Adventures in Small Engine Repair (Part 1)

Suffice it to say, this isn’t going to be one of those ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair” sort of posts.  But it is about the trials and tribulations of my attempt to save money (?) by repairing my (inherited) Troy-Bilt™ roto-tiller.  Proceed at your own risk 😉

When I was growing up in eastern/rural New York, I lived on a plot of land that my parents had purchased in 1964.  At that time it was a little over 2 acres, and a lot of it was wooded.  It was in a completely new development, subdivided out of an old farm owned by a family named Kerr.  Hence the road that worked its way into the development was called ‘Kerr Road’.  One of the interior streets that worked its way into the development was named after the contractor that had purchased the old farm and built the majority of the houses in the cul-de-sac.  All of this has nothing to do with the rest of the post.  Just giving you some background.

Seeing as we had a good amount of property, my father, who grew up on a farm in Ulster County during the 1930s and 40s, knew his way around small engines to a certain degree.  Over the years, he attempted to impart his knowledge to my brother and I, so as not to have to utilize small engine repair places too much.  Some of it rubbed off on me, some of it didn’t.  In the ensuing 30 or so years since moving away from where I grew up, I’ve done some repairs on my own, but for the most part I’ve left the heavy lifting to a smattering of local gearheads that have done work on my snowblower, roto-tiller, chainsaw (ok, that was a clusterf*ck) and string trimmer.

About 20 years ago we were having problems with the roto-tiller and had some local guys at a seasonal repair shop take a look at it.  They came with a trailer, hauled it away and a few days later pronounced they had fixed it.  Of course, that came with a caveat.  While they had given it what they called a ‘tune-up’ (changed the oil, looked over the engine) they were unable to get the wheels unstuck from the axle.  When the tiller was new, it had a system whereby you could move the unit by switching out cotter pins in the axle and moving the wheels to another hole further out so that the tiller could be moved without running the engine.  Over the years the wheels had become either rusted or frozen on the axle so this was impossible.  And what the guy told me, either he was going to have to take it to someplace where they could use a blowtorch to heat up the axle, and then a ‘wheel-puller’ to get the wheel off.  Or, they could take the medieval approach, cut the axle and using a hammer pound the axle through the shaft, and put a whole new axle and wheels on the tiller.  Which of course would cost more than the value of the machine as it was now.  His recommendation was just to move it when the engine ran.

Which is fine, when the engine runs.  But if the engine stalls when you’re on the other side of your property, and you can’t get it going again, with the wheels frozen, one has to ‘walk’ the machine on stuck wheels, back and forth repeatedly to get it back to the garage.  Which for a machine that weighs a good 80 lbs, is no simple feat.  It would be much better if the damn thing rolled like it was supposed to.

The other day, while we were working in the garden, prepping the beds for getting our plants for the season, I gave the tiller a try, knowing last year I’d had problems with keeping it running.  At that time, I’d called the fellow I used who fixed my snowblower 2 years ago, but he said his small engine repair place was fairly backed up and he probably couldn’t get to it for several weeks.  This year, he’s posted a few times on FB saying that he’s working again, but seeing as its spring, he’s again backed up only because he’s doing this part-time and has another job that pays the majority of his bills.  Since I don’t have a trailer or pick-up for transporting my machines, I have to rely on someone who can do pick-ups/drop-offs.  Which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Having not remembered whether or not I’d left gas in the tiller, I checked the level of gas in the tank.  It appeared to be little or none, so I took the opportunity to fill it mostly full (bad choice).  Checked the oil level and did a little walk around of the unit, pulled it out of the garage and after choking it, finally got it running after about 10-12 pulls of the starter.  Except…it wasn’t running smoothly.  Over the winter I’d gotten a new muffler for it, since the old one was a pretty rusted mess.  Even with the new muffler, it still was spitting and sputtering and misfiring.  And when I pushed the throttle up, it didn’t run any faster.  Which suggested to me that there was a problem with the carburetor.  Either it wasn’t getting enough gas, or it was getting too much.  Not having the time to shut down and get into the carb at that point, I tried muscling it out to the beds and see if it would run for me as is.

