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Equipment Hub: Right tool, right task

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 January 2021

I am often confronted with a new challenge when it comes to repairs around our family farm. Much of the machinery and buildings we own were purchased or constructed when I was in elementary school.

I also have found that some of the tools I have in the shop have seen better days as well.

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My old welder and drill press are great examples. They didn’t come over on the Mayflower – but only because they were already here. Pretty sure if you pulled the welder out away from the corner it occupies in the shop, you’d find hieroglyphics drawn on the cabinet.

My drill press was Navy surplus in the 1950s. It supposedly came off a ship and ended up in a tractor dealership (where my dad worked) that closed in 1967. What the drill press and the welder have in common, besides being old, are that they are huge. The drill press nearly turned a ton flatbed truck over when we loaded it to make the four-mile journey to the farm. The AC welder is larger than most DC units found on service trucks.

At issue are each one’s usefulness in comparison to their bulk. Simply put, are they so big and outdated they are in the way more than they are needed? The drill press works well, although it uses transmission belts as its final drive. Frankly, it is just too big to even consider moving. The welder, on the other hand, is on my list to replace.

The welder’s parts availability is nonexistent. Its power switch went bad 40 years ago and Dad had to replace it with a small circuit breaker box. It lost its ability to adjust amperage shortly thereafter. It does an adequate job of welding heavier-gauge steel, but if it is thinner than a quarter-inch, go ahead and use the torch to cut a hole in the metal because the welder is going to.

My reticence to disposing of these relics are just that – they are part of my memories of Dad, and junking them are just too painful to think about still. That said, I find myself thinking about something my dad’s brother Warren, an accomplished electrician and repairman himself, once said: “If it’s broken, you might as well try to fix it. You’re not going to break it more. If it’s to the point you can’t use it, what do you have to lose?”

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I also think about my daughter. I still think of her as a little girl, and I guess I always will, but I have to say she inherited her grandfather’s and great uncle’s curiosity when it comes to repairing her car, appliances or anything else that fouls up. She Googles repair videos, selects what she feels to be the most credible advice and tackles the task. She also reminds me that each generation is to leave their mark on a farming operation, which includes updating machinery, buildings and, yes, tools.

A recent update on my acetylene torch left me with a renewed acknowledgement that for every task there is a correct tool, and for every updated technology there is an equally updated way to repair it. I was getting a new regulator for my torch when I struck up a conversation with a repairman employed by a telecommunication firm. The gentleman was getting a tank of helium and shared with me that he used the gas to check the lines of fiber-optics he worked with for breaks. It seems that many lines are in water, and the helium produces bubbles that can be easily seen.

I inquired about how they detected breaks when the lines were airborne. For that, he said he had an ultra-high-frequency listening headset with a directional microphone that allowed him to hear the gas leaking from the cable with pinpoint accuracy.

Now aside from me taking him at his word, it again reminded me that new tools are being created with about the same frequency as the applications they are to be used on. A good farm shop needs an update to its tools (or at least a re-evaluation) with some amount of regularity. Some of this, of course, will depend on how up-to-date your equipment line has been kept.

A friend brought his lawnmower down to the shop to have it serviced, and his first remark was that we “had every tool known to mankind.” While that was hardly the case, it was true that as a factory-trained mechanic with over 25 years of experience and another 30 years of dairy farming, Dad had amassed a great deal of tools before his death in 2005.

As I worked on his mower, he browsed around the shop, picking up some of the more specialized tools, inquiring what it was and how it was used. Finally, he exclaimed, “I could never keep up with all this. You have a tool for every task.”

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I shared with him that while I was always finding tools I did not have yet, I did agree that many tasks, especially now, require special tools designed to fit the repair without inflicting more damage. “If you think about an engine rebuild,” I remarked to him, “that big adjustable wrench (I pointed out a 36-inch adjustable wrench hanging in its place on the shop wall) should technically fit every nut and bolt on any motor we could get in this building, but I’d sure hate to think that was all I had when I tackled that job.”

There is a tool for every task, and I invite you to explore where you might need an update. If nothing else, a “tool chest makeover” can be a good bit of fun. It might also make your next repair a whole lot easier.

As always, be safe out there. end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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