Sep 21, 2014
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February 2014 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.

Confidence:--The Tool You Can't Buy

Feb 23, 2014

 I am totally impressed with the innovative, creative and near-miraculous repairs many farmers accomplish. I've seen guys repair, modify and build equipment with results akin to what Deere, Case IH and AGCO engineers come up with in their experimental design shops. Some of those farmers work from full-bore, fully-equipped shops, while others work their magic from dirt floored, dimly lit sheds with sparrows roosting in the rafters. The one thing those mechanical masters have in common is confidence---the attitude that, "If it's broke, I can fix it, and even if it ain't broke, I can make it better."

Confidence is a powerful tool. I know mechanics who have absolutely no doubt that they can fix anything. Give them enough time and they can figure out any mechanical malady. Other mechanics, myself included, are confident that even if I can't figure it out myself, I know where to look or people to talk to who can help me out. Successful repairs breeds confidence, and confidence breeds successful repairs.

The secret seems to be never admit failure. I once had a mechanic tell me, "I never make mistakes." The sheer arrogance of that statement caught me off guard, until I worked around and with him enough to understand that what he meant was, "I always get things fixed." It might take him several tries, but every repair is a learning opportunity. The first try may only confirm the WRONG way to do things, but eventually the job gets done. In that mechanic's mind, mistakes are merely learning opportunities.

Lately, I've had a lot of learning opportunities. A few projects have refused to stay "fixed." I'm confident that I'll eventually figure them out, but sometimes I have to go to "Plan B." Some mechanics step outside and smoke a cigarette, or go home and have a beer and start fresh the next day, in order to regain their confidence. Me? I've got a 32-ounce ball peen confidence-builder in the bottom drawer of my toolbox that helps me convince machinery to see things my way.

Five Tools To Take To The Field

Feb 20, 2014

 The new guy in our shop has a good basic set of hand tools and air tools, but asked what he should buy before spring so he'll be ready for service calls in the field. Three tools came quickly to mind. The others came down to personal preference.

1. A 4-foot-long, 3/4-inch-drive breaker bar. Mine is a one-piece Snap-on breaker bar, probably not available any more, but I've seen two-piece bars that accomplish the same goal: If compressed air for an impact wrench isn't available to break loose a stubborn nut or bolt, full-body weight applied to the end of a 4-foot long, 3/4-inch drive breaker bar will generally get the job done. Yes, a cheater pipe on the standard-length 1/2-drive breaker bar that everybody has in their toolbox may accomplish the goal, but---have you every been putting everything you've got on the end of a cheater pipe when a 1/2-drive socket or breaker bar breaks? At best it's uncomfortable, at worst it's dangerous.

2. A commercial-grade 1/2-inch drive battery-powered impact wrench. Service trucks often have compressed air systems available, but a battery-powered impact wrench is SO much handier and useful than dragging air hoses around, especially when you're working in the field. I hate to spend money, but lots of money is the only way to get a durable battery-powered wrench with every foot/pound of torque you can buy. Lithium-ion batteries are breath-takingly expensive, but they're significantly lighter than traditional batteries. Weight's not a big deal if you're just changing a flat tire, but if you're spending an afternoon changing field cultivator sweeps, an extra half-pound of weight makes a big difference.

3. A 1/4-inch drive socket set, in a self-contained box, with both metric and standard short and deep-well sockets. If the kit has a set of screwdriver, Phillips-head and Torx-head bits, that's even better. The goal is to have an all-in-one box of tools that you can carry into a tractor, sprayer or combine cab so you don't have to crawl in and out in search of the dozen or more different screws, bolts, nuts and other oddball fasterners that engineers love to use to hold seats, upholstery, consoles and displays together.

4.A big pry bar. Most mechanics have a set of pry bars, but I'm talking about a pry bar that takes two hands and a strong back to carry. At least 5 feet long, maybe more. And not a discount store, sale-of-the-week pry bar. Chances are good that at some point you're going to have every ounce of your body weight bouncing on the end of that bar---you want American steel that's not going to let you down. Literally.

