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July 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: Tiny Tools

Jul 28, 2011

 There is something "manly" about wielding 4-foot-long breaker bars and 1-inch drive air wrenches, but there is also something to be said for having small, precision tools. 

When working inside tractor or combine cabs, it's nice to be able to grab a well-packaged 1/4-inch drive socket set and know that you'll have everything you need to remove or install panels and covers all in one tidy toolset, without climbing up and down the cab's ladder to get additional tools. Maybe I'm weird (my wife says there's no "maybe" about it), but I get a certain satisfaction out of the precision inherent to a good 1/4-inch drive ratchet and socket set. 

The same applies to mini-screwdrivers, o-ring picks, miniature roll pin punches and even small ball peen hammers. When working on electronic circuitry held in place with teeny-tiny Phillips head screws, it's very satisfying to have a tiny Phillips-head screwdriver that fits precisely into the miniscule crosshatch in the screw head. More than once I've been happy I paid the price for a set of o-ring picks with a variety of twisted and hooked tips that enabled me to remove and install otherwise inaccessible o-rings hidden deep inside hydraulic components. I've grinned with satisfaction when my 1/16th-inch roll pin punch allowed me to remove a teeny, tiny roll pin that some sadistic engineer used to connect a teeny, tiny shaft to a teeny, tiny coupler in a teeny, tiny electro/hydraulic control box.

And, as difficult as it may be to conceive, there are times when a small, compact ball peen hammer works better than my usual 32-ounce ball peen "Persuader." Sometimes all a component needs is a tap, a carefully controlled impact, to remove it, install it, or modify it. A good, well-balanced ball peen hammer is a precision tool that allows accurate, controlled impacts.

If that doesn't work, if all the precision tools don't allow careful disassembly and installment of delicate components...I've always got The Persuader available to vent my frustrations and convert those tiny parts and pieces into crumbled plastic and flattened metal.

 

In The Shop: An Ode To Pry Bars

Jul 22, 2011

 Customers are often amused by the near-fetish we mechanics have toward pry bars. Early in my career, I too, didn't understand what a magnificent tool a good pry bar can be. With age and experience comes wisdom, and I now treasure every pry bar in my tool arsenal. Let me explain:

Though we work in a shop with other mechanics, our goal and the rule is to do as much without another mechanic's help as possible. Considering how often we have to move stubborn, heavy, ungainly and awkward components into crowded, hard-to-access locations, we often need an extra hand or two and some sort of mechanical advantage in the war between man and machine.

That's where pry bars come in. Archimedes once said something like, "Give me a long enough lever (pry bar) and someplace to stand, and I could move the Earth." I agree. With my set of six pry bars, ranging from 6 inches to 6 feet, I can gently nudge a hydraulic valve body into place or rotate a combine dual wheel so the bolt holes align. Because my pry bars have metal caps on the handles so I can hammer on them without fear of destroying the plastic of the handle, I can use my big pry bar like a 6-foot-long cold chisel to bludgeon apart stubborn housings buried deep in a machine. The only tools I use more often on a daily basis are the 8-inch pliers I carry in a pouch on my belt, and the pocket screwdriver that lives in my shirt pocket.

All told, I own probably 15 pry bars. The primary objects of my affection are those six in-line pry bars, the ones that look like big screwdrivers. I've also got some 3- and 4-foot-long "alignment bars" with a tapered point on one end and an angled, flattened end on the other. I've got a set of adjustable "lady foot" bars, but I'm not a lady-foot guy, don't use them often, but have found them priceless in certain situations where they were the only tool to do a particular job. Add in some general purpose crowbars, along with a rusty, bent, broken-tipped but highly treasured crowbar I inherited from my dad's shop, and I can ALMOST live up to Archimedes' claim.

And that's without even opening my screwdriver drawer. In previous posts I've railed against the use of screwdrivers for anything other than installing or removing screws. I stand by that standard. I just don't always live by it...

In The Shop: More Things NOT To Do In The Shop

Jul 17, 2011

 There are basic, common-sense things related to safety that are de facto rules when working on machinery: Wear safety glasses or face shields when grinding or cutting metal. Wear ear protection around noisy equipment or grinders. Wear gloves while cutting or welding. Common sense stuff that at minimum reduces discomfort and at maximum prevents injuries.

