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Tricked Out LS Power: A Hands-on LS engine build with bolt-on parts

Written By: Kurt E. Johnson | Photography By: the Author

DIY, Do It Yourself, that’s a term that’s being thrown around a lot these days from furniture to house repairs and of course this applies heavily in the world of horsepower. The Chevrolet LS-based small-block LS platform is everywhere, and it enjoys quite the DIY following when it comes to creating horsepower and torque with one. Bolt-on parts are a key weapon in the DIY engine upgrade arena, and talking with Trick Flow Specliaties provided some great insight on how we could assemble a budget-minded 600 LS powerplant.

Mike Downs, General Manager of Trick Flow Specialties, was showing off all the company’s ‘trick’ new equipment on the midway at Summit Motorsports Park one weekend and Trick Flow had just released its Gen X 255 LS cylinder heads and supporting camshaft/manifold combinations. That conversation slowly led to debating if we could make 600 flywheel horsepower by simply using readily available bolt-on components on a stock bottom end. Downs is extremely knowledgeable in “real world“ engine, camshaft and cylinder head combinations and felt that by using one of Trick Flows combinations and other off the shelf products that Trick Flow offers, 600 crankshaft horsepower on a medium cubic inch, stock rotating LS assembly was obtainable.

Raising the stakes was the use of a minimum 100K-mile salvage yard engine with a maximum $1500.00 purchase price, as a base for the build. Thus began the journey to show you how a do-it-yourselfer can home brew big horsepower in his/her shop or garage.

Finding a Foundation

After considerable debate and hours of Internet research, the decision was made to use a cast iron LQ9 6.0 truck short-block. Why an LQ9? The initial cost was a large factor. LS3 and later Gen IV LS family offerings would easily surpass our HP goals, but they still bring a rather hefty price tag from the salvage yard. The cast-iron 6.0L truck engines are abundant, reasonably priced, and have proven time after time to be a bulletproof base. The large valve Trick Flow Gen X 255 valves (2.165 intake/ 1.600 Exhaust) require a minimum of a 4-inch bore, and the 6.0 meets this requirement as well. We will be bolting an oval port LS3 top end on a block that came with cathedral ports. The high compression (10.0 to 1) LQ9 version of this motor was finally selected. Additionally, 2002 and newer LQ9 engines boast an LS2-style floating piston pin arrangement.

The LQ9 was available in the Denali’s, Escalades and some Chevrolet and GMC trucks. After about a week of scanning the interwebs, a complete good running 106,000-mile unit out of an Escalade was found and purchased for $1149.00. With a bit of onsite negotiation, all the accessories were included with the engines purchase. So for just over $1K we had a 345 horsepower iron-block motor we could have just bolted in and ran! That’s pretty economical horsepower to start!

Heads Above the Rest

Trick Flow’s Gen X-LS3 top end kit TFS-K326-580-520 contains 255 Gen X heads, a mild yet potent Track Max hydraulic camshaft featuring duration of 230 int./238 exh. (at .050-inch lift) and 0.625 int. /0.625 exh. lift. The kit also contains Cometic head and exhaust gaskets, new pushrods, head bolts and a balancer bolt. Trick Flow also provided its latest large-runner, single-plenum EFI downdraft manifold (TFS-32600112), which is designed to work with the large Gen X oval ports. Additional components that were employed were needle trunnion bearing kit to convert the stock LS bushing style rockers, a true roller double timing chain kit, a new chain tensioner block (a common fail point in an LS motor), and a Trick Flow underdrive SFI harmonic balancer.

Tearing Down and Torn Up

We took the engine to Ed Grisez’s Automotive and Marine in Vermilion, Ohio, as Ed was kind enough to let your author use his shop and assist him with years of engine building experience at the ready. If this is your first time tackling this sort of endeavor, taking lots of pictures can be a great resource when trying to remember what went where during reassembly. The disassembly of the motor began and everything looked to be in very good shape and on track to only add aftermarket rod bolts to the bottom end and go from there. That was until the heads were removed, at which point we identified considerable wall scuffing in the bores. (A bore scope at engine pick up would have alleviated this ahead of time). Scuffing is often a sign that the owner did not change the oil very often, and when scuffing is found, other critical internal components are likely are worn as well.

