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January 2013 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.

Personalities Are Tools

Jan 30, 2013

 One of the most important tools a mechanic can have is an innate ability to understand mechanical things. Some mechanics are incredibly gifted--my old friend Stolzie could literally assemble a simple four-speed transmission blindfolded, and savored the challenge of figuring out how to work on equipment without a tech manual to guide him. 

Other mechanics---me included--are fascinated by how things work but not especially gifted with an innate understanding of how it all fits together. So we read a lot of tech manuals. We ask a lot of questions. We take apart junk equipment just to see how it all fits together. And we eventually learn how things work, why things don't work, and how to fix them.

The one characteristic many mechanics share is that we're back-shop people. We're most comfortable out of the limelight, in a back shop. Surround us with greasy equipment, give us a tractor tire to lean on and other mechanics or like-minded farmers to talk to, and we're as glib as teenage girls at a slumber party. Force us into a gathering with lots of people we don't know or don't know well, and we clam up. Next time you're at a meeting at your local dealership where staff and farmers are all in one room, notice that the mechanics are all at the back, nervously shuffling their feet, glancing at the clock and gauging the distance to the door. 

At that same meeting, notice that the salesmen are mixing with the crowd and having a great time. Thank goodness for salesmen who are "people persons." If it was left up to people with mechanics' personalities to sell farm equipment, you'd still be farming with horses.

It goes without saying that I'm talking about extremes in order to make my point. There are plenty of mechanics who are totally comfortable at parties and in crowded rooms. After years of being drafted to give presentations about combine maintenance at our dealership's annual combine clinic, I've finally become pseudo-comfortable in front of a crowd of local farmers. But I always feel better if I can give my talk in the shop where I've got a combine to lean on. Or hide behind.

What's Your Specialty?

Jan 26, 2013

 I used to work with a guy nicknamed "Goose" who was a wizard with metal. He could cut and weld and machine and turn out metallic works of art. He always knew how much a piece of metal would twist when it was welded, and knew exactly where to put opposing welds to keep things straight. If he needed subtle bends in a piece of bar stock, he'd stand and look at it for a minute, then apply heat from a torch in just the right places so that the metal magically distorted then cooled into the exact shape he wanted.

I believe everybody has a talent, a gift, that allows them to do something better than the average person. My college roommate had "perfect pitch" and could pick up nearly any instrument and within minutes play a rudimentary melody. I've seen carpenters who effortlessly turned a small pile of wood into magnificent cabinents. My wife, the schoolteacher, has an uncanny ability to work with kids--I call her the "Kid Whisperer." 

All of these people had to work to improve their innate talent. We see a guitar player who effortlessly plays complex music, but DON'T see the hours and hours of practice that helped him hone a natural gift for music. My friend, Goose, used to go out to his dad's scrap iron pile and weld and cut and bend metal for hours, just to see what he could do. The secret seems to be that for whatever a person's talent is, it's easy and interesting enough so they're drawn to working to improve and perfect it.

That's not to say anybody can't get good at anything they're willing to work at. I can weld and cut metal well enough to make repairs or improvise repairs, but I'll never be as good as Goose. I played trombone from 5th grade all the way through college, but was never really good at telling if a note was slightly flat or sharp. I can deal with children well enough to babysit the grandkids on my own, though the effort is more like herding cats than actual childcare.

I think the key is to experiment, explore and try different things until you discover the one--or more--things that come relatively easy for you, that interest you enough for you to spend the time and energy to become "good" at them. Some of you are wizards at disassembling and restoring old tractors without a glance at a technical manual. Others are fascinated with studying plants, and have developed above-average skills at managing crops as they grow and figuring out how to squeeze out 10 more bushels per acre than your neighbors. Many of you who work with livestock were inherently attracted to working with animals, and can tell at a glance if a calf or lamb needs extra attention, or move a stubborn cow to where she doesn't want to go. 

Everybody is good at something. It's just a matter of finding what your "something" is.

Midwinter Tool Maintenance/Replacement

Jan 21, 2013

 I was pawing through the layers of tools and assorted debris on my work bench today and finally acknowledged it's time for my annual clean-up, touch-up, sort-through and throw-away event. That decision was accelerated by a couple evil looks from a boss who prefers to have our shop looking tidy and "professional."

So it's time to don ear and eye protection and carefully grind down the mushroomed ends of my punches and chisels, before a mushroomed segment finally shears off when hammered and either embeds itself in the back of my hand or ricochets toward one of my eyes. I might even touch up the bevel of the chisel points, reform the points on my center punches and square the tips of my alignment punches. 

I will sharpen all my dulled drill bits and actually return them to their proper holes in my drill index. I will throw away all the broken drill bits rolling around in the bottom of one of my toolbox drawers. Does anybody ever REALLY follow through with the self-promise that, "I'm going to sharpen a tip on that broken drill bit so I've got a half-length bit in case I need to drill in a tight spot."?

I'm going to clean both sides of the glass in my welding helmet. If the outer glass is beyond cleaning because of weld spatter, I'll replace it. (It was a head-slapping, "duh!" moment a couple years ago when I "remembered" that the clear, outer glass on a welding helmet is replaceable for a few dollars. It's much easier to weld a nice bead if you're not looking around, between and through a viewing glass that looks like the surface of the moon.)

I'm going to retire some tools that are literally worn out. The ridges inside chrome sockets, especially 12-point sockets, round off with use. I dislike spending money to replace a socket that "looks" okay, but I also dislike smashing my knuckles when a worn socket slips on a nut or bolt just as I really lean into it. Likewise, heavily used combination wrenches can wear enough so their open ends or box ends slip under pressure. Don't be tempted to weld then grind the jaws of the open end of a worn combination wrench---it never works out as well as you think it should. And the other mechanics will laugh at you. 


