You Get What You Pay For But Sometimes You Don’t Get What You Need

Back in the annals of time, 2002 to be exact, a local Import car enthusiast purchased a High Performance SOHC Honda cylinder head from a nationally known High-Performance Import company. Opening the box, he was appalled. You can see what he saw in the photos included with this article. Weeping, he took this disappointing package to my friend Chris of Chris’s Precision Machine. Chris, also shocked, called me to get my opinion. I too was shocked! Enough to write the first “You Get what You Pay For” article.

I have encountered much poor work over the years sold to the public. Recently, a good racing customer showed up with a second cylinder head he had purchased from a nationally known shop. This head was to be a potential race track back-up and supplement the main cylinder head that I was developing. This second head came from a shop that specializes in this specific brand of cylinder heads. After a careful look and a few Flow Bench tests, I knew it was time for a second, “You Get What You Pay For” article. I will detail the sadness of this head later in this article.

I am writing this because experience, education and learning matters. Pay attention to where you get your information from and where you get your engine work done. Remember: The Ferengi 218th Rule of Acquisition. “Always know what you are buying.”

This article is NOT to expose any particular shop. There are good and bad shops everywhere. Additionally, porters, mechanics, etc. are people and we all can make mistakes. It takes time to learn and everyone should be given the opportunity to learn. This article is about doing your homework, investigating and learning about a subject or shop before you start spending money. There is a very real lack of knowledge across this industry. This is true for the consumer, service and parts providers as well.

The cautionary question here is:  If professional cylinder head people make mistakes. What do you think of your chances of getting technical engine work, such as porting done properly is?

In America, anyone with a few tools and a credit card can open a business. Experience is NOT required. Legitimate, competent shops pay for this laxity of professionalism in higher insurance premiums. The consumer ends up covering this in higher shop rates. In Germany a prospective automotive shop owner/mechanic has to have a minimum of five years’ experience on their specific brand of car before they can open their own garage and/or shop. Germany did this for a reason. They got tired of consumer complaints about unqualified automotive mechanics and businesses.

The amount of people giving on-line advice who have no real or professional experience is staggering. With the internet, a shop or company can make themselves look more competent than they actually are. Back in the old days, before 2002, parts stores used to be staffed by cranky old bastards like myself who knew the difference between a “Stillson Wrench” and a Brake Shoe. Now, if your car year, make and model is not in their computer, your car simply does not exist.

Chris Slay of Chris’s Precision Machine and I have been working on Japanese, European and American hi-performance and racing engines for a combined seventy-five years now. We have a lot of experience with the good, the bad and the ugly. Experience and learning take time and commitment. The great thing is, that anyone and everyone can do it. The first step in learning is to admit that you are not sure, or in fact that you do not know. That is much harder for most of us to do than we like to admit. Do not be ignorant of your ignorance, or be swayed by the ignorance of others. The truth is that real facts and science do matter.

This example of a botched head is not as rare as we would like to admit.    It was sold as a complete high-performance cylinder head job from nationally known shop  This head was delivered to the customer as you see it. The rust and rust blisters on the valves came free with the porting job, the machining and the purchase price.

The professionally ported ready to ship and fully prepped cylinder head which is the focus of this  article was purchased from a reputable company that specializes in these cylinder heads. This new, backup cylinder head had never been bolted onto an engine. This new head looked okay from a few feet away, but a closer look was called for. The combustion chambers had been laid back a bit from the valves and the surface was highly polished. I ran my finger over the surface and felt a myriad of ripples. I noticed that the walls of the port runners were also filled with ripples. This surface finish was NOT acceptable.  My racing customer asked me to flow bench test the just purchased cylinder head to see if it would even qualify as a backup cylinder head. I removed the intake and exhaust valves from the number three cylinder. I was utilizing the same number cylinder that I had used for the baseline tests on the Original head that I was developing for him. I wanted no excuses for variations, etc.

Some light lube on the valve stems, install the valves in their guides and installed light flow bench test springs. I made sure that my test fixture cylinder sleeve and the combustion chamber of the cylinder head aligned properly. Then I placed the cylinder head on the Fabulous RMI Computer Controlled Flow Bench Number One. The last test that I ran on this bench was the as received exhaust port of the Original lightly ported cylinder head. I left the flow bench set up just as it was, adjusted the weather variables, then test flowed the exhaust port of this potential backup cylinder head.

Here is a complete RMI cylinder head job ready to be delivered to customer. The surface has the correct RA for the type of cylinder head gasket to be utilized.