The main, rod, and cam bearings showed detrimental wear, as did the piston rings, so new rings and bearings were in order. We’ve seen plenty of internet heroes making big power and clocking quick ETs with “stock” bottom ends, but if you don’t give your junkyard gem a health inspection, you could be on borrowed time. A quick call was made to our friends at Mahle piston rings in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and two days later we had a new set of low-tension rings and a complete Clevite bearing kit.

Honed, not Hogged Out

We had Mark Cook at BadMan Racing Engines hone the cylinder walls to match what Mahle recommended for the low-tension rings, and he used torque plates to help get our cylinders as round as possible without boring the block. Having a cylinder as round as possible will obviously keep the stored energy of combustion stay trapped by the rings, creating more horsepower. While the block was at the machine shop, we had it hot tanked, had the cam bearings replaced, had the deck checked for flatness, and had the crankshaft polished. Total bill for all the work done was $237.00—when you look at the overall scope of the build this is nothing for the reassurances it brings in engine longevity.

Gauging the Assembly

Once we had the block back, it was cleaned again, masked and painted. The new Mahle Clevite main bearings were cleaned and placed in the cradles making sure orientation was correct. The crankshaft was cleaned with lint free rags and light oil and set in the new bearings. Clevite Plastigage is a simple way of checking clearances. Simply order the correct size range of Plastigage (Plastigage comes in many measurements ranges as an example from .002 – .006, .001 – .003, etc.). We used it to check vertical clearance. Place a strip of Plastigage about one half-inch along the top of the crank journal. Make sure the plastic is in line with the crankshaft centerline. Install corresponding main cap and torque to specification. Then remove the cap and compare your strip of compressed plastic against the scale that is on the Plastigage wrapper. All of our clearances were between .0015 and .002—all within the acceptable range. A dial indicator showed that end thrust was at .0025, and that is on the tight side, but is acceptable. Remember that during engine break-in; end thrust will grow. If you do need to adjust thrust, the center bearing contains the thrust surface. After all the clearances checked out, the crankshaft and main bearings were cleaned and thoroughly lubricated with assembly lube. The main cap bolts were reinstalled and torqued to the required specifications.

Main Cap Specs are listed below
Crankshaft Bearing Cap Bolts (Inner Bolts-First Pass in Sequence) 15 lb-ft
Crankshaft Bearing Cap Bolts (Inner Bolts-Final Pass in Sequence) 80 degrees
Crankshaft Bearing Cap Side Bolts 18 lb-ft
Crankshaft Bearing Cap Studs (Outer Studs-First Pass in Sequence) 15 lb-ft
Crankshaft Bearing Cap Studs (Outer Studs-Final Pass in Sequence) 53 degrees

Ring Around the Pistons

Now it’s time to install pistons and rings and we started by unpacking rings one cylinder at a time and placing each set above their respective bore so they didn’t get mixed up. On the two upper rings, there is almost always a mark on the ring and usually always facing the cylinder head, so pay attention to that. The particular set of rings we used the oil scraper rings were not directional, but if you do have directional oil scraper rings, they will have marks on them showing what side should be up.

Different applications require different piston ring end gaps. For this build, Mahle recommended .016-inch on the top ring and .021-inch on the second ring. The inexpensive electric grinder that was used had a micrometer built into it, but it is still grind a little, check the gap in the bore, and then grind a little more as needed. It’s easy to take material off—putting it back on means new rings and expense. Additional tips for this process include 1., remember to make sure your ring is square in the grinding machine, 2., clean your rings well with a red scotch bright and degreaser BEFORE you gap the rings, 3., after you have the end ring gap correct, make sure that you chamfer where you have ground the ring making sure you remove all sharp edges.

