Kids on Deere

Ahh, the dreaded lawn tractor. Being a frugal homesteader and an engineer, I’m one who maintains the mindset of “recycling”. In this context, I mean that I have a hard time purchasing a brand new lawn tractor when I can find plenty of used ones (and all the parts needed) online for 1/10th the price (or even less). However, sometimes, the effort may not be worth it. This little blog post is a reflection of my frustration over the past weekend and some history of the previous 3 years surround my lawn tractors.

When I first purchased the property, I learned that one of my neighbors was getting rid of his old LT155 lawn tractor. As I needed a way to cut the grass (OK, weeds), I thought this might be a good starting point. The LT155 which he had is a 12 year old work horse which, if maintained (and I am told it was), will last a very long time. Although it did start right up and drive, after inspecting it, I discovering a fuel leak, and a fairly rusty deck. I knew that, at the very least, the carburetor would have to be rebuilt/replaced. So, I offered him $100 bucks to take it as he accepted my offer.

Not to boast, even though I’m not a “mechanic” by trade, there are very few engines that I’ve worked on which I could not get running.

Before using it, I decided to refurbish it. I looked online for the replacement parts and discovered that to get everything I needed brand new would be fairly expensive. So, I started searching for a second machine of similar type (any LT series John Deere would work). My thinking process was simple – get a second machine for parts – and it didn’t even need to work, but should be good enough for me to scavenge enough parts to make one really good healthy machine. About two weeks later, I found exactly that… an LT133. It wasn’t too far from my place and came with a trailer also. The story was a woman had gotten this in her divorce and it was sitting at the back of her garage. She didn’t want anything to do with it, so was very motivated to sell. The trick to getting these kind of deals is to act as quickly as you see the ad. Those kinds of deals go fast. Anyway, the next day for $200, I got the whole package.

As it turned out, with fairly little effort (one weekend), I was able to put together one very healthy lawn tractor. To get this working well, I only needed to purchase oil, filter, a bit of grease, and a carb rebuild kit (which I got at Amazon). I rebuild a new one from the best of the parts from each. For good measure (they were ok, but were warn), I replaced the belts on both the deck and the drive-line. The blades and deck? One of the decks had a bad spindle (someone hit a log or something). Of the 4 blades I had, two were were in good shape (of course, one on each machine). So I pulled them, sharpened and put on the better of the two decks. Total investment, $400.00. Now, understand I have a 1250 sq foot garage, so I have no problem storing the parts and working on the machinery.

I figured I’d either keep these parts for future needs or sell them on Craigslist. As it turns out, I’m glad I kept it. The engine on the refurbished unit died about 1 year later. Ugh. OK, having a spare, I swapped engines. At the same time, knowing the it was grinding going up hill, I pulled the transaxle and replacing the fluids, This took a weekend. Once done – all was good for the next year.

A few months later, one of the blades started to wobble – indicating a bad spindle. Although it was working and cutting just fine, I figured it would fail completely at some point so I decided to start looking for a used deck online before that happened. I found that used replacement decks were expensive and all go for around $250.00. BUT, I came across another LT series tractor – complete, for $250.00. This person was selling it because they upgraded and was left with an old one. This person was also only 10 miles away, and even though I was the second caller, I was the first to arrive. After haggling, I got it for $200, and it included a deck. Turned out that deck was in really goods shape – no rust at all, and very clean. In fact, this machine was cleaner than my existing parts monster. Plus, the seat wasn’t cracked and the hood was complete. So, oil change, belts, tuneup and sharpening, and this became my weekly mower.

Last month, I came across an ad from someone who had two tractors who was giving them away to a good home – free. Timing was right and I was the first caller. Long story short, he said they both worked, sort of … and that he wasn’t a mechanic and didn’t have the time to work on them. He shared that he started to repair them a month earlier and got stuck. He finally just wanted them out of his garage for personal reasons. Knowing I have plenty of room in my garage, that evening, I drove over with my trailer and picked them up.

So, two additional tractors – one was an L120 (John Deere), which is the newer model from what I was using. It only had 320 hours on it. The other one was an older Poulan/Craftsman machine. Both were very clean and had big clean decks. No rust either. Both batteries were dead. Therefore, I could not test them. I spun the engines and verified they were not seized. The L120 was complete. It even had a bagger also which I thought either I’d use at some point or sell on Craigslist in the future. The Craftsman however was a missing carb. The seller actually had it, but it was in a box in pieces. He decided that he would attempt to repair it. He took it off and promptly gave up.

After getting all of this back home, I discovered that the carb on the Craftsman was the same as ones of the spares I had in the garage. I installed it, and it fired right up. OK, it ran kind of rough, so I tuned it and changed the oil/filter. It turned out to be very powerful. I put that machine on Craigslist and sold it in 2 days (working and complete) for $400.00.

