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December 2008 Archive for 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.

Confession Time

Dec 26, 2008
 An old carpenter once told me, "The difference between a good carpenter and a bad carpenter is that a good carpenter knows how to cover up his mistakes." That adage popped into my mind recently when I was backtracking to fix a problem that cropped up after I thought I had repairs completed. Okay, I admit--I made a mistake, didn't fix the problem the first time, and had to go back and do the repair again. 

It bothers the heck out of me to cost a customer extra money. To the point where I usually figure out a way to make up the lost time and extra expense elsewhere in the project. Not to be a martyr, but I've worked "off the clock" and paid for an extra set of gaskets out of my own pocket in order to make things right. If I can't find a way to make things right on a current project, I keep the "debt" in mind and try to make things right when I do future repairs for that customer. 

That's not to say that I haven't done during repairs things that bothered my conscience. It's tough to keep absolute track of all the nuts, bolts, pieces and parts in a major repair job. There have been times when, after the dust settled and the machine was back in the field, I discovered that a couple extra parts did--or didn't--get charged to the job. There have been times when a gear or bearing wasn't as bad as my initial diagnosis indicated, but I went ahead and replaced it anyway because I already had things torn apart. 

That's why I recommend customers read every repair bill, pay attention to the billing, and come to me or my service manager and ask questions if things don't seem correct. It doesn't offend me to go over a bill with a customer, and I feel good if we find and correct mistakes. I feel better if it all checks out, however.

I confess I've made a couple major goofs over the years. The statute of limitations on stupidity hasn't expired on those situations, so I won't go into detail. Let it suffice that I confessed my sins to my service manager and we worked things out to the customer's satisfaction.

They say confession is good for the soul. When I was younger it was hard for me to admit when I'd screwed something up. it's become easier as I've grown older--I guess practice makes perfect. The up-side to all my errors is that I've learned not only how to admit my mistakes, but I've learned how to correct them. So I've revised that old carpenter's saying to, "The difference between a good mechanic and a bad mechanic is... a good mechanic knows how to fix his mistakes."

Best--and Worst--Tool Purchases of 2008

Dec 21, 2008
 Looking back on tools I purchased in 2008, I am reminded once again that cheap and simple are sometimes better than exotic and expensive. The tools that I bought and am most satisfied with are uniformly low-cost, durable and functional. The pricey tools that blinded me with flash and potential ended up at the bottom of my toolbox.

"Winner" tools purchased this year include two big, long punches (drifts, for any European viewers). They're both around 14 inches long with 1-inch or larger shafts. One has a 3/8-inch round tip, the other has a 1/4- by 3/4-inch oval tip. Both have proven invaluable for getting deep inside gearcases or into remote locations to beat the living daylights out of stubborn components. The oval-tipped punch is especially handy for catching the edge of bearing races or seals that need to be knocked out of remote locations. Cost of each of these oft-used "persuaders" was in the $40 to $60 range, but they've been well worth it.

It didn't feel cheap, but a $95 pry bar is also on my "winner" list of economical tools. I've got a full rack of 10-inch through 48-inch screwdriver-type pry bars, but fell in love when a tool vendor showed me a 6-footer made by Mayhew. At first I was cautious about putting too much pressure on it's 1-inch  by 1-inch shaft, but learned that it will handle everything I can put on it, and more. Plus, it has a life-time guarantee. I've moved, pryed, levered and shifted some pretty big stuff with that bar--it's definitely reduced the number of times I've had to bother co-workers to help me manhandle heavy or awkward components.

On the "loser" side of my tool purchases for 2008 are a battery-powered screwdriver and a 12-volt cable winch. Both are fine tools, well-made and probably handier than all get out, but they just haven't been as useful as I hoped. I don't have to deal with lots of screws--just one or two to remove a panel, then I'm reaching for wrenches or other tools and moving on to larger parts. It always seems easier and faster to grab a good ol' screwdriver than to dig out the battery-powered screwdriver, select the right bit, and then remove a couple screws. Maybe if I did more automotive work, on dashboards and things that have lots of Phillips, flat and Torx-head screws, I'd use it more often.

The 12-volt cable winch looked like a great alternative to using a lever-action cable puller (we call them "come-alongs"), but it hasn't proved as handy as I hoped. By the time I get the somewhat heavy winch connected to whatever I want to pull, then find a 12-volt power source and route the power cables to the puller---I could have had the job finished with a conventional come-along. Maybe someday I'll find a situation where the power winch is handy and saves me all sorts of trouble. But for now, it's one of the dustiest tools in my tool chest.

The biggest, and most expensive "tool" I purchased this year has fortunately proven to be a "winner." I saved for a long time to buy a Miller Bobcat 250 generator/welder, and am relieved that it has done all I hoped, and more. After getting by with a 5000-watt generator to power a small 120-volt wire welder in my service truck, it has been wonderful to have 10,000 watts of generating capacity and near nuclear-fission amperage for welding. I can now run my air compressor at the same time I use 120-volt grinders and lights. I can weld thick steel with confidence. And last week, when there was a forecast for severe ice storms in this area, that gas-powered welder/generator was sitting beside my house in case the electricity went off, ready to plug into a recently installed service cut-out switch. (That last features sure made it easier to justify  the welder/generator's cost to my wife...) 

One-of-a-Kind Tools

Dec 19, 2008
 I added another custom wrench to my toolbox last week, a one-of-a-kind tool you can't buy anywhere in the world. After fighting a stubborn nut in an awkward position for "too long" I purchased a brand new wrench from a tool set on our dealership's showroom, then cut and bent and welded until I had a short little 24 mm open end/closed end wrench with just the right angle on the ends to reach that troublesome nut.

