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September 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.

"What I'd Do" Depends on Who You Are

Sep 28, 2008
'Tis the season when mechanics frequently hear, "What would you do if it was yours?" from customers trying to decide on repairs to their equipment.

A co-worker says there is only one answer to that question: "Fix it right, no matter what it costs." By "right" he means replacing all damaged parts, all worn parts, and all questionable parts. His reasoning is that by replacing every possible source of future problems, he gives his customer a "new" machine with maximum chance for problem-free operation.

But there is more than one kind of "right" when it comes to repairing equipment. What if the customer doesn't want or can't afford the equivalent of a "new" machine? I've got enough farmer genes in me to know that a little cobbling, a little patching, or some creative work with a welder and hammer can often provide economical, long-lasting repairs. So when a customer asks, "What would you do if it was yours?" I have to pause and reflect on what I know about the customer.

Is he someone who expects no downtime and will come unglued if his machine requires even minor repairs in the future? Will he look for a scapegoat if stopgap repairs fail before the end of the season? Or is he the sort of fellow who is comfortable with occasional downtime as long as he doesn't have to pay full price for all new parts and extensive repairs? 

There are times, when customers ask me, "What would you do if it was yours?", that I respond, "All new parts, no matter what it costs." I know from experience that those customers demand 100 percent reliability and performance from a repair job, and will loudly lay blame to the mechanic if anything goes wrong. Other customers--the kind who prefer "creative" repairs and weigh the trade-off between economy and a 100 percent lifetime guarantee--may hear suggestions on ways to sidestep full-scale repairs and their corresponding expense.

It's a risky proposition. The goal is to give each customer the repairs that best fit his needs and personality. When things go right the customer appreciates the mechanic's ability to save time and money through creative repairs, and the mechanic is a hero. But there are other times when misunderstandings and "faulty memories" about who okayed what kind of repairs make the mechanic the villain who failed to do his job correctly.

Those are the times when I swear to never again offer creative, economical options to customer's mechanical problems and adhere strictly to my co-worker's policy of, "Fix it right, no matter what it costs."

Archimedes Understood

Sep 21, 2008
After a service call several years ago I was collecting and loading my tools and found I was missing a 3-foot-long pry bar. I must have got a little frantic as I ransacked the area in search of the tool, because the amused farmer commented, "What is it with you mechanics and your pry bars...? A wrench is a wrench, but a pry bar seems to be part of your family."

It's difficult to explain the relationship a mechanic has with his pry bars. They are magic tools. They enable a single, puny man to lift, pry, separate, twist, move, align, or slide objects otherwise immovable. When wedged in an armpit or stood upon, they become a third arm, freeing the mechanic's hands to install, remove or adjust a component. Depending on their size and the situation, they can dig rotten corn from an elevator boot, align a driveshaft with a gear for installation, or poke that furry mass underneath the storage shelf to see if the 'coon is deceased or merely napping.

As someone with a long and strong affection toward pry bars, here are a few comments about pry bar design, selection and use:

-Crowbars are fine for carpenter work and structural demolition. Alignment bars--round bars flattened on one end and pointed on the other--are essential tools for serious mechanics. But the pry bars that get the most daily use and abuse in our shop are the ones that look like over-sized screwdrivers. They range in length from 1-foot to 6-feet. Two-footers and three-footers are the workhorses of the pry bar world. For the rest of this entry, when you read the words, "pry bar," think of those screwdriver-type tools.

-Some mechanics like straight-bladed tips on their pry bars. Most prefer that the flattened tip be at a slight angle to the pry bar's main shaft. Prying motions are easier and more effective with angle-tipped pry bars.

-It's inevitable that every pry bar will eventually be used as an ultra-length cold chisel to separate two components. For that reason, it's best to purchase pry bars with "capped" handles, where the shaft of the bar runs completely through the handle and ends in a metal cap. The cap allows the user to hammer on the end of the handle without damaging the handle itself.

