Jul 23, 2014
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In the Shop

RSS By: Dan Anderson, Farm Journal

As a farm machinery mechanic and writer, Dan brings a hands-on approach that only a pro can muster. Along with his In the Shop blog, Dan writes a column by the same name as well as the Shop Series for Farm Journal magazine. Always providing practical information, he is a master at tackling technical topics and making them easy for all of our readers to understand. He and his wife, Becky, live near Bouton, Iowa.

Frustrated By High Cost of Repairs

Jul 20, 2014

 Customers sometimes cringe when they hear the cost of repairs to farm equipment. Heck, I cringe when I hear the cost of repairs to farm equipment. One of my biggest frustrations when I'm on a service call is the knowledge of how much every minute of my time on their farm costs my customers. 

A few customers joke that they'd make more money if they quit farming and became mechanics, considering that they get billed more than $100 per hour for service calls. My response is that they'd have to take a pay cut, because I'm taking home much less than 1/4 of that hourly rate. Which then devolves into a good-natured argument about how profitable farming IS or ISN'T. But, getting back to my original topic, why are dealership shop rates and service calls so expensive?

I don't know the exact breakdown, but I can point to some of the costs of service calls. In our dealership's case, many of the guys who do service calls work out of 1-ton trucks equipped with welders, air compressors, generators and other high-ticket tools. Many of the trucks have cranes, which are extremely useful during repairs that require lifting transmissions, planter frames, wheels and other components that have grown increasingly heavy on modern farm equipment.

The majority of our technicians are provided laptop computers programmed with our manufacturer's tech books and parts manuals, allowing them to access information on everything from 1930s tractors to the latest combines and sprayers. The dealership pays a pretty stout fee to our equipment manufacturer for access to all that brand-specific information. The laptops also provide the capability to work directly with troubleshooters at our manufacturer's headquarters for problems and solutions that haven't yet made it into the tech and parts books.

It's also great for mechanics to carry all their tools in built-in toolboxes on their trucks. Many of us started out decades ago tossing a 5-gallon bucket full of the tools we might need to make field repairs into the back of a 1/2-ton pickup truck. All the mechanics at the dealership shared pickup trucks, transferring tools between trucks as needed. We are without a doubt more efficient and faster when each of us has our own truck loaded with ALL our tools.

So, yes, it's expensive to have a dealership mechanic make on-farm repairs. And, yes, you pay for the expensive truck and accessories even if the the mechanic walks up and only turns a nut or flips a lever to fix the problem, and never uses the welder, air compressor, crane or laptop computer. But some dark night when it requires the welder, the air compressor, the crane and all the mechanic's years of experience to repair your machine in the field, we hope you'll feel like you got your money's worth out of the service call.

In my experience, the guys in white trucks with a dealership name on the side are painfully aware of what it costs to have them on your farm, and do their darndest to give you your money's worth. 

There's No Such Thing As Too Many Pliers

Jul 17, 2014

 Pliers are wondrous tools because they are simultaneously generic and specific. A pair of 9-inch slip-joint pocket pliers like many farmers carry in a pouch on their belt is the original Wonder-Tool: they can turn out bolts, pull nails, hammer nails, dig up corn seedlings, turn petcocks, tighten wingnuts, pull splinters out of fingers--the list is endless. You can always tell the farmers helping out at church socials or at public meetings--when it's time to set up or tear down equipment, the farmers are the ones who futilely paw at their hip, where they usually carry pliers in a pouch, when they need to take something apart.

Other pliers are wonderfully specific in their application. Take wire-cutting pliers for example, They come in many designs. Some have jaws that have their cutting edge in the center of the jaws, others have the cutting edge along the edge of the jaws so it's easier to cut flush with a surface. I prefer wire cutters with the cutting edge on the edge of the jaws, and with the handles at a slight angle to the jaws. That allows me to keep my knuckles unscarred when cutting close to a surface..

Most toolboxes have one or more needle nose pliers. The odd thing about needle nose pliers is that, if there are several needle nose pliers in a tool box, nine times out of ten a person will grab the longest pair available. There are times in close quarters where a user might specifically select  a short pair of needle nose pliers, but otherwise, it's human nature to grab the longest pair available. At last count I had seven needle nose pliers of various lengths and tip configurations in my tool box, but I invariablly grab the 15-inchers, the longest ones in the drawer.

