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November 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.

Santa Claus Shops Online For Tools

Nov 30, 2008
 I am far from computer-savvy, and use the internet with trepidation, so I'm not a good person to give advice on internet shopping. But even if I don't actually buy online, online catalogs posted by tool manufacturers and retailers are some of the coolest Christmas shopping aids I've found.

Snapon Tools, Mac Tools, Matco Tools, Cornwell Tools, Craftsman Tool (Sears), Northern Tool and Supply--they all offer online catalogs that show photos of tools, offer detailed descriptions and specifications, and usually quote prices. Even if you're like me and reluctant to actually purchase online, the catalogs can be an immense help.

For (Sears) Craftsman tools, Northern Tool and Supply, and other tool retailers in the nearby big city, I often look up part numbers of specific tools, then call the local store and ask by part number if they have them in stock. The clerks can quickly punch the number into a computer and tell if the tool is on hand, saving me a 40-mile trip if they're out of stock or don't carry that particular tool.

If I need to compare specifications, such as the torque specs of a certain size of impact wrench, I can pull up Snapon, Mac Tools and Matco Tools websites, find their versions of the size and style wrench I need, then toggle back and forth to compare specs and often prices.

And when I need some really odd, rarely used tool for some weird project I'm working on, a Google search often turns up manufacturers of specialty tools unheard of in conventional retail catalogs. That's how I found a special air-powered torque wrench capable of accurately torquing nuts and bolts to up to 5,000 foot/pounds. It also has a spectacular price, so that wonder-tool quickly got placed on my, "Someday, if I win the Lottery..." list. And since I'm such a tightwad that I don't play the Lottery, it simultaneously appeared on my, "Fat Chance" list.

I've noticed that many of the online tool retailers often post "Gift Idea" pages this time of year. If you're looking for gift ideas for brothers, fathers, sons or friends, those references are good places to start. Even if none of the suggestions are the right gift for a certain person, they may spark a reminder or idea of another tool that would make a great gift.

And, if you are frequently asked for a, "list of tools you want for Christmas," those tool catalogs are great ways to show your spouse EXACTLY what you'd like to find under the Christmas tree. Just print out the page with the exact tool, part number and price.  Hand her a sheaf of printouts from all the online tool retailers detailing all the potential gifts you'd like to receive.

You should have seen the look on my wife's face when she got to the printout that listed the 5,000-foot/pound air-powered torque wrench.

Tools--The Gifts That Keep On Giving

Nov 27, 2008
 Thanksgiving is past so I can safely broach the topic of Christmas without violating my personal ethical calendar. Time for my annual frenzied search for meaningful, appropriate gifts for my family.

My search for "meaningful" tools to give as gifts was made much easier several years ago. I had reason to switch all my tools to a different toolbox, and found myself doing a mental inventory. It surprised me that while the origins of many of the tools I had purchased for myself were often hazy, I distinctly remembered who gave me every tool that was a gift.

I still have and use the set of 1/4-inch through 1-1/4-inch combination wrenches my dad gave me when I was in high school. The 24-ounce wood-handled ball peen hammer he gave me for Christmas when I was in college has been retired from daily use, if only to keep its battered original handle intact. Now that Dad is gone, that taped and splintered handle means more to me than if I replaced it with a new handle.

There's a little $15 battery clamp puller that I use every day that I should probably retire, too. I'd be heartbroken if I broke or lost it. My son gave it to me during one of those teenage periods when I wasn't sure he listened to much of what I said. I casually mentioned at a Sunday dinner in October that someday I wanted to get a battery clamp puller, and for Christmas he bought me one. The puller works great, but the thing that makes it special is that it proved that even if he wasn't listening, he still heard some of what I said and cared enough to get me something useful and that I wanted, even though he was on a teenager's budget. 

My wife constantly asks what she can buy me that will make my job easier. I dislike her spending lots of money on me, and often don't give her much of a list of possibilities. So she stubbornly listens to what sort of repairs I'm working on, then comes up with things to make my job easier. There's nothing romantic about the padded creeper she bought for me, or the low-height rolling chair with padded seat and back, but every time I use them they remind me that she cares and worries about me.

Tools make great gifts, not because they're cool or expensive, but because they're useful symbols that somebody cares about us. Tools aren't toys that we can play with, like fishing rods or golf clubs. They aren't clothes that we outgrow or wear out. Tools have symbolic value that may not be represented by their cost. Every son has a wrench set or hammer gifted by his father that symbolized a gift from a man, to a man. Every father has a battery clamp puller, or creeper, given to them by their offspring or spouse, that is more valuable than gold. The tools are nice, but the memory of who gave that gift is even better. 

