Wheel Alignment: What You Need to Know

Learn the difference between toe, camber, and caster.

Is your car’s steering wheel not pointing straight? Are your tires wearing unevenly? Does your car look like it’s part of the Stance Nation, even though you don’t self-identify as such? Well, we hate to break it to you, but your car’s wheel alignment is probably out of whack. 

Wheel alignment is one of those forgettable maintenance measures that can suddenly become a big problem, even though it’s fairly cheap to fix. Here at Car Bibles HQ, we’ve seen our share of wheel alignment issues, so let us take you through what exactly a wheel alignment is, how it’s done, and the myriad of terms associated with it.

Ed. Note: This post was refreshed with new and updated text on 6/23/2021 by Tony Markovich. 

What Is a Wheel Alignment?

A wheel alignment is a process that makes your car’s wheels accurately point in the exact same direction as your car’s steering wheel. This ensures safe and accurate steering, as well as directional changes.

How Is a Wheel Alignment Done?

A wheel alignment is completed by trained technicians who use precise measuring technology to adjust a car’s toe and camber in relation to the steering wheel. 

At the shop, there are four primary pieces of equipment used to check wheel alignment. It includes a lift, a computer module, post-mounted cameras (usually looks like a cross in front of the vehicle), and a set of four targets/sensors. Once the car is lifted, a target is attached to the outside of each wheel. From that position, the cameras/readers work with the targets to record measurements. Those measurements are then transmitted and displayed on the computer. This process should generally take about an hour to complete.

This is one of the rare cases when we prefer to take our cars to the professionals because it’s not that expensive and the pros have equipment that makes the task much simpler, quicker, and more exact. 

However, it is possible to check and adjust your alignment at home, if that’s what you prefer. In the second half of this article, we show you how to perform an alignment check at home.

Wheel alignment equipment in a garage.
Professional shops use expensive alignment equipment you likely don’t have at home. Photo: Depositphotos

What’s the Difference Between Toe, Camber, and Caster?

Get educated.

Toe

Toe refers to the angle a car’s wheels point inward or outward in relation to the side of a wheel well.

Camber

Camber refers to the angle a car’s wheels point inward or outward in relation to the top of a wheel well.

Caster

Caster refers to how the suspension is canted, with the options being forward, neutral, or backward.

Common Symptoms and Causes of Bad Wheel Alignment

Here are just a few of the symptoms, causes, and issues that can arise from a faulty wheel alignment.

Improper Tire Wear

If your alignment is off, your tires can wear irregularly due to the uneven contact patch between the tire and the pavement.

Pulling Side-to-Side

As your alignment worsens, your steering could pull either to the left or the right depending on where the alignment is off.

Cocked Steering Wheel

If your alignment is off, your steering wheel might not be perfectly centered when driving.

Rocks, Potholes, Curbs

Hitting road debris such as rocks, dropping a wheel into a large pothole, or hitting a curb with some vigor can all negatively affect your car’s alignment.

Wheel alignment targets attached to a car's wheels.
Wheel alignment targets or sensors often look like checkered paddles, but not always. Photo: Depositphotos

Car Bibles‘ Glossary of Wheel Alignment Terms

Welcome to Bible School!

Toe-In

The wheel is pulled inward, pointing toward the middle of the car’s grille.

Toe-Out

The wheel is pushed outward, pointing toward the outside of the car.

Negative Camber

The top of the wheel is pulled inward, pointing toward the middle of the car’s hood.

Positive Camber

The top of the wheel is pushed outward, pointing toward the pavement.

Negative Caster

The suspension is canted toward the front of the car.

Positive Caster

The suspension is canted toward the cabin of the car.

The Job: Front Toe Wheel Alignment at Home

With this guide, you’ll learn about everything you need for the job, as well as how to perform the job in the comfort of your home workspace.