Cool, Now, I have made back just about my whole investment and have a nice pretty L120 with a 42″ deck and three blades – thinking this is a nice upgrade to my LT series tractor, I decided to focus on that. I put in a battery, checked the oil and gave the key a turn. The motor spin but no spark. One spark plug wire (I had a spare), a nice tune up, oil/filter, new belts and some other little cleanup and it was running pretty well. Less then 2 hours spent – success.

So, I drove it out of the garage for a spin, and discovered that it worked really well. Now, I’m left with two working machines, and a corner of my garage filled with old lawn tractor pieces/parts (See photo). When I listed the Craftsman earlier, someone called me asking for parts. At the time, I didn’t want to sell anything other than the working mower, so did nothing. I decided to get rid of everything I had remaining in the garage to make room – this would leave me with two very healthy machines. This person came over and offered me $200 for everything I had left. I kept the good spare deck and decided to sell the remaining parts. Bargain for both of us.

So, taking inventory, now I have a working LT series tractor (made from pieces/parts of three different machines over 2 years) and a spare deck. I also have a complete L120 with a 42″ deck. Nice, right?

Two weekends ago, I was mowing with the LT155 – my work horse – and hit a tree stump. The grass was long (like 8 inches high and I didn’t notice it). Crunch went one of the spindles. Damn. OK, thinking to myself, I will swap decks later, but for now, have the L120, so I’d try using that. What I discovered that it was a nice strong machine – for about 15 minutes, until it was warmed up. At which point the engine continued to humming along, but it would not move forward of reverse. So, I turned it off, let it sit for 2 hours while I went out to lunch and tried it again when I returned. I got back on. As expected, it fired right up and worked fine for another 15 minutes and promptly produced the same result when it warmed up – no transmission. Fortunately I finished the mowing for the week.

Now, if you are keeping track, I have one L120 which works great, but only for short periods of time and a LT series machine which needed the deck replaced. So, I replaced the deck and continue to use the LT series. All the while, knowing when I fix the L120, that would become my primary cutting machine. It just cuts better and the deck is larger.

New transaxle ready to install.

Doing research on the L120, everything pointed to the transaxle – which was probably low in oil (or the oil was old and lost all viscosity). Yeah, time consuming but a simple fix. That weekend, I pull the transaxle, drained the oil and inspected it. The transaxle oil was horrible and black. It did not smell like anything was burnt. It was probably never changed. Another observation, the magnet in the drain plug also had some metal stuck to it (Not a lot, but measurable). I’m thinking to myself, oh crap, I shouldn’t have sold my old one. The LT series which had a bad engine had a good transaxle, and it was the same model. Oh well, so it goes. Hoping for the best, I replaced the oil, put it back on the L120 and although it did work better with even more power, it exhibited the same results when it warmed up. CRAP!

So, I have to either rebuild or replace the transaxle. I watched a few YouTube videos about rebuilding this transaxle, and it seemed pretty simple. Plus the new parts were still available from TuffTorq (the manufacturer) in the worst case. Back to Craigslist. Remember that guy who bought my parts? I called him and asked if he still had it and if he wanted to sell me the transaxle. He said he had already sold it and didn’t have one of the same model. I waited a month to see if something would show up on Craigslist. Alas, nothing. OK, so I found another guy who sold used Deere parts and he said he had the same transaxle – he wanted $100.00 for it. I told him it was a deal, but I needed to see it first. Now the fun. I got there over the weekend to pick it up. Turns out that this particular one was sitting outside for a very long time and the wheels were fused to the axles. I looked at it and decided this was a gamble. I don’t know if it works (even though the seller promises that it worked before he removed it from the machine). On the outside, it didn’t look so good, but if the guts were OK, I could just replace the pump (or whatever else was warn/broken). I offered him $25.00 for it as is and he said fine.

First, I disassembled the transaxle I purchased. To my delight, the guts looked perfectly fine – clean, no damage to the gears and the pump seemed like it was in good nick. I organized the parts on my workbench and decided to rebuild my existing one. (see photo).

Here we go again. I pulled the transaxle off the L120, and put it back on the bench. I drained the oil and took it apart. I expected to find a broken (or very warn) gear. So, after disassembling it, I inspected the gears and everything else in the transaxle. I found two warn gears, but they didn’t look very bad or damaged. Sure, a little but all that did was explain the metal on the magnet, but not enough to cause this failure. After more investigation and talking to the manufacturer, everyone thinks the problem was most probably the pump or engine. So, I took the good gears and the both the pump and engine out of the donor transaxle, cleaned it all up and reinstalled in my case.

Now, everything is back together. I let the Permatex Gasket goo harden over night and installed the transaxle back on the L120.  All is good!  I now have a healthy L120 😉  It pays to be frugal sometimes.