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Virtually every combustion engine has a camshaft. Some engines have more than one camshaft. A conventional overhead valve V8 engine has a camshaft in the block, whereas an overhead cam V8 engine can have either two or four camshafts on top of the heads, hence the overhead cam vernacular. Most traditional small and big block engines from the Big Three are overhead valve engines with a few late model engines still carrying the pushrod torch. When it comes to late model engines, Ford started with overhead cam engines in the early 1990s in some vehicles, whereas Chevrolet and Mopar products still use overhead valve combinations with the LS and Hemi line of V8 engines. Choosing the right camshaft(s) for your build can be a confusing proposition, but we’re here to help navigate the many choices we have to offer.

How Does a Camshaft Work? 

A camshaft gets its marching orders from a timing chain or belt connected to the engine’s crankshaft. As a result of that circular motion, the camshaft lobes open and close an engine’s intake and exhaust valves to ingest air and provide an exit for that air out through the exhaust system. A roller or flat tappet lifter rides on the camshaft’s lobe in a conventional overhead valve engine, while an overhead cam engine uses a follower on the cam lobe to initiate the opening and closing of the intake and exhaust valves. Performance camshafts are designed with lobes engineered to either extend the duration of time that a valve stays open or the height it commands the valve to open, or in many cases, both. A combustion engine is basically a large air pump, and the more air you can efficiently get in and out of an engine, the better that engine will perform. Therefore, most factory camshafts get pitched in favor of aftermarket performance camshafts.

Do Camshafts Wear Out?

Yes, a camshaft can wear out and fail. The most common camshaft failure is due to inadequate lubrication. If the camshaft is starved of oil, heat will build up between it and the lifter or follower, and damage to the cam can occur. A camshaft failure can also occur if proper break-in procedures are not followed, so when adding performance camshafts, make sure to follow those procedures. Aftermarket camshafts can also be damaged from using old parts like lifters and followers if said components have been compromised. We always recommend replacing the lifters or followers at the same time as adding performance camshafts. Finally, improper installation can adversely affect camshaft life, as well. Make sure to use new hardware using proper torque sequences and specs specific to your individual engine.

Do Aftermarket Camshafts Increase Horsepower?

Well, that is what aftermarket camshafts are designed to do, increase horsepower. Factory camshafts aren’t really built for all-out horsepower. They’re designed for fuel economy and emissions standards first, while actual performance isn’t at the top of the list. Performance aftermarket camshaft brands generally feature increased lift and duration and provide a suitable lobe separation. All of these are designed to arrive at optimum idle characteristics combined with low- and high-rpm performance. Some cams have a lower rpm operating range, and are designed for towing and street use, whereas many aftermarket camshafts are designed for high-rpm performance.

Roller Cam Vs Flat-Tappet?

Performance camshaft brands make both a roller cam and a flat tappet cam design. A roller camshaft is designed to be used with roller lifters. A flat tappet camshaft is designed for flat tappet lifters. Most early engines have a flat tappet cam. An SBC camshaft is most likely of the flat tappet variety, whereas an LS1 cam is a roller cam. If you have a flat tappet camshaft engine, and you want to convert to a roller cam arrangement, most performance camshaft brands have a complete kit featuring the cam, roller lifters, and any components needed to convert the engine from a flat tappet cam to a roller cam.

The reason for swapping to a roller cam design is to reduce the friction between the cam and the lifter. In a flat tappet arrangement, like a camshaft for small block Chevy engines, the cam uses the flat portion of the lifter, which in turn uses the pushrods to control valve movement. In contrast, a roller cam and lifter arrangement features lifters with a roller contacting the cam lobe, which makes for less friction, and many also believe a lifter with a roller tip increases a camshaft’s duration just because of the roller design. Because of this reduced friction and smoother operation, a roller cam can make almost ten more horsepower when compared to a flat tappet design. Furthermore, a roller cam design can feature a more aggressive grind while still being civilized for the street because of the decreased friction.

Hydraulic Cam Vs Solid Cam?

This argument points to the construction of the lifters, not the cam, but over the years this language has become the norm. Hydraulic lifters use, you guessed it, hydraulics via the engine’s oiling system to maintain optimum clearance. A hydraulic lifter’s inner working parts are designed to maintain the desired clearances based on that engine’s specs. A solid lifter, whether it be a solid roller or a solid flat tappet, maintains solid contact with the camshaft, and there’s no compensation or wiggle room during operation.

Solid lifters are more designed for racing applications, as they are noisier than hydraulic lifters, and they also require more maintenance than their hydraulic brethren. With solid lifters, and the expansion of metals within an engine, a solid lifter engine will be noisier, and because of that potential degradation of materials, valvetrain adjustments are needed for optimum performance. When it comes to performance, though, a solid camshaft and lifter arrangement will make more power compared to its hydraulic counterpart since a solid arrangement removes the hydraulic inconsistencies from the valvetrain, keeping valve float to a minimum.

Most factory engines use a hydraulic cam because of the aforementioned reasons. They’re quieter, and once you install them, you don’t have to go back and adjust the valvetrain. A hydraulic set up is a more street friendly arrangement.

What Camshaft Should I Use?

First, decide what you want for an operating range. Some performance camshafts are designed for high rpm use and have a tight horsepower window. You obviously don’t want that for your street car where most of the time you are between 2,000 and 5,000 rpm. For a street car you don’t necessarily need a billet camshaft, either, since they are pricey. Generally, a billet camshaft is double the price of its cast-iron counterpart. If you’re looking for a 454 big block cam, you shouldn’t be looking for a high rpm range camshaft if using stock heads. A BBC camshaft design can vary, so stick with a camshaft design’s operating range when it comes to choosing the right cam. With any engine, match the cam to your desired operating range, gear choice, and transmission. Most of the manufacturers we carry have all that information detailed in each product listing so you know up front if the cam you are considering will work with your current build specs or if you’ll need to invest in a higher stall converter, gears, or other components. 

What you don’t want to do is get a cam just because it is going to have a mean lopey sound. Many times, that is not going to translate into the most power possible with any given engine combination. As mentioned, study the listings we have and match them with your setup, and you will be happy in the end.