5.A set of cheap open-end/closed-end wrenches. You can spend $1000 for a full set of professional-grade, 1 and 5/16 to 2 and 1/2-inch wrenches from a tool truck, but a decent set of wrenches from NAPA, Sears, or name-brand hardware store costing $100 to $200 will work fine. I don't use monster wrenches for field repairs on a daily basis, maybe once or twice a week during "the season," on large hydraulic fittings and major frame fasterners. In my experience, farmers don't need those monster wrenches often enough to justify spending big bucks, but on the occasions a farmer does need a mega-wrench, a name-brand, economy-grade wrench set is plenty-good.

I'm still mulling over this list. The newbie has a limited budget (don't we all?) and wants to get the tools that will help him most during field work. Now that I think about it, there are a few tools I need to add to MY inventory before spring work many tools, so little time (and money.)

Poor Man's Porta-Power

Feb 17, 2014

 I have two hydraulic bottle jacks in my service truck--a 20-ton behemoth and a dainty little 2-ton  jack I bought at a discount store for $30. I'm glad I have both of them.

The 20-tonner is an obvious necessity when trying to raise combines, tractors and other large objects. I made a point of loading one compartment of my truck with 3-foot-long pieces of oak bridge plank, some 6 x 8-inch oak blocks, and an assortment of 2 x 4, 2 x 6 and 2 x 8 blocks so I can fine-tune the jack's height and stability while I've got 15 tons teetering in the air. Before next spring I'm going to add a short, stout shovel to my tool inventory, so I can (a) dig a level spot in uneven dirt on which to place the jack, and (b) once I'm done with the repair, dig down a foot or more and retrieve the blocks that have been hydraulically injected into the soil by the sheer weight of the machine I'm jacking.

The cheapie 2-ton jack looks pretty feeble sitting beside the larger jack, but it has proven to be just as valuable as its big brother. I rarely use it to "jack" things up in the conventional sense---I tend to use it as a portable hydraulic press to lift components within a machine, push things apart or together, and to help straighten various and assorted frame pieces. 

The other day I needed to lift one corner of a cab a couple inches. There wasn't much room between the lower frame of the cab and the cab support, but there was just enough room to squeeze in the little 10-inch-tall, 2-ton jack. I've turned the little feller on its side to push a corn head off its mount on a combine feederhouse (it's a long ugly story that ended well because of the little jack). Now that I thnk about it, I use that little jack nearly as often as I use the big one.

Ironically, the little jack was an impluse buy, one of those "ain't that cute, it don't cost much, I think I'll buy it" split-second decisions that you regret as you're walking across the parking lot to your truck. Fortunately, the little jack turned out to be one of those tools that's worth far more than it cost.

Duh--A New, Old Way To Store Extension Cords

Feb 13, 2014

 Brandon, the new guy in the shop, taught me a nifty way to store extension cords today. I've come to accept that any time I grab a coiled extension cord, I'm going to spend a few minutes untangling all the knots those cords seem to self-tie. After watching me wrestle with a knotted and tangled 50-foot extension cord as if I was fighting a boa constrictor, Brandon shook his head and said, "Lemme see that."

He then taught me how to coil an extension cord so it will easily uncoil the next time you need it. Start with one end of the cord nearly touching the ground, then make the normal coils in your hand. Take care so the lower end of the coils are a foot or more ABOVE the end you have dangling to the floor. As you reach the end of the cord, make sure the final end of the cord is dangling as low below the coils as the end you started with.

In other words, when you're all done, you'll be holding the coils in one hand, with both ends dangling a foot or more below the coils of extension cord.

When you want to uncoil that cord, just grab and hold both dangling ends as you toss the coil across the floor to unwind it. According to our young genius, if you coil the ends of an extension cord up in the coil itself, one or both of the ends inevitably gets "inside" the coils, which is the cause of knotting. Keeping both ends long enough so they can't get inside the coils prevents knots and tangles. When you hold both of the dangling ends and then toss the coiled wire across the floor, it lays out like a dream.

I learn something every day. It's a good day if I learn something that makes life easier or saves time. It's an average day if I just learn once again how much I have to learn.

Why Every Shop Should Have A Die Grinder With Cut-Off Wheel

Feb 08, 2014

 An air-powered die grinder, outfitted with a cut-off wheel, is one of my most-used tools. Cut-off wheels are thin abrasive disks, 3 inches in diameter. When you put them on a die grinder they become mini-hacksaws, bolt cutters, polishers, slag removers and perform all sorts of handy tasks.

