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February 2010 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.

Substitute Tools

Feb 28, 2010
 Nobody has every tool they need for every situation. Professional mechanics often improvise or substitute to get jobs done, and I know for a fact (because I've done it myself back when I farmed) that farmers are very adept at adapting. For example:

-a short  2 x 4-inch or 4 x 4-inch wooden block makes a functional seal or bearing driver. Wood blocks also work well to prevent damage or "mushrooming" the end of a metal shaft if it's necessary to use a sledge hammer to, uh, "persuade" the shaft.

-SnapOn, Mac and other tool companies sell fancy punch sets designed to remove bearing races. Envision a long cold chisel  with the tip flattened rather than sharpened, so the user can catch the edge of a race to drive out that race. So...rather than pay $50 to $100 for those special punches, why not take a couple old cold chisels and carefully grind the tips flat, or oval, and get some race-drivers for free?

-If it's necessary to drive a bearing, bearing race or bearing seal below the surface of a component, after you use a 2 x 4 to drive it "flush" with the surface, select an appropriate-sized regular 1/2-inch drive socket to seat it below the surface. Standard socket sets up to 1 1/4-inches, combined with 3/4-inch drive socket sets that go to more than 2-inches, provide a range of sizes that work well to seat bearings, bearing races and seals commonly used on farms. Don't hit the socket directly with a hammer---use that wooden 2 x 4 to protect the end of the socket from being marred by hammer blows.

-When precise internal measurements are required in places where it's difficult to position a ruler, micrometer or caliper, use drill bits as "go/no go" gauges. If the minimum gap between two drive sheaves is supposed to be 1/8-inch, use a 1/8-inch drill bit to adjust the clearance until the drill bit just barely fits between the sheaves.

-Big cardboard boxes aren't actually a "tool", but they make wonderful accessories when working in awkward, potentially painful locations. If you have to lean against sharp edges to make repairs, or kneel on gravel, even a small piece of cardboard can make a big difference. If you have to work inside a combine, laying on top of straw walkers, a sheet of cardboard is almost a necessity. Just be sure to remove the cardboard from the strawwalkers after repairs are finished.

(FYI--sheets of cardboard make a horrific sound if they go through a straw chopper when the machine is test-run, and it takes a long time to clean up the shredded confetti...)


Dumb, quick question

Feb 25, 2010
 Why do we make faces, grit our teeth, and sometimes growl when we're trying to break loose a frozen bolt or lift a heavy weight?

I've experimented with keeping a straight face, and I don't seem any weaker for the lack of expression. But it "feels" better to scrunch my face, grit my teeth and sometimes growl a bit while I'm twisting, hoisting or prying.

Any grimaces, growls, howls or facial expressions related to slipped wrenches, busted knuckles, or strained back muscles are self-explanatory. But I'd like an explanation for why I make a gargoyle face even when no pain is involved.

Never Again...

Feb 21, 2010
There are many learning opportunities for farm equipment mechanics. Some are tool-related, some are situational. For example:

I will never buy another electrical extension cord or trouble light that is less than 25 feet long. I'm tired of walking across the shop with a cord that pulls me up short like the dog on the end of a short leash. Fifty-foot cords are now my minimum.

I will never use WD-40, JB-80 or another penetrating fluid as a stop-gap lubricant for an air tool, such as an impact wrench, die grinder or air-powered drill. Penetrating fluids are oily, but they aren't oils. Nothing but air tool lubricant in my air tools, from now on.

I will never (again) carry two 50-pound bags of Oil-Dri on my shoulder at the same time. I might have been able to do it when I was younger, but that was then, and this is now.

I will never again weld overhead while sitting. If I do, I'll stop welding at the first scent of burning cloth, hair or flesh and immediately identify and extinguish the source.

I will never again use a parts washer without wearing rubber gloves. A friend and fellow mechanic has blood cancer. His doctors say frequent exposure to parts washing fluid may have been a contributing factor.

I will never again go on a service call--no matter how fast and easy my boss or the farmer says it will be--without at least a bottle of drinking water, Band-aids, $10 in cash, a roll of duct tape, and at least one big hammer and a pair of 9-inch Vise-Grips.

I will never again work on a large piece of machinery below a mechanic who chews tobacco.

Harvesting Trees With Combines

Feb 14, 2010
 Doing annual maintenance this winter on combines at our dealership has underlined problems with increased component wear. Wear to flighting on clean grain augers and unloading augers, on the floors of feederhouses, and to straw chopper knives and other high-flow areas of combines has dramatically increased in the past decade. High yields--200 bu./ac. corn and 50 bu./ac. soybeans--are certainly a factor. Combines and grain handling equipment simply see more bushels due to not only higher yields, but because individual farmers have increased the size of their operations.

A less quantifiable factor that contributes to increased wear on harvest equipment is improved crop genetics. The stalks of Bt corn are measurably larger than non-Bt stalks--almost like small trees. Are they physically "tougher" and therefore more of a wear-factor on machinery? We know they don't degrade over the winter like non-Bt stalks. That hints they may be physically, mechanically tougher and a source of increased wear.

Soybean stems seem to be stronger, too. It's not uncommon to find bean stalks that are as thick as your little finger. Wear to soybean platform sickles and guards has increased proportionally. Customers who demand maximum ground speed during soybean harvest have told me they check and often replace knife sections daily on the portions of the cutterbar that run "on the row".  A local seed grower who runs one combine strictly on corn and another combine strictly on soybeans noted that he sees more wear to straw chopper knives on his bean combine than on the corn combine, hinting genetically improved bean straw is as wearing as high-volumes of corn stover.

Equipment manufacturers have noted the increased wear. The flighting on a 2010 grain tank fountain auger is twice as thick as the flighting on augers we put in combines back in 1999. Manufacturers are scrambling to find hard-surfacing for straw chopper knives that will last for more than one harvest. The downside is that thicker augers and "harder" chopper knives are more expensive.

So the cycle continues: you figure out ways to raise better crops and increase your profits, and the better crops require machines and machinery parts that cost more. 


Patience Pays

Feb 07, 2010
An important lesson I learned about patience came at my own expense.

Long ago I needed to replace the alternator in my personal pickup truck. I was 20-something, brash, impatient, all-knowing, confident I could do the job in a half-hour or less. All it required was removing or loosening two bolts, unplugging the wiring harness and swapping the pulley from the old alternator to the new one. Piece of cake.

Veteran mechanics will note there is a step missing from the disassembly process: Disconnect the battery ground cable. I knew I should "kill" the vehicle's electrical system before doing any work on the primary electrical system, but I was in a hurry and confident I could get things done without that "extra" step. Besides, the battery cable bolts were corroded, would probably be hard to get loose, and I did I mention I was in a hurry?

Skipping that extra step cost me an extra trip to town and $125 for another new alternator. Somehow during the installation process the power lead made contact with the "first" new alternator's housing. The ensuing blue arc and loud "pop" seared forever into my brain the lesson, "Always kill a vehicle's electrical system before replacing a starter, alternator or any other primary electrical component." 

After a quick trip to town and a check for $125 for the second new alternator of the day, I disconnected the battery ground cable before making further repairs. 

Yes, alternators and starters can be replaced without disconnecting the battery ground wire. Some mechanics leave batteries connected but wrap the end of the alternator or starter's electrical lead with electrical tape to prevent accidental short circuits. Some mechanics are just plain less clumsy than I am, and make the repair without problems. 

Me? I disconnect the battery. 

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