That wrench will join dozens of other wrenches and tools in my tool box that I've either customized or fabricated to make repairs easier. There's a 9/16-inch wrench with two right-angle bends in the handle to hold the heads of bolts when replacing old-style rasp bars. It lies alongside a deep, deep, deep-well 1 1/16-inch socket I made to install or remove the old clamp-on dual-wheel bolts on tractors back in the '70s. In fact, there are a number of super-deep sockets I made by cutting in half sockets and welding them back together with lengths of pipe in the middle.

Some of those super-deep sockets are works of art, carefully welded then ground, then hand-filed, then sanded before painting to give a near-factory appearance. Others are ugly, off-center abominations with gobby welds, hurriedly concocted out of necessity during frenzied field repairs. The same applies to other oddball wrenches, wheel pullers and tools I've altered or fabricated. A coworker once described the junk drawer in my toolbox as "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." But I've noticed that when he needs an odd wrench or unusual tool, I often find him rooting around that drawer in hope one of my homemade special tools will solve a problem for him.

One of the uglies in that drawer is a T-bar-type gear puller made from two scrap metal bars, with a big hex nut welded between them. Is it as durable as the fancy chrome puller advertised in tool catalogs? No, but it's not as expensive, either. And it's cut and sized to fit in a particularly tight spot that no commercial puller will reach.

I admit that I've written in stories for Farm Journal,"The right tool for the right job." Whenever possible, that's my motto and my practice. But when the right tool isn't available and the job has to be done...point me to the scrap iron pile and hand me my acetylene torch.

More Than Maintenance and Repairs

Dec 10, 2008
 It's always interesting to "snoop" a bit when I'm on service calls to farmers' shops. There are sometimes Harleys or street rods tucked in a back corner. I've run across a few stock cars, and a lot of antique or collectible tractors in various stages of restoration. Those hobbies and passions are a natural fit for a farm shop, and I enjoy hearing about and looking at their latest projects. The stuff that really impresses me in farm shops, however, is the often offbeat, sometimes artistic hobbies of farmers.

Some farmers weld and shape scrap metal into sculptures. Some are humorous, like the odd-looking "birds" made from inverted hand shovels, with coil springs for legs and sickle mower knife guards for "beaks." I've seen a few scrap iron "dinosaurs" as well as "cows" and "pigs"  welded from all sorts of odd scrap metal. Some metal workers deal on a smaller scale, brazing together odd nuts, bolts, chunks of chain and other work bench debris into small comical human figures on "bicycles," or other caricatures of humanity.

On a larger scale, some farmers tinker in their shops to build things they can't buy. Such as a garden tractor that looks like a full-size articulated 4WD tractor. Or a garden tractor that looks like a scaled-down combine, with header that raises and lowers. Or a garden tractor equipped with a leftover, 400 hp V-8 Chevy small-block. I get the impression there are a lot of old garden tractors languishing in machine sheds that farmers can't resist tinkering with.

A few farmers exhibit artistic skills when they tinker in their shop. My uncle Paul uses his shop air compressor and a small portable sandblaster to etch farm scenes into mirrors and panes of glass. He frequents household auctions and farm sales and buys old mirrors or glass items, them tapes the entire surface with masking tape. He outlines a picture on the taped surface, then uses a knife to trace the sketched outline. He carefully removes selected portions of the image, then lightly sandblasts the entire surface. When he removes the rest of the tape, the sandblasted areas become frosty, silvery images on the otherwise smooth mirror or glass. The resulting artworks, often based on scenes from his more than half a century of farming, are treasured gifts and keepsakes for friends and family members.

So farm shops aren't only about work. Sometimes they're an adult's toyroom, or an amateur engineer's design studio, maybe even an art studio. Remember: all work and no play...is what your wife THINKS you're doing when you spend all that time out in the shop.

Bench Work

Dec 07, 2008
 You all have long lists of things that need to get done before spring rolls around, so I'm probably telling you something you already know. But if there's a day this winter when you're tired of looking at the DTN screen and need an excuse to hole up in the shop, here are some good maintenance and repair projects, whether your shop has in-floor heat or you work in the blast from a kerosene space heater:

-Rebuild spray pumps. Herbicide spray pumps should be stored "wet," filled with antifreeze solution. If you remove pumps from the sprayer for the winter, don't fill or coat their inside with petroleum products--some rubber seals swell and degrade when exposed to petroleum products. If a pump had low pressure or was leaky by the end of last season. take time this winter to rebuilt it. Most seal kits come with good instructions. Be sure to check the impeller "nose" for wear where it sits inside the impeller housing. Check the inside of the impeller housing for chemical buildup. If the impeller shaft shows pitting or rust, replace it.

-Check and clean planter units, especially finger-type units. It's not a bad project to go out into the machine shed, pull off the individual planter units, and bring them into the shop for careful inspection and maintenance. Check finger units for wear to the stainless steel backing plate--be sure to check for wear the "bump" just ahead of the ejection hole. All finger springs should have similar resistance. Check the rubber belt for cracks at the base of the "paddles." Be sure to check the small teeth on the plastic wheels that drive that belt--they can become hooked and cause the belt to jerk and stutter. Vacuum-type planter row units don't have all the wear-parts found in finger units, but it never hurts to check their door seals, knock-out mechanisms, and other details. 

-Clean up your work bench. Remember all those times last fall when you said you'd clean up your shop "this winter?" It's winter. Collect all your tools and make a list of those that never returned from that midnight combine repair a couple months back. Restock your collections of cotter pins, roll pins and assorted fasteners. Try to get the shop organized before you tear into winter repairs--if you're like me, once you get into a project, it's tough to stop and organize.

If you have other bench work that you always try to do on cold days, pass it on. Your comment might remind other viewers of projects they planned to do this winter, but forgot about.

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