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Picture of Head Gasket Replacement on '91 Honda Civic

This is my first Instructable... Please comment below if it needs further editing. Videos can be seen by opening the video URL in your media viewer.

Here's my experience with replacing a new head gasket on my '91 Civic. But first, some background:

This is a great car! It ain't pretty but it gets almost 40mpg on a good day. About a year ago, it failed to pass several emissions tests. My mechanic told me that the pistons needed new rings. Because the engine would be in pieces, and because of the expense and effort invested already, I agreed to have the water pump, timing belt, and head gasket replaced. Afterwards, the car passed emissions with flying colors and ran very well until recently.

Several weeks ago, the engine began to overheat erratically. After googling the problem, I personally replaced, in ascending order of expense, the radiator cap, the thermostat, and eventually, the radiator, which was very old. Because the problem was intermittent, it seemed that each part replacement solved the problem. I hoped it wasn't the water pump because I knew that would be a huge pain to replace.

In the end, some white smoke and serious engine vibrations told me that it was not the water pump but some cylinder/coolant related problem. I was afraid that it was a cracked cylinder which would have meant replacing the engine block, which didn't seem worth the expense on a 16 year old car with 174,000 miles on it. So, I went into the engine bay prepared for the worst. What follows is my experience and illustrates why your trusted mechanic can't always be trusted....
 
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Step 1: You are probably NOT a mechanic....

.....nor am I, but, judging by the cavemen that have worked on my cars in the past, I figured that this shouldn't be beyond me. I've repaired/replaced most things in a car that don't require specialized and expensive tools. Be forewarned, however, if you're not relatively strong and at least a little mechanically inclined, get someone who is and have them help you.

To get started you might want the Haynes repair manual, and a couple of impact-wrench quality sockets; I broke a Craftsman socket trying to remove the header pipe from the exhaust manifold. Having a digital camera might also be useful for recording your progress as well as problems you might encounter. You MUST have the following:

About 16hrs total total time: In addition to putting the valve assembly back on the head, putting the timing belt back on MAY require that you remove belts, pulleys, and an engine mounts, just as if you would replace the water pump. In fact, if it's old, plan on replacing that water pump. Also plan on changing the oil a couple of times as well as flushing the radiator. Sorry, but it's a big job, which is why a $30 part requires about $1,000 worth of labor. Don't bother taking shortcuts; I tried to lever the timing belt back on to the valve pulley to avoid the proper way and ended up ripping it. Plan on spending the time to do it correctly....Sorry! But you might as well learn from my boneheaded efforts.

Several Jackstands: You will need these to elevate the car and get deep underneath.

A torque wrench up to 70ft-lbs.: Don't even THINK of tightening the crankcase bolts without one!

A breaker bar: Some of your exhaust system bolts were likely tightened by Lucifer himself. A breaker bar will help release his grip.

3/8" and 1/4" drive socket sets: Also with various extenders, adapters, and universal joints.

Band-Aids: If you don't know why, you'll see soon enough.

Call the local parts supply places for expertise. The counter help might include gals/guys who are going to mechanic school or have rebuilt engines just like this one. Their help may be invaluable.

Step 2: Dig in!

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All those hoses and tubes and wires! It's pretty intimidating, isn't it? Before you try to get too deep into it, you will have to get some parts out of your way....for example, removing the exhaust manifold is next to impossible without removing the radiator fans first, and you can't remove the radiator fans without first removing the air intake assembly. So:

1) Remove the large air intake hose from above the radiator fans (easy)

2) Remove the other air intake that joins the air filter box to the carburetor (easy).

3) Mark the spark plug boots and the valve cover and the distributor cap, so you don't have to guess which one goes where, later. Remove the spark plug wires and set aside in a safe place (easy).

4) Put a pan under the radiator hose area and remove the fan brackets, the radiator hose, and the reservoir hose (easy).

5) Gently lift out the driver side fan first....there will likely be a wire that must be disconnected. Watch your knuckles around the radiator fins; they are sharp! Put a bucket underneath to catch your knuckle-blood (not so easy).

6) Gently lift out the other fan....a large harness under and near bottom radiator hose must be disconnected from under the car (you might need extra hands)

7) You don't have to completely disconnect the fans; I didn't. I set them aside near the fuse box.

8) Remove the dipstick.....no, not your helper.....the one in the car (easy). You now have free access to the exhaust manifold.

Step 3: Removing the exhaust manifold

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1) Remove the manifold cover (AKA shroud)....4 bolts, put the bolts back into the manifold so that you don't misplace them (easy).

2) Disconnect the oxygen sensor wire at the connector (easy).

3) Remove the bolts holding the manifold to the head (easy).

