Help reading head gasket

Aug 20, 2003
Palmetto State
I'd like some input on what I am looking at with the head gasket and valves shown in the photos below. So far only have one head off, should get the other removed soon. I'm pretty good at throwing the parts cannon at problems, but not so good with diagnosing.

The car is a 1996 Chevrolet Camaro 3.8 v6. We purchased it used recently. The previous owner had put some sort of coolant stop-leak in the radiator. When I removed the intake the lower intake manifold was failed in several spots (very common issue on these motors). The car ran fine, it was just losing coolant and would then overheat. Oil always (and still does) look good (no milkshake). I found several people that recommended doing the head gaskets at the same time as the lower intake manifold gasket, just in case.

To get the heads checked and surfaced will run me $280 at a local machine shop. It looks like I can get a remanufactured cylinder head (complete including valves) for $340 on ebay from a rebuilder in Georgia. Obviously a 25 year old Camaro with a v6 isn't worth a lot, so I'm leaning towards just putting the new head gaskets without doing any work on the heads. It looks like the head gasket might have had a small leak, but I don't see it being blown out anywhere so I'm inclined to think the head and block are probably ok (both are cast iron). Thoughts?


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I don't see any signs of coolant getting into the combustion chambers. If there is a leak it would probably be putting exhaust gasses into the cooling system, which will also cause overheating.
Problems with the 3.8 are rare except for the intake gaskets. I would not remove the other head.
Looks can be deceiving on heads and blocks. The only way to know for sure that there are no cracks is to clean and magnaflux or dye penetrant test. (generally wouldnt pressure test a cast iron head like we would an aluminum). At a minimum the head and block surfaces need to be cleaned and checked for straightness with a machinist straightedge and feeler gauges. Note that a framing square or a level are not precision straightedges and are not straight enough to be accurate here.
The time to diagnose a potential failed head gasket was before the head(s) were pulled off IMO. You're already far down the rabbit hole at this point, makes sense to do it right and at a minimum get the heads checked for flatness. If you intend to keep the car awhile consider getting the heads rebuilt if it's a high mileage engine.

I bought a pair of reman heads on Rockauto for $400 (3.1L V6, but they might also sell the cast iron 3.8L heads), instead of going the machine shop route which saved a bit of money. They worked out great.

I don't see anything unusual about the combustion chambers/valves in the photo.