Some Help Adjusting the valve train:


Hydraulic Lifters
Hydraulic lifters have been the choice of the automotive industry for many years for several good reasons. When compared to a mechanical lifter, the hydraulics are:

1. Quieter
2. Low maintenance
3. An ability to adjust for thermal expansion of the engine
4. Built in shock absorber, eases stress on valve train
5. "Bleed Rate" can be designed to accommodate different engine RPM ranges

Today's modern engines all use either the standard design hydraulic lifter or the new low friction, high performance hydraulic roller design. Hydraulic lifters are the best for street applications, high performance, and mild racing applications where low maintenance is a primary concern.

What is the difference in the design of a Hydraulic and Mechanical Lifter?

Basically, the hydraulic lifter pushrod seat is moveable, the mechanical lifter seat is not. Both lifter types look the same from the outside, with both having pushrod seats held in by a retaining lock. The pushrod seat in a mechanical lifter usually registers upon an internal step inside the lifter body preventing it from moving (thus it gets the nickname "Solid Lifter").

What's below the pushrod seat in the hydraulic lifter is a different story. Its pushrod seat is not restricted by a step, but instead sits on top of a moveable hydraulic mechanism which acts like a tiny hydraulic pump. Below this mechanism is valving and a spring to produce an upward force, moving the pushrod seat upward against the retaining lock.

What is Hydraulic Lifter Preload?

Mechanical cam designs require a running clearance or valve lash, while hydraulic lifters are just the opposite. When the rocker arm assembly is properly torqued down into position, the pushrod must take up all the clearance and descend into the hydraulic lifter, causing the pushrod seat to move down by .020" to .060". The distance that the pushrod seat moves down away from the retaining lock is the "Lifter Preload". The hydraulic mechanism requires this precise amount of "preload" for it to do its job properly.


What happens if the amount of Hydraulic Lifter Preload is wrong?

If clearance exists between the pushrod and the seat in the hydraulic lifter, after the rocker arm assembly has been torqued down, you will have no lifter preload. In this case the valve train will be noisy when the engine is running. All of the hydraulic force produced by the lifter will be exerted against the lifter's retaining lock, and this could cause the lock to fail. If the opposite occurs and the pushrod descends too far (more than .060"), then you have excessive lifter preload. In theory, a hydraulic lifter can pump up whatever preload you put into it.

Therefore with excessive preload, as the engine RPM and oil pressure increases, the hydraulic mechanism will pump-up the pushrod seat. This will cause the valve to be open longer and the lift to be higher. This will decrease the cylinder pressure, lowering the performance of the engine. If the preload is excessive it may cause "backfiring" from the engine. How to correct this situation will be explained in the next sections.

When rebuilding an engine, what can cause Lifter Preload to change?

Almost anything can affect lifter preload. If you do a valve job, surface the block or heads, change the head gasket thickness, or buy a new camshaft, the amount of preload can be affected. Sometimes these changes cancel one another out and your preload stays the same; this is more by luck than design. This is why you must always inspect the amount of preload the lifter has when reassembling the engine and be sure that it is correct.

Fast and Easy Way to Check Hydraulic Lifter Preload when using Non-Adjustable Rocker Arms

With the cam, hydraulic lifters and pushrods in place, install your rocker arm assembly. Use the prescribed method in your repair manual and torque down all the valve train bolts in the proper sequence. Pick a cylinder that you are going to check. Hand rotate the engine in its normal direction of rotation until both valves are closed. You are on the compression cycle for that cylinder. (At this position the valve springs are at their least amount of tension making the job a little easier to do.)

Wait a few minutes, allowing the lifters to bleed down. Now, lay a rigid straightedge across the cylinder head, supporting it on the surface of the head where the valve cover gasket would go. Using a metal scribe and the straightedge, carefully scribe a line on both pushrods. Now carefully remove the torque from all valve train bolts, removing any pressure from the pushrods. Wait a few minutes for the pushrod seat in the hydraulic lifter to move back to the neutral position. Carefully scribe a new line on both pushrods.

Measure the distance between the two scribe marks, it represents the amount of lifter preload. If the lines are .020" to .060" apart you have proper lifter preload. If the lines are the same or less than .020" apart you have no, or insufficient, preload. If the lines are further apart than .060", you have excessive lifter preload. To bring your preload into tolerance, use one of the methods described in the next section if necessary.

