The Tools You’ll Need for Building the Chevy LS Engine Family

The Tools You’ll Need for Building the Chevy LS Engine Family

By Jeff Smith   –   Photography by the Author and Courtesy of the Manufacturers

It’s not like you woke up one morning and told yourself “I’m going to become an engine builder.” That’s rarely how it starts. It more often begins when you find yourself buying a torque wrench, a dial caliper, or maybe a universal piston ring compressor. Pretty soon, there’s a growing collection of gear in your tool cabinet, but to do the job correctly, you know you need to get serious, and that demands better tools.

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We thought it would be worth the effort to assemble a collection of the popular LS engine building tools that any self-respecting master of the micrometer should have in his or her possession. This is not a complete set of ideas but rather a collection of the tools that experience shows are necessary for this next-generation small-block Chevy.

001 Engine Crank LS Building Tools
There are certain places where you should spend the money for good tools, and a set of quality micrometers is one place to make that investment. Make sure the micrometers will measure to 0.0001 inch, and the set should come with calibration blocks. Do your research before investing. Starrett, Fowler, and Mitutoyo are good places to look. Better yet, ask a professional engine builder what he prefers. For you eagle-eye readers, no, this is not an LS crank.

The initial part of our list covers the basics that everyone needs to accomplish the barest of engine assembly tasks. A few of the more specialized items can be considered universal items like ring grinders and cam degree components, while the majority will aim specifically at the LS engine family.

002 Dial bore gauges are another important engine building tool investment LS Building Tools
Dial bore gauges are another important engine-building tool investment. Quality is again the key since you will be using this tool to establish bearing clearances, so accuracy is of utmost importance. Mitutoyo is a quality brand but there are many others. Make sure the gauge measures out to 0.0001 inch.

If you’re just getting started, don’t get discouraged at the prices of these tools. They may seem impossible to afford on a mac and cheese budget, but if you’re serious about building engines, there are ways to make this happen. It will take years, but it will happen. When we started in the early ’80s, a set of six quality micrometers cost over $500. That’s roughly equivalent to $1,400 in today’s dollars. But the consensus among professional engine builders is that you have to invest in good tools and you can’t be an engine builder without precision tools like micrometers and dial bore gauges.

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Measuring for Compatible Componentry: Ensuring the Specifications on Internal Parts are What They Appear to Be

003 Dial bore gauges are another important engine building tool investment LS Building Tools
Summit makes this nice main cap removal tool specifically for LS engines. LS main caps are a tight fit and often can be difficult to remove by hand. This tool makes it really easy to yank the mains. Remember to remove the two small lateral bolts!

The other half of this approach is to not squander your money on cheap tools. To use the above micrometer example, we’re not saying you must spend $1,400 but don’t be tempted to cheap out on mics that only measure to 0.001 inch. They are a waste of time and money.

004 If you plan on building a lot of engines this Total Seal electric ring grinder is an amazing time saver LS Building Tools
If you plan on building a lot of engines, this Total Seal electric ring grinder is an amazing time-saver compared to the hand-crank models. But this unit comes at a much steeper price. If you’re just starting out, a hand grinder will work just fine. As a tech tip, always turn the mechanical grinder wheel counterclockwise.

This clearly points to forget about that green wax string called Plastigage. That is not a precision measurement instrument. Did you know they have a rather short shelf life? If you were building an engine on a desert island and that’s all you had, then yes. There is no excuse for not using quality tools. If you can’t afford them, convince a micrometer-owning friend to help or pay a shop to do the task. As you can see from our list, there are plenty of other options to begin collecting tools. An easily affordable idea is a dial indicator with a magnetic base. You will find this tool has several uses. Combine that with a degree wheel and a crank turning tool and you have the essentials to degree a cam.

005 LS engines employ a torque angle spec for the mains rods head bolts and other fasteners LS Building Tools
LS engines employ a torque angle spec for the mains, rods, head bolts, and other fasteners. This OTC tool is inexpensive and will do the job easily, but there is a learning curve to positioning the angled stop to ensure the gauge moves accurately. Torque angle is expressed first with a torque setting followed by a specific angle. A typical spec might be 22 lb-ft followed by tightening the fastener an additional 90 degrees.