Over the years I've learned there are many ways to get injured or scare yourself in a shop that go beyond the normal, basic safety considerations. In no particular order, and without admitting guilt, here are some situations I've "been around" that gave me pause and reason to re-think how I do things:

-When wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a drawstring, don't use a bench-mounted grinding wheel/buffing wheel. If you lean forward, one of the drawstrings  can get caught in the spinning wheel, which immediately reels your face toward the whirling wheel much faster than you can reach the "off" switch.

-Don't use a welder while wearing athletic shoes. Sparks will land in the cloth segments of the shoe and not only burn through, but in some cases set the cloth on fire. The flame is colorful, but it's disconcerting to look down and see flames on top of your foot.

-Don't use a grinder when doing a quick repair job in your garage or shop at home if you're wearing rubber flip-flops. Metal filings that fall into the flip-flop will embed themselves in the rubber and then transfer to the tender flesh of your foot as you walk back to the house. Trust me, your wife will not be sympathetic, and may actually laugh at your discomfort.

-Never assume you can locate and unroll a garden hose faster than a trash fire can develop under a combine or hay baler on which you're welding or torching.

-When welding in a sitting, crouched or kneeling position, always look in advance for folds or creases in the fabric of your pants that might catch and hold globs of molten metal against treasured body parts. Because they will.

The list of odd ways to cause yourself pain or injury while working on machinery is nearly endless. The secret is to use all available safety strategies, anticipate "surprises," and...if you survive...learn from your mistakes. The first time is an accident, the second time is just plain stupid.

In The Shop: Why You Need A Die Grinder

Jul 14, 2011

 Air-powered die grinders are a multi-purpose, save-the-day tool, useful even if your shop is a dirt-floored corner of the machine shed. Get a decent 1/4-inch shaft die grinder, equip it with a set of carbide-tipped bits and a mandrel for a 4-inch (diameter) cut-off disk, and you'll be able to enlarge or "slot" existing holes in metal. With the carbide bits you'll be able to smooth rough edges of metal you've cut with a torch, clean up the ends of hex, square or round shafts, ream out bolt holes and precisely remove increments of metal from just about anywhere or anything. 

Install the mandrel with an abrasive "cut-off disk" and you've got a high-speed mini-hacksaw, perfect for cutting off bolts, splitting nuts or bearing races, smoothing the edges of sheet metal or cutting/scoring flat steel. Once you get used to having a die grinder and become aware of what you can do with it, it will become a go-to tool in your toolbox, even if your toolbox isn't very big or well-equipped.

I've accumulated several die grinders over the years, and find it handy to keep one equipped with a cut-off disk and another one equipped with a carbide cutting bit--it just saves time swapping bits and wheels when I'm in a hurry. An older, nearly worn out die grinder is equipped with a mandrel that accepts a rubber 4-inch (diameter) buffing pad outfitted with sanding or "Scotch pads" for removing gaskets, buffing away rust, or polishing small metal pieces and parts.

My favorite die grinder is a Mac Tools model that is reversible. Being able to reverse which way the sparks fly when I grind metal is a very useful feature, especially for safety and comfort. Which raises the issue of eye and ear safety--I've learned the hard way that eye and ear protection are essential accessories when using a die grinder, even if only for a few seconds of "touch-up" work. The high speeds of die grinders cause a lot of ricochets from metal filings that favor either full-face safety shields or goggle-type eye protection. And the high-pitched howl of a die grinder will leave unprotected ears ringing for hours.

Figure on spending $100 to $200 for a quality die grinder. Be sure to use air tool oil before every use---they're a high-speed tool that requires lots of lubrication. Carbide bits cost from $50 to $250, depending on how many, and how fancy they are. Mandrels for cut-off disks and sanding/polishing disks are $10 to $30. 

It's all money well spent. You'll be surprised how often you use a die grinder, once you understand its potential. I even found multiple uses for one of my die grinders during a bathroom renovation at home. I'm pretty sure no plumber or carpenter ever used a die grinder for those particular purposes, but...I never claimed to be a plumber or carpenter.