Methods to Adjust for Proper Hydraulic Lifter Preload

There are several different methods for increasing or decreasing the amount of lifter preload, depending on valve train design and how the rocker arm is held onto the cylinder head. Keep in mind that the automotive manufacturers have made changes to the valve train over the years. What may work on one year's engine may not work for another, even though they are basically the same engine. There is one method that universally works on all these engines, change the pushrod length!

Use a longer pushrod to increase preload, a shorter to reduce preload. Southeast Performance offers various length pushrods, and offers custom length pushrods, Replacement guideplates and studs

Using Adjustable Rocker Arms to set Hydraulic Lifter Preload

The easiest method to arrive at proper lifter preload is when you have an engine with "Adjustable Valve Train". Unfortunately, since 1967 most domestic engines, with the exception of small and big block Chevrolets, have been made with non-adjustable rocker arms which are all good means to achieve a long lasting valvetrain but put the efforts on you as the builder to find the correct pushrod length and lash. There are several ways of converting your engine to an adjustable rocker arm system. The following sections will describe how to set the preload with adjustable rocker arms.

Hydraulic Lifters Can Be Adjusted at Any Engine Temperature

Since hydraulic lifters can compensate for thermal expansion of the engine, the adjusting can be done with the engine cold; hot adjustment is not necessary.

Adjusting Hydraulic Lifters for Proper Preload

In order to adjust the preload, the lifter must be properly located on the base circle or "Heel" of the lobe.

At this position the valve is closed and there is no lift taking place. You will need to watch the movement of the valves to determine which lifter is properly positioned for adjusting.

1. Remove the valve covers, and pick a cylinder that you are going to set the preload on.

2. Hand rotate the engine in its normal direction of rotation and watch the exhaust valve on that particular cylinder. When the exhaust valve begins to open, stop and adjust that cylinder's intake rocker arm. (Why? Because when the exhaust valve is just beginning to open, the intake lifter will be on the base circle of the lobe, the correct position for adjusting the intake.)

3. Back off the intake rocker arm adjuster and remove any tension from the pushrod. Wait a minute or two for that hydraulic lifter to return to a neutral position. The spring inside the lifter will move the pushrod seat up against the retaining lock if you give it time to do so. (If you are installing brand new lifters they will be in the neutral position when they come in the box.)

4. Now spin the intake pushrod with your fingers while tightening down the rocker arm. When you feel a slight resistance to the turning of the pushrod, you are at "Zero Lash". Turn the adjusting nut down one half to one full turn from that point. Lock the adjuster into position. The intake is now adjusted properly.

5. Continue to hand turn the engine, watching that same intake. It will go to full open and then begin to close. When it is almost closed, stop and adjust the exhaust rocker arm on that particular cylinder. (Again, when we see the intake almost closed, we are sure that exhaust lifter is on the base circle of the lobe.) Loosen the exhaust rocker arm and follow the same procedure described before in steps 3 and 4 to adjust this rocker arm.

6. Both valves on this cylinder are now adjusted, and you can move on to your next cylinder and follow the same procedure again.

Do Hydraulic Lifters Need to be Primed with Oil?

Many people mistakenly believe that hydraulic lifters must be soaked in oil overnight and be hand pumped up with a pushrod before installing into a new engine, however this is not necessary. In fact, this could cause the lifter to act as a "solid" and prevent obtaining proper preload. What is very necessary is the priming of the entire engine's oil system before starting up a new engine for the first time. This is done by turning the oil pump with a drill motor to force oil throughout the entire engine.

What is a Hi Intensity Hydraulic Lifter?

Part of engineering a hydraulic lifter is to determine what its "Bleed Rate" will be. The "Bleed Rate" is a scientific method of determining the time it takes the hydraulic lifter to lose its pressure once it is fully pumped up solid with oil. By changing this rate, the lifter can give different performance factors to the engine.

One such design is the Hi Intensity Lifter. Its increased bleed rate enables it to provide improved vacuum, increased cylinder pressure and performance in the lower RPM ranges. It is best suited for those engines that are using a big camshaft profile that requires more compression ratio than the engine actually has. This situation would normally cause a loss of "bottom end" performance, but with the Hi Intensity Lifter the bottom end torque is restored.

NOTE: Hi Intensity Lifters are only for use if the compression ratio is below the recommended minimum shown on the application page for the particular camshaft you have selected.

Mechanical Lifters

All pushrod engines using mechanical (solid) lifters, or mechanical roller lifters, must have an adjustable valve train so that precise adjustment for "Valve Lash" can be made to match the camshaft's requirements. Valve lash is the running clearance that exists between the tip of the valve stem and the valves mating surface of the rocker arm.

