Thursday, January 30, 2014

Birdwatching: A few photos from out the rear window.

I'm kind of stuck inside today; not that I can't go out, I just don't feel like it. I've been up since 0330 when the power went out and I drug, or dragged; depending on which side of the grammar debate you come down on; the generator out of the barn into a freezing rain. Ten hours later power was restored and the ice is melting, but it's still pretty dang cold out there and my motivation level is low!
Baltimore Oriole hunting ants on the humming bird feeder

So I was sitting here looking out the rear window at the frenzy around the bird feeder (It took them less than 24 hours to empty a full feeder yesterday!) and decided I would just troll through my camera for some of the bird photos I haven't cleared out yet.

I'm not an ornithologist, and find field guides an exercise in frustration, so, I'll put down what I think the bird is but don't beat me up for being wrong.

And I really wish I could upload the full 12G jpegs but we're on a satellite internet connection here with only limited usage allowed before they choke us down to a crawl that dial-up could run circles around.

Cardinal, and not the baseball playing kind

Squabble at the feeder

Chipping Sparrow

Female Pileated Woodpecker

American Robin
A discussion about territory?

An eclectic neighborhood

Chilly Ground Doves

Is this a Black-capped or a Carolina Chickadee?

A Finch of some sort? Not happy about being photographed either

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Maintenance: Jinma 254 tractor front axle repair


I know popping tie rod ends loose, dropping front drive hubs and replacing bad oil seals is not a big deal to many, but I’m slightly mechanically challenged.

OK, OK, I can hear my race car building, suspension geometry designing, engine modifying, championship winning brother laughing from 1300 miles away; so I guess maybe I should admit that I’m a little more than slightly mechanically challenged.

What got me into this mess was the hydraulic steering ram boot on the tractor getting shredded by our moderately rugged property. That poor boot rides right down there in the weeds, cactus and brush, and by the time I finally broke down and replaced it the thing was in a half dozen pieces. On top of that the oil seals in the vertical shaft of the left front hub had gone bad to the point where I had to add gear-oil to the front axle just about every time I got the tractor out because what I put in last time was now laying in the pan I tucked under the hub when I parked the tractor down in its barn.

Knowing it was necessary but still not happy about it, I got the parts manual out then went web surfing. I found a few brief mentions of this particular repair but it seemed like there wasn’t a whole lot of detail there, at least not that I could find during my minutes and minutes of research. I took that as a sign that it should be a no brainer, I mean it must be so basic that other people just don’t see the need to write a tutorial on it, right?

Well apparently I missed that basic class because as things went on it became obvious that I hadn’t a clue.

With great trepidation I made my way over to Affordable Tractor and bought the parts I knew I needed plus some parts I didn’t know I needed. Fortunately Affordable Tractor has a very customer friendly approach and the mechanic over there gently corrected my undereducated list, or maybe it was just my obvious lack of knowledge making him feel sorry for me, at any rate not only did I walk away with all the right parts but I also got some hints and tips to go along with my booty. By the time I left with my $58 worth of parts in hand the whole job seemed pretty straightforward.

Unfortunately I seemed to have lost that straightforward part somewhere between the parts supplier and home.

It took me over a month and three separate tries before I even got past the first step!!

All I had to do was pop the tie rod end, hanging out there on the end of the steering ram, loose from the hub, unscrew it, slide the new boot on the ram and reverse the procedure. Only problem was I couldn’t get the dang thing loose!

I removed the castle nut on the end of the tie rod shaft, turned it over and screwed it back on partway to protect the threads then whacked the end of it somewhat timidly with a dead-blow hammer. Nothing. Whacked it harder – same result. Again, even harder this time. Still nothing. About this time I decided I had whacked that little nut as hard as I dared; so I put everything back where it belonged, including all the bits from the bottom end which I had removed out of ignorance of what the heck I was doing, pumped it full of the grease I had removed trying to figure the thing out, and vowed to do some additional research.

I suppose I then tried to just forget the whole thing; hoping for that out of sight out of mind solution; but it kept nagging at me so I finally broke down and contacted someone who I figured would know, my brother. He said the trick was to back the castle nut off then whack the side of the eye the tie rod shaft was going through with a hammer, a big hammer, and really whack it using a two-handed, round-house swing. According to him this would deform the eye just enough to release the tapered shaft. Now that made sense, and I trust my brother on things like this, he’s been doing this kind of work since Junior High, but when the metal of the eye started to deform under my repeated and violent attention while the shaft stayed just as stuck as ever, I got scared. Once again I put things back where they belonged, parked the tractor down in its barn, put the pan under the hub and made a note to buy more gear-oil. Stick with what works; right?

