How To Set Timing Without A Timing Light?

Knowing how to set timing without a timing light is a valuable skill you can possess as a car owner who likes a DIY approach, especially if you do not own a modern car that works with electronic ignition.

Have you ever had a hard time starting your vehicle and keeping the engine running efficiently? It is mostly the vehicle’s timing that is projecting that kind of challenge. You can have a frustrating experience if your car’s timing goes off; because it plays a vital role in the entire combustion cycle of the vehicle. However, you don’t need to worry unnecessarily.

If your timing is not properly set, you can adjust it using a timing light and a set of tools to carry out the job. However, this process can also be carried out without a timing light. This article provides a step-by-step guide on how to set ignition timing without timing marks or timing light.

Symptoms of a bad ignition timing

Since ignition timing plays an essential role in the efficiency of an engine, if it goes out of sync, it’ll disrupt the smooth running of an engine. Watch out for the following signs and fix it before it causes severe damages to the engine components.

how to set ignition timing without timing marks

Hard Starting:

For the combustion process to be completed, the spark plug must ignite the air-fuel mixture at the appropriate time. If the timing is advanced (fuel ignition set to happen before the Manufacturers specified time) or retarded (fuel ignition set to occur before the Manufacturers synchronized time), the air-fuel mixture will not be ignited at the appropriate time. This, in most cases, will lead to hard starting.

High fuel consumption:

Retarded or advanced ignition timing will cause the air-fuel mixture to burn at the wrong time. This will result in loss of engine power and air-fuel mixture not completely burned. As a result, the engine will require more power to keep running, leading to poor fuel economy.


If the ignition timing is set to ignite before the power stroke. It might cause the engine to generate excessive heat than usual.

Low engine power:

If the ignition timing is too retarded, it’ll prompt a delayed ignition during the combustion cycle. This causes the air-fuel mixture not to be appropriately burned and ignition happens when the pistons have started returning downwards in the cylinder walls. The result is loss of engine power.

Engine knocking/pinging:

This is the major and one of the common symptoms of incorrect ignition timing. Knocking occurs when ignition timing resets before the Manufacturers specification and sync. In other words, knocking or pinging indicates pre-ignition, which occurs when the air-fuel is ignited early while the pistons are still processing its compression stroke. This causes air-fuel to ignite and push against the pistons in the cylinder walls during compression strokes.

How to Set Timing Without a Timing Light Step BY Step Guide

If you drive a modern car that has electronic ignition, you may not need to set your ignition timing. But cars with old-style 4-stroke engines would require an adjustment for the timing from time to time to enable the engine to work efficiently and to make sure the spark fires at the right moment in the combustion cycle.

If you experience these symptoms of bad timing in your vehicle, such as; ticking noise, oil leakage or decline in oil pressure, increased fuel consumption, hard starting, spark knock, sluggish acceleration, engine misfire, etc., they are signs that you need to set your vehicle’s timing.

It is easier to know how to set ignition timing with a timing light than setting the timing without a timing light.

To ensure that you are correctly guided, the following step-by-step process provides sufficient information to enable you to set your vehicle’s timing without a timing light.

Step 1: Get a vacuum pressure, dwell, and RPM (revolutions per minute)

These instruments will help to monitor the extent of the movement of the rotation of the parts that require adjustment when performing the setting of the timing. Some experts know how to set timing without vacuum advance.

Step 2: Loosen the bolt that holds the engine’s distributor

The second step deals with how to set a distributor timing. To do this, you would need screwdrivers and pliers to loosen the bolt that holds the engine’s distributor to a point whereby you can easily turn the distributor. Then, turn the distributor housing clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on whether the timing needs to be advanced or moved backward.

Notice whether the rotor turns clockwise; if so, turn the distributor counterclockwise to advance the timing and vice versa. You may need someone to help you rev the engine, twist the distributor, and check the number.

Step 3: Rotate the distributor slowly

Next, start the vehicle. Then, hold the distributor firmly and turn it slowly to the left or the right. Continue the rotation watch the rpm to see if it is in the proper position. Ensure that the dwell is running at 42 degrees and that the rpm is at 650 or within that range.