But we’ve jumped ahead a little. Right from the disassembly, the LS challenges builders because factory harmonic balancers are not drilled with the common three-bolt flange employed by older engines. This will require an LS-specific combined puller and installer. Summit Racing offers a complete kit that will do both jobs, but it’s pricey, at over $200. If you already have a generic balancer puller, you can buy the long center stud separately to press the balancer on, but you will still be faced with purchasing a separate puller to remove the old one. We’ve listed one inexpensive puller that can get the job done.

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Homebuilt, Old-School Small-Block Chevy: Part 1: Bottom-End Assembly

006 Most quality aftermarket connecting rods now use ARP rod bolts LS Building Tools
Most quality aftermarket connecting rods now use ARP rod bolts. These bolts can be torqued, but the most accurate way is to measure the rod bolt stretch. This is a new digital ARP rod bolt stretch gauge, but the traditional dial indicators work just fine.

Simple items like an engine stamp kit are critical to ensure rods and caps stay together and main caps remain where they belong. There are also tools you can make yourself that will do the job just as well as store-bought items. Faced with our first LS engine build many years ago, we needed a way to align the front timing cover on a 6.0L iron-block LS. Ken Duttweiler suggested cutting the hub out of an old truck balancer and honing the center. We still use that tool and we think its construction is superior to the store-bought stuff we’ve tried. It cost nothing to build except an hour’s worth of effort.

007 Deck bridges are affordable especially if you already have a dial indicator LS Building Tools
Deck bridges are affordable, especially if you already have a dial indicator. These bridges are convenient for measuring piston deck height.

Another simple homemade tool is a piston ring squaring tool. You can buy a fully adjustable one, but we use an old, flat-top piston with a 5/64-inch ring in the second ring groove. We invert the piston and use the flat piston top to square the ring in the cylinder for endgap. Of course, for different bore sizes you will need a collection of pistons and rings. But that’s cheap and easy.

008 For degreeing cams we prefer to use an old roller lifter as a lobe follower LS Building Tools
For degreeing cams, we prefer to use an old roller lifter as a lobe follower. We remove the piston and flip the pushrod seat over and use the oil feed hole as a convenient point to locate the dial indicator plunger.

For years, we also used a hand-cranked ring grinder. The only problem was that it taxed our patience for the time it required to achieve the required results. We finally splurged on a professional ring grinder and now we have a growing group of friends who call when it’s ring endgap time. It’s become a social event.

009 An in lb torque wrench is handy for smaller bolts with torque specs below 20 lb ft LS Building Tools
An in-lb torque wrench is handy for smaller bolts with torque specs below 20 lb-ft. We feel that the simple beam in-lb torque wrench is more accurate than the ½-inch drive clicker wrenches at these lighter settings. A torque of 15 lb-ft for example is 180 in-lb (15×12=180) so look for an in-lb beam wrench that can achieve at least 400 in-lb.

If you have local friends who are into a similar engine building plan, it might be worthwhile to form a tool collective. You buy the ring endgap machine and a buddy invests in a valvespring tester. With several friends willing to get involved, the tools are available to everyone.

A Good Engine Build Starts at the Bottom: Basics of properly building a small-block engine

010 The plastic lifter holders on LS engines are great for retaining the lifters when changing cams LS Building Tools
The plastic lifter holders on LS engines are great for retaining the lifters when changing cams. But the holders become brittle with age and can drop a lifter that either jams the cam or requires removing the oil pan to retrieve. The solution is a pair of 5/16-inch aluminum rod dowels that fit through the oil galley with the lifters in the “up” position. The dowels will prevent them from dropping. We use 24- to 30-inch-long dowels we found at the hardware store.

Some of these tools can be used for quick jobs that are not always identified with a complete rebuild. Older LS engines suffer from brittle plastic lifter holders that don’t always produce a solid grip on the lifter and dropping one is a real pain to retrieve. The prevention of dropped lifter syndrome is a 26- to 30-inch long 5/16-inch aluminum or wooden dowel that slips inside the oil galley with the lifters in the “up” position. The dowels prevent the lifters from falling into the oil pan, cost next to nothing, and might save a ton of wasted effort.

011 Summit makes a great tool for replacing the factory LS rocker arm trunion with a heavy duty shaft and bearings LS Building Tools
Summit makes a great tool for replacing the factory LS rocker arm trunion with a heavy-duty shaft and bearings. The best part is that the tool base employs a magnet to hold the fixture in place in the vise while removing the old bearings and inserting the new ones.