At some point in the week or two following my second unsuccessful imitation of a mechanic I remembered coming across a brief note about using a tie rod end puller from Harbor Freight. Of course I couldn’t find this write-up again (Got to start bookmarking these things rather than relying on a memory that apparently can’t be relied on.) but one day, for reasons that had nothing to do with my aspirations of becoming a mechanic, we made a 90 mile run to a town that just happened to have a Harbor Freight, so I stopped in and sure enough, I found the puller!

Of course I was still just as gun-shy about the whole maintenance thingy and it took a few weeks of that puller sitting there on my workbench before I bit the bullet and got the tractor out of the barn again.

Well I’ll be damned but it worked!

I put the puller in place against the turned over castle nut, tightened up the bolt and waited a minute, tightened it up some more and waited again. About the 4th time BANG, and the tie rod end dropped loose!

This was one of those good news, bad news situations though. I could now replace the ram boot but since I had the tie rod loose it only made sense to continue on and get those leaking seals replaced, them being the same hub and all. Oh damn!

I drained as much oil from the tiny little drain plug in the middle of the front axle as I could then dropped the bottom plate on the left hub to drain the considerable amount of oil hiding down there as well. I have to do it this way because the little 7mm plugs with the tiny square ends that you are supposed to use for draining the hubs have been stuck since the day I bought the tractor. Not only are they stuck but the little square ends are hopelessly far from square anymore since I have vigorously attempted to get them loose through a variety of means several times.

Just like the guy at Affordable Tractor told me to do, I then unbolted the knuckle arm which gave me access to the 17mm bolt in the top of the vertical shaft. Since that shaft has to spin to do its job, trying to back the bolt out of it with a wrench just – well – spun everything. I tried holding the hub still with my other hand but was way too weak for that to work, so then I tried clamping locking pliers on the hub for a better grip, but still couldn’t hold the dang thing still. With a flash of inspiration I hunted around until I found a steel bar I could jam between a couple of the studs and brace against the ground,  but quickly realized all that was going to do, assuming I could grow the third arm I needed to hold everything in place, was tear up the threads on some studs.  (Yeah, I know put the nuts back on the studs first. I didn't think of that at the time.) Finally I had one of those DUH moments (As Click and Clack the Tappet brothers say, I need a dope-slap.) and successfully used the shock and awe method of taking my 30 year old yet almost new out of the box impact wrench to it. Worked like I knew what I was doing!!

Fortunately I had been warned that once that bolt was removed the hub would drop out of the housing pretty easy so I had a floor jack under the assembly and the whole thing lowered right out as advertised. Now to the bench!

I have a seal puller, don’t know why but I have one, but it’s one of those hook and lever types and I bent the crap out of one of the hooks trying to pry the first of the two seals out of the housing. I suspect what I really needed for this job is one of those hook and hammer type of pullers, but of course I don’t have one of those!

It took a while, a lot of that while spent repeating things I already tried before (And with every failed attempt Einstein’s definition of insanity; ‘Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.’; went through my mind, mocking my efforts; ) but I finally got frustrated enough to set caution aside and managed to deform the first seal enough with a viciously wielded screwdriver to get it out. Now I was feeling my oats so I used an old Chinese chisel I don’t mind messing up (Kind of appropriate don’t you think? Using a Chinese chisel to attack a Chinese tractor?) to cut through the second seal and get it free, being careful to cut only seal on not gouge the crap out of the housing!

As I was doing this I was also carefully making a diagram of exactly how the seals were placed and which way they faced. That might be second nature to some, but not to me and after all this struggling I didn’t want to do something ridiculously stupid (Hey, it’s happened before – with disturbing frequency I might add. . .) and wreck the whole project.