I flowed the exhaust port from fully closed up to 0.600 of an inch lift just as I had the Original cylinder head. I then graphed the results. While flowing this port, the port made some very unpleasant sounds. Yes, the air flowing through a port runner will sound different one port runner to another or one head to another. Ugly port runner sounds are not positive signs for good port flow. To say that I was stunned when I looked at the port graph and numbers would be an understatement. The graph curve did not look good. So, to see how bad it really was,

I pulled up the first test of the customer’s as received Original project head. The as received Original head was lightly ported from the company that sold it, but untouched by me at that time. My wife walked by and I said, please come over and look at this! She looked at the two graph lines and said; Wow! That’s not good. The neighborhood stray cat was walking by so we grabbed it and held it up to the graph. It emitted a loud, MeeYowwww! Would the intake be just as bad??? I set the head up to run the intake test. As this was simply a ‘what does this head flow test’, I did not take any velocity readings for either port.


  1. in your opinion, how does a reasonably informed person that does all their own work find a company (generally in another state) to perform tasks that the average person cant due to time/tools/knowledge etc. apart from reading reviews and looking at websites, can accomplishments even speak for a company (fastest this, highest hp that)?
    great article!!!

    1. Talk to local club racers who aren’t sponsored. A general consensus will leaf you to a few, then interview the shops to see which one seems like the right fit for you.

        1. Hello Wes, and others. Thank you for the comments.
          These comments have brought up some excellent points. Where do you get machine work done? As the world has evolved (?) into a Wal-Mart mentality. Don’t fix it. Just throw it away and buy a brand new and less expensive model mentality. There are fewer and fewer automotive machine shops still in operation. As few schools teach “Industrial Arts” such as Machine, Metal or Wood Shop any longer. Few students/young people get an introduction to any type of Blue Collar occupations. So fewer young people get involved or learn trades in order to replace an aging work force. Hence a lack of Automotive Machine Shops in the US. To the best of my knowledge there are now only two full service automotive machine shops in our entire county. Be aware!!! Street and Racing Automotive machining requires different operator mentality and different machine and shop quality. They are two different things with two different levels of craftsmanship and tolerances.
          If you are into “Street/Track” orientated cars. I would suggest attending local Cars and Coffee event in your area. Most car/bike people are approachable and willing to share knowledge.
          If you are into various forms of racing, Drags, Road-Racing, Drifting, Land-Speed Racing. Whatever. Attend events in your area.
          For example; Here in California there are many different Drag Race events. California’s NHRA Division 7 holds a number of two day events yearly. Pick an event, attend and walk around. See who has a car or bike like yours or one that you would like to build. BUT!!! Do Not go on Race day and expect people to stop what they are doing to talk to you. No matter the type of racing that you do or that you want to be involved in. Go on the first day of a two day event when applicable. People will be much more relaxed, approachable and more willing to talk.
          Circle Track type events only allow fans into the Pits to talk to drivers/crew after the race is over. No matter the event type. Cary pen and paper with you to write down information. Formulate your questions BEFORE you speak. “Would you mind telling me who does your engine work? Would you have their contact information?” Etc. Above all no matter the type of racing or event. Be polite and listen. When you are trying to get information, do not attempt to convince the people that you are speaking to how “Bitchin” you and your car/motorcycle are. SHUT UP and LISTEN
          Thanks, Don

          1. This is what i did when i was tracking sportbikes. it just so happend a well respected shop happened to be where i live (charleston). But as i embark on rebuilding my old honda into something respectable for an old guy (37 lol), the shops around me focus on big block 1/8th mile drag cars and therefore aren’t familiar with 90 japanese engines. Thanks again!!

          2. Thank you Wes,
            That is a problem that one encounters with most automotive machine shops when trying to get machine work on motorcycle engines. Most automotive machines were not designed to accept motorcycle engines. Additionally most automotive machinist are not used to working or have the finesse to work on smaller and more exacting engines. That is why I made the comment about Street Shops and Racing Shops. There are differences.

          3. While using a local, to your area machine shop is convenient. Our national shipping systems are reasonably competent when it comes to moving packages and goods from one place or one state to another.
            A lot of my work comes from outside my area and out of my state. There are fewer shops in the country now due to reasons that I have listed previously.
            High end shops are becoming harder to find. Unfortunately, the days of the corner machine shop are pretty much over. Back when I was a kid and the Flintstones were real.
            Auto machine shops usually drag or circle track raced a car. Local motorcycle shops Flat Tracked, Road Raced or raced Rough Scrambles. That was a few years before Motocross appeared.
            In other words. Shops were owned and operated by ENTHUSIAST!
            The price of the machines now required to machine engines has risen exponentially. Any good CNC machine is $100,000.00. The high end machines are double to triple that.
            A shop needs to process a LOT of work to pay for these machines and the personnel to operate them. Spare time to work on shop projects and race vehicles becomes a premium.
            So, as Mike said absolutely educate yourself. The more that you know and understand, the less likely your chances of being ripped off and the faster and more reliable your vehicle will become.
            Attending race events is also educational if you are serious when you go there and study and observe.
            Get off your cell phone and read some BOOKS!!! David Vizard, Harold Bettes and others have numerous books on race engine blueprinting, engine machining of blocks, cylinder head work, improvements and testing, etc.
            The SAME machining and assembly procedures that are used to Blueprint a 350 Chevy V-8 apply to a Honda inline 4 or an RB-26 inline 6 or a Suzuki GSX-R1000, etc.
            Our brains process written and on-line information differently. You Tube videos are NOT books.
            The proliferation of “Experts” on You Tube is ridiculous and far often miss-leading. Owning a cell phone that can video does not make you an expert.
            The 2016 election of the Insane Klown Pose to the executive branch should prove that.