A small tool that is immensely helpful is some type of crank turning tool when assembling the bottom-end or when degreeing the cam. These tasks involve turning the engine backward, which is hard to do when using a crank bolt. An LS-specific crank turning tool is the only real solution, and that tool will also mount your degree wheel. A professional degree wheel is nice to have and perhaps a bit more accurate, but not essential for the budding engine builder. A smaller and more affordable 8-inch wheel will do fine. Sometimes a dedicated cam degree kit will include all the necessary tools at a slight discount compared to purchasing the items separately.

012 There are several pressure lube tank kits available including that aluminum pressure feed tank from Summit Racing in the foreground LS Building Tools
There are several pressure lube tank kits available, including that aluminum pressure feed tank from Summit Racing in the foreground. Many years ago, we built our own pressure luber using a plastic bucket with an aluminum plate to reinforce the lid. Then we bolted a small-block Chevy oil pump to the lid and extended the pickup with a length of 5/8-inch heater hose. We tapped the oil pump output for a -6 AN fitting plumbed to the LS main galley. We also fitted a return from the oil drain plug back to the tank.

Ring compressors are another personal preference item. For the entry-level builder, it will be less expensive to buy a universal clamp-style ring compressor that will handle a wide range of bores. Among these tools, we like the type using the long handles with several diameter band clamps. This tool is a little easier to control, but the key is setting the shell perfectly flat on the deck. Of course, the tapered ring compressors are even easier to use but require a new tool with each new bore diameter.

013 Summit also sells this slick 0 500 inch thick engine stand adapter that eliminates those cumbersome adjustable legs LS Building Tools
Summit also sells this slick 0.500-inch-thick engine stand adapter that eliminates those cumbersome adjustable legs. The center four bolts attach to the engine stand flange, and the bellhousing boltholes adapt to both the small-block Chevy and both of the LS bellhousing bolt patterns. With longer spacers to the engine (not included), this offers more room to attach and torque the flywheel/flexplate.

This story has made a significant dent in covering what’s out there to assist in the art of LS engine building. This should give you a great starting place and priority for assembling a worthy collection of instruments to further your passion for making horsepower. Besides, buying tools is always fun.

Tool List Basics

Description                                         Part Number    Source

Number stamp set SUM-900011 Summit
Engine cleaning brushes, Summit MRG-5189 Summit
Feeler gauges SUM-900212 Summit
Gearwrench in-lb torque,  0-800 2956N Amazon
Torque Angle Gauge, ½-inch, digital ADT-ARM-303-4A340 Summit
Torque Wrench , ½-inch, clicker SUM-907067 Summit
Torque Angle Gauge, manual OTC-4554 Summit
Mitutoyo six-mic set, 0-6 inches 103-907-40 Online
Dial bore gauge, Mitutoyo, 2-6 inches 511-753 Online
Dial indicator and magnetic base SUM-900016-1 Summit
Ring Grinder, manual SUM-906795 Summit
Ring Grinder, electric, Summit SUM-970012 Summit
Piston deck bridge, w/o dial indicator SUM-900061-S Summit
Rod bolt stretch gauge, Summit SUM- Summit
Posi-Lock gear puller 106 Online
Height mic, Comp 4930CPG Summit


LS Specific

Astro LS harmonic balancer puller 78450 Summit
Summit balancer puller/installer K-906008 Summit
Summit Main cap removal tool SUM-900339 Summit
OTC piston ring expander tool OTC-4839 Summit
OTC universal piston ring compressor OTC-4838 Summit
Piston ring compressor, tapered, 4.010 SME-904030 Summit
Front timing cover alignment tool Homemade Summit
Mr. Gasket front cover alignment tool MRG-LSTC1 Summit
Summit main cap removal tool SUM-900339 Summit
5/16-inch dowels to prevent lifter drop Homemade N.A.
Piston ring squaring tool Homemade Summit
LS crank turning socket CCA-4914 Summit
Summit cam degree kit G1056-16 Summit
Valvespring compressor, cathedral TFS-90306 Summit
Valvespring compressor, rec. port TFS-90307 Summit
Summit Rocker trunion upgrade tool SME-906011 Summit
Oil pressure pre-luber Homemade NA
Oil pressure pre-luber, Summit tank CSUM9166 Summit
Flywheel holder tool, LS SUM-900332-1 Summit
Engine stand aluminum adapter SUM918019 Summit


Click on this issue’s cover to see the enhanced digital version of The Tools You’ll Need for Building the Chevy LS Engine Family.

acp january 2024

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