Step 4: Adjust the carburetor.

Adjust the carburetor to get the best vacuum possible. Then, adjust the rpm by opening the carburetor out or close it to get about 21 and ½ inches on the vacuum. Also, adjust the rpm on the spark plug on the heat with a screwdriver up to about 700 by turning it counterclockwise.

After adjusting all the components unveiled in the steps above, your vehicle’s timing is now set and ready to run efficiently.

However, if you find the process difficult to follow easily, you can check out this video to properly guide you in performing the operation. If you are not a DIYer, it would be best to take your car to a professional auto mechanic who understands how to set a vehicle’s timing without using a timing light.

How do you find TDC without timing marks?

To find the top dead center without timing marks, observe the following steps:

  • Step One: Halt your car on a leveled pavement and pull the parking brake off the vehicle.
  • Step Two: Remove the vehicle’s spark plug out of the first cylinder with a spark plug socket and a ratchet.
  • Step Three: Put a socket and a ratchet on the big bolt inside the vehicle’s crankshaft central point. Then, put one of your fingers across the hole of the spark plug and rotate the crankshaft in a clockwise direction. The piston comes on top of the stroke of the compression once your finger is pressurized.
  • Step Four: Input a straw or a dipstick in the hole of the spark plug and ensure not to leave the straw. Then, continuously revolve the vehicle’s crankshaft in a clockwise direction. Then, the piston’s top hits the dipstick and moves it upward. After that, revolve the crankshaft slowly while pinning the dipstick to the piston. Immediately, the dipstick starts going back down; kindly stop and return it back a bit.
  • Step Five: Change the ratchet to a bar. Now, gently rotate the crankshaft in a counterclockwise direction. Then, the piston comes up and goes back down. Once you notice this, rotate the crankshaft to a clockwise direction again. This process involves few movements; then, you can ascertain the moment the piston reaches its stroke’s surface. That is the TDC.


How do you set ignition timing by ear?

Knowing how to set ignition timing by ear can be a nice skill if you know how to do it. To set your car’s ignition timing by ear, warm the car’s engine, hold the brake, and rev the engine. Advance it to hear the pinging, and then back it up so that the rattle sound goes out.

How do you check ignition timing?

To check ignition timing, connect a timing light to your vehicle’s engine and observe the ignition timing. It is usually at an initial level of 12 degrees, 11 degrees BTDC.

What causes ignition timing to be off?

Usually, when there are any changes made to a vehicle’s engine, there’s a need for the ignition timing to be also adjusted. If there is no corresponding adjustment, it may lead to improper timing effects as knocking sound, increased fuel consumption, reduced power, overheating, etc.

What happens if the ignition timing is too advanced?

Suppose your car’s ignition timing is too advanced. In that case, it will make the air/fuel mixture ignite very early in the combustion cycle, thereby increasing the amount of heat generated by the combustion process. This situation can lead to overheating in a vehicle.

Will a car start if the timing is off?

It depends; some older cars may start even if the timing is off. However, it won’t run correctly. If the timing is further off, the worse it will run until it finally won’t start.

For newer cars, without a fully functional timing belt, or timing chain, your car’s engine will not start. Meanwhile, if your timing belt is broken, it could result in some expensive problems for your car.

Final Words

If you drive a car that requires you to know how to set timing without a timing light; then, it is most likely the information in this article is very useful to you. Therefore, if you ever experience a challenge with your vehicle’s engine due to incorrect timing, kindly follow the step-by-step guide provided above in this article.

However, if you are not good with the DIY approach, it would be best to consult a professional auto mechanic to help you handle the process. Meanwhile, always keep your vehicle’s engine and all its components under good working conditions to save yourself unnecessary stress.

Osuagwu Solomon

Osuagwu Solomon is a certified mechanic with over a decade of experience in the mechanic garage, and he has over five years of experience in the writing industry. He started writing automotive articles to share his garage experience with car enthusiasts and armature mechanics. If he is not in the garage fixing challenging mechanical problems, he is writing automotive repair guides, buyer’s guides, and car and tools comparisons.

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