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November 2009 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.

Big Boys' Toys

Nov 29, 2009
 Thanksgiving is past so it's safe to talk about Christmas. Time to think about Christmas lists, for other people and for myself. My wife keeps asking for a list of things I want for Christmas. Just for fun I may hand her a list of the following "dream" tools:

-TorcUp pneumatic torque wrench. It looks like a conventional 1/2- or 3/4-inch-drive pneumatic air impact wrench with a funny U-shaped gizmo on the business end. But it's a high-tech, air-over-hydraulic torque wrench capable of accurately torquing fasteners to as much as 6,000 ft. lbs.  After beating myself up putting all my weight onto the end of the 6-foot-long handle on a conventional torque wrench trying to get wheel bolts to merely 800 ft.lbs., the TorcUp unit looks pretty sweet. However, they won't even list prices on any of the websites I visited, so I'm guessing we're talking about a price in excess of $2,000 to $3,000 for the complete unit, which includes the "gun" and its associated suitcase-size regulator unit. 

-Plasma cutter. It would be nice to accurately slice plate steel, and a plasma cutter is nifty way to do it.  But most of the metal I cut is 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. A plasma cutter that would easily handle 3/4-inch steel would carve a $2,000 to $4,000 hole in my tool budget. Yes, a smaller plasma cutting unit might cut thick steel, but I've learned the hard way it's better to buy a large tool and operate it in the middle of its operating range than to cheap-out, buy a small until, and constantly operate it at or beyond its designed capacity.

-Remote viewing camera. Imagine a color digital video camera on the end of a 6-foot-long cable that displays images on a hand-held 3-inch x 4-inch screen. Imagine the camera and cable is small enough to fit through a 3/8-inch diameter hole. Imagine being able to look inside gearcases or behind dashboards without first taking them apart. Imagine looking through a spark plug hole and checking an engine cylinder for damage without removing the cylinder head. Imagine paying $500 to $1,000 for a durable unit that displays a high-quality image. I can imagine everything but the price. Maybe technology will improve, competition will drive prices lower, and I'll someday be able to get one of these nifty units for around $200.

Or maybe Santa will bring me one this Christmas. It certainly won't come from my wife. She glanced over my shoulder as I was writing this, burst out laughing, and said, "No, really, what do you want for Christmas?" That's not a promising sign.

Spend Quality Time With Your Combine

Nov 22, 2009
 By the end of harvest most farmers are sick and tired of being around their combine. Their first impulse is to park it, forget it and move on to fall tillage, hauling grain, and the hundreds of other chores that piled up during harvest. The idea of spending a day cleaning a combine before putting it away for the winter doesn't sound like much fun and often gets delayed till mid-winter or the second week of Never.

Here are the facts: it WILL take all of a day for one man to do a thorough job cleaning a combine and prepping it for storage. The good news is that all the time and effort is not wasted. From my experience, a combine that is stored direct from the field will cost its owner an extra $200 to $500 before or during the next harvest. Much of that expense is related to corrosion/rust/water damage from rotting crop debris in or on the machine. 

Some of that damage takes a long time to show up. I spent $1000 of a customer's money last week chasing gremlins through the electrical system on his combine. The pricey diagnostics eventually found a corroded electrical connector buried in three or four year's worth of rotting crop debris. Simply cleaning the combine before storage each year could have saved that guy $1000.

Cleaning combines is simple but boring and time-consuming. At a minimum, the same day harvest is finished, remove the sump covers for grain tank unloading augers and clean out rotten grain so precipitation won't accumulate in the grain tank. Open and clean the rock trap. Open the lower access doors on clean grain and tailing elevators. Use a high-pressure air hose to blow off loose, dry debris.

Some farmers avoid pressure washing their combine, due to concerns about forcing water into bearings, computer boxes and water-sensitive components. My attitude is that pressure washing does a great job of cleaning a combine with minimal risk--as long as the person running the spray wand has an I.Q. higher than a chimpanzee. Don't direct high-pressure water directly at bearings or computerized components and things will be fine.

If you're going to do maintenance and repairs on the machine within the next month, leave chains dry or spray them with WD-40, JB-80 or some other lightweight lubricant. If you won't touch the machine till next harvest, lube the chains with chain lube. The same applies to greaseable bearings and pivot/wear points.

Final step before walking away from the machine is to toss lots of mouse and rat poison into and on the machine. Clean machines are less prone to vermin damage than machines with lots of tasty crop debris on them, but even clean machines can suffer mouse and rat damage--the darned critters like to gnaw on the coatings of wires, which leads to short circuits and expensive repairs down the road. 

As for problems with raccoons, 'possums and other large critters--if there's no straw or debris in a stored combine, those varmints are less apt to set up housekeeping and build a nest in a radiator shroud or deep within the separator. And if you think that having those critters nesting in a combine isn't a big problem---try cleaning up the results after you start the combine next summer and wrap a 20-pound 'coon around the clean grain auger or bust off all the engine fan blades on a 'possum that was snoozing in the radiator shroud.

