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October 2011 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.

In The Shop: The Most Important Welding Tips

Oct 30, 2011

 Welding is easy. My grandsons, with a little assistance, can get two pieces of steel to stick together. The welds look like metallic chicken poop, and crack like glass, but the boys are proud to say they can "weld."

Creating strong welds that look decent is a challenge. Preparation is the key. Start by removing all paint and rust from the surfaces to be joined, especially if you're using a MIG wire welder. Paint and rust when heated disrupt the gas shield essential for good MIG welds.  If you're MIG welding and have trouble striking and holding an arc, stop and take time to grind away paint or rust. ALL the paint or rust---even a little bit of residual paint or rust can create problems. Stick-type arc welders are more tolerant of rusty or painted metal, but definitely benefit from paint- and rust-free surfaces.

Be sure to grind away paint and rust where the ground clamp for MIG welders will be attached--MIG wire welders are EXTREMELY fussy about having a good ground. Make the ground point as close to the actual weld as possible. When I weld in a combine grain tank, I use battery jumper cables to extend our MIG wire welder's ground lead so I'm "grounded" as close as possible to where I'm welding.

Then, when all the preparations are taken care of, be patient while welding. Follow all the tips your shop teacher tried to teach you in Industrial Arts Class in high school. Clamp things tightly. Tack-weld opposite ends of the pieces to keep them from "moving" as you put heat into the metal. If you're using a self-darkening helmet with variable tint, use a tint setting that protects your eyes but still enables you to monitor the pool of liquid metal at the welding point. Low-amp MIG welding may require #10 tint or less to adequately see what you're welding. Stick welding generally requires #10 tint or darker to protect eyes from feeling like they've had sand tossed into them when you go to bed after a day of welding.

Wear leather or protective gloves. It's not a macho thing---I've learned that just about the time you get things "right" and have a nice, even bead flowing, a spark will inevitably land in your palm and make you jerk or jump. If welding vertically or upside down, consider wearing a leather welding cape, sleeve or some sort of protection (a stout denim or canvas-duck jacket helps, but will get burned spots that will fray at the next washing) against sparks landing in the crook of your elbow or at the base of your neck. Sparks landing in those spots will not only make you jerk, they will make you leap to your feet and dance like a geek at the Junior/Senior Prom.

You can have the best stick or MIG welder on the market, the correct welding rod or wire for the metals you're joining, and the perfect amperage for the job, and still end up with scaggy-looking, weak welds. Simply removing paint and corrosion, then ensuring there is a good ground point, helps that welding equipment performs optimally. Using the proper tint of helmet, protective gloves, and gear helps YOU perform optimally--and without scarring. 


In The Shop: "The Welding Shop"

Oct 27, 2011

 If you still have a "welding shop" in your town, you're lucky. An earlier generation called them blacksmiths. Whatever the name, they were the place you went when you needed planter runners or anhydrous knives hard-faced, cast iron components welded, or mangled metal straightened and made near-new. There were also always a few old school bus seats in a back corner next to a coffee pot, where customers could wait for quick repairs, and where a crowd of loafers would gather to discuss world affairs, local affairs (literally), and offer opinions on every repair job that came through the door. 

To a farm kid, a welding shop was a wondrous place. Dark, cluttered, filled with machines capable of straightening what was bent or bending what was straight. The proprietors of welding shops were oil-stained magicians who could take a mangled piece of machinery and beat, heat, twist and tease it back into useful condition. They had welders capable of near-nuclear fusion, and their welding beads were things of beauty. It was a crime to paint a welding shop repair job---the welding beads were too pretty to cover with paint.

On our farm, we managed "average" repairs in the dirt-floored corner of the machine shed that was our designated shop, but it was a matter of simultaneous shame and pride if I busted a piece of equipment badly enough to require a trip to the welding shop.

Today, welding shops are fading from small towns. Many farmers now own their own acetylene torches, mega-amp welders and other metal working tools. Welding shops have been replaced by machine shops--well-lit, shiny-clean mini-factories with computer-guided lathes, plasma cutters and other machines that require a tech-school degree to operate.

Machines shops may actually get the job done even better than the old-style welding shops, thanks to all those gee-whiz-fancy machines. Heck, their bills are computer-generated, printed as neat, tidy and fancy as a bill you'd get from a lawyer or accountant. I sort of miss those carbon-paper bills, the ones the old guy in the greasy welding apron would laboriously write with the broken stub of a pencil he kept in his shirt pocket. The bills with greasy fingerprints smeared right beside the cheerful "Thank You For Your Business!" printed at the bottom of the bill.

In The Shop: Fire Is My Friend

Oct 21, 2011

 I was trying to get a big hub off a tapered shaft. I was in a hurry, the customer was in a hurry, and I didn't have time to use any sophisticated mechanic tricks. I tried a gear/wheel puller, and had applied what felt like several tons of torque to the puller without budging the hub. The customer looked a little concerned as I drug my acetylene torch hose out of my service truck. I handed him a water-filled fire extinguisher and told him to put out any fires that developed, and applied heat to the hub. I had barely burned away all the paint from the center of the hub, hadn't even got it to dull red, when there was a loud "bang" and the hub popped free and nearly fell off the end of the shaft.