It did, and it didn’t.  When pushed under load, it stalled.  When trying to dig even a little in the ground, it stalled.  Even trying to get it back to the garage, it stalled three times.  At that point I was resigned to having to either call someone or give the repair a try on my own.  Having determined the guy I go to wasn’t available immediately, I decided to give it a go.  I have the owner’s manual for both the tiller and the engine that runs it, but a manual is only as good as one’s understanding of it.  And I never took a small engine repair course except for what my Dad told me about.  Fortunately, there’s a fellow on YouTube with the handle ‘Mustie1‘, he does small engine repair and films it.  He’s pretty knowledgeable, and does a good job with his videos, dumbing down a lot of what he does, giving explanations on how things work, how they go together once they’re apart and so on.  Small engines on things like tillers, lawn mowers and snowblowers are pretty interchangeable, they have a lot of the same components, so if you can do one, then you can apply the information to the other, and so on.  Armed with this knowledge, I waded into the problem.

Before getting into it, I removed the cable from the spark-plug, since I didn’t want it accidentally turning on (not saying it would, but better safe than sorry!) while I was fiddling with it.  Since it had run earlier in the day, I didn’t have to check to see if the plug worked, I knew it did.  Removing the air filter housing, I determined that was the best way to get to the carburetor.  It was at that point I lamented the fact that I’d filled the gas tank to almost full earlier.  There’s a connecting point to the carb that comes from the gas tank, and most people suggest clamping off the gas line, rather than draining the tank.  Seeing as the gas line appeared to be the original, it was predictably a bit stiff and it might very well break and be damaged if I used a pair of vise grips to clamp it off.  Instead I got a container and drained the gas manually, dumping it into a spare gas can that I had in the garage.

Removing the carburetor from the engine proved to be more than just removing nuts from bolts, as the nuts were being a bit of a pain in coming off.  It didn’t help that the carburetor was pretty messy with oil residue, dirt and who knows what else its been covered in over the last several years.  While I was working to remove it, I was making a mental checklist of what I was going to be needing at the auto parts store the next day.  At the very least I needed some form of carb cleaner, a bottle of 10w-30 oil, since I was fairly certain I needed to change the oil on the tiller, and just for the hell of it, a product called PB Blaster, to spray on the axle/wheels, to see if perhaps a little lubricant could get them working for me, instead of against me.  Again, Mustie1 to the rescue.

Looking at one of his videos, he uses a product called Gumout carb cleaner that comes in what appears to be a paint can, and that has a small drip basket.  Drop your parts in the basket, put the basket into the can and seal the lid.  Return in a couple of hours and the parts should be cleaned, at least somewhat.  The liquid is a solvent, so that needs to be washed and scrubbed off your parts, but it seems to work, at least from what I can see.  Mustie uses an ultrasonic cleaner as well, but that’s a $50 outlay, and since I’m only doing one machine, that seemed excessive.

Unfortunately, I had to get a little medieval with the carburetor bolts, since only one came off somewhat easily.  The other, predictably, was a pain, and wouldn’t come off no mater how many times I spun the nut.  So, I got out my Dremel and using a cutting wheel, sawed the bolt in two.  Which means I’m going to have to get another bolt (or 2) in order to put it back on.  And could I find the proper bolt size anywhere?  Of course not!  Neither manual even mentions what the size is.  I found a parts diagram for an H25 Tecumseh motor, which shows the bolts and where they go, but there’s no corresponding size or part in the list that tells me what it is.  Frustrating!  After cleaning the parts, I’m going to have to go to the hardware store with the remaining bolt and find it’s replacement.  Along with a couple of lock washers and accompanying nuts.

Stay tuned, or shy away if you will.  I’m not finished here.


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