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December 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.

My Best/Worst Tool Purchases for 2009

Dec 26, 2009
 I got my money's worth when I bought some tools this year, and I wasted my cash on other purchases. Here are my opinions of some of the tools I bought in 2009. The tools I classify as "poor purchases" are probably good tools--I just may not use them correctly or don't appreciate their unique values.

-Great purchase: a new Snap-On 1/2-inch drive battery-powered impact wrench. I've used battery-powered impact wrenches for the past decade, and make a practice of trading "up" every 2 years. The quality of the impact wrenches and the power of the battery packs have improved so rapidly that it's worth trading off a good impact wrench every year or so to upgrade to the latest version. Things I like about the Snap-On include its balance, its power, and its variable-speed trigger. They also offer a plastic protective sleeve to keep the gun looking good, for when I trade it for a better one in 2 years.

-Fond purchase: Blue Point 1/4-inch drive socket set. I have a "thing" for 1/4-inch drive socket sets. I have several, though I probably only need one. I like the convenience of having a full set of metric and standard sockets, extensions, flex-joints and assorted screwdriver tips all in one easily carried plastic box. Perfect for carrying underneath dashboards or when working in other areas with lots of small and varied fasteners. I DON'T like socket sets that are a jumbled mess when you open their carrying box. The Blue Point kit stays reasonably organized even when dropped from a combine ladder. (Yup, I did.)

-Wasted money: set of air line disconnect tools. They're hard to explain, but they're a set of tools designed to push and release the collars on air lines used on brake systems and other on-board air distribution systems. I get tired of using my fingernails to pry and hold the collars to release air lines from their connectors, and thought the disconnect tools would be a finger-saver. They would, if I'd take time to get them out of my toolbox. I found they're not that much better than my fingernails, so I have little incentive to crawl out of, down from, or from underneath whatever piece of equipment I'm working on. A nice tool, if it was always within reach and no extra effort to chase down.

-new motorcycle tie-down straps. Gosh, I love motorcycle tie-down straps. They're my second set of hands. They easily and securely lift or hold small gear cases and other odd pieces of equipment up, over or out of the way during repairs. They're infinitely adjustable and I'm continually finding new ways to use them. My old ones finally got so frayed that I couldn't trust them. I may have them bronzed and hung on the wall--they're too much a part of my tool family to throw away.

-Don't tell my wife: a set of metric "shortie" ratcheting combination wrenches. Like conventional open end/box end wrenches, but with a reversible ratchet mechanism on the box ends. I've had a full-length set of ratcheting wrenches for 5 years and use them all the time. I noticed that many times I couldn't use them in tight confines where a full-length wrench is inconvenient. I also noticed that when I use them in wide-open spots I "choke-up" on the handle to use them as a speed ratchet. So I decided to invest in a shortie set, where the wrenches are only half as long as a normal wrench. The jury is still out whether it's a good investment--I haven't got to play with them very much. But they sure do glisten and shine in my toolbox...

Tap Dancing On Thin Ice

Dec 20, 2009
 Where do you fit on farming's social ladder? A farmer friend and I often discuss rural issues, and one issue we have yet to agree upon is the social structure of modern rural agriculture. 

When I was young there seemed to be a distinct hierarchy in agriculture. Hired men were low-men on the totem pole. Renters and share-croppers were a position or two higher, followed by farmers who owned their family farm. Farmers who owned multiple tracts of land, and off-farm landowners (often dentists, doctors and lawyers) were a rung higher on farming's social ladder. 

Bankers and lawyers in small towns were on par with landowners. Schoolteachers, ministers and small business owners in town were equal to farmers who owned their family farms. Mechanics, carpenters and factory workers had status equal to renters and sharecroppers.

Modern agriculture has shredded my perception of social status. Some of the most prestigious farmers are now cash renters who farm tens of thousands of acres but own little land. Small family farmers may own their 240 acres free and clear, but somehow don't carry as much "weight" in rural circles as someone in debt up to their ears. Many hired men now have college degrees. A few have the boss's checkbook to make million dollar decisions. Bankers lost some of their prestige back in the '80s (remember the joke from that era: "How do you tell the difference between a road-killed skunk and a road-killed banker? The skunk has braking skid marks in front of it.) Ministers still seem to get respect, as do teachers and small town businessmen. Mechanics, carpenters, plumbers and other tradesmen now seem to be judged on the quality of their work rather than simply on their profession.

What has all this got to do with tools, equipment repairs, and other shop topics commonly discussed in this blog? Not much, but yet a lot. As a mechanic I find that understanding customers is often as important as knowing how to fix their equipment. My farmer friend says I'm tap dancing on thin ice by even bringing up the topic of rural social structure. According to him, there is no difference between a hired man and a mega-farmer in today's social scheme.