4) Get under the car and remove the 3 bolts holding the manifold to the header pipe. You may need to loosen the exhaust brackets. You might need the extra leverage of the breaker bar. Expect to back out a couple of the studs...no big deal (hard).

5) There may be a manifold bracket that has to be disconnected from below, as well. Lift out the manifold and set aside. Carefully remove the gasket and set in a safe place.

Step 4: Distributor removal

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1) Disconnect the harnesses with the shortest leads, a small screwdriver to release the lock tabs (sometimes not so easy if caked with gunk).

2) Unbolt the distributor assembly and carefully expose the rotor. Mark the rotor so that you don't have to remember its position when you reattach it. Put the screws in so you don't lose 'em (easy).

3) Set the distributor aside....no need to completely disconnect it.

Step 5: Intake manifold removal

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There is no need to remove the carburetor or any of the items attached to the intake manifold.

1) Remove the accessible nuts holding the manifold to the head (easy)

2) Remove the middle nut under the intake port. Think of some other way to remove this nut if your hands are big! You might need to get under the car and reach up and into it....I don't know. Use the 1/4" drive with an extender (a real bitch....sorry, but it is)

3) Get under the car and reach up and under this manifold. There are two bolts that fix the manifold to the car. They, too, must be removed (not hard).

4) Push the entire assembly past the bolts so that the valve assembly can be removed.

Step 6: Head Removal


1) Remove the spark plugs (easy). Inspect them for deposits, arcing, cracks, corrosion....Oh hell! Just replace them! It's $10 well spent.

2) Remove ground wires and then the valve cover (easy). See video.

2) Inspect the film coating the inside of the cover; see attached video. I've since learned that it if you've been taking care of your engine, it should look like clean motor oil. If not, it'll look like mine did: goobered molasses. Clean it out! Inspect the gaskets as well and replace them all if they look brittle or cracked. The gasket kit costs about $25.

3) Remove the upper timing belt cover, mark the position of the belt with respect to the pulley, if you're re-using the belt, and slip off the timing belt (easy).

4) Mark the exact position of the timing pulley with respect to the head; this is important for reassembly!

None of this marking business is important if you plan to re-set the valves and pistons with respect to TDC, or Top-Dead-Center. If that's your plan, better have the manual handy and follow the directions carefully.

5) Unbolt the head by using a 1/2" drive socket as you'll need all the leverage you can muster. A breaker bar may be required (not that easy, but not hard).

6) Inspect the bolts and set them aside taking care not to ding them in any way.

7) Slip a large screwdriver or pry bar somewhere in between the head and the engine block and carefully lever the head up to see if the unit lift out with just your hands. It should move easily. If not, then you'll need a hammer and putty knife to get into the gasket area itself (see the manual and other sources for this process). Lift the head (easy, for me, at least).

8) Place the head in a large pan because it will drip lots of oil.

Step 7: Inspection

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1) Look at the tops of the pistons. In my case, one cylinder was obviously cleaner than the others. This is apparently caused by antifreeze getting into the cylinder and cleaning the surfaces off. Even the top of the piston was scrubbed clean. So, I focused by attention on this cylinder's walls as well as the gasket around it.

If the piston top is clean but has topped out within the cylinder, you'll need to rotate the engine such that it bottoms out and exposes the cylinder walls. If the car is in gear, you should be able to rotate the wheel manually. Otherwise, remove the driver-side wheel and use the breaker bar to turn the crankcase pulley, like instructed in the manual.

2) Run clean finger within the walls and feel around for cracks and such...If you feel anything, you might as well stop right there. This instructable is now officially useless to you.

3) Carefully inspect the head gasket. In my case, there was a small crack/gap between the cylinder and coolant channel.

Step 8: Install new Gasket and Reassemble

Picture of Install new Gasket and Reassemble

1) Before putting on the new gasket, you'll have to remove those old pieces of gasket that have welded themselves to the flange surfaces. I used a new razor blade and carefully scraped away the material without scratching or scraping away the soft aluminum (easy). See video.

2) Put the new gasket on the bottom of the valve assembly. Unless your gasket specifically requires it, do not use any gasket sealer.

3) Place it carefully, and slowly, back onto the head taking great pains to not ding the gasket!

4) Inspect and clean your bolts....remove corrosion and rust. If they show cracks or strips, replace them!

5) A dab of oil is all that's needed to lubricate the threads before inserting them back into the valve assembly.

6) Tighten the bolts as specified in the manual....It's three step process: Finger tight, torqued in a crossed-x pattern to 22ft-lbs, and then again to 49 ft-lbs. Follow the diagram! (easy). See video.