      1. I would just do the hard time and learn it the proper way: Educate yourself with the right education en literature. And in case your generation Y (read: WHY ) set up the serveice terms in advance before buying. A good company stands by their own products. In a sense they should be proud of what they’re doing. So if there is a mishap in quality control, after showing them what you got, they should acknowledge it. So for something thats done the right way the testing mishaps around the SSC Tuatara.

        Have seen plenty of these mistakes in my lifetime, so you can count me in on the angry old dudes clubs.

        As for the white stuff: Thats most likely calicification from cleaning using tap water with high amounts of chalk, limestone/gypsum. In general: “Hard Water”. It would also explain the rust bubbles

        1. Hi KS and thank you,
          Gen Y or any other Generation has to learn and that takes time as does experience. My hope for all of the articles that I write is to pass on some of what I have learned in now 45 years in this profession. To also encourage younger people learn and spend the time necessary to gain experience. So while the focus of my response was about finding a good machine shop. I know that while attending racing events that young people will learn via observation, listening and thinking about what they are seeing.
          I have no real knowledge of Drifting. But were there a need for me to gain more knowledge of this segment of motorsports. I would attend a few Drifting events. Observe and ask questions. So my suggestion is to do what I would still do.
          The “white fuzz” and rust was more pronounced in person than what is evident in the photograph. I took those pictures back in 2002 with an early generation digital camera. How Mike and company were able to resurrect them is a minor miracle. When I first saw the cylinder head. My first reaction was that they left the head sit outside in Ohio or some other rust belt stat over the winter. Regardless, what sort of a company sends out a “Finished” cylinder head like that to a customer?

          1. Not the right company, but most likely a company of more then one person, but not a big company that has quality control. Or its a very large company where the old adage goes: Pay peanuts, get monkeys! In other words: an unmotivated workforce.

            When you use water on heads but dont dry them and leave the out to dry on their own thats what will happen. Im guessing its mostly on one side. Have seen that heaps of time on my side of the pond.

            As for writing and passing on the info: I hear you, but as far as i can tell the current generation isnt really up for that anymore: Instant gratification is the key word. “I want it, i want it now, and i dont want to think about it. “Thats what sums it up…. To me it seams that after about 1988 that mentality started to change. Let alone the mentality know.

  2. Hey I was going through a tough time when I did that work. My dog had just broken up with my and my girlfriend ran away so it was hard to focus at work. Give a guy a break!

  3. Hi Don, would you please qualify your comment: “To the best of my knowledge there are now only two full service automotive machine shops in our entire county.”

    There are lots of shops that do head and cylinder work, so are the operative words in your statement “full service?” In other words, there are only 2 shops in the US that have the ability to service/machine every single component on your car? E.g., “We are a shop that does every single type of engine work you can think of – head work and even rewelding/machining crank main journals plus transmission work.” Or, what do you mean when you say “full service?”

    1. Hello tbasic1 and thank you for your comment,
      County as in LA County, San Diego County, Travis County, etc. Not Country.
      In the county that I live in. There previously were approximately six (6) full service automotive machine shops in this county. There are now only two full service shops and two partial service auto machine shops. The partial service machine shops machine brake rotors and drums, some will perform single angle valve jobs, etc. This is not full service.
      Full Service to me is having the machinery and the ability to bore and (properly) home an engine block. Surface blocks and cylinder head and properly do multi angle valve jobs, etc.
      I hope that this clarifies what I wrote.


  4. I’d honestly like to know what the machine shops said when the photos/flow numbers were sent there way with a “WTF?” message with it.

    What’s their response to being called out for their shabby work?? Because I know I’d call them out for it…especially so with it being a $$$$ expenditure.

    1. Hello Superstar!!!
      The shop was not contacted by us but the customer may have spoken to them. I was asked to look at the head but was not directly involved with the customer.
      My friends at the machine shop where that customer initially took the cylinder head, fixed the problems. They cleaned up the cylinder head, blasted the rust and gunk off then steam cleansed it.
      I do not remember if they had to redo the valve job but I am pretty sure that they did perform a very light resurface pass on the cylinder head deck.
      Modern head gaskets do not like decks that resemble giant grooves from 33 and 1/3 LP’s or a piece of rough cut lumber.

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