My First Epic Hack: The Lawnmower of Theseus

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My First Epic Hack: The Lawnmower of Theseus

Much to my mother’s chagrin, my Dad always held the philosophy of “Use it until you wear it out.” It made some of our stuff look shabby, but it stretched dollars and made for good learning experiences. Minor problems on our old Snapper lawnmower consisted of re-sewing the grass bag’s opening so its elastic cuff would fit snugly over the chute, or having to coax the engine back to life come springtime. Then one day the engine seized. At this point I was around twelve years old, and past the point of just handing tools to Dad while he worked on something (though being the tool gopher is an important mill to be pulled through in and of itself), but now diving into the heady space of troubleshooting.

On this occasion it turned out the engine was a total loss, so instead of buying a brand new lawnmower, we just bought a brand new motor and installed it together. Screwing in the motor mounts and removing the tricky blade assembly were explorations in patience and ingenuity. Once replaced, our Snapper once again purred like a kitten and I was back to mowing the lawn.

Of course, there are rocks and sticks in New York soil, often invisible if you’re not looking properly and you happen to be twelve years old. Over time, the lawnmower blade hit these obstacles, turning them into projectiles that ripped holes into the plastic deck of the lawnmower. Before long, the deck was covered in so many little holes you’d have thought it had been through combat operations.

While riding my bike around one day, I came across a junked mower on the curb. It was just like our old Snapper, but with all sorts of other bells and whistles and a solid steel deck. It was summertime, heavy and hot as I pushed it up and down hilly streets back to our house.

Dad looked at it and instantly realized the potential. It was a higher quality machine, self-propelled rather than a simple push mower, and had a sturdy mount for the grass bag. An engine swap sounds easy on its face, but what we were trying to do was stick a round peg into an almost-round hole. Things just didn’t quite line up. We had to buy a shaft coupler to make it fit the drive mechanism on the new mower, and I even spearheaded the modification to the grass bag mount – a combination of hack-sawing notches in the deck then securing it with steel strapping and bolts.

We fired it up and off I went! No longer having to push the motor up and down our hilly yard, having a drivetrain doing it for me, and all for free! The feeling was exhilarating. We hacked the lawnmower! Not only did it make my job easier, but it made me proud to have been a part of this mechanical rehabilitation.

The engine eventually seized up on this one too though, but by that point I was a high school student, and Dad and I were both well-versed in solving this problem.

All said and done, that mower lasted over twenty years, but contained none of its original parts. Much like the Ship of Theseus, this mower held the disembodied spirit of me, Dad, and the mower itself, though none of its original physical components remained.

Dad passed away in 2003, and the mower was discarded when I became an adult and my mother could no longer mow the lawn herself. But to this day, I hold this story as an example of the ideals Dad instilled in me as a young maker and try not to forget the smell of grass and gasoline.

I’d be curious to know, what early hacks do the readers have? Did you fix the TV remote as a kid, or make an accidental but fortuitous discovery like Reed Ghazala’s circuit bending? Please tell your stories in the comments section.


40 thoughts on “My First Epic Hack: The Lawnmower of Theseus

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great story! My Dad was a Pied Piper for unloved lawnmowers, brought many of them home for similar uses.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Snappers do not have a plastic deck, sorry ;)  and if you’re buying a mower to replace often, that is the WRONG one to buy!  I love them. I’ve seen many go through my shop that weren’t much younger than me and they only needed regular wear parts replaced to go back into service.

    Actually, we used to refurbish quite a few old decks almost exactly like the one pictured. A new paintjob  (with approved snapper red paint of course!) and sell the customer a new engine to go with it. 
    In my younger days I would bust apart malfunctioning battery powered toys and replace failed wiring (back when toys actually had wires)My favorite fixer story is when I got a free blaupunkt head unit because my friend tried to get a cd out of it with no power and busted a board off of the front. He was going to just throw it away but I told him I would take it. A little time with a soldering iron and wire and I had it going again.

    my most recent story is fixing a gizmo can opener
    got it for a wedding gift in 2002 and its STILL going strong. even the battery can get through 10 cans with juice left over. after years of use it was too loose and wouldn’t cut all the way around and I found the sealed screw to disassemble the cutter. took a few minutes to dig out the plastic plug but after taking it apart and tightening everything up it was good as new!

