engine's precision can start to wane over the course of normal operation, chances are you'll have to deal with an engine timing issue at some point during a car's lifespan. Often when the engine is taken apart and repaired, it'll have to be re-timed as part of its reassembly.