As you install each ring make sure you apply a liberal amount of whatever break in oil you are planning to use on the upper and lower surfaces of the ring, wipe off excess oil as you install. There is no proper place to put your end gaps if your engine is honed correctly—as soon as you start the engine, your rings will rotate around the piston as part of normal operation. The general rule of thumb is to put the top and second ring 180-degrees away from each other. Check clearance by the manufacturer’s recommendations for use. Mahle also has several videos that will help the do-it-yourself person learn to set ring end gap and install rings on pistons correctly.

Slug it In

When the piston rings are installed, measured, lubricated, and each assembly is ready to place in its respective bore, liberally apply oil to the walls of the cylinders (the block and cylinder walls have already been cleaned after honing) using a paper towel for this as there is no lint. Then apply a liberal amount of oil to the piston skirts and a drop or two of oil to the piston pin. Additionally, make sure you use a small amount of assembly lube on the rod bearings. Place each piston in the bore it originally came from. Make sure the valve pockets are in proper alignment, and the piston indicator is to the front of the engine. There are many different types of ring compressors—we used a tapered-bore compressor. These are specific to your bore size, but will immensely help you install each assembly squarely and quickly.

With the pistons in place, we checked rod-bearing clearances using more Clevite Plastigage using the same technique as with the main bearings. After torquing the caps on and removing them and inspecting the Plastigage, we found clearances on all eight bearings was .0015 -.002, all within the acceptable limits.

A weak spot in a hopped up LS engine is the stock rod bolt strength. Considering the RPM range we plan to spin this motor (7,100-7,200), a set of ARP bolts are the way to go. There is an internet debate about using a stock “cracked cap” style rod with aftermarket bolts and that it can cause clearance issue, but we encountered no such problems. In true DIY fashion we used a good ole torque wrench, a liberal amount of ARP lubricant on the bolt threads, and 30 foot-pounds of torque to secure the rod bolts.

Carry a Big Stick

The Trick Flow camshaft was lubed up with a generous amount of pre-lube and placed in the cam bore. Using a dial indicator, we degreed the camshaft to the recommended two degrees retarded. The cam timing should provide just a little bit more power at the top end where this motor would be able to breathe with the large-volume heads.

Degreeing a hydraulic roller cam is somewhat difficult because the lifters being hydraulic are variable height. In typical DYI fashion, instead of buying a tool for this purpose, we took apart two extra stock roller lifters, inverted the plungers, and replaced the internal shims that forced the lifter to stay at its longest length. From that point, we degreed the cam like any other using a dial indicator on the number 1 cylinder. The Trick Flow double-roller, adjustable timing chain kit worked like a charm, allowing us to install the cam retarded 2 degrees from TDC. As a quick note, do not forget to install the timing chain dampener. Make sure you install the flexplate before the harmonic balancer because you will need to hold the rotating assembly with the flex plate while installing the balancer.

What’s Your Clearance?

Before we complete the engine assembly, we wanted to make sure the valves have proper piston-to-valve clearance. To do this, we’ll wipe a bit of oil on top of the piston we’ll be checking, and then stick a ½-inch-wide strip of modeling clay about .125-inch thick across the piston where the base of the valve would be closest to the valve pockets. Then, using the proper Cometic gasket, we installed the Trick Flow Gen X 255 head using the original head bolts torque to the proper specs (See Below)

Cylinder head Torque Specifications:
Cylinder Head Bolts (First Pass all M11 Bolts in Sequence) 22 lb-ft
Cylinder Head Bolts (Second Pass all M11 Bolts in Sequence) 90 degrees
Cylinder Head Bolts (Final Pass all M11 Bolts in Sequence-Excluding the Medium Length Bolts at the Front and Rear of Each Cylinder Head) 90 degrees
Cylinder Head Bolts (Final Pass M11 Medium Length Bolts at the Front and Rear of Each Cylinder Head in Sequence) 50 degrees
Cylinder Head Bolts (M8 Inner Bolts in Sequence) 22 lb-ft

Using the modified “Solid” lifters in lifter guide trays, rotate the engine two complete cycles (Remember, if you feel any resistance, quit, as you may be hitting a valve). Then remove the heads (Remember to remove the modified lifters!) gently cut the clay in half at its thinnest point using a razor blade peel from the piston and measure this thickness with a caliper. We had a minimum of a .105-inch on the exhaust, which is safe. Anything under .100 you should be careful and anything below .070 on the exhaust side can be dangerous.