The amount of valve lash can vary between camshaft profile designs, being as small as .010" on some and as great as .035" on others. It is important to use the recommended valve lash when you first test the performance of the engine. You must also be concerned with thermal expansion of the engine components. (This is especially true if using aluminum alloy cylinder heads, or block.)

For this reason, the valve lash be set with the engine "Hot" on all pushrod engines using mechanical lifters. This will insure that the minimum required clearance (valve lash) is maintained throughout the engine's operating temperature range.

Compensating for a Cold Engine when Adjusting Valve Lash

When installing a new cam, the engine will be cold but the lash specifications are for a hot engine. What are you to do? There is a correction factor that can be used to get close. We mentioned that the alloy of the engine parts can be affected by thermal expansion in different ways, therefore the amount of correction factor to the lash setting depends on whether the cylinder heads and block are made out of cast iron or aluminum.

You can take the "hot" setting given to you in the catalog or cam specification card and alter it by the following amount to get a "cold" lash setting.

With iron block and iron heads, add .002"
With iron block and aluminum heads, subtract .006".
With both aluminum block and heads, subtract .012".
Remember this correction adjustment is approximate and is only meant to get you close for the initial start up of the engine. After the engine is warmed up to its proper operating temperature range, you must go back and reset all the valves to the proper "hot" valve lash settings.

Setting Valve Lash on Mechanical Cams

All the valves must be set individually and only when the lifter is properly located on the base circle of the lobe. At this position the valve is closed and there is no lift taking place. How will you know when the valve you are adjusting is in the proper position with the lifter on the base circle of the cam? This can be accomplished by watching the movement of the valves.

1. When the engine is hot (at operating temperature) remove the valve covers and pick the cylinder that you are going to adjust.

2. Hand turn the engine in its normal direction of rotation while watching the exhaust valve on that particular cylinder. When the exhaust valve begins to open, stop and adjust that cylinder's intake valve. (Why? Because when the exhaust is just beginning to open, the intake lifter will be on the base circle of the lobe, so the intake is the one we can now adjust.)

3. Use a feeler gauge, set to the correct valve lash, and place it between the tip of the valve stem and rocker arm. Adjust until you arrive at the proper setting and lock the adjuster in place.

4. After the intake valve has been adjusted, continue to rotate the engine, watching that same intake valve. The intake valve will go to full lift and then begin to close. When the intake is almost closed, stop and adjust the exhaust valve on that particular cylinder. (Again, when we see the intake valve almost closed, we are sure that the exhaust lifter is on the base circle of the lobe.) Use the feeler gauge and follow the procedure described before in step 3.

5. Both valves on this cylinder are now adjusted, so move to your next cylinder and follow the same procedure again. In the future you may find shortcuts to this method, but it still remains the best way to do the job correctly.

Using Valve Lash to Help Tune the Engine

The engine only responds to the actual movement of the valves. Since the valve cannot move until all the running clearance (valve lash) has been taken up, the amount of valve lash you use affects the engine's performance. For example, if you decrease the amount of (hot) valve lash, the valve will open slightly sooner, lift higher, and close later. This makes the camshaft look bigger to the engine, because of a slight increase of actual running duration and lift. If you increase the amount of (hot) lash the opposite occurs. The valve will open later, lift less, and close sooner.

This shows the engine a smaller cam with slightly less actual running duration and lift. You can use this method on a trial basis to see what the engine responds to and keep the setting that works the best. Just remember, the more lash you run, the noisier the valve train will be. If the clearance is excessive it can be harsh on the other valve train components. Therefore, for prolonged running of the engine we do not recommend increasing the amount of hot lash by more than +.004" from the recommended setting. Nor do we recommend decreasing the hot lash by more than -.008".


"Tight Lash" camshafts cannot deviate from the recommended hot lash setting by more than +.002" increase, or -.004" decrease. "Tight Lash" cams are those which have recommended valve settings of only .010", .012", or .014" on the specification card. These lobe designs have very short clearance ramps and cannot tolerate any increase in the recommended valve lash. The extra clearance can cause severe damage to valve train components.

With "Tight Lash" cams, we recommend using only the prescribed amount of hot valve lash, and that close inspection of the engine be maintained. Please realize that changing valve lash settings from the recommended design specifications will change the harmonic characteristics of the valve train, possibly causing valve spring deterioration and breakage.

Hopefully the above information clearifies some of the valvetrain adjusting issues you may experiance. Feel free to contact Southeast Performance for further assistance.

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