Speaking of big pliers, I heartily recommend Knipex-brand slip-joint pliers. Knipex slip-joint pliers come in a range of sizes, with a variety of jaw designs, and are sometimes branded with the logos of tool retailers. I've go everything from a cute little  6-incher to a hefty 24-incher, and both have performed miracles for me. All I can say is that the Knipex design doesn't slip, their jaws don't round off, and they grip as well as any plier I've used. Even though I've got a number of traditional slip-jaw type pliers in my tool box, I always paw around to find the appropriate-size Knipex pliers when I'm in need of slip-jaw pliers. 

Yes, I have a "thing" for pliers. Maybe I have too many. But I'm not sure you can have too much of a good thing, and pliers are a good thing.

Happiness Is A Fine-Toothed Ratchet Wrench

Jul 01, 2014

 Even though they're expensive, high-quality fine-toothed ratchet wrenches make me happy. I like their precision, and I enjoy their ability to ratchet in tight quarters where a coarse-toothed ratchet wrench doesn't have room to "click" and get a fresh bite.

Other mechanics are perfectly content with a more economical coarse-toothed ratchet wrench. It seems that for every tool I like, there's someone who likes a different version of that tool.

The reason for my ponderings on tool preferences is based on a conversation I had to day with a customer. We were talking about his line of equipment, which is well-cared for, but "mature." He made the comment that he had no use for autosteer and was totally content to steer his equipment himself. He said the happiest place on the planet for him was to be in his fields driving his "mature" equipment, and that it would make him unhappy to farm with a huge equipment loan hanging over his head.

I've got other customers for whom their happiest days are when they drive new equipment  home. They've arranged their finances and farming so that they get something new every year. They truly enjoy studying owner's manuals and learning all the nuances of each piece of new equipment. One of them once told me that it gives him peace of mind to trade combines every year so that every breakdown is covered by a full parts and labor warranty. He said he'd spent too many years fixing combines himself, and it made him happy to call the dealership for warrantied repairs on his combine.

There's a moral somewhere to these stories, but I'm not sure what it is. I like fine-toothed ratchet wrenches; other people don't. I'm not right and they're not wrong. I guess as long as we're both happy, then life is good.

Bearing Removal Without A Torch

Jun 26, 2014

 Most of the time it seems when I need to remove a frozen bearing from a shaft, it's in a tight spot or buried in the machine. So an acetylene torch is often the fastest way to get things apart. A torch is messy, potentially dangerous, and inelegant, but effective. The same has been said about me, so I guess I'm a good match for a torch.

But there are times when a bearing is out in the open and accessible, and I'm glad to use a die grinder with a cut-off wheel to quickly and surgically remove the bearing. Today I was in a situation where the bearing was on the end of a shaft and there was plenty of room around it, so I grabbed my die grinder. I made two cuts 180 degrees apart to split the outer race, then carefully cut through the inner race without marring the shaft. It took a total of 5 minutes, and avoided the flames, sparks, soot and heat that would have been part of torching the bearing.

It's not always possible to use an air-powered die grinder and cut-off wheel to dissect bearings, but when circumstances permit, it's a quick, clean way to get the job done. 

A Third Hand When You Need It

Jun 20, 2014

 Cable winches and motorcycle tie-down straps are probably more correctly accessories, but they're indispensible tools for me.

I have several cable winches, commonly called "come-alongs" in our neighborhood, that I use almost weekly for a variety of tasks. The one I use most often has only a 2000 pound lift capacity, but it's light enough and small enough to get into tight places where I can use it to lift a gear case into place, hoist a countershaft assembly, or pull a subframe into alignment. It took awhile for me to wrap my head around what I can do with a cable winch, but now I immediately think "come-along" whenever something heavy or awkward needs lifted or pulled.

I'm even more fond of the half-dozen motorcycle tie-downs left over from my motorcycling days. They're one-inch wide nylon straps, maybe 6 feet long, with a sturdy hook on each end and an adjusting mechanism that locks in place with a gnurled cam. Their length is infinitely adjustable, making them handy when I need to precisely suspend a shaft or hold some component in place. Motorcycle tie-downs aren't a "simple machine" like we learned about in physics, so if I want to suspend a 50-pound gearcase with a tie-down, I have to physically lift the 50 pounds while taking the slack out of the tie-down. 

There are times when it's nice to have the mechanical advantage of the cable winch to lift really heavy objects. But there are times when it's more convenient to have the flexibility of the nylon straps and smaller size/weight of the tie-downs.

Most farmers have a dusty, often rusty cable winch hanging on a wall somewhere. Many farmers have tie-downs to secure their ATV or 4-wheeler during transport in a pickup or on a trailer. If they use the cable winch only once a year, and the tie-downs only as tie-dpwns, they're missing the advantages of a having a third hand when lifting or positioning heavy or clumsy components during repairs.

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