7) Carefully reassemble in reverse order...(pay attention, and don't end up with loose parts!)

IMPORTANT NOTE:As for re-installing the timing belt, loosen the tensioning pulley by accessing the bolt through the lower timing belt cover access port. I did not know that I could do this, and as a result, ripped the timing belt and spent an additional half-day having to uncouple the front engine mount, loosening the alternator, pulling off the belts, pulling off the crankcase pulley, removing the lower timing belt cover, and so on and so on. What a pain!

8) After reassembly, I successfully re-started the car with no problems. However, you may, as I did, end up with a "Check Engine" light. There are a few instructables showing you how to diagnose engine codes. In my case, I had two codes of which one went away after re-setting by completely disconnecting the battery. The other codes was the result of a missed connection; I reconnected the harness and the red LED code went away (Thanks Instructables!)

Good Luck! I hope you learned from my experience!
dgaletar2 years ago
Hey, Fort Mental, I have set out to do this job Monday night after work. I am a 1st year mechanic for a fleet of pickups & vans for a University in DC. I have a 1991 Honda Civic with a 1.5Ltr. engine. The head has been going for some time, and it is FINALLY time to get it right. The engine has over 240k on it, and few of those miles came easy (or with great care - lol). The difference, though, is that if I am going to the trouble of taking the head off of the car, I will also be doing the water pump and timing belt at the same time (as they also have not been tended to in many many years). Know I KNOW that my existing head is bad... cylinder #2 has lost all compression, and I'm sure it's not the piston or rings (wet compression check). Therefore, I purchased an old head from a junk yard on Thursday for $100 bucks. I then spent Friday afternoon taking it apart and cleaning & inspecting it thoroughly! Finding no issues, I then replaced the front cam shaft seal, and it's ready to go (see attached image). The complete gasket set, new water pump & new timing belt cost me $200, and the junk head cost me $100, bringing the job total to $300 (assuming everything else goes right!!!) I'll try to take some pics and make notes of anything that I may come across that you may not have covered. In the mean time, THANKS for the detailed write-up!
Le Corbeau (author)  dgaletar1 year ago
You're very welcome dgaletar!

Let us know how the head re-build goes; it looks pretty intense!
dgaletar2 years ago
OK, I'll try those images again....
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Zibodiz3 years ago
Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I replaced my head gasket with your 'ible, and it went perfectly. I have a '93 Civic CX Hatchback, and the changes were minute. Thanks for a great writeup!
Many here seem fairly knowledgeable. That's good. On many engines critical fasteners like head bolts or rod and main bearing bolts on lower end assemblies are: "Torque to yield." That means they are designed to stretch a little when torqued to final specs. Most of these type of fasteners cannot be reused, so if you are repairing or building for severe duty(performance/ or longevity) these Must be replaced. ARP fasteners makes bolts for just about every engine on the road. Call your parts store and have them look them up.
Le Corbeau (author)  rudolphdiesel3 years ago
"Most of these type of fasteners cannot be reused, so if you are repairing or building for severe duty(performance/ or longevity) these Must be replaced."

-This is true; even repair manuals will tell you as much. In fact, I just recently ran into this issue when I recently removed a head and found a seriously corroded bolt. When trying to buy a replacement, I could only buy a full set as head bolts are (apparently) never sold individually.
markey19794 years ago
Antifreeze came in from the cylinder head. When you removed the cylinder head, the residual coolant deposited in the cylinders. This is very normal. Alternately, after removing the exhaust manifold you can drain the block and head of coolant by removing the rather large plug in the block behind the exhaust manifold, but I would not risk damaging it due to its age!!

Civic's, like yours, sometimes crack cylinder heads, but usually its just the head gasket. An easy identifier is when the car is overheating, and ESPECIALLY white smoke, then its the head gasket. When the head CRACKS, the first indication will be oil mixing in the cooling system, I.E. evidence in the radiator
Le Corbeau (author)  markey19793 years ago
"Antifreeze came in from the cylinder head."

-Perhaps.... ....and yet it was only this particular piston head that was scrubbed clean, as noted above:

"1) Look at the tops of the pistons. In my case, one cylinder was obviously cleaner than the others. This is apparently caused by antifreeze getting into the cylinder and cleaning the surfaces off. Even the top of the piston was scrubbed clean. "
Your points are helpful...I just wanted to add some comments relating to this (Note they are cut and pasted from another instructable comment I made of someone's work) so please keep that in mind when looking at the grammar and context.
in regards to determining a gasket issue, or another problem.."how to" is based on whether or not a $20.00 dollar compression tester indicates a difference greater than 20%. I will give him that. Evidently someone told him, or he read it somewhere. I prefer a cylinder leak-down test. (Requires an air compressor and the leak-down tester, Summit racing or Jeggs.) This would indicate if it was valves or seats or piston rings or even a blown head gasket that was making the engine run badly. Schools in Buhdieboy!: When performing a leak-down test...If you hear air escaping into intake port with the cylinder at TDC intake valve and/or seat is to blame. same goes with exhaust valve. If air is heard escaping into block it indicates blow-by past the rings. Head Gasket leak could allow air into block or into cooling system. look for bubbles in the radiator coolant (Please look at the 'tech' info as it relates to checking various leak issues.) Thanks.
eric m6 years ago
The breaker bars annoy me. I just uses a pipe fitting over a socket wrench. The best option for frozen bolts and nuts is OXY-Acetylene welding torch. Heat it up and it will expand. If it still doesn't come off then heat it red hot then use your bar and if that still doesn't work then oxy cut it off and weld a new thread,.
Aluminum head on Honda heated to cherry red to loosen bolts is completely unnecessary. It amazes me how people can advocate advice like that knowing full well that someone might try this in desperation. This could end up costing someone a trip to the salvage yard to find a replacement cylinder head or manifold for such carnage.
My car doesn't have pistons! Or a large series of batteries.
zacparks6 years ago
This is not a distributor, this is a waste spark coil
I did this job a couple months ago with the help of this tutorial. My experience: I used the Honda replacement MLS (multi-layer steel) gasket. I didn't use the recommended replacement bolts. (they were about $95.) I did use the newer three stage torqueing procedure. I didn't need to remove the radiator. (very glad) It took about 6 hours, I guess. Thanks!
eric m6 years ago
I tried removing the head gasket on an 87 model but the impossible angles to get at those damn bolts made me quit. kinda sad about it still.
ef_jay6 years ago
this is a dpfi model, no carb on it, thats the intake plenum :P
ef_jay6 years ago
thats the o2 sensor on that model :P
cararta6 years ago
Am going to give it a try. Will let you know in a week or so how I did! Best info I have found, good clear instructions. Wish me luck!
Le Corbeau (author)  cararta6 years ago
Good Luck to you! Make sure that you have a good torque wrench specific to the range that you need. You can use them for free from places like Auto-Zone, with a sizable deposit. Also keep in mind that your bolts are OLD! And where they are subject to high heat....like the exhaust manifold, they may have softened a bit. I broke one of these manifold bolts inside the head during re-assembly when I used a swivel adapter on the socket. I might have exceeded the rated torque a little but just enough to bust it.... so, be careful. Since my head gasket replacement the engine has worked flawlessly!
I recently purchased a 1990 Honda Civic hatchback with a blown headgasket and will be using this tutorial to help me through. I appreciate the posting and will follow up with comments on how it goes. I was just wondering if on page one you could provide a parts list of the bolts/gaskets/seals you replaced and recommend replacing while taking the head off, if any?
Le Corbeau (author)  leighm6 years ago
First thing I would do, if I were you, is look at the last the emissions report for this car. This should tell you if the car has been burning oil. A good mechanic or at the very least, Google, should be able to tell you if your pistons need new rings or if there's some other piston/cylinder related problem. You don't want to have to go through all of the work of replacing a head gasket, only to find that the car won't pass an emissions test and needs new rings or re-bored cylinders. Assuming you don't need rings, great, look at the parts list associated with replacing the timing belt and replace them all. Generic brands will work fine....besides, Honda may not even make such parts any longer. Also look at the parts list for a head gasket replacement; you'll find this information in the service manual. I believe that all that was required was the gasket itself. I mistakenly bought gasket sealer/surface treatment, but I didn't even use it because the gasket instructions recommended against using sealers or any other treatments. I urge you to get a manual if you don't already have one. E-bay might have original Honda service manuals for your year for very little cost. Good luck with your project! Please post anything useful that should be added to this site.
Interestingly enough, Canada does not have any emissions regulations so I don't have any previous history of the vehicle. It's pretty much a shot in the dark but the previous owner had a mechanic shop look at the vehicle and came to the conclusion that it needed a new head gasket. He didn't want to go through the trouble so I took on the project. I started working on the car today and have the intake manifold left to remove. I should be able to take a look at the block tomorrow and will take some pictures. I will also check out eBay and see if I can find a manual as I know they are a great help!
p.cassady6 years ago
your cylinders still have the cross hatching in them so ur good.
Wow, great job there! I can't believe that one-year was enough for a gasket to fail like that! If only you could reclaim your lost hours on that from the mechanic who mis-installed at the first place. Good job, anyway. I miss digging my '85 civic. I gave it away to Googwill before I left the States for good. Cheers, K.