The Truth About Farm Machinery Salesmen

Nov 22, 2008
Farm machinery salesmen at dealerships are often maligned. Farmers assume salesmen always win the psychological arm wrestling contest that goes into negotiating a fair price for machinery; my years as an interested observer to hundreds of machinery trades lends me to believe that those contests usually end up a draw. From what I've seen and heard over the years:

-Some dealerships consistently sell equipment for less. Some consistently sell for more. Higher priced dealerships generally have more overhead to cover, and that higher overhead may be an extensive service department, stronger parts inventory or a higher level of after-sales support. If all you want is the machine, go for the bottom dollar dealership. And that's all you'll get.

-Haggling a salesmen to his absolute lowest price may not be the best value. Salesmen have come to our shop and said as we were prepping a machine for delivery, "Don't fix any more than you absolutely have to because he didn't leave me any room," and the same salesman has come to the shop regarding a different sale and said, "Fix it right before it goes out, because he left me some room to help him." 

-Get everything on paper. Oral agreements often have two sides. Agreements written on the purchase order are literally in black and white. "As is" means as it sits on the sales lot, flat tires and all. "Field ready" could mean it 's prepped and adjusted to do a 1,000 acres, or it could mean it will stay in one piece long enough to make it to the gate leading to the field. If a machine needs new parts or repairs before you take it home, specify them on the purchase order to eliminate any opportunity for misunderstanding.

-Yes, your salesman is telling the truth: dealerships sometimes make no money on a sale. Sometimes it's better to take a loss than to pay the carrying charge of letting the machine sit on the sales lot. Sales departments at many dealerships aren't profitable. Until the recent bubble in commodity prices fueled a surge in equipment buying, many dealerships operated their sales departments at break-even, or barely showed a profit. Their goal was to move the equipment at-cost or less, if necessary, and find their profits selling parts and repairs for that equipment in the future.

-Here's an internal dealership secret: Frustrated mechanics have been known to approach salesmen at their dealership and tell them to sell a particular piece of equipment to a machinery scalper or to a private buyer far, far outside their dealership's territory, so that, "I never have to work on that lemon again."

Ultimately, I'm impressed by salesmen at farm equipment dealerships. They are by nature gregarious and often able to talk the bark off a tree. But at their heart they care about their customers and try to do their best to help negotiate deals that are fair to all parties. Fair means both sides give a little and get a little. Exactly how much a "little" is, is part of the craft of negotiating a deal.

Battery-Powered Work Lights

Nov 16, 2008
 Harvest is running late this year; we're all doing a lot of repairs and maintenance in the dark. Nighttime field repairs and maintenance have traditionally been done with flashlights, which have significant disadvantages. Holding a flashlight tucked into an armpit, or clenched in your teeth, while you try to keep it aimed on the bolt you're turning is an exercise in futility. And even if you're doing the repair/maintenance near a 115-volt outlet and can use a conventional work light, you still have to drag the power cord into, around, under or over the machine to illuminate the area where you're working.

I'm experimenting this year with battery-powered work lights. One is a cheapie that uses 24 or more small, LED lights. The other is slightly more expense, with three large LED lights. Neither is as bright as a conventional trouble light with an incandescent bulb. LED lights, for some reason, are extremely bright at close range, but their light dims with distance, so you have to keep the light close to where you're working. And the light from LED lights is directional--the light doesn't spread out a lot to the sides of the light.

But---compared to a conventional flashlight, I prefer the LED work lights. With a hook on the end of the fixture, a magnetic base or even better, a magnetic pad on the side of the light, I can position the LED work lights to illuminate my work area much better than a conventional flashlight. The run time is pretty good, around 4- to 6-hours, before I have to recharge. I really appreciate them for working inside combines, grain bins or other places where it's nice not to have a power cord trailing me everywhere I go, snagging on every corner and obstacle along the way.

Battery-powered LED work lights aren't perfect. They aren't the complete answer to nighttime repairs and maintenance. But they're a nice option to have in the cab of the truck, tractor or combine.

Questions Without Answers

Nov 13, 2008
 If anybody has good, fair answers to the following questions, please post them:

-If you have a problem with a machine and need answers that can be explained in a cell phone call, should you pay for the time I spend helping you over the phone?