I looked at the customer and he said, "Now, THAT was impressive." We finished removing the hub, made the rest of the repairs, and he was soon back in the combine combining corn. Everybody was happy, and once again my torch was the go-to tool that avoided lots of extra work.

Heat is the secret ingredient when it comes to removing stubborn gears, pulleys or hubs from shafts. I usually start with a gear puller, 'cause sometimes I get lucky and things come apart with merely the puller. But if the components turn stubborn, I put a fair amount of torque on the gear puller and leave it under tension while I apply heat to the gear, pulley or hub. 

If the gear, pulley or hub has a straight-bore, it can be a slow process, where I heat, then crank on the puller, then heat some more, then crank on the puller. Straight-bores often require significant heat and patience to pull things apart.

Tapered-bore assemblies, however, are almost fun. Nine times out of ten, if you put a lot of tension on the puller, all you have to do is get the gear, pulley or hub warm to the touch and there will be a bang or pop and things are ready to take apart nearly by hand.

So, if you're using pry bars and hammers to try and pound or drive a gear, pulley or hub off a shaft, put down the hammer, install a puller, and apply heat to the focus of your frustration. Fire, or more specifically, "heat" can be your best friend when metal components refuse to separate.

In The Shop: The Puzzle Of Well-Used Machinery

Oct 16, 2011

 I've seen brand-new machines that were plagued by endless breakdowns, and I've seen machines long overdue for the junkyard that never seem to stop running. I can explain the new machines that break down frequently, but am endlessly puzzled by the old machines that just keep running, and running, and running...

Brand new combines, tractors, planters and other farm equipment are subject to design flaws, assembly flaws, and flaws in components. Most people accept that there will be a few problems in a brand new machine, but that's what warranties are for, right?

The ones that baffle me are what we in our shop call "blinder" combines. When you go to the country to fix one of them, you put on mental "blinders" so you see only the single specific thing your were sent to fix. On those combines, if you let your gaze wander you see pieces of plastic buckets wired to the bottom on auger troughs to cover holes; you see more oil pooled below the engine than there probably is INSIDE the engine; and you see belts and chains that were worn out four years ago. When you test run the machine after making those specific repairs, you hear clanks, bangs, thumps and screeches that you've never heard a combine make before. And yet, once you're finished, the machine plunges back into the field and somehow the farmer finishes harvesting his crop.

Does that prove we as mechanics tend to over-repair and over-maintain machines in an effort to keep them as close as possible to factory specifications? Does it mean machinery doesn't need to be in tip-top shape to do its job? My response, based on decades of operating and working on farm equipment, is that my preference is to over-maintain and over-repair simply because I dislike any sort of breakdowns or delays in the field.

But I can't help wondering how the heck some farmers seem to get along year after year with battered, rust-riddled, oil-oozing machinery. Do those farmers have a special knack for nursing maximum performance from machines well past their prime? Do they have a higher tolerance for breakdowns or less-than-optimum performance compared to the cost of buying newer equipment or repairing the machinery they have? I'm not criticizing--I'm frankly in awe of the mysterious magic that keeps those high-hour, low investment mechanical miracles running... and running, and running. To those of you harvesting in cabs without functional air conditioners, looking through cracked windshields, nursing engines that burn oil and fuel on a one-to-one ratio---I salute you!

In The Shop: Defeating Rusty Nuts and Bolts

Oct 13, 2011

When a rusty or frozen nut or bolt defies removal, here are some of your options:

-if time allows, soak--and I mean "soak"--the offenders in penetrating oil. I'm not advertising for any specific product, but have had good luck with Kroil, Blaster, WD-40, JB-80 and others. Twenty-four hours isn't too long to apply, soak, re-apply and re-soak penetrating oil. Sometimes those products work like magic and the fastener easily spins apart. Sometimes they don't.

-if they don't, or if you don't have time to do the soak-and-reapply routine, you have to decide if you need to salvage the nut or bolt. Realistically, if it's that badly frozen, you're probably not going to be able to re-use it, so there's no advantage to being merciful. 

-one option that may--or may not---allow you to salvage the offending nut or bolt is to heat the offender cherry red with an acetylene torch. While it's still glowing, give it a mighty tug with your biggest breaker bar, or hit it with a blast from an air wrench. About 60 percent of the time frozen fasteners surrender to heat-then-twist tactics.  If not...

-at that point you've already got the torch handy, so burning/melting off the offending fastener with the torch is quick and easy. Considerations must be made for potential scarring/damage to nearby metal, and fire is always a concern.

-there is a high-tech electro-magnetic, hyper-thermic gizmo on the market that uses electricity to heat small areas to high temps that can be used to remove frozen fasteners. You wrap a special coil-like device around the nut or bolt, and it quickly heats that particular area red hot. I've seen it, haven't used one myself, but the times I've seen it in use it's been pretty slick--but expensive.