Hanging Electrical Harnesses

Jan 13, 2013

 Modern electrical connectors used in farm equipment electrical harnesses have come a long way from the days of male/female spade-type connectors. Modern Weatherpak- and Deutsch-style connectors use rubber grommets and seals to virtually waterproof the connection once the male and female connectors are twisted or "clicked" into place.

BUT--moisture can sometimes still weasel its way inside those connectors if they are hung, draped or mounted vertically. A little moisture and corrosion wasn't a big deal back in the days when connectors were transmitting 12 volts, but today's can-bus systems work on very low voltages that are notoriously sensitive to even minor corrosion. Wiring harness connectors on planters are especially susceptible because they commonly hang from the back of the tractor cab. Water runs down the wiring harness and pools in the upper end of the vertically hanging connector. Capillary action encourages the moisture to creep along the sides of the wires, down into the housing where it attacks the metal of the pins and connectors, damaging their electrical conductivity.

When possible, position electrical connector housings horizontally, so rainfall and moisture---even the moisture from a heavy dew--drips off instead of draining into the connector housing. If electrical connectors must be mounted vertically so that there is a risk of moisture invasion, consider smearing a dab of silicone around the harness/connector junction, to seal the connection against moisture. You may cuss that silicone if you ever have to disassemble or replace that connector, but--maybe, if you keep water out of it, you'll never face that problem.

Tough Tools To Buy

Jan 09, 2013

 Sometimes it's tough to pay the price for a tool you know you won't use often. But someday, in the midst of a critical breakdown, you'll be glad you've got that tool in your toolbox. 

Ten years ago I splurged and bought a set of crowsfoot wrenches that fit on the end of a socket extension. I use them maybe twice a year. But on those two times a year when I need to loosen or tighten a nut buried deep within a machine, when there's no other way to reach that nut, I thank myself for that "splurge." 

I chickened-out twice before I wrote separate, painfully large checks a year apart to buy complete metric and standard tap and die sets. But the ability to repair rather than replace components with damaged threads has saved me hours of time--and my customers tons of money. 

It was tough, years ago, to spend the cash to buy a set of bolt extractors that included left-handed drill bits. I already had a set of tapered, fluted bolt extractors and was getting along fine removing broken bolts by drilling holes in the bolts with conventional drill bits, then using the appropriate extractor to remove the bolt. A persuasive tool salesmen convinced me I shouldn't be without a set of left-handed drill bits whenever I try to remove a broken bolt, and now I agree with him. Many times the heat and vibration of drilling with a left-handed drill bit is enough to spin out the broken bolt without messing with the actual extractor. 

Another impluse buy that turned out well was a set of center punches that range in size from 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch in diameter. I'm always trying to align bolt holes where I don't have room for conventional tapered punches that range from 8 inches to 16 inches in length. I can't say that I got my money's worth out of the center punch set when used as center punches, but they've more than paid for themselves as alignment punches in tight spaces.

I guess I'm offering encouragement that, the next time you're standing in the tool department and it strikes you that, "I can see where that would be handy to have," then have at it. You'll have buyer's regret on the way home, but there will come a day, maybe in a year or two, when that investment will seem like a wise decision. 


Words I'll Probably Regret: Equipment Can't Get Much Larger

Jan 04, 2013

One of our customers stopped by the shop today to check on my progress toward prepping the 16-row combine he'll use to harvest crops this fall. He plants with a 48-row planter, sprays with a 120-foot-wide sprayer, and said he'd be interested in larger equipment, but has doubts if it will be physically possible to build equipment much bigger than today's largest units.

Considering how quickly farm equipment exploded in size over the last decade, that's a risky statement. But there comes a point where no matter how many times you design a piece of equipment to fold, there's a limit to how long, how wide and how heavy things can get. The backbones on 48-row planters are already "sway-backed" in transport position despite extensive internal and external gusseting--going much wider is going to take a major re-thinking of basic frame design. Add the complications of getting around corners on rural roads and into field entrances, and it would seem there's a physical limit to how big farm equipment can get and still be practical.

An engineer with one of the major manufacturers once told me that to increase acres per hour, if you can't go wider, then you have to go faster. One planter manufacturer touts their planter will plant accurately at more than 7 mph. Autosteer and guidance systems now make guiding sprayers precisely at 15 to 20 mph a viable option. Corn and grain heads are being designed to harvest at more than 7 mph under optimum conditions. Heck, one of our customers with a self-propelled sprayer complained last season that when he turned on endrows the dirt being slung off the SIDES of his tires was knocking down two extra rows of corn at the apex of the turns. Come to find out, he was turning at more than 10 mph and his tires were literally throwing roostertails of dirt that were knocking down corn.

It's going to be very interesting to see how equipment manufacturers meet the demand for more acres per hour. Maybe they'll go wider. Maybe they'll go faster. Maybe the next generation of farm equipment will be wider AND faster.

So--I should be cautious before I go out on a limb and predict that farm equipment won't get much larger. Somebody always figures out a way to overcome engineering obstacles. If somebody conquers the engineering challenges and comes out with a 150-foot-wide planter or sprayer, or creates a 24-row, 30-inch cornhead, I'll concede that on January 4, 2013, I was wrong to suggest farm equipment won't get much bigger. It won't be any big deal---I've had lots of practice admitting I was wrong.

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