-If I'm on a service call working on your combine, and another customer calls and needs  advice, should you continue to pay for the time I spend talking to him over the phone?

-If you bought your equipment at another dealership because they offered a better price, but you prefer to deal with me as a mechanic, how much time should I spend on the phone with you answering questions about the machinery purchased elsewhere...if I'm already working on a customer's equipment that was purchased through our dealership?

-If you're doing your own repairs, but need a special tool for one aspect of the project and drag the pieces into our shop, at what point should you pay for my time and tool(s)?

-If I've got your tractor torn apart in the shop and another customer comes in and needs 15 minutes of my time and one of my special tools, should I stay on your ticket and have you pay for my labor to fix his problem, or bill him for the 15 minutes?

-During tough repairs on your machinery, I break three drill bits, damage the tip on my MIG welder and strip out my 5/16-inch E-Z Out bolt remover. If my dealership doesn't pay for "consumables," should you pay the cost of replacing tools damaged fixing your equipment, or do I pay out of my own pocket  to replace tools I need to do my job?

-I checked over your planter, or tractor, or combine during the off-season. I spent a lot of time fixing everything I could find, and you spent a lot of money for me to do that. How many hours into the next busy season should that machine run before a breakdown is "acceptable"?

I have no answers to these questions. Maybe you have answers or ideas that would be fair to all involved. If so, there are a lot of dealership mechanics that would love to hear them.

Time For A New Welder?

Nov 08, 2008
 I learned to weld on my dad's discount store 180-amp "buzz box" arc welder. In high school shop class, we used hulking, ancient war-surplus behemoths that taught me only how to burn ragged holes in whatever I tried to weld. My welding experiences over the years eventually instilled in me a deep dislike for AC stick-type welders in general.

For the past 16 years I've welded almost exclusively with MIG or flux core wire welders. MIGs weld clean and are very forgiving. My small, portable 115-volt wire welder is rigged with flux core wire so I don't have to deal with gas bottles while welding on service calls. Plus, when welding out of doors with the small welder, MIG welders are very susceptible to any wind that blows away the shielding gas, making flux core wire necessary. 

On occasion, I've borrowed a customer's AC arc welder to make welds, and those welders generally did little to improve my opinion of stick welders. Those welders were usually either buzz boxes like my dad's, or large, old-fashioned welders handed down from the farmer's father or grandfather. 

While researching a story about welding that ran in Farm Journal a couple years ago, one of the field reps from Miller Electric picked up on my dislike of arc welders. He encouraged me to try one of the new generation of arc welders on the market. He said that welder manufacturers have made significant improvements in welders in recent years. Improved circuitry and improved designs, according to him, made new arc welders much more user-friendly.

"I go into a lot of farmer's shops and see great big old arc welders from the '50s or '60s, or a discount-store buzz box that really wasn't designed for farm use," he said. "Making a sale in that situation is almost easy. I just have the farmer weld some steel with his old welder, then have him use one of our new welders. The new welders make the arc easier to strike, easier to maintain, and weld so much better than those old welders that farmers can instantly see the difference."

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. But in the past few weeks I've had opportunity to use a new , name-brand, high-quality arc welder, and...the Miller rep was right. I'm liking stick welding a lot. The new welder offers DC welding with reversible polarity, infinite voltage adjustment and it welds like a dream. I find myself reaching for the stick welder rather than the MIG. There are places where the MIG still has advantages, but that new arc welder has become one of my newest favorite tools.

So if you're still using your grandfather's hand-me-down stick welder, or using a low-end discount store buzz box (as in, it makes that loud buzzing noise whenever you stick and freeze the electrode to the metal you're welding...), do yourself a favor and find an opportunity to weld with a new generation stick welder. Set it to weld AC, then switch to DC to compare the advantages offered by DC, and spend some time melting metal. You might find that all those disappointing welds you've made over the years weren't entirely your fault. 

A First For This Mechanic

Nov 06, 2008
 I've known Big Al for more than 40 years. He's a farmer who lives up to his nickname in every way. Big Al is a bear of a man, with a deep, gravelly voice and a well-practiced vocabulary of colorful profanities. 

To the best of my ability, I refrain from profanity for a variety of reasons. Big Al is always entertained by my use of, "Shucky darn!", "Rats!" and other euphemisms when things go awry during repairs. He jokingly volunteers to swear for me, since he's convinced that machinery responds favorably to the sincere and emphatic use of profanity. In reality, when we're working together, he consciously reins in his vocabulary and keeps things PG-rated, though it's not easy for him.

