Notes from Windward: #55

The Mechanic's Moon

Getting ready for winter

Tasks are divyied up at Windward in a flexible manner which tries to take individual abilities and interests into account. Unfortunately, there are always a number of tasks which almost no one finds very interesting, regardless of their abilities. Since these things need to be done regardless of how we feel about them, such tasks tend to become team projects. The old saying that "many hands make light work" is as true today as ever, and there's a positive form of bonding that comes from working together to do something than needs to be done.

A number of mechanical repair projects had piled up and needed to be attended to before the rainy season set in. September is still a dry month, and if you're going to have to be working on the ground doing mechanical things, dry and dusty is a lot better than wet and muddy. Since Bob1 was going to be up for a couple of weeks, it seemed like the time had come to get on with doing what needed doing.

One task involved pulling the engine and transmission from one rig so that Bob1 could use it in his pickup. Since the engine was in a snub-nosed RV, getting it out was tricky. We made some modifications to our trolley crane (often called a "cherry picker"), and the process went forward well enough. Since we can't afford the price of new equipment, our best option is generally to rebuild and combine components from what we have at hand. Given the high rates that repair shops charge these days, lots of vehicles are discarded because the cost of having them fixed exceeds the cost of replacing them with another used vehicle. Since we're willing and able to do most anything mechanical, we're able to access the residual utility that many older vehicles have.

We depend on Blue Truck for lots of things. We purchased it at auction, and although we got a good price, we knew that we had to be prepared to do a lot of work to it. The key points weree 1) that it ran, 2) the body was in good shape and 3) it was four-wheel drive. If the body was bent, rusted out or just plain worn out, then there wouldn't have been much point in taking it on. On the other hand, if it's just a matter of replaceing parts, then over time we can reconstruct a rig that's better than new. Admittedly, it won't be as pretty as a new one, and it won't have a CD player, but those things aren't very important when you're hauling three tons of hay up an icy hill.

The new rigs just don't have the metal that the old ones do. For example, the transfer case (that's the part that "transfers" traction to the front axle) in the new rigs use a steel belt to transfer torque from one the drive axle to the front axle. The older rigs transfer the power from steel gear to steel gear. The steel belt works well enough for those who are only using their off-road capabilities in recreational situations, but if you really put the stress to that steel belt, it'll stretch. Once it stretches enough, you're looking at a costly repair. Since we occassionally ask Blue Truck to pull loads ranging between five and ten tons up the long, 1200' climb to Windward from the river, having a really solid gear train is important.

The transfer case was starting to make strange noises, and so instead of trying to make it through another winter, we elected to go ahead, break it down and have it rebuilt. And while we were into the rig that far, we went ahead and had the transmission rebuilt as well. Replacement of the clutch disk and throw-out bearing completed the rebuild of that part of the engine. It was spendy, but now everything is back up to new specs in time for whatever challenges this winter throws at us.

Another major repair project that's moving forward is the backhoe. Since we can't afford to spend the big money for new equipment, we buy what we can afford and go from there. Sometimes, we get off easy, and sometimes, we don't. The backhoe is an example of the latter.

Arguably, the backhoe isn't really a backhoe; rather it's a John Deere tractor with a backhoe attachment. The point is that it isn't as sturdy a rig as something that was built exclusively as a backhoe. While the versitility of this arrangement is good, the user has to remember that flexibility comes with a price. The former owner forgot that.

One thing backhoes are used for on a farm is the removal of stumps. At Windward, we have lots of oak stumps, and unlike a pine tree which dies when you cut it down, an oak just keeps right on growning. You can cut down an oak, come back the next year and the stump will be doing just fine. That's what makes the medieval practice of copsing work, and we're delighted that our oak forest is a living example of this process, but that doesn't make it any easier to get rid of stumps that are in the way.

The right way to remove stumps with a backhoe is to use the bucket to dig down on each side of the stump. Then you reposition the backhoe some ninety degrees around the stump, and again dig down on each side of the stump. At that point, you can reach under the stump with the bucket and pull it out. The wrong way is to skip the second step. By wacking the stump with the bucket, you can eventually knock the stump out of the ground, but in doing so, you'll impart real stress to the rear axles. You might be able to get away with this with a true backhoe, but it's too much to ask of a tractor with a backhoe attachment. Equipment is designed to do a specific job; if you start asking it to do things it wasn't designed for, then you're asking for trouble.

When we bought the backhoe, the damage to the ends of the final drives was hidden by the tires. It was only when the ends of the final drive actually gave way that we learned of the problem. When the bolts holding the end cap sheared off, the axle was no longer supported on its outboard side. This put all that stress on the hub of the bull gear which lies deep in the heart of the final drive assembly. The result was that the hub of the bull gear was broken out, a major problem which would necessitate a substantial overhaul of that part of the tractor.

As you can see, the top side of the outboard end of the final drive was completely broken off. While it is possible to weld cast iron (not easy to do well, but possible), you can see that the damage was substantial. Even a good repair is seldom as good as the original casting, so the only reasonable course of action was to look for a replacement final drive. A preliminary search only turned up the information that this tractor was rare in this part of the county since it was designed and sold primarily as for use by municipalities for road maintenance. With other things to worry about, repair of the backhoe slid a long way down our "to-do" list.
One of the problems with repairing the backhoe involved the scale of the project; it takes big tools to work on big equipment. It's one thing to pull a transfer case off a pickup, since that weighs only about sixty pounds or so, but the final drive weighed an easy hundred pounds more than that. Furthermore, once it was unbolted from the main frame of the tractor, it had to be held in that position and extracted in a horizontal direction. Last year we obtained what's called mechanic's crane from the surplus yards. As with most such things, it had to be reworked and repaired before it could be used, but once it was operational, we were ready to tackle removing the final drive. Disconnecting the drive wasn't hard, but figuring out how to remove the backhoe/front-loader attachments was. Finally, after much tinkering and experimentation, it swung free.

Once it was free, we were able to get a good look at the damage, and it was readily appearent that the damage wasn't repairable. A more extensive search turned up a replacement part down in Riverside, CA., and from that point on, it was a fairly straight-forward process of having the replacement drive shipped up and bolting it on. There's still a lot of wrapping up to do before the rig is back on-line, but we're confident that the tough part is behind us on this one.

The other big potential liability involved the Nissan. It had snapped its timing belt, and it was probable that in doing so, it had trashed the upper end of the engine. Some of these high-performance Japanese engines have such close tolerances that when the timing belt goes, the pistons will hit some of the valves and bend them enough that major repairs have to be performed. If that had happened, then it was likely that a replacement engine would have to be installed. Considering the money spent to repair Blue Truck and what the final drive cost, it was looking like it was going to be an expensive year mechanically. Well, this time, we lucked out. We replaced the timing belt, buttoned it back up and it ran just fine.

So, at this point our next mechanical project involves Fergie, our orchard tractor. It's appears to have developed a flat spot on its cam, and that's causing serious damage to the distributor. Fixing the distributor is easy enough, but unless the cam is repaired, that fix won't last. Replacing the cam is going to require opening up the engine, and that's going to have to wait until later this winter. The garage has space to work on one vehicle at a time, and little Fergie is in there awaiting its turn. At this point in the calendar, winterization has moved to the top of our list, and so it goes. Life close to the land is a timed event, and the clock has run out on mechanical work for this season. All in all, we're proud of the work we've gotten accomplished, and we'll surely get back to it any time real soon now.

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