The Safety Brief (H2)

Working around and underneath a vehicle is inherently dangerous. Be sure to protect your skin and eyes with nitrile or mechanic gloves and a set of safety glasses. It’s also crucial to use jack stands any time you are lifting up a vehicle to access underside parts.

The Tools & Parts You Need (H2)

Below, we have created a checklist for the equipment and items you will need for checking and adjusting your front wheel alignment.

Tools

Other Products

  • String
  • Two large dowel rods or pieces of pipe that are wider than the vehicle. 
  • Sheets of cardboard or old plastic placemats
  • Penetrating oil

How To Check Your Front Wheel Alignment

Checking toe alignment at home takes some patience, but with these steps, it’s a fairly simple task. Follow along below.

  1. Park your car on a level surface.
  2. Fill your tires to their correct manufacturer-specified pressures.
  3. Drive front wheels over pieces of cardboard or plastic for easier adjusting later.
  4. Move your steering wheel back and forth a few times, then straighten it.
  5. Use tie-down straps or a steering wheel holder to secure the steering wheel in the centered position.
  6. Get on the ground and loosen the nut between the inner and outer tie rods on both sides of the front end.
  7. Determine the widest track of the vehicle (found in exterior specifications), and cut the length of your rod or pipe a few inches wider than that. The two pipes will run along the front and rear of the vehicle. 
  8. Cut symmetrical notches into either side of both pipes and tie the string to the piping to create a perfectly squared off rectangle around the vehicle
  9. Place the rod or pipe on top of two jack stands or some other placeholders at the front and rear ends of the vehicle so that the string runs level across the center of the face of the wheels.
  10. The string should now be lifted off the ground running parallel to the length of the vehicle. Tighten the slack and make sure the rectangle is equally distanced from the vehicle. Use the center of your wheels to compare each side of the front to each other and each side of the rear to each other. Adjust accordingly until everything is centered and perfectly squared off. [With this setup, it doesn’t matter that the front and rear tracks are different, which is often the case on many vehicles.]
  11. With the string now setup, you can use your rulers or tape measurers to easily measure the toe-in and toe-out on all four wheels. Record your measurements and compare to your desired specifications or the manufacturer specifications.
  12.  With this information, you can see what needs adjusting and make adjustments until your toe is exactly what you want.
An up-close view of tire tread on a car.
Your wheel alignment can affect how your tire tread wears evenly or unevenly. Photo: Depositphotos

The Wheel Alignment Questionnaire

Car Bibles answers your burning questions!

Q. How long can I drive without proper alignment?

A. You can drive a car that’s out of alignment for quite some time, though we don’t recommend it. t’s unsafe, can lead to excessive or uneven tire wear, and could cause an accident due to the steering wheel not reflecting the tire direction.

Q. How much does wheel alignment cost?

A. Depending on the car, as well as if you get two or all four wheels aligned, you’ll be looking to pay between $50-$200.

Q. What are things to check for when inspecting wheel alignment?

A. Tire wear, improper tire wear, or a misaligned steering wheel are all signifiers of improper wheel alignment.

Video on Wheel Alignment

Car Bibles’ editors understand that not everyone is a text-based learner. For those kinesthetic people out there, we have your back with a video showing you exactly how wheel alignment works. We pulled it from one of our most trusted sources and it’s a great additional resource.

Car Bibles‘ Favored Wheel Alignment Products

You can buy tire tools at almost every auto parts and home improvement store, as well as online stores like Amazon. Car Bibles’ editors grabbed a few from our archives, including a selection of Lug Wrenches, Tire Pressure Gauges, and Cordless Impact Wrenches to help you along with any wheel and tire job.

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Jonathon Klein
Jonathon Klein

Jonathon has jumped Aston Martins for Automobile Magazine, clocked 200 mph in a McLaren 720S for Playboy, and sampled his best life behind the wheel of a Ferrari Dino Evo for Road & Track. He’s hopelessly addicted to the strongest coffee he can brew. Please send him more. Contact the author here.