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      Interesting… What were the cheaper decks made from, because ours definitely had holes and cracks in it and I can’t imagine rocks and sticks doing all that damage to another material. BTW thanks for commenting, love everyday hacking triumphs like yours.

      1. Anonymous says:

        They were some sort of pot metal
        If you hit something just right it could go right through that stuff for sure! 

        I don’t remember exactly when they switched to steel. I used to take really worn out steel decks from riding mowers if we had them laying around and cut them up for other welding projects.

  3. Anonymous says:

    My dad has the same frugal nature. (My mom used the word “cheap”, but I prefer “Yankee”.) We bought an old wooden rowboat for just about nothing because it had a few soft spots. Over time, we covered most of it in fiberglass, at which point it was stiff enough to take a mast and sail and leeboard and rudder, all of which we made out of cheap construction lumber and plastic tarp. When the original hull finally gave out, we couldn’t bring ourselves to abandon the other parts we’d made. So we found a nearly identical hull (also a bit soft and needing repair) as a replacement and were soon sailing again. That was 30+ years ago. I just took that old leeboard and rudder to the dump last month when my dad asked me to clear out his garage. He wasn’t happy. “You sure you can’t use that for something?”

  4. M. Eric Carr says:

    Not quite as epic as yours, but a hack nonetheless. While riding our old Ariens mower, I backed up into some pine tree branches and for some reason the engine sped up quite a bit. I cut it off but had to investigate. As it turned out, the branches had pressed on the governor lever for the engine, over-revving it a bit. I put two and two together, and hacked up a small pull string on the side of the mower to let it rev a bit higher when extra power was needed (the path back to the house was up a fairly steep hill). Instant poor-man’s-NOS!

  5. keith corcoran says:

    I am totally the ‘drive it ’till the wheels fall off’ kind of father and husband. My grandfather was the one who instilled this in me since my father wasn’t around but every day I hope that my son is taking these types of lessons to heart in between multiplayer rounds of Modern Warfare and cartoons.

    Mostly though, it comes off as preachy so I don’t think I’m doing it right. :)My earliest hacks were pulling apart toys to see how they worked back in the mid 70s. Not entirely sure what knowledge I gained from those exercises other than gaining a courage that allows me now to dive right into any project regardless of my level of experience as well as having that ‘I can do it’ approach to most things I tackle.

    Good story thanks for taking me back.

  6. Steve Hoefer says:

    I had totally forgotten how valuable it was to be a tool gofer when I was a kid. I grew up on a farm so there were always things to fix, make, or remake.  At the time it made me feel useful when I couldn’t get in there and fix stuff, but it was also a great insight into learning how my dad solved problems. And by the time I was old enough to really get my hands dirty I already knew what every tool was for and how (and how not) to use it.

    Thanks for reminding me Michael.

  7. Michael Colombo says:

    That reminds me of how the mower would vibrate like crazy if it had been a while since sharpening the blade…perhaps our wonky mounting of the motor had something to do with it too :)

  8. Vanessa Bugge says:

    Is it pathetic that your story brought a tear to my eye?? Yeah, I’m a girl, and I’m fine with that.  In my house it was my Dad & Mom and Grandma that would “make it work” way before Tim Gunn made the phase popular.  I remember my dad wiring up lights for my brother’s toy trucks and cars (You remember the metal BuddyL ones??  Before lights and buttons and all that.) using the battery that came in the polaroid film (used for the flash and came in the film pack) and Christmas lights that could no longer be fixed, cut them apart and wired up to the battery and ta-da!!  Oh I know it’s a little thing, but EPIC at the time. :-) My mom had this horrible Pinto station wagon, she was replacing a part a week for a while, did it all herself, and made that beast last way longer than I wanted it to.  My grandma is a genius, if you want to streamline something and make it work she’s probably still the person to ask.  Me? Well I figure if it’s broke I can’t possibly ruin it, right??? Well, at least not if I’m careful.  Thank God for the internet, so many shop manuals and diagrams available.   So I fix things when I have to and sometimes just for fun. A couple weeks ago it was my washing machine, somehow doing laundry has been more  rewarding since then.