-Pry bar handles come in a variety of shapes: round, octagonal, square, etc. One advantage to square handles is that the user knows by "feel" that the flattened tip is either "vertical" or "sideways."  Some mechanics use a grinder or knife to make identifying marks on two of the flats of square handles so they can tell instantly by "feel" which direction the flattened tip is oriented.

-Brightly colored pry bar handles are not leftover 1970's Day-Glo fashion statements. Black- or  gray-shafted pry bars blend into dark nooks and crannies in farm equipment and disappear-- until the combine, baler, straw shredder, cotton picker or lawn mower is engaged. Bright-colored handles help keep track of tools in the dim confines of machine sheds or during nighttime repairs.

-A four-piece set of quality pry bars, that includes  2-foot through 4- or 5-foot bars, costs between $85 and $150. Be suspicious of bargain bin pry bar sets for less than $50. Cheap bars bend, or even worse, break and send the user sprawling onto the floor or against some sharp-edged corner on nearby equipment.

-And as for the reference to Archimedes in the title of this piece...? That ancient Greek once said, "Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth." He was talking about the principle of leverage, and pointing out that given a long enough pry bar, a man can move a lot of weight. Smart man, that Archimedes.

Never Turn Your Back On A Bored Co-Worker

Sep 12, 2008
 First, let me emphasize that the first concern of dealership mechanics is the quick, economical and accurate repair of customers' equipment. Most of us have farm backgrounds. We take very seriously our role in American agriculture.

However. There might be rare occasions when the opportunity to harass, annoy or play a prank on a fellow mechanic becomes just too good to pass up. For example:

-a mechanic had just finished extensive repairs to a combine and pulled it from the shop to test run it. Just before he engaged the separator, another mechanic tossed a smoke bomb onto a rear sieve. When the cleaning fan in the separator hit full speed, smoke billowed from every bolt hole, crack and body seam. But the prank backfired, because the mechanic test-driving the combine noticed in the rear view mirror that his co-worker had tossed something into the machine, and wasn't panicked when smoke started rolling. He calmly drove the combine to a parking area. It looked like a cloud on wheels.

-Another mechanic had spent hours rebuilding the final drives on a 4WD tractor. After finishing the repairs, he took it for a test drive, then parked it outside the shop to see if any leaks developed, while he went for lunch. While he was at lunch, another mechanic took a bucket of used gear oil and dumped it inside the rim of one of the wheels so that oil filled the rim, ran down the tire and across the paving. When the first mechanic returned from lunch, he nearly lost that lunch when he saw the newly repaired tractor with gear oil pooled below the final drive he had just repaired. 

-A new mechanic had just finished his first significant repair work on an older combine that used a fuel shut-off cable to stop the engine. He parked the repaired machine outside, engaged the separator, then carefully walked around the machine meticulously inspecting all the spinning pulleys, chains and drives. Another mechanic sneaked up into the cab and pulled the fuel shut-off cable half closed, starving the engine so that the entire machine shuddered and stuttered and sounded like it was in the process of puking a couple of pistons. The novice mechanic aged 3 years in the time it took him to run around the machine and clamber up the ladder, where he found his coworker holding the shut-off cable half open.

- A veteran mechanic was test running a combine that had a mysterious, rhythmic knocking. Every time the mechanic engaged the separator the knocking mirrored the shaft speed of a different component. Sometimes the knocking was in syncopation with the cleaning fan, sometimes it matched the chopper speed, and occasionally it didn't match any shaft speed on the combine, but sounded mysteriously similar to the first bars of the drum solo from "Inna-Gad-Da-Vida." Eventually the mechanic adjusted the mirrors on the combine and caught one of his co-workers as he darted to a blind spot on the other side of the machine and tapped on the frame with a big hammer whenever the separator was engaged.

As I said, farm equipment mechanics take pride in keeping farmers rolling. We also take pride in keeping our co-workers on their toes.

A Bit Grumpy

Sep 09, 2008
 This is the second night I've toiled on stories at my keyboard with aching muscles and joints. Feverish. My lungs hurt when I breathe deep. Intermittent chills make my fingers dance off the keys every so often. And it's all my own fault.