But watch who sits where, and who talks to who, (and who DOESN'T talk to who) at a seed corn meeting and it's easy to get the impression that at least a few people are still aware of rural social status.

Temptations For The Toolbox

Dec 13, 2009
Buying tools is a lottery for me. Sometimes tools turn out to be golden and worth every penny of their price. Other tools are leaden and just lay in the bottom of my toolbox and take up space. 

For example, I hesitantly bought a set of ratcheting open end/box end wrenches. They look like conventional open-end/box end wrenches, but the box ends have reversible ratcheting mechanisms. They're golden--I use them constantly because they are just plain handy, fast and efficient.  I've also got a set of "flat" ratcheting box end wrenches that I've used maybe twice in 10 years. The difference? The flat box end wrenches don't have their ends offset from their handles by 15-degrees, so they tend to scrape my knuckles when I use them in tight spaces. A small difference, but enough so that the flat wrenches have been relegated to my "rarely used" drawer. The ratcheting open end/box end wrenches with the offsets earned space in my top drawer where they're easily accessible and frequently used.

On the other end of the tool lottery are high-end, expensive tools that get used rarely but are treasured nonetheless. A one-inch-drive pneumatic impact wrench capable of loosening or tightening bolts to 1,200 ft. lbs. cost me a lot of money, gets used only a couple times a month, but is worth all the many pennies I paid for it. When I absolutely, positively need a wheel or frame bolt loosened or tightened, it saves the day. I can't say the same for a battery-powered cable winch which seemed to be an invaluable purchase when I wrote the check for it several years ago. Both were pricey, and both are awkward and heavy to use. The difference? Experience has proven the impact gun to be the only way to get some jobs done. As for the power cable winch, I've learned it's faster, easier and lighter to use a conventional hand-powered cable winch instead of dragging out the heavy battery-powered-winch and running power leads to the nearest 12-volt battery.

So it's a lottery, trying to guess which tool purchases will be as useful in the real world as they seem in the tool catalog. You'd think after all these years that I'd learn how to better anticipate which tools will be useful and which tools aren't worth their purchase price.  I'd like to think I've learned from my mistakes, but the variety of tools that keep accumulating in my "rarely used" drawer indicates I'm a very slow learner.

When Is Machinery Worn Out?

Dec 06, 2009
 When is the right time to trade farm equipment? Customers often ask at what age a combine, planter or tractor is "worn out." That's a tough question.

We've got customers who farm 5,000-plus acres who pretty much replace their entire equipment line every year, and rarely keep any major piece of equipment for more than three years. We've got other customers who farm between 1,000 and 2,000 acres with 25-year-old combines with 4000-hours on the engine, and 25-year-old tractors. We've also got part-time farmers running 200- to 500 acres with ancient equipment handed down from their fathers. 

The guys with mega-acres focus on non-stop farming and go berserk at any breakdown or mechanical problem. One of those farmers told me he prefers to trade major pieces of equipment every year because that way, "Any breakdown is under warranty, and the dealership mechanic comes out to fix it." He also likes staying on the cutting edge of yield monitors, GPS guidance systems and all the latest technology. He acknowledges it took a long time and a humongous investment to reach the point where he could make annual trading work, but has run the numbers and is satisfied that fewer breakdowns, warrantied repairs and the advantages of GPS/precision farming technology pencil out to make him money. Or at least SAVE him money.

Another of our customers prefers trading every three or four years for low-hour used equipment. His attitude is that all the factory "bugs" have been fixed by then, the machine is "broken-in" and running at optimum capacity, and that a few scratches in the paint don't degrade overall performance. He trades-in equipment in good condition that still has reasonable resale value. He's not on the cutting edge of technology, and sometimes gets caught having to having to make big, expensive leaps to keep up with technology rather than making incremental improvements in yield monitors and GPS systems.

The guys who are really squirming are the ones who run the tires off equipment and trade only as a last resort. I had a customer this fall who had a catastrophic breakdown of his 30-year-old combine. He had to put $10,000 of parts and labor into a combine that was worth $6,500. A part-time farmer trying to buy a line of equipment and slowly expand his operation, he ruefully commented, "I only had one more payment before it would have been paid off..." 

The question, "When is the best time to trade equipment," would probably be better if phrased, "When is the best time for YOU to trade equipment?" Each farmer has his own comfort level with how big a debt they can tolerate, how many breakdowns they can accept each season, and how important it is for them to have "decent" equipment. Some farmers have detailed, computerized records that allow them to chart maintenance and repair costs. One customer religiously trades when his ratio of maintenance-to-repair cost per acre reaches a certain level. Another customer openly admits he simply, "gets a feeling" when it's time to trade combines, tractors or planters.

I guess it's just like the questions, "When is the right time to sell grain?," "What is the best hybrid to plant?." and "What should I get my wife for Christmas?"  Sometimes all you can do is guess, and live with the consequences.

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