Learning and doing small engine repair
January 30, 2019 3:54 AM   Subscribe

Learning small engine repair never occurred to me before this question got me thinking it might be a hobby I'd like. Is there a better way for me to start than this community ed class? Is it a hobby that can generate a little profit? What are the other pros/cons/things to consider?

I have no background in or understanding of engines. I like the idea of rescuing broken things, and I've gotten a little buzz of satisfaction from occasional YouTube-guided diagnoses and fixes around the house. But those have been at a very simple level -- just disassembly and reassembly with cleaning or replacement of an obviously problematic part. E.g., replacing a clothes dryer belt, replacing a bathroom fan motor, un-junking-up a stalled pond pump. Does liking that kind of thing have any bearing on liking small engine repair?

In terms of the learning curve, I'd want to get to the point that I could pick up a broken lawn mower or whatever and have pretty good odds of fixing it. How extensive of an undertaking is it to get there? I like the idea of the class I linked, but I'd be up starting a different way instead. I'd still want it to be structured/at least a little hand-holdy, and inexpensive. An online curriculum appeals to me, but not just a disjointed bunch of YouTube videos. A follow-along book could be good, but not just a reference.

What's the minimum toolset and equipment/supplies I'd need? Any other one-time or ongoing costs? What are the chances that, after some moderate amount of learning, I could make a little profit? By buying stuff broken and selling it fixed? Or by offering repair as a service? What kinds of small engines would best lend themselves to that? I could see eventually working my way up to mopeds and maybe motorcycles, but those seem more intimidating to start -- plus I don't have a way to get anything big home from wherever I find it.

Any other factors to consider in whether this would make a good hobby for me?
posted by daisyace to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A friend and I resurrected a couple of dead lawnmower engines when we were kids, just by basically taking them apart, cleaning everything, and then reassembling them with all their bits in the places they should be rather than in the places they'd drifted into over time. It was fun and satisfying. Not every engine is going to be that simple to repair obviously, but if a couple of bored twelve-year-olds can do even the easy jobs without any direct supervision or instruction—just the mechanical wisdom my friend had absorbed from his dad, basically—then I imagine you could find some success if you put your mind to it.

Taking a class sounds like a great place to start, but my own first thought would be Youtube videos. I can't really speak to the tools—obviously you'll want screwdrivers and socket wrenches and lubricants and brushes and all that—except that you're probably going to find yourself adjusting a lot of spark gaps. My friend and I used a matchbook to set the gap, but you'll probably have a better time if you get the actual right tool for it.

You can probably make a very small amount of money by picking up dead lawnmowers, etc. that look easy to repair, fixing them up without actually having to buy new parts for them (buying parts will likely destroy your margin) and then selling them. It probably won't be enough money to actually justify the hobby in and of itself, but if you do the work primarily for fun you might be able to get a little bit of side cash out of it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:44 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For a few years I had a paying hobby fixing and reselling old chain saws. The inexpensive ones weren’t worth my time, but commercial-grade models hold their value well and some are collectible, so it’s definitely possible to turn a profit. For that reason, though, competition was fierce. There were always a bunch of people watching Craigslist very closely with automatic alerts and such, waiting for a desirable machine to pop up at a bargain price. Doing it that way, half the hobby was getting familiar with various manufacturers’ product lines going back 20 years or so, learning which models had value, which I could get parts for, and getting good at assessing condition based on lousy phone pics. I had to make decisions about what to buy and how much to pay for it very, very quickly.

Saws take a lot of abuse and develop an interesting range of problems, most of which can be repaired with a simple tool kit. I fixed a few lawnmowers too, and neighbors periodically asked for help with one thing or another, but I never was any good at asking a fair price from people I knew. Those projects typically ended up as favors rather than profitable jobs.

I think you’re right to stay away from vehicles at first. The tools and parts are bigger and more expensive, and safety issues loom larger if you mess something up.

One thing to consider is whether you have a place to work where it will be ok to handle (and sometimes spill) gas and oil, and test-run noisy motors.
posted by jon1270 at 4:46 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I learned a little bit of small engine repair after I got tired of feeling helpless when my snowblower died. It's a nice skill to have, especially if you're a homeowner. I learned from a book and then I bought a service manual for the specific engine in my snowblower.

Most of what I've done has been carburetor-related, as that seems to be the problem 95% of the time. I've rebuilt them and cleaned them. There's also all the other mechanical things on lawnmowers and snowblowers that aren't actually part of the engine. I replaced a friction wheel on my snowblower which required stripping the whole thing down. It was a lot of fun. I haven't yet done anything inside the actual engine block, like pistons of valves or whatever. I figure if I need to get inside that deep it's probably not worth it.

As for turning a profit, I'm sure if you found a dead lawnmower and got it running you could get $50.00 or something for it. The problem with that is if it dies in three months they're going to call you and expect you to service it. So prepare for that or get yourself set up all official-like and set strict warranty terms.

For tools, you'll want a decent set of sockets and wrenches, both metric and standard. A set of pliers (needlenose, channel locks, diagonal cutters), flat and Philips screwdrivers, a good flashlight (better yet a headlamp or an LED shop lamp), an assortment of greases and lubricants, wire brushes, scrapers and other cleaning tools. Fixing mechanical things often involves giving them a really good cleaning. Some means of sharpening lawnmower blades (you can do it with a file but a bench grinder is faster. The Dremel blade sharpening kit is useless, IMO), and I forget what it's called but there's a pliers-like tool that is used to pinch off gas lines. It's pretty handy. A rubber/plastic head hammer is good for when you need to "encourage" a part to move. You'll want a spark plug gauge and a container to keep all the loose nuts and bolts in.

Just about every tool you'll need is handy to have anyway. I haven't yet needed any specialized tools.

You'll also need a place to work. Fixing small engines often requires that you start them up occasionally so you'll need somewhere like a garage where you can do that without getting fumes in your house. You'll be spilling (and breathing) gasoline. You'll need to be careful about not getting motor oil on the ground, etc. Fixing a snowblower when it's cold out is a chore... metal is cold. A portable heater can help. In short, you'll need a place to work where you can make a mess. Outside in the driveway is fine in the summer, but again just be careful about spilling oil and gas.

That class looks decent. Books and videos are fine but there's no substitute for having an instructor who can teach you from her experience and tell you when you're doing something wrong.

This is a fun hobby and valuable skill. Even if it doesn't become your hobby, if you own anything with an engine in it you'll make up the cost of the class the first time you repair it yourself.

Do it!
posted by bondcliff at 6:35 AM on January 30, 2019

Best answer: Do you live in an area with boats? You can make a ton of money doing small engine repair, or some money if you want to keep it as a hobby.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:44 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you really want to make a little money, you could look into part time at a hardware store, boat shop, even a gas station.

As described above, most small engine repair is disassemble/reassemble possibly with some new parts.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:06 AM on January 30, 2019

Best answer: My father built a go-kart track when I was in elementary school. It's pretty easy to learn to fix them. There are a few specialized tools that make it much easier. I don't remember their actual names but like the tool you use to compress the rings around the cylinder when you're trying to push it back down into the head. Or a torque wrench for those things that should be tightened just-so. A stripped bolt removal tool. But I figure a class or a book would tell you those things.

It gets more fun when you bore out that 5hp engine and put a bigger cylinder in it and shave the heads. VROOM!
posted by zengargoyle at 7:37 PM on January 30, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! I think I'm going to sign up for that class!
posted by daisyace at 7:48 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older Spending a week in Breckinridge. Suggestions on...   |   Do I have an obligation to foster a child? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.