Bottoms Up

At this point, it is safe to button up the bottom end. We installed a new Melling oil pump and pick up assembly, and with the double roller timing chain, we had to install oil pump spacers to provide increased room for the timing chain. We also needed to take a die grinder to the inside of the front cover to give us oil pump clearance. After that, the windage tray and oil pan, along with the cam and crank position sensors were next.

The Meziere flexplate (FP319) that we are using is SFI-certified and we used ARP fasteners and Loctite 242 on the threads of the bolts. Use a flex plate holding tool once you have the bolts initially snug so you can bring the bolts to final torque of 85 lb-ft.

In our quest for horsepower, we ordered a Trick Flow SFI-approved harmonic dampener, which is designed to be 25 percent under driven to free up more horsepower. There are several ways to install harmonic dampener and the best method is to use a dampener installation kit, but we opted for the DIY non-install kit route, and no, we’re not using a hammer.

First, you need a longer bolt, M-16 by 120mm long, which you may be able to pick up locally. We procured one from McMaster Carr in one day for roughly five dollars. Next, give your wife a gift certificate for a massage, take your harmonic balancer into the kitchen and put it in the oven at 160 degrees for 30 minutes (any hotter and you may hurt the elastic material inside the balancer and or your seal on the front cover). Have the correct 24mm socket, a long breaker bar, a torque wrench, the new bolt, and the old stock balancer bolt all ready to go. Place a light coat of lithium grease around front seal.

Throw on a set of welding or heavy gloves and head to the kitchen to grab your now hot, and thus expanded, harmonic balancer. Run through the house—do not trip over the dog/cat—and place on the crank snout. Use your long 120mm bolt to get the harmonic balancer started and install the balancer to where it’s about an inch from the block, being careful not to bottom out the long bolt. Remove 120mm bolt and replace it with the original dampener bolt (place a small amount of ARP lube under the head of the bolt). Used torque wrench from this point on with a setting of 240 foot-pounds. The dampener should snug up, and ours only required about 185 lb-ft. Remove the original bolt and replace it with the new bolt and torque to 37 lb-ft followed by 140 degrees of rotation.

A Perfect Match

We wanted to port match the Trick Flow manifold to the cylinder heads, and we simply used a set of extra intake gaskets that Cometic had supplied to transfer the cylinder head pattern to the intake manifold. We then used a die grinder and an assortment of cutting and sanding tools to open the manifold to the same size of the template. If you plan to do this as well, be sure to start several inches inside each runner to create a nice long and gradual taper. You can start with aggressive bits to remove larger amounts of material as you near the template move to sanding drums with 180 grit. Remember, it’s easy to take material off, but difficult to put material back. Make sure that you thoroughly clean the manifold at this point and get all shavings out of it.

Heads Up, and On

Now it’s time to reinstall our cylinder heads and to do that, just follow the procedure we previously discussed and be sure to use the new fasteners. Cometic gaskets supplied us with an engine rebuild kit that contained all seals and gaskets to button the motor back together, and we can’t stress enough how nice the Cometic products fit.

The heads are followed by the push rods and newly revamped rocker arms with trunnion bearings. While you’re working on the top of the engine, now is a good time to replace your knock sensors. They are in most cases located under the intake manifold and in the valley pan, and the design often leads to them rusting and failing. It’s better to do it now while everything is apart.

Fuelish Plans

Next up was the installation of the intake manifold, fuel rails and injectors. To complement the airflow, we are feeding the engine gasoline via Trick Flow fuel rails and 81 lb/hr fuel injectors (by Injector Dynamics), which are a bit oversized but can handle a power adder should we go that route in the future. We did have to modify the Trick Flow fuel rail mounts, as they were too tall for this application. The kit is designed to be used with stock-style GM injectors and the Injector Dynamic units we used are shorter. It was an easy modification, however. Another change we made was to replace the stock steam port cooling lines with a Trick Flow braided kit, but your stock system will work if you want to stay with that.