After carefully cleaning all the surfaces, I tried getting the new seals seated in the housing by lubing them and the housing with a touch of grease and tapping around the edges with a short piece of hardwood I had laying around, but every time I hit one side the other would just pop up and the whole thing turned into a Chinese fire drill! (Get it! Chine – oh never mind.) So I went hunting around the shop for something I might have more success with. I got lucky and had a 2” PVC coupler in my plumbing bin that was just the right diameter. I also had a scrap of 2” PVC pipe in the same bin. I shoved that into one end of the coupler and lowered my new tool over the shaft and against the carefully positioned seal. Being too lazy to bother cutting my scrap of pipe, I then went hunting for a step-stool I could stand on to get high enough to tap the end of the pipe with a hammer. A few gentle blows and some checking with the calipers to make sure I had it in far enough to clear the second seal, and the first was in place and ready to go. The second seal went right in on top of that just as easily. Talk about luck!

Now it was just a matter of reversing the whole process and putting the tractor back together again without having any leftover parts. With the benefit of some spectacular failures in the past, I’ve learned to take lots of photos as I go as well as to lay out every bolt and part in order on a length of butcher paper, no matter how easy and simple the job seems. When it’s time to put things back together again I just start with the last parts I laid out and work my way back to the first. If I pick up a part or bolt or screw and can’t remember where it went I go back through my photos and reboot my memory.

I had been warned not to turn over the edge of the seal when working it back onto the shaft which would let that teeny tiny little spring in there get away so I was a bit nervous about that as I cleaned everything well and got ready to impersonate a competent mechanic. With a little grease coating the appropriate surfaces and one hand stabilizing the hub while the other worked the jack, I carefully slipped the seal onto the shaft, took a moment to recovered from the shock of my success, then worked the splines into place as I seated the hub back up where it belonged. Now it was just a matter of putting the new boot on the steering ram, bolting parts back on where they came off of, refilling the axle with gear oil then taking a test drive.

Admittedly I only drove the tractor far enough to get it back down to its barn, about 200 yards worth, but did take some unnecessary turns along the way and it seemed to be fine up to that point. Besides, it had been a long and stressful process and I didn’t want to push my luck and discover I did it wrong; a variation of that out of sight out of mind thing.

I read where one guy did this job in under an hour. Well it took me more like 4, but I got it done and now I think it’s time to kick back with a book and take it easy the rest of the afternoon.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Gardening: Spring planting

Started the spring garden today.  (Actually several weeks ago but just now getting around to posting. . .) Around here many garden crops have two short seasons per year, one in the spring and a second in the fall, because you’re fighting against the frosts on either end and a blistering summer in between. So we start seeds in mid-January so they can go into the ground in early March and have time to produce a crop before the summer heats shuts the plants down.

I’ve been sneaking up on this garden thing for several years and this year I’ve started some tomato, broccoli and spinach seeds.

Yes, I could just buy tomato plants from the local garden centers but they’re usually some variant of varieties bred for commercial production which means tough skins for shipping protection, usually are determinates where everything ripens all at the same time and breeding for flavor is not as important as production; besides, been there, done that, haven’t been terribly impressed. Which is why I cracked open a few catalogs in November and picked out three different heirloom varieties to try out.  One is Flordade, a red determinate, which means it stops growing when fruit sets and then all the fruit ripens at around the same time, but it was bred specifically for our kind of climate and is red, which is a requirement of my other half. The other two, Yellow Pear and Cherokee Purple are indeterminate which means they keep growing until the heat gets them and fruits ripen in succession rather than all at once. So, we’ll see how this goes.

Broccoli and spinach are consumed in great quantities around here so they seemed like a couple of no-brainer choices to add to the mix. Of course there’s lots of other plants I would like to be able to brag about growing, but  I’m making an effort here to start out with something manageable with the intention of expanding in a controlled manner as I get this thing figured out. (Fat chance! That figuring it out part, but I have to give it a try anyway.)

Since one seedling looks like another to me, especially different varieties of the same thing, plant markers were imperative, except I didn't have any. I looked around the barn for an alternative and the only thing I could come up with was some scrap pieces of PVC lattice I've been keeping around for who knows what. I  cut some rather crude strips out of this and marked them up. Now, as long as I don't pull the markers out of the planters I should be able to keep track of what's what.

