Is it possible that I am a human incapable of starting ANY lawnmower?
July 20, 2021 1:49 PM   Subscribe

I need to mow the lawn but am convinced the universe is conspiring against me. I can't pull start a mower to save my life.

I have my dad's mower that sat for a while, but with fresh gas two other people have gotten it to start. I rewound the starting cord to get rid of the slack and it still won't start. Likely needs the carburetor cleaned. I'll do that, but it's been like a month and neeeeeeds to get mowed.

Yesterday I asked to borrow my neighbor's self propelled Toro - while he was using it so I know it works. And today I can't get it to start. It's full of gas, oil is good, I'm holding down the dead-mans bar and pulling as hard and straight back as I can. No dice.

I thought height might have been a problem with my dad's mower because he was taller than me, but the borrowed mower is owned by a man closer to my height. I'm not STRONG but I'm not weak either. What is my problem?

I know I can go buy an electric mower (and probably will), but I'm infuriated that I can't start the borrowed mower. It's a matter of pride; the universe has kicked me in the teeth a lot lately and I don't want this lawnmower thing to break me. I want to defeat the lawn.

ALSO MAYBE RELEVANT: I've never once mown a lawn. By the time I was old enough we were living in apartments. It's totally possible this is user error. The two guys that got dad's started DIDN'T SHOW ME how they did it, in spite of my asking. I just want to mow a GD lawn in my life and since we're selling dad's estate off, I feel like I need to mow HIS lawn. Blerg.
posted by youngergirl44 to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you priming the engine and opening the throttle before you rip on the cord?
posted by hepta at 1:52 PM on July 20, 2021 [7 favorites]

You say you're pulling it hard, so I assume you're also pulling it fast, but just in case those two aren't the same, make sure you're pulling it fast.
posted by jonathanhughes at 1:54 PM on July 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: The older one has a primer and throttle, and yes. The borrowed one is self propelled and I'm not holding down that bar because it also engages the blades and wants to move the unit forward as it's cranking. Should I be? I looked for but didn't see a primer on it.
posted by youngergirl44 at 1:55 PM on July 20, 2021

Response by poster: I think I do mean fast when I said hard. I stay stationary for a moment and brace myself and burst pull behind me. Is there an angle I should be shooting for? Or more body into it?
posted by youngergirl44 at 1:57 PM on July 20, 2021

My last gas powered, self-propelled mower had two levers, not just one. One was indeed the drive clutch, but the other one was the safety brake that killed the motor when released. Maybe try holding the lever you think is the drive clutch, in case it's the safety brake?
posted by fedward at 2:02 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

so if it has a primer, prime 3X and then pull back with a jerk. And you also need to hold down the stop bar while pulling the starter cord.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:02 PM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also ask you neighbor how to start his. They are all slightly different.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:04 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

It might be helpful if you took a picture of the mower you're trying to start. The controls for them aren't standardized so they can differ slightly between specific makes/models.

What I'm seeing with Toro mowers is that there are two bars, one that is the engine safety cut-off bar, and one that engages the self-propelling drive. You need to have the engine safety cut-off bar pulled back against the handle when starting, and not the self-propelling drive bar.
posted by Aleyn at 2:05 PM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

"The borrowed one is self propelled and I'm not holding down that bar because it also engages the blades and wants to move the unit forward as it's cranking"

This seems odd. It's definitely not two separate bars? Mine is self propelled and there's a totally separate bar to squeeze to engage the self-propulsion, but it's close to a parallel with the other one.

I don't think the angle you're pulling matters too much unless you're REALLy far off. Probably the best test would be to have someone come over and see if they can start it so you can determine if it's just you.
posted by jonathanhughes at 2:06 PM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a trick that's sometimes useful for pull-start engines:

Before trying to actually start it, pull the cord gently and slowly until you feel a point where it gets harder to pull. Stop there, and let the cord wind back in. Then go ahead and pull it properly.

What this does is to rotate the engine until it's just starting the compression part of a cycle.
posted by automatronic at 2:11 PM on July 20, 2021 [21 favorites]

Response by poster: Regarding the two bars on the borrowed mower, the first is the standard on top of the handle, rectangular engine cut off bar - the cable feeds into the engine.

The other is below the handle and the cable feeds into the drive assembly at the front of the mower housing.

I'm holding down just the top, cut-off bar when pulling.
posted by youngergirl44 at 2:13 PM on July 20, 2021

Best answer: I've struggled with pull-start mowers. I'm a bit short, and the last one I used, I actually had to jump in the air while pulling to get the right combination of force and upward angle.

(And agreed with automatronic--the pull-catch-release before the actual pull helped too.)

