Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rainy day jobs

Photo: Our Bolens 1669 yard tractor in happier days.

We've had several days of wet weather, none of which were particularly helpful to agriculture, considering that the three week drought in late April/early May was already relieved by earlier rains. I managed to get the tomato transplants in the ground Monday -- emboldened by no sign of another frost in the forecast, and the May 18th average last frost date now passed. I'd be very surprised now if we had another frost, until at least late August.

But what our plants need now is warm sunny weather.

With the wet weather our building project has been on hold. I've busied myself, finalizing the septic, plumbing and building permits, running down to Topsham, Maine to buy a $50 cement mixer found on Maine Craig's List -- I'd been looking out for one for several weeks now -- and getting in the first truck load of block and bagged concrete and mortar. When the rain stops, however briefly, I'm all set to dig holes and set new concrete block piers under the east perimeter of the kitchen, to stabilize the foundation.

The kitchen of this old house is an interesting example of the Maine handyman's art. We originally thought it had been built first, before the rest of the house, and it still may have been, but based on the fact that the floor joists are tied into the sill for the main part of the house, that they don't have their own sill on the connecting side, the best explanation right now is that it was either built at the same time as the main house or later.

Whoever built it either had no money, or was trying to use up materials left over from some other building, or just didn't know very much about building. They took pine round-wood poles ten inches in diameter and twenty eight feet long, and simply notched them into the sill of the main house on the south side, setting the other three sills on a rubble foundation. The sub-floor boards are nailed to these "joists."

Why they didn't run the joists the other direction, where they would have been only 14 feet, well, we just don't understand. The floor isn't that bouncy as a result -- the former kitchen chimney had a proper foundation and footing, which anchors the middle of the floor. But it was a strange choice of materials and layout.

The ceiling joists are no less strange. These are of random widths. The largest is a three by six. Others are two by four, four by five, two by six, and so on.

The rubble foundation held up on two of the three sides, but on the east side it has weakened and partially collapsed. The kitchen has probably fallen by as much as two inches on that side. Before we attach our new extension, I'll need to stabilize this older building. If I hadn't already repaired walls and floor on the inside, I'd use this opportunity to square up the building with jacks, but as it is, that would just cause cracking and straining. I'll leave it askew. It isn't the saggiest Maine building I've seen by any means.

In other rainy day jobs, I've been repairing the motor on our old Bolens yard tractor. This huge beast of a lawn tractor is a workhorse around here, so I was upset when it quit on me in a clatter of noise and blue smoke earlier in the spring. I pulled the engine and stripped it down to the cylinders, finding a bent push rod on the left hand cylinder, which must be number two cylinder since the engine sits facing backwards in the frame.

I ordered the replacement push rod, and have been plugging away at the reassembly in odd hours for a while. On Tuesday I was able to get the motor in the frame and test start it, but it ran badly and leaked oil, so out it came again. The poor running was easily diagnosed -- the needle valve had fallen out of its setting in the carburetor during one of the times I had the engine upside down during the rebuild. (Note to self-- needle valve falls out when this motor is turned upside down!) The oil leak was obvious: A brass fitting had sheared where the drain pipe attached to the engine block. The needle valve was re-set, and the stub of the fitting drilled out except for the last thirty thousandths of an inch. I went to the hardware store to buy a tap, and re-threaded the remainder of the brass to accept an undersized fitting, essentially making a thread insert of the brass.

Only problem was, my undersized replacement fitting also bought at the hardware store, didn't fit. Looking around for a suitable threaded object that would fit, my eyes fell on an old spark plug on one of my parts shelves. In went the plug. I broke the ceramic head off, for ease of fitting the motor to the frame -- the head was sticking out too far -- and called it good.

Here's a shot of the plug setting at the bottom of the engine block:

And a close-up of the repurposed spark plug itself:

I have to say that this partial engine rebuild was cathartic for me after a hard year's work as an educator. It's nice to get to do a job where success -- a well-running tractor -- is so easily defined. 

I didn't start the tractor again yet. That will be today's job -- the battery is charging. But I expect it's fixed.

Now what I need is some drier weather so I can get on with this foundation. I need to get those piers in, then get a backhoe on site to dig the cellar hole for our new extension.

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