Last week I had to cut a large, irregular housing made of plastic resin. Too irregular to get an electric cut-off saw into, and the cuts were too deep to clear the frame on a hacksaw. Using my variable-speed die grinder with cut-off wheel I was able to cut a straight line across all the irregularities and accomplish the job.

The list of chores you can accomplish with a die grinder/cut-off wheel is long. I've ground the heads off rivets, I've "freshened" the worn slots in screws and I've cut links out of roller chains. I've made large-diameter circular cuts in sheet metal, I've cut conduit and exhaust pipes, and use my die grinder/cut-off wheel to smooth ragged edges and remove paint from the edges before I weld broken pieces back together.

I highly recommend a reversible die grinder because it allows the user to control which way sparks come off the cut-off wheel. I also like grinders with adjustable air discharges in the handle, so I can direct the oily blast of air away from my face, or keep it from blasting dustor metal filings into my eyes.

Face shields/safety goggles and ear protection are mandatory when using die grinders for any purpose. I used to be macho and do short, quick jobs without taking time to don eye and ear protection. I've learned my lesson. 

Add a set of carbide bits to your toolbox and an air power die grinder becomes a double threat. Carbide bits in straight, cone-shabed, burr-tipped and other designs allow you to quickly ream out or enlarge holes in metal, and do all sorts of things that would take hours with a rat tail file. 

Air-powered die grinders aren't especially expensive, but you get what you pay for. A $50 grinder will have low power and stall out frequently. A $200 die grinder is much easier to use because of it's extra torque and power. Cut-off disks cost only pennies a piece; and arbor shaft to attach a cut-off wheel to a die grinders is less than $10. A set of carbide bits can range in price from $50 to $200, and once again, you get what you pay for. I paid $75 for my set of carbide bits, and wish I had paid more.

Time To Think About Planting

Feb 02, 2014

 There has been a wide-scale change in attitude in the past decade among farmers toward planting. Improved seed monitors, enhanced planter designs and results of research conducted by Farm Journal agronomist Ken Ferrie and others have prompted farmers to pay closer attention to seed metering, seed placement, and other aspects of the planting process. The result has been a significant improvement in final population in corn fields and proportionate increases in yield.

Here are some random thoughts on some of the changes we've seen in planters and the planting process:

-Planting is indeed a PROCESS. It wasn't until a couple years ago that it finally dawned on me that, from the point of view of a kernel of corn, there are four distinct processes between the seed hopper and the time the planter disappears over the hill.

-The first process is the metering of seed by the seed meter. With care and good maintenance, modern seed meters can consistently meter seed 98.0 to 99.9 percent accurately. That accuracy is valid to the bottom of the seed meter..

-Which is where the seed tube takes over. I won't get into the current arguments raging about seed tube design and the best place to introduce seeds to the top of the seed tube. But I'll note that all OEM manufacturers and aftermarket manufacturers agree that the current design of seed tubes--that subtle curve in the last couple of inches of each seed tube--is specifically desgned to minimize seed bounce and rolling in the furrow at ground speeds between 5.0 to 5.5 mph. Slower than that shows no benefit, and faster than 6.0 mph dramatically degrades seed spacing. 

-Formation of the seed furrow starts with the disk openers, but is influened by gauge wheel down pressure. A good seed furrow is a distinct V-shape with no crumbs or clods littering the bottom. The sidewalls of the seed furrow should be firm enough to hold their shape, but not so firm they will prevent easy penetration by seedling roots. 

-Closing wheels and their adjustment are WAY more critical than our grandfathers believed. Their theory was that as long as a corn kernel had some dirt on top of it, it would grow. Now that we understand that all seedlings must emerge within 48 hours of each other to optimize yield, we're discovering that it's not enough to just put dirt on top of seeds. The goal of those angled closing wheels is to direct gentle, angular pressure toward the seeds in the bottom of the furrow without packing or crusting the soil directly over the seed. Closing wheels that have too much down-pressure, or that aren't adjusted so they "straddle" the center of the seed furrow, risk packing the soil over the seed rather than around it, with resulting delays in emergence.

So that's four distinct, separate processes that each seed experiences between the seed hopper and final firming into the soil. Malperformance or misadjustment of any one of those processes can negate perfection in the other three. 

Just something to think about as you're studying your budget for the coming growing season, and trying to figure out what areas of planter maintenance or repair to cut in order to deal with $4/bushel corn prices.

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