I have an electric mower now.
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 2:14 PM on July 20, 2021

Best answer: The only way I ever managed to start a non-electric mower was to pull the cord as fast and hard as I could, and push the mower away at the same time. I probably (it was many years ago) had to clamp the cut-off bar with a spring clamp or two.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:19 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Very likely the mowers can sense your fear. They will not accept your authority unless you can convincingly project dominance.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:22 PM on July 20, 2021 [60 favorites]

Best answer: Two possibilities. One: you are doing something wrong from a technical standpoint that is interrupting the fire triangle (not providing fuel, air, or spark, e.g. by not knowing about a switch somewhere). This can be fixed by getting instructions from the owner, or reading the mower's manual; most can be found online.

Second possibility: you are just not providing enough energy with your pull stroke. As automatronic says, pull gently until you feel resistance. Then, for lack of a better phrase, "put your back into it". Start with your dominant side hip toward the mower, with your dominant arm holding the pull-cord and your arm straight. Flex the arm at the same time that you tighten your back muscles and twist your hips, all at once, to generate a big burst of full-body power that really spins the engine. Good luck!
posted by agentofselection at 2:34 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

I use a clamp to hold the bail lever (meaning the start bar or "kill switch" that stops the engine when disengaged). By clamping it in the "on" position, I don't have to juggle holding it while pulling the start cord. Just makes things easier. (I actually leave that clamp on while mowing because holding the bail lever closed all the time gets old. I live dangerously. :P)

Fuel, compression, spark. That's what's needed to start an engine. For a mower, unless there's been some major damage, compression can probably be assumed to be ok.

Does the engine sputter at all when you pull the starter cord—as if it wants to start but can't quite?

If yes, it's getting fuel and spark, but probably not enough fuel to get it started. Prime some more with the rubber priming bulb and pull again. If it still won't run, consider the carburetor and fuel lines.

If no, either there's bad or insufficient fuel (or a bad mixture of fuel and air from the carb) or there's no spark from the ignition system. The ignition coil, wire, and/or spark plug could all be culprits. I'd pull the spark plug first, clean the oil and soot off its electrode, reinstall it and try again. Spark plugs are wear items, btw. If it still won't start, there are ways of verifying that the spark plug is good or bad, but frankly they're cheap and readily available items so I'd just replace it. If it still won't start, consider replacing the coil (which often has an integrated spark plug wire).
posted by cyclopticgaze at 2:36 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

It's been a long time, but I seem to remember you kind of have to follow through and pull as if you're going to keep going forever and yank the thing off the ground, rather than slowing down after the start of the pull.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:37 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Try holding the long bar instead of the short one when you go to start it.
posted by bruinfan at 2:37 PM on July 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The lawn did not defeat me! When my neighbor got home I asked him to come over and start it for me - and then we talked about buying an electric to avoid this nonsense. That's what he'll replace this one with eventually.

I've marked several answers as helpful even though I didn't start it myself. Mowers are finicky things and using someone else's seems to be the problem. They don't know you and can't trust you, but when you bring dad it turns over in two pulls.

I think that since I'm 5"3" and weigh a buck twenty, I'm guessing I need more oomph or and electric mower.

Thanks everyone!
posted by youngergirl44 at 3:06 PM on July 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Another option, if you don't want to go all-electric, is an electric start mower. They have a battery that starts the engine for you. Obviously a battery is another thing to break, but boy do they solve the pullstart problem beautifully when they work.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:11 PM on July 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Whats funny, BungaDunga, is that the mower at another one of the estate properties is an electric start. The battery appears to have a trickle charger going. Hopefully that one is friendlier, seeing as it's been domesticated enough to ride on. Otherwise I'll be back within a week to tame that one too.
posted by youngergirl44 at 3:30 PM on July 20, 2021

I'm very happy you succeeded. I'm also very happy that you marked these answers, because I laughed out loud that you favorited Nerd of the North's painfully truthful response.

Most of all, I'm happy to be a part of this community. The responses here warmed my heart and made this day a little bit brighter, which is always a good thing. Thanks to all who wrote in.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 3:43 PM on July 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

My solution was to buy an electric one after having exactly your experience
posted by piyushnz at 3:49 PM on July 20, 2021

What cycloptic gaze said re: spark plugs.

Whenever my lawnmower is reluctant to start, that's the first thing I check.

If the plug isn't too far gone, you may be able to clean it and get a better result, but it's a cheap part, so replacing it might be easier & faster.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 4:00 PM on July 20, 2021

@Nerd of the North, I have to say that dominance based theory is vastly over-rated, a far better approach is to try positive reinforcement every time it manages to start: "Well done, good mower, I knew you could do it!"
posted by Lanark at 