  9. Ted says:

    Not a lawn mower story as there was this guy who lived down the block who repaired everyones lawn mower.  On halloween his wife made the very best popcorn balls in
    the world but only those of us kids she knew would get one!

    anyway … we had this dryer that always needed some fixing.  My dad had this big thick red covered (?) book something like “Audel’s Guide to Appliance Repair”.  The dryer would break down and out would come the book, the tools and my older brother and I would get to help Dad fix the thing.  I got to do some really neat stuff because my hands were smaller and could get into tighter spaces.   After Dad got it working again he would always tell my mother “Well the boys fixed your Dryer again!”, and we would get a special treat like a DOUBLE Dairy Queen. 

    The same thing when the TV  broken down and we would get to GENTLY pull out the tubes after Dad made sure it was safe.  And we would all go down the to pharmacy that had the tube tester and get to do the tests and lookup on the sheet what the replacement tube was and then back at home put the tubes back in the proper places.  After Dad would check things out turning the set back one was so very cool!  And again it was “Dear, the boys fixed your TV for you!”

    So what if Dad really did all the hard work … and let us do the fun stuff … it was still a blast.

    Michael thanks so much for letting me remember a very sweet time from childhood. 

  10. Virginia Jolly says:

    This isn’t a lawnmower or power macine kludge, but my sister and I were upcyclers as much as crafters. T.A. was the handygirl with her own tool chest at about age 5 (and Dad kept “borrowing” her tools). I was the yarn/fabric crafter, but I also had experience in hammer and nail, bicycle chain restoring, and other handy work.

    I had “reverse-engineered” how to create a stuffed-animal mouse about the size of a little mouse. It was much cuter than the mouse I bought at a bazaar holiday-craft-sale kind of thing. So I made many, and I taught T.A. how to do them. We had so many we had to have a house for them.

    T.A. and I were fully prepared to take hammer and nail to planks that we figured my dad stored, so we asked him for some wood he might have stashed away. (Mom hated that he was a wood pack rat!) He returned with two asparagus crates made out of pine slats and (trapezoidal) wooden ends. We stood them on end and made a 4-story mouse condo with a ladder to get to each floor. We carpeted them with fabric scraps left from Mom’s sewing, and we furnished it with leftover Fisher-Price “Little People” furniture and a few other knickknacks. We even had a penthouse outdoor pool (candy dish) with wooden diving board.

    Some of the best crafts are the ones you discover yourself!

  11. AMalePoet says:

    One of my favorite hacks was on a paper airplane with scissors. Now I’m in my mid 40’s but then I was like 14.  I had folded a “bat ” style plane. Just took the things to the under portion of the wings. Ended out fashioning Cline Foggle step configuration. I found out later when I visited the schools library and found a paper airplane book dedicated to the design. They Cline and Foggle were on 60 minutes TV show explaining the inherent stability of the design yet it isn’t used by plane builders.   

  12. ys bearing says:

    It’s looks good.

  13. David Runion says:

    I have a very similar-looking snapper that was purchased new in ’89-90.  It probably went 7 years without an oil change and otherwise went 1-2 years between.  No engine troubles, I have it maintained by the local mower shop when it won’t start in spring, only costs $25-30 for them to clean the carb and sharpen the blade…  

  14. Anonymous says:

    That reminds of my mother’s second husband — he had found and collected three lawnmowers by the time he moved out.  If he had found a lawn he would have had everything he needed for mowing.

  15. Sean Burke says:

    My grandfather bought one of these mowers in the late ’80s.  When he downsized and moved closer to the rest of us, I got the Snapper.  I’ve replaced the pull cord at least three times and swapped out the plug, air filter and oil each season, but beyond that it still keeps ticking.   Great tool!

  16. Sean Burke says:

    My grandfather bought one of these mowers in the late ’80s.  When he downsized and moved closer to the rest of us, I got the Snapper.  I’ve replaced the pull cord at least three times and swapped out the plug, air filter and oil each season, but beyond that it still keeps ticking.   Great tool!

  17. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the story.  It was what I needed to get over my fear of working on cars, and replace a flex pipe!  With some help from a friend I cut out the old one with a reciprocating saw and bolted on a new one in about an hour.  Saved myself at least $400, probably more!

  18. Tim Dolan says:

    Great Story.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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