With injectors in each intake runner, we obviously needed a throttle body to introduce air into the engine. Initially, we are using a Wilson Manifolds 105mm square-flange throttle body on a cast 100-degree elbow and a 1-inch open spacer plate. We will do the initial dyno with the 100 degree and 105mm single-blade throttle body in place, then later switched to the billet four-barrel Wilson throttle body and compare horsepower differences. The Chevy S10 that this engine will be installed in has a 4-inch cowl induction hood, so hood clearance is not an issue, but you may have to modify your own hood. With the four-barrel setup, you can probably get away with a stock hood depending on your application.

An Exhausting Situation

With the induction side of the puzzle figured out, we turned to Stainless Works in Cleveland, Ohio, for an exhaust solution. They provided us with S-10/LS swap headers with 1 7/8-inch primary tubes. The all-stainless headers also feature merge spikes in the collectors, and dump the spent gasses into three-inch stainless exhaust system with an X-pipe feeding Magnaflow mufflers—all this was fabricated by Big 3 Racing out of Hinckley, Ohio.

Balancing the Budget

Having purchased the engine and its accessories, we had some parts that we weren’t going to use. We sold the intake manifold, stock cylinder heads (this LQ9 had very desirable 035 casting heads that sold quickly), air conditioning compressor, alternator, and water pump on the Internet. The total sum of items sold was just over $900.00!

Adding on the Extras

As the ultimate goal of this engine is to replace a long-in-tooth LS1 that currently powers a track-oriented Chevy S10 pickup, we needed a few more items to complete the swap. A Meziere electric water pump (WP319) would free up additional horsepower over a stock pump; a bulletproof Meziere TS300 starter was ordered for its diminuative size and clock-able architecture that is perfect for tight clearance swap situations; and a Meziere billet SFI flex plate would connect the engine to the automatic transmission.

Home Sweet Home

From this point, the rest of this story is installing the motor in the S-10 and putting it on a chassis dyno to see where the new powerplant lands in the realm of real horsepower. Funny thing is, you never know what life has in store for you, especially if you’re self-employed. You just never know when your business is going to take off, so despite this being written from a Do It Your Self perspective, your author did need to turn to friends for help.

Since this truck already had an LS1 previously, it was a pretty straightforward install. Ed Grisez Automotive and Marine completed the initial motor install and mated the engine to the 4L60E transmission. From there, Big Three Racing in Hinckley, Ohio, finished the install details such as wiring, building of some relay panels, fabricating of a cold air intake, and wiring the two-step up. The company moved the motor forward to allow the large tube headers to fit properly and then completed the exhaust with a beautiful stainless steel three-inch exhaust system utilizing Magnaflow mufflers and ending at the back of the truck. The guys at big three truly understand LS motors and swap applications, and loaded up a suitable calibration to the ECM via our HP Tuners software.

Dyno Time

A couple quick break in and test pulls and then it was time to let it eat. First, pull was 405 hp to the rear wheels. Chuck tweaked a few parameters, then we ran the engine up to 7,160 (Lower rpm range than we anticipated) and received the numbers of 461 to the wheels.

“It made 461 hp to the tires on a conservative tune and RPM,” noted Chuck. “This rear wheel number equals about 607 hp to the crank factoring in a 24-percent drivetrain loss courtesy of the 4L60E and very loose converter. I have tuned several combos, but this one worked very well, has great drivability, does not have the bucking and crazy hard-to-tune rough idle, yet still has a very aggressive sound.”

In the end, we accomplished our goals the motor made 600 + horsepower on pump gas with a very rich conservative tune. Your author has put a few hundred miles on it and it’s a very fun truck to drive. One thing that needs to be pointed out is to think about the entire package when modifying a vehicle’s combination. The torque converter Chuck spoke of failed shortly after and the replacement is extremely tight. Possibly in the next evolution of this DIY, low-buck S-10, we may install a Turbo 400 or a 480LE, and an efficient converter with a correct amount of stall. We will be taking this to the dragstrip soon and will update you on what we find. Chances are good that you’ll be seeing more of the DIY S-10.