I started working on car repair and maintenance unsupervised at the age of 13. My uncle Donnie, who was the chief mechanic at my dad’s farm implement dealership, taught me valuable lessons on properly using jacks, chains and come-alongs. I have always been impressed by the power of leverage and hydraulics.
This knowledge can be lifesaving and very handy when working on your own car in your garage or driveway.
I was first inspired by watching my uncle replace a worn-out combine axle bearing in a wheat field in western Kansas. A for-hire wheat harvester AKS “customer cutter” had a front axle bearing grind itself up in the field and finally came to a halt. My uncle, being the field mechanic for my dad, assessed the situation and told the farmer to bring his massive 4×4 Steiger tractor and the longest chain he could find. We had a few short chains, come-alongs, a large (but not large enough) bottle jack, and a pile of railroad ties in the service truck. The farmer pulled the combine across the field with the tractor dragging the larger-than-life six-foot diameter tire/wheel, through the soft dirt.
The destination was a narrow draw between fields where the dirt was unplowed, and the ground was hard. There were several skyscraper-sized cottonwood trees living there. My uncle had the farmer position the combine under a large main branch. My part, being a young fearless kid, was to climb the tree with a rope. We used the rope to hoist the chain over the branch and secure each leg to the combine’s frame. Donnie used the two massive come-alongs, one on each leg of the chain, to divide the weight. He next built a small pyramid with large four-foot long railroad tie timbers under the frame near the wheel and positioned the huge bottle jack on top just under the frame. Apparently the field was just too soft to handle the weight. Slowly, he began to raise the load with a repetitive click of a come-along and pump of the jack. Click, click, pump, click, click, pump — it took all three to lift the combine.
Cottonwoods are huge, found in low-lying areas where there is water, and they make a distinct high pitched rustling noise in the wind. My duty was to watch the tree branch and listen for snaps and pops. To my surprise, the tree never made a noise, other than a slight moan. I think the rustling leaves told me the tree was just happy to help after all these years. I was amazed to see the combine slowing rising up six inches or so.
Donnie built a second pyramid of just timbers and kept inserting oak two-by-fours every two inches just in case the jack failed or the tree branch gave way. With the wheel off the ground he let the weight off the jack and chains letting it rest solidly on the second pyramid. The wheel came off, the bearing was replaced, and the wheel went back on. The harvester was very pleased, as time is money for them and they are always racing the weather to get the wheat cut.
On the way back to town, I asked my uncle how he knew that would work. He said, “Experience. Sometimes you have to work with what you have, but you have to be safe. Remember, chains and jacks are man-made and can always fail. There are no second chances if something falls on you. So, always back them up with a metal jack stand or timbers before you get under something. Don’t use pine, use oak or hickory, they are the hardest wood. Never use concrete blocks, they will shatter and scare the hell out of you,” he said with a guilty smile.
Later in the week I’ll post a little description of how we apply this practical troubleshooting knowledge to working under vehicles in our Overland Park auto repair shop and how you can change a tire safely yourself.