"I respect a man who doesn't swear at equipment, " he once growled, "because I sure as hell can't even change oil without a couple %$*#! and &&$^@! to help things along."

So the other day Big Al had a mysterious rumbling, howling noise in the feederhouse of his combine. He was convinced it was in the feederhouse reverser gearbox, couldn't prove it, and called on me to diagnose the exact problem. After listening to the machine run and making a few rudimentary checks, I suggested that it wasn't the reverser gearbox making the noise. I suspected it was a bad bearing in the upper variable speed sheaves on the feederhouse drive, and the noise was telegraphing through the belt and framework so that the reverser gearbox seemed to be the source of the noise.

I could tell that Big Al had serious doubts about my diagnosis. It took a little convincing to get him to allow me to tear apart the variable speed sheaves rather than dive into the reverser gearbox. But bearings in the sheaves where thousands of dollars cheaper than a new gearbox, so he was willing to let me check the bearings. Though he was concerned about who would pay for the extra labor and unneeded bearings if my "guess" proved incorrect. With a doubtful shake of his head, he helped me disassemble the sheaves. I can't say that I was totally sure the problem was in the variable speed sheaves, so I was secretly greatly relieved when one of the sheave's bearings was noisy and rough once we got it apart. 

Even so, Big Al wasn't convinced that a rough bearing could be the source of so much noise. He grudgingly helped me put things back together with new bearings, and we stood back while the hired man test ran the combine to check the repairs. I heaved a deep sigh of relief when the rumbling, howling noise was gone, and the feederhouse ran smooth. I couldn't help but turn to him with a big, smug smile. 
And then something happened that has never happened in all my years as a mechanic. Big Al turned to me and I saw his mouth briefly form the letter "m" and then maybe an "f." His right arm flexed upward as his middle finger involuntarily twitched once, twice before he jammed that hand in the pocket of his Carhartt overalls. For a moment he stared at me in frustration, unable to convey his reaction to my smug smile. It was obvious that he wanted to call me a "smart-***", a "cocky so-and-so," or an "effin' know-it-all," but he was desperately trying to follow his practice of not swearing at or around me.

So Big Al crossed his arms over his thick chest, scrunched his face and stuck his tongue out at me.

Nearly Something For Nothing

Nov 01, 2008
 It's that wonderful time of year between autumn and winter, when the storms that sweep across the country can't decide if they want to be rainstorms or snowstorms. So they split the difference, and we endure bouts of ice and freezing rain that often leave rural areas without power for days on end.

Many farmers already have back-up generators. Some are pto-driven and powered by tractors. Others are gas-powered generators that range from 2,500-watt portable units used by weekend campers to hulking stationary units necessary to supply power to large livestock confinement buildings. If you're a farmer or live in a rural area but don't yet have a back-up generator, consider this: it is an odd fact that in many cases, buyers can purchase a gas-powered welder/generator for nearly the same price as a gas-powered generator without the built-in welder.

Even if you don't do a lot of welding, the concept of getting the welder for nearly free makes a welder/generator a viable option for most farmers. A 10,000 watt gas-powered generator/welder will not only provide basic power for a farmhouse during a power outage, but is handy as a portable power source for dozens of jobs around the farm far from 115-volt electrical outlets. 

When shopping for a welder/generator, be sure to compare apples to apples. By nature, a welder/generator tends to be heavy duty. At first glance, simple generators with equal wattage may seem cheaper than welder/generators, but if buyers shop carefully and compare "peak power" output along with the quality of the gasoline engines that drive the welder-less generators, it's not hard to see that with all things equal, the welder is nearly free when you buy a welder/generator.

Warnings, disclaimers, etc.:  Any generator used to power a home or farmstead during a power outage must be connected through a cut-out that physically disconnects that individual circuit from the local rural power grid. Generators "hot-wired" into a house's electrical system can backfeed into the local grid, and pose a danger to electrical workers trying to repair the system. Some rural electrical system workers have been rumored  to "pulse" a brief charge of power through a system before making repairs, to overload and "blow out" any illegally wired private generators backfeeding the system.

To determine how big of a back-up generator your operation needs, add up the starting amperage loads of all appliances and electric motors that will be on the circuit. Start-up amperage is generally 3 to 5 times the running amps listed on an electric motor's information plate. For a list of common start-up amp loads, visit the websites of Miller Electric, Hobart, Lincoln Electric or other mainline generator manufacturers.

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