Now that I have seedlings on the way I guess I better get started on the mobile greenhouse I’ve been planning on building  on top of a utility trailer we don’t use anymore.  We have all sorts of creatures around here, from the very tiny to deer and feral hog sized, whose main purpose in life seems to be consuming anything they can get their little teeth on, so a protected garden is a must and what better way to get started than with a mobile garden we can move around the property according to the seasons? (Truth is, past experience indicates I’m going to put the garden in the wrong place my first couple tries and having wheels under it will make the correction process significantly easier.)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Model Railroad Show

I had a moment of insanity one day and drove into the city, not just as far as the nearest edge which we are wont to do once in a while, but all the way downtown, which is a two+ hour trip on a good day, and you better pack a lunch on a bad day. On top of that I did it on a weekend when kids and adults alike are loosed on the world!
The impetus for this madness was the ‘World’s Greatest Hobby on Tour’ model railroad show. I haven’t been downtown in years and it’s still just as frantic and confusing as it’s ever been down there. It didn’t help that the Bridal Extravaganza was also there in the convention center at the same time. The Extravaganza took up 4 of the 5 exhibit halls with the railroad show sucking hind tit way down at the far end in the remaining one. On top of the two shows the park across the street from the convention center had a live band and a curbside full of mobile eateries. For all I know that’s a weekly thing, or rather weekendly thing, but it collected a whole lot more people where there already was no lack of mouths and elbows to begin with.

After circling the circus a couple times we finally found a parking spot, a very expensive parking spot. Of course it was at the wrong end of the convention center but I didn’t know that at the time. Even so, I was still better off than the guy who sort of wandered by as we were getting out of the car. You know, kind of slowly spinning as he walked, raising up on his toes and  stretching his neck like he was the periscope of some misplaced submarine. ‘You have the look of a man who’s car isn’t where it’s supposed to be’ I commented. ‘You don’t know the half of it’ he replied. ‘I’m not even sure this is the right lot!’. . .

Even taking up only one of the exhibit halls the show was pretty big. I wish I could say it was a good show but – well – I can’t. The layouts were generally mediocre and uninspiring, the quality of modeling was less than I hoped for, there were only one or two vendors that really caught my attention and there were no demonstrations/seminars/clinics to learn from and no modeling contests to drool over.

There was plenty for the kids to do though, and judging by the length of the lines for getting a ride on Thomas the Tank Engine and another train on the other side of the exhibit hall where the kids had to all peddle to make the thing go, the younger people, who got in free by the way, were having a blast. But I didn't come to ride tiny little choo-choos around in circles, I came to absorb a little inspiration and get a few ideas.
I didn’t really get any of the former and only one of the latter, and I will be following up on that one. It was a pretty interesting looking resin and foam composite system for making landforms. It was very light and seemed pretty durable too. Both qualities I’m looking for in the landforms of my own, so far mythical, layout.

This being the second disappointing ‘commercial’ show I tried this year, I think I might be starting to learn my lesson. After $20 worth of gas, $20 to park for slightly over 2 hours, and $20 to get in I think I’ll be sticking to the national shows like the annual NMRA or Narrow Gauge Convention for a while. These are the shows where you get to see layouts that have been in magazines, where people whose books and articles you’ve read are presenting clinics and seminars, and modelers for miles around open their homes so you can visit their layouts. Pricy shows but enough good stuff to keep you busy for days.

Only problem is they’re each only once a year events and are usually over on the other side of the country. . .

Friday, January 24, 2014

Kick off and expectation management

OK, I’m still not entirely convinced I should be allowed to have a blog like this, but here goes anyway. We’ll see if anybody out there is even remotely interested in anything I have to say about my projects and occasional thoughts.

About the blog title:

I collect lines. No, you won’t find me out there in the dark scrapping paint off the road, or skulking around a junior-high geometry classroom pocketing objects that are straight, infinitely long and infinitely thin, because - well - contrary to popular opinion, I'm not quite that nuts. I’m talking about the written line. I’m talking about words put together into a phrase that makes me stop and think, or cry, or smile, or instantly paints a picture in my head, lines that reach out and grab me unexpectedly in one way or another. Lines like Rod McKuen’s ‘For one slow moment it was you – Christmas in a black print dress’ or Mark Maron’s ‘For me, it’s not over until someone cries and I apologize’, or Ed Gorman’s ‘I opened the door and the muggy dark rushed in like a pet that’s supposed to stay outside at night’.