-grinding is another option. An angle head grinder, or a cut-off wheel in an air-powered die grinder can remove a nut or bolt head with near-surgical precision. The downside of those options is you have to have either a source of electricity or compressed air to power those tools.

-a cold chisel and hammer can be used to shear small bolts. It takes a lot of pounding to shear a bolt larger than 5/16-inch, but if you're angry or desperate enough, it can be done.

Those are the basic options to remove frozen nuts and bolts. None of them are "pretty." With luck, this fall you won't have to resort to any of them.

In The Shop: Read What Margy Fischer Wrote

Oct 08, 2011

 Don't just scan and nod when you read Margy Fischer's fire prevention notes posted elsewhere on Farm Journal's website. All those suggestions are useful to prevent combine and field fires during this year's unusually windy harvest.

BUT--if you skip or forget one or more of those fire prevention tips, and suddenly smell smoke while combining or working in a field, here are some hard-learned suggestions if fire PREVENTION is history and fire CONTROL is current news.

-As Margy wrote, call 911 first. Only if you know someone else is DEFINITELY calling 911 with accurate directions to the fire's location should you attempt to begin to put out the fire. Many rural areas now have some sort of 911 street/road address system. Make sure you know the address of each field you're harvesting so you can give quick, accurate directions.  (The dispatcher probably won't have a clue where, "...the field behind Smith's old hog barn, south of the jog in the County Road," is located.)

-If you're using a pressurized, water-filled extinguisher, be cautious. The high pressure water jet can dislodge and blow embers or burning material and actually spread the fire. If diesel fuel is burning, water extinguishers can definitely spread the fire. ABC-type powder-filled extinguishers are best for diesel-fueled fires. For generic combine fires, I prefer water-filled extinguishers, because they can knock down a pretty good-sized debris fire, but have learned to use them judiciously.

-If fire spreads into harvested or unharvested crop the quickest way to stop its spread is with tillage equipment. Disks may not turn up enough moist dirt to stop a fire in really dry residue when winds are strong. Disk rippers/chisels seem to work better. Show no mercy if the fire is racing through unharvested crop. It's better to destroy two or three passes of unharvested crop with a ripper rather than lose the entire field--or section.

-Keep tillage machines that are creating firebreaks out of the fire. Leaked oil, leaked fuel or dry crop residue accumulated under fenders or around the lower frame can burst into flame if a hero tries to trim close to the fire line. 

-If you aren't part of the solution, stay away. Gawkers and spectators not only make it difficult for fire crews to get to the fire, but there is always risk a fire may move in unexpected directions and put onlookers at risk.

-If there's smoke, there's fire. If you manage to put out a smolderingl fire on a combine with minimal damage, take time to haul water to it or move it to a location where you can drown it with water. Flood it. Immerse it, if possible. The smallest glowing ember can burst back into flame when the air blast from the engine cooling fan, separator cleaning fan or even the air movement from a spinning pulley hits it. Be aware that large, plastic-covered electrical harnesses often get filled over time with fine, powdery crop dust that happily smolders inside those electrical harness protectors like a fuse. I've seen fires erupt 10 feet from the initial fire point, hours and hours after the fire was "put out," thanks to dust smoldering inside electrical harnesses.

-Once a combine fire reaches the full-flame stage, it's often a losing battle. I had a rural fire fighter once joke that he keeps a pack of marshmallows in his fire truck because, "usually, by the time we get to a combine fire, it's time for the hot dogs and marshmallows, 'cause those puppies burn hot and fast."

Things I Won't Blog About

Oct 03, 2011

Sometimes it's tempting to use my blog to blow off steam after a hard day, week, month or season at the dealership. But my goal is to stay positive with this blog, so I hereby promise not to blog about:

--trying to find and then repair aftermarket/shortline parts that have been grafted onto mainline equipment. Some aftermarket/shortline equipment suppliers are absolutely top-notch about answering questions and giving useful answers about their products. Others are not.

--customers who call 10 minutes before closing time on the weekend and start their request for a service call with, "I'm glad I caught you before you closed! I've been tinkering with this ALL DAY, and I need somebody to come out and fix it before it gets dark."

--a farmer who blocked my home's driveway with his pickup truck as I was leaving with my wife for a family dinner, because he needed me to fix his combine on a Sunday afternoon.

--engineers who've made farm equipment so complicated you have to use a laptop computer to diagnose a blown fuse. 

--repairing bearings that "get greased EVERY day" but have nothing but dust between the balls or rollers when I take them apart.

--the times I've installed components backwards, filled gearboxes with the wrong oil, hit my thumb with a hammer, scalded myself with hot oil, blistered myself by grabbing a just-welded piece of iron, or just plain screwed up while working on farm equipment.

I figure it's not fair to blog about other people's foibles without acknowledging my own shortcomings. So let's just call it "even," and get a good night's sleep. 



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