Piston Slap and Cylinder Wall Clearance

Engine pistons in their cylinders.

Excessive piston to wall clearance causes a knocking sound known as piston slap. It's a problem with older high mileage engines. The clearance between the piston and the cylinder wall increases, causing the pistons to rock back and forth in their bores.

Piston slap

Most pistons are made of aluminum, and when they're cold, they are at their smallest. As the metal heats up, it expands and fits tighter in the cylinder bore. The clearance between the piston and the cylinder walls has decreased along with the noise.

Most pistons are oval-shaped, with more diameter around the thrust side than around the piston pin side. It expands and fills in the piston pin side as the engine warms, making it round. These are called cam ground pistons.

Compression Test Kit

Run a wet compression test to see if a cylinder's seal is within specifications. The piston rings are at fault if the compression gauge indicates an increase after adding oil. If the readings change little or stay the same, the head gasket, a valve, or the seat is faulty. Check for TSBs and any manufacturer's special procedures.