On repair

My mower broke last time I used it. Payback for all the times I have mistreated it, yanked its handle, tilted it on 2 wheels over a gutter, or banged it roughly into a tree stump. The chassis rusted out where the handle attaches, so much so that the handle on the left side pulled off, taking with it a nicely rectangular chunk of rusted mower.  So I did what any self respecting man would do. I left it in the shed and ignored it.

Because grass grows, it sat there like a small-scale time bomb. After looking natural, then lush, then meadow-like, the grass got messy and uneven.  Weeds appeared. It looked disheveled.

The next weekend when I really needed to do something, I found myself too busy on Saturday, driving number one child around to his activities. So when Sunday came, and I faced the prospect of having to PAY SOMEONE to mow the grass on Monday, it was time for action.

Now, if the motor had packed up, or was blowing gasgett-y blue smoke, or if I had hit a part-buried steel ingot and twisted the drive shaft, I wouldn’t have hesitated dropping $450 at the local emporium on a new mower.

But the motor was going fine. In fact it was running well. If the handle could be re-attached the mower would be perfectly usable for another few summers. Why dump a perfectly good petrol engine? Why not preserve it and give it the chance to wear out gracefully? I decided to repair it.

I marched the unit into the workshop. The strategy was to patch the rusted out part and re-attach the handle to the new material. Although the chassis was badly rusted where it had come apart, further away it was sound. I cut two over sized pieces of 1.6mm aluminium and set on it with the power drill and pop riveter. I haven’t had this much ‘repair fun’ in years. A trip to the local hardware barn yielded the 8M bolt and nut for less than a dollar. Job done. It looked so good I photographed it.

As you can see, I equally spaced and lined up the rivets to immitate 19th century civil engineering strength and durability.  It’s an industrial look, granted, and it made me feel like my repair time was well spent. No shoddy workmanship here, this repair was made to last. When the rest of the chassis is a rusted out hulk at the bottom of the garden the left handle attach point will still be in perfect nick, gleaming in the sunlight, just like the day it was put there.

That afternoon on the meadow, my repair held up flawlessly. The mower seemed to fly through the long grass, as motor and pusher became one, confident in the solidity of the mechanical bond from fore-arm to petrol engine and slasher blades.


Repair is an undervalued activity.  Isolated farmers who have no other option do it. Country motor mechanics who make near-fits into perfect fits do it. It is the purview of men in their sheds the world over.  These days it has truly become an old-fashioned thing. Consumerism, mass production and globalization have collectively killed it. And we continue to turn mass-produced goods into inorganic landfill an an unsustainable rate as a consequence.

There is much to be said for repair. It remains free of the high expectations of product manufacture, which is bound up in professional industrial design, aesthetics and perception. My mower repair is, let’s face it, an ugly hack, a graft on an otherwise visually acceptable product. But to me it’s a thing of beauty.  No-one would buy a mower with such a graft. Imagine if your car came back from the motor repair shop looking like my mower. It might work, but you would be incensed.

Amateur repair is not a commercial or scalable proposition. Rather, it is a one-off craft, pure vernacular design and fabrication with whatever material is on hand. It affords no opportunity for styling, planning or polishing. The plan emerges in the repairing; the polish is in the repairer’s eye. If it holds things together and functions, all aesthetic and stylistic sins are overlooked.  

Repair is honest and full of hope, mass production is vain and hope-less.  The contrast is the root of the tension between pre- and post-industrial design. Over a century ago, Charles Rennie Mackintosh said it like this…

icy-stylist

The joy of the successful repair stayed with me for a full day, like a kind of repairer’s endorphin. I felt like I’d had a productive weekend.  I started to think about what else was lying around the house that I could repair next weekend.  I googled to find my nearest Repair Cafe.  I recited the repair manifesto  — repair is better than recycling, repair saves you money, repair teaches engineering, repair saves the planet… IF YOU CAN’T FIX IT, YOU DON’T OWN IT!!

repair

I rose and met the challenge with only a few tools, my bare hands and my wits. For a while, I felt like a better man.

Just as this post went to press this story appeared. 

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4 thoughts on “On repair

  1. vk3arr says:

    Great post. There’s nothing more satisfying than channelling the inner Macguyver and producing a hack in the original MIT spirit of the term. Doubly so if you save several hundred dollars in the process!

    Like

    • Paul Taylor says:

      Made me search up the history of ‘hack’. Most intetesting and worthy of a post in its own right.

      The Jargon File, a glossary for computer programmers that was launched in 1975, lists eight definitions for “hacker.” The first reads, “A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.”

      From https://www.google.com.au/amp/www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/a-short-history-of-hack/amp

      Thats certainly one of the characteriof our hobby. Stretching things to their limit. I love thie example of the humble IRF510. Apparently there were millions used as car indicator light bulb switches. How cool that we hammed it into the worlds best 5 watt $2 QRP PA transistor. 73 vk3hn

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  2. vk3cat says:

    Paul, let me tell you my mower story.
    A lifetime ago my aunt gave me a mower and chainsaw; no longer required. The Chainsaw had seized but I was able to repair it from parts from another kindly provided. The mower is a more interesting tale.
    It was a Victor clone with a wind up spring loaded ratchet start mechanism that one day sprung into the cosmos, never to be seen nor be connected to the mower again. The solution to keep the mower active was to wind about 4 metres of electrical flex around the fly wheel and give it a long pull. This was the equivalent of about 3 attempts with the wind up mechanism. My mower never started on the first attempt; except once!
    With a full tank of fuel it kicked into life earlier than ever before. The electrical flex caught on the fly wheel and my mower was more like a 170cc whipper snipper with a 4 metre cord. The first casualty was the accelerator mechanism resulting in maximum revs. Next were chunks out of the tree and weatherboards. I had an out of control beast with a full tank of gas and no means to stop it!
    Sometimes one has to have some ingenuity. How does one “kill the beast?”
    With a length and a bit of electrical conduit and, using the steel rubbish bin lid as a shield, I was able to push the high tension lead off the spark plug and put the beast down in a spluttering rage.
    WIth the aid of gaffer tape and a now shorter pull cord, my now subdued mower lived on for many more years until it suffered the death rattles and no compression.
    Unloading it in bits at the tip, the bloke asked me it it was any good? It did not stay at the tip!
    Cheers Tony VK3CAT, your blog is always a good read.
    BTW, have you ever seen a petrol powered flymo?

    Like

  3. Paul Taylor says:

    Laugh Out Loud!!!! That’s a hilarious story, the mental image of you bravely fronting the roaring mower-beast with electrical chord whipping is memorable! Sometimes repair doesn’t end up the way you hoped. On a smaller scale I once tried to repair a broken conrod in a 1.5cc model diesel engine. I spent all day filing, drilling, fitting by hand. When installed, the motor fired into life, for one short burst of power. I thought I’d fixed it. Then within 10 seconds it died, my handmade conrod bent into a paperclip. I learned a lot about the forces inside an engine from that little repair experience. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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