Another Smashed Fingernail

Nov 15, 2009
 First off, this is not a recommendation or endorsement. It is merely a report of my personal experience with a common problem for those of us who work with tools and are incredibly clumsy.

Yesterday the fingernail on one of my fingers got between a fast-moving piece of metal and the side of a combine feederhouse frame. The fast-mover was a hammer. You can guess the result--lots of jumping around, lots of yelling and a few whimpers once I figured out that all the yelling was after-the-fact and not going to change the situation. Which was that my fingertip was rapidly turning purple beneath the fingernail. Being the stoic, manly-man that I am, I accepted the consequences of my clumsiness, finished the repairs, and ended the day with a throbbing finger. Smashed fingernails are common in my job, so I resigned myself to 24-to 36-hours of intense pain and a week or so of discomfort.

But this smashed fingernail was more intense than most I've experienced, and by 2 a.m. I was still unable to sleep. So I fired up the computer and checked the internet for information about an old carpenter's remedy for smashed fingernails. I've heard for years about guys drilling or melting holes in their fingernails to release the pressure and reduce the pain of a smashed fingernail. And there it was--precise instructions on how to use a heated paperclip to relieve the pressure. There were internet entries from doctors and emergency room nurses that said it was a commonplace, safe and effective "cure." Heck, there were even YouTube videos of guys using the procedure on themselves.

So at 2:30 this morning I was at the bathroom sink with an unfolded paperclip clamped in my mini-ViseGrips. The small butane torch I use to heat-shrink electrical connectors was burning blue and hot on the edge of the sink. The purple, throbbing fingernail had been sterilized with alcohol then wiped clean. In a burst of amazing courage I heated the tip of the paperclip glowing red and held it gently against the most purple part of the fingernail. There was a faint hissing sound, an odd burnt odor, and suddenly blood spurted from the tiny little hole. Once the bleeding stopped, I applied more antiseptic, installed a Bandaid, went back to bed and found blissful sleep. This morning the fingertip is sore, but no longer throbbing with each heartbeat and MUCH less painful than it was mere hours ago.

Again: this is not a recommendation or endorsement. I am a mechanic, not a doctor. A CLUMSY mechanic who will most certainly now carry a few paperclips in the medical kit he keeps in his toolbox.

The Next Time Equipment Breaks Down...

Nov 09, 2009
We've got hundreds of thick, oil-stained technical manuals at our dealership to help mechanics figure out what's wrong with farm equipment and how to fix it. We've got the latest technical information on CDs and DVDs stored in portable laptop computers. We've got direct access to engineers at the manufacturer via the internet. But most of the time, "simple" is the best way to diagnose farm equipment ailments. Scroll to the bottom of this page for a diagnostic flowchart that has proven to be the most reliable way to figure out what's wrong and who is to blame:


MIA Tools

Nov 01, 2009
Three times this harvest I've been working on equipment on customer's farms and overheard "discussions" about missing tools. Some of the "discussions" got rather loud.  It was tough to keep track of hand tools back when a single farmer worked from his own farmstead, but today's multi-farm operations with neighbors, family members or hired men sharing tools almost guarantees lost or misplaced tools--and plenty of "discussions" about who is responsible for replacing the lost items.

On some farms, tools are bought by the farm and considered community property. Lost tools are replaced by the farm and considered an operating expense. There is a tendency for "community" tools to disappear more frequently than privately-owned tools because there's no incentive for tool users to keep track of tools.

Other farms have a policy that each person, whether it's brother, father, hired man or son, has his own tools. Each person is responsible for replacing his own lost or broken tools. If he borrows a tool and it gets lost or broken, it is the user's obligation to replace it. An offshoot of this policy is if a tool gets broken or worn out by use (drill bit, screwdriver, allen wrench), the farm operation pays for replacement. The theory is that the tool owner buys the original tool, but the operation pays for replacing tool wear or damage incurred during use for that farming operation.

I've been in both situations, where tools were provided, and where I was responsible for providing all my own tools. I prefer the latter situation (as long as pay compensation acknowledges that I'm providing tools necessary for my job). It's far, far, more expensive for me to own all my own tools, from mini-screwdrivers to a gas-powered welder/generator, but: (a) I'm much more careful and conscientious about the way I beat and abuse MY tools than when they belonged to someone else, (b) I'm much more careful and conscientious about making sure MY tools are all in MY toolbox at the end of the day, and (c) if I change jobs or retire, the tools all leave with me and I have a good start on either a new job or a heckuva nice home shop.

There are many variations on these tool owning strategies. But as long as there are farmers working on equipment late at night in farm fields miles from home, there will always be discussions in farm shops on rainy mornings about, "WHAT did you do with that 9/16 wrench you borrowed a couple days ago?" or, "Has anybody seen the 1/2-inch drill...?"
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