In The Shop: Random Mid-Summer Mechanical Considerations

Jul 10, 2011

 Some of you are spraying crops, some of you are putting away your planters, some of you are thinking about digging out your combine for pre-harvest maintenance. Here are some random, odd-ball things to consider (or not):

-I've seen a couple photos on the internet of high-clearance self-propelled sprayers mired in mudholes this spring. A couple of the photos showed tow chains, cables or straps attached to the main frames of the sprayers. Engineers say it's best to rig those towing devices to pull from the area of the lower "legs" of the two front wheels. I've had to replace on sprayers both front "legs" and sliding axles that were bent when the operator pulled on the main frame. It's not fun digging into the slop to get chains and cables attached to the lower legs, but the stress of pulling on the main frame while the wheels are mired in the mud can cause significant damage.

-If you're replacing disk openers on your planter, it can be a minor irritation to get the disk off the threaded stud after you remove the nut from that stud. The spring tension at the front of the two disks pressing against each other "loads" them so it's sometimes tough to get the first disk to slide off its stud. Rather than beating on that disk to jar it loose, or using a crowbar to pry them apart, take the butt of your fist and give the disk on the opposite side a couple pops. Eg--if you're removing the left disk, smack the right disk. That tactic uses the impact, combined with the existing spring tension between the disks, to pop loose the left disk. Nine of out ten times, anyway.

-If you're thinking about working on your combine, think "varmints" when you first pull the machine out of the dark back corner of your shed. We had an entertaining episode at the dealership last week, where an irate 'coon chased George, our washbay guy, for a couple laps around the wash area. George's high-top rubber boots now have some impressive holes gnawed in them, and George has learned why we mechanics always pound on the sides and "bump" over the separator and feederhouse before pulling combines into our shop.

Which reminds me of the number of critters that have made the trip to our shop inside machinery or our trucks. Lots of 'coons and possums have made the trip, along with lots of litters of kittens. And I've learned that the open doors of my enclosed service truck are a magnet for curious cats when I'm working on farms--more than once I've had to return to a farm and release a cat that started yowling in the back when I was three or four miles down the road. I once had to return to release a free-range chicken that had hopped into my truck when I wasn't looking. Trucker Bob, who drives our beavertail semi-truck to haul combines and tractors, once couldn't figure out why people were honking when they passed him while he was hauling a machine 100 miles to our dealership--until he arrived and discovered that the farmer's Australian Blue Heeler had happily made the entire trip, standing on the deck of the trailer, barking at passing cars.

In The Shop: Simple Special Tools

Jul 03, 2011

 I'm guilty of associating price with value when it comes to tools. In many cases, cheaper tools have more value and usefulness than pricey tools. 

For example, one of the best impulsive tool purchases I ever made was to buy at a discount tool store a set of cheapie center punches. They range from 3 inches long and 3/8-inch in diameter, to 6 inches long and 1-inch in diameter. The thing is, I rarely use them as center punches. Instead, they have proven invaluable as alignment punches when I'm trying to align holes but don't have room for traditional long-shanked punches. Their short, tapered shafts have saved the day many times for me. If I ever get back to that particular discount tool store, and they have another set of center punches in a range of sizes---I'm buying a duplicate set.

The same goes for a set of cheap cold chisels I bought. As chisels, they're virtually useless--too soft, easily dulled. But after I intentionally blunted the tips of a few of them, I have a nice set of seal drivers. Yes, it's better to use an actual seal driver tool to minimize damage to seals or bearings during installation, but...sometimes location of the bearing or housing makes use of a real seal driver impossible. And that's when my cheapie set of blunted cold chisels have repaid their purchase price, many times.

I have railed several times in this blog against cheap screwdrivers with soft tips. I'm a fanatic about keeping my screwdrivers' tips square and unmarred. But, uh, I admit that I have an odd assortment of discount store screwdrivers in my tool box that have been intentionally modified into very useful tools. They didn't cost much, and never had much value as actual screwdrivers, but with their tips bent or twisted, they serve nicely as single-use tools that save time and effort.

I'm not a tool snob. I like cheap tools. But I like them not for what they were designed, but for what I use them. That's why a few of the table knives in our kitchen drawer have gnarled tips. They were designed to spread butter on bread, but...they make acceptable screwdrivers and mini-pry bars when I'm too lazy to walk out to the garage for the real thing. That really annoys my wife, but I tell her any time she wants revenge, she can spread butter on her bread with any of my cold chisels.

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