Twenty-some years ago I cleaned out a bin of corn that was moldy at the bottom. Call it "dust flu" or "dust pneumonia," I spent two days in bed. Since then, every time I'm exposed to a certain type of corn dust/mold, I'm guaranteed a miserable evening and possibly a day away from work.

i don't know exactly what triggers the symptoms. Most moldy, dusty grains aren't a problem. But there's a certain whitish-gray, "dry" smelling dust that I've learned to be wary of. If a combine comes into the shop fresh from the field covered with that dust or gives off that smell, I've learned to endure the discomfort of wearing a dust mask. Otherwise...it's "fever city" that evening.

The culprit for this week's discomfort was a particularly filthy combine that came into the shop. The owner apparently isn't big on cleaning up his machine during harvest or before he stores it for the winter. By the time I scoop-shoveled the big piles of year-old corn stalks and leaves off the feederhouse and out of the engine compartment, and used an air hose to blow the smaller piles away, I could taste the familiar flavor in the back of my throat, and knew I was going to have an uncomfortable couple of days.

Yes, it's my own fault. I should have taken one look at that pig and put on a dust mask, then power-washed the entire machine with a steam cleaner. But I was trying to save time and get the machine finished as quickly as possible in the face of the fast-approaching harvest. So here I sit, in mid-chilllllllllll, trying to keep my fingers from convulsing against the keys, so I can confess my stupidity to you, and put out a warning to think twice when working on dirty equipment as you prepare for this year's harvest, or put that equipment away after you finish harvest.

Especially if you're susceptible to dust flu, dust pneumonia, or whatever they call this particular type of crud.

Shoulda-Bought-Sooner Tools

Sep 07, 2008
 My mother always said, "Watch your pennies and you'll never have to look for dollars." Good advice, but being cautious of how I spend money slowed me from buying handy, useful tools that I wish I had bought sooner.

For example, I finally broke down and spent $12 to buy  a battery carrying clamp. I should have bought it long ago. Rather than bending and using two hands to hoist batteries from awkward locations, I can now put the clamp on the battery and lift it with one arm while i use the other arm to brace myself and gain leverage . With combine and tractor batteries now weighing more than 50 pounds a piece, that simple device has significantly reduced wear and tear on my aging back. 

Another simple, low-cost tool has helped me maintain my composure while doing battery maintenance. For some reason, I have little patience with battery cable clamps. Few things make me want to use a large hammer for violent purposes more than a battery cable clamp frozen to a battery terminal. So it was a wise investment when I spent $15 and purchased a battery cable clamp puller. It's a mini-gear puller with jaws that clamp beneath a battery clamp, and a threaded T-handle. Once installed, a few turns of the T-handle pry off even the most stubborn battery cable clamps. I should have bought that battery cable clamp years ago. It would have saved a lot of hammer-induced damage to batteries.

Gasket scrapers are nothing more than fancy putty knives dressed up as mechanic's tools. For years I couldn't bring myself to spend a couple dozen dollars on a set of gasket scrapers. I muddled along with screwdrivers and assorted other flat things to remove gaskets, clean off caked grease and do the dozens of things that I now do with gasket scrapers. I've learned that a small assortment of gasket scrapers--some wide, some narrow, some rigid and some flexible--get used as much as any small hand tools I have in my toolbox. I keep one or two in a special drawer, with a sharpened, ruler-straight edge, for honing gaskets off machined surfaces. The rest of the scrapers live abused lives, cutting gaskets, used as chisels, chipping wood when necessary, cleaning caked grease, scraping rotten crop residue from auger sumps. Another example of tools well worth the money I spent, and should have spent sooner.

There are more simple, economical tools that I should buy. Every time I go to a hardware store or step into a tool truck that stops by the dealership, I see gadgets and small tools that I know would make my job easier, faster or less annoying. Then I start counting pennies and worrying about dollars, and end up walking away empty-handed. I'm a perfect example of the old British proverb, "Penny-wise but pound-foolish."
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