And I have more; no seriously; I keep a file of them and when I find a new one I add it to my list, the latest being from Elizabeth Lowell, ‘Ian watched the smooth locomotion of Dana’s hips with a male appreciation that didn’t need to fondle in order to enjoy. ‘

But of all the entries in the file only one was penned by me, and it’s only there because the author knows someone who knows someone, it’s certainly not there on its merits. I’d love to produce little gems like so many others have but the best I’ve managed so far is something I wrote many, many – many – years ago; ‘She drives a trailer park pickup, she’s got a kitchen table perm, she wears a truck stop t-shirt and she’s got Alabama thighs.’ See? My best effort and it just sort of lays there. Even I don’t know what to do with it. On top of that I have this nagging suspicion that I heard that ‘Alabama Thighs’ part vary late one dark and lonely night on the road when I was trying to coax some distant radio station to ride along with me.

So anyway, though ‘The Random Rants of a Rambling Man’ doesn’t make much sense and only vaguely indicates what might be found in this blog, its almost a line and I like the sound and rhythm of it ,so to hell with logic.

Rambling is stolen from my travel blog, 'Travels of a Rambling Van', because I think it provides a nice continuity, a lot like some authors that use a common word in all the titles of their series novels, such as Robin Page’s ‘death’ and Charlaine Harris’ ‘grave’. . . . Not that I am equating myself with writers such as that, but I’m not above stealing – I mean borrowing – a trick or two from them.

It’s a word with several definitions and the first that comes to mind, my mind anyway, is wandering from place to place. Well I am a traveler but, since I already have a travel blog where I ramble on (Get it!? Ramble on?. . .) about my various trips, hikes, and such; that definition doesn’t count here.

The second definition; going from subject to subject without any clear purpose or direction; is a little less flattering, but since I have many and varied interests beyond traveling this blog is probably going to do exactly that, ramble around without a clear direction; I just can’t help it.

Rants. Now there’s a word with nothing but negative connotations! But I’m not a ranter; really!; OK, OK, I do have the occasional opinion, and I might be tempted to rant – I mean air – one of them once in a while so, I guess if you want to get technical about it, a rant or two just might slip past the filter of common sense. But I mostly put it there because if you start with rambling then turn around and throw in random, which I admit is a little redundant but helps get the point across, how can you not add rant to the title? It just makes the whole thing ring with rhyme, not to mention (But, just like every single person that’s ever said that, I’m obviously going to anyway so what’s that phrase all about in the first place?? It’s right up there with ‘no offence but. . .’) the rhythm of iambic quadrameter! OK, OK, for those syllable counters out there, it’s not actually an iambic anything unless you cheat and slur the ‘of a’ into a single unstressed syllable; but it’s pretty dang close and it just feels right coming off the tongue; at least my tongue. So, after due consideration and a show of hands, my hand, rants stays; no matter how many of my tens of potential readers it scares off.

I guess this is as good a time to go into a very brief bio as I’m going to manage to come up with, a bio that just might show there is some purpose to the madness, or at least explain it, so; at various times I have been and/or am:

Hiker     Camper                                Home Builder                    Electronic repairman     Marine Electrician Normal Electrician            Designer              RV builder           Computer Engineer         Manager of geeks           Lost        Data Center Architect              Furniture maker               Son        Artist     Opinionated     Father        Model Railroader             Right                Retired                 Woodworker     Wrong      Environmentalist          Wood turner      Mechanic (Though recent events have reminded me I suck at carburetors)               Scientist               Husband              Plumber                Maintenance man Writer                             Bicyclist                      Voracious reader   Gardner               Philosopher (In my own mind anyway)                  And probably a few others I’ve missed

Perusing that list it might look like I can’t hold a job, but I only actually drew a paycheck for the activities listed in italics and four of those all for the same employer. In fact, between 1972ish and 2012 I worked for a grand total of 4 different employers; kind of a low number in this day and age where career strategy often relies on job-hopping. I admit that I didn’t stick with any of the first three jobs for more than three years or so, but I spent the last 31 years of my working life with a single employer, though on days of exceptional clarity of mind I suspect I was just too damn lazy to go looking for another job.

So, the key point here is that I retired from my last employer. . . OK, more like quit since they didn’t offer a pension, insurance or any other ‘retirement’ benefits other than a going away cupcake and the promise of never having to go back there again, and have now found my condition, visa-a-vi the boss thingy, namely lack of, has given me a lot more freedom to do all sorts of things and, since I like to keep my life varied; Jack of many trades, master of none; this is likely to be a somewhat eclectic blog. So, if you like that sort of thing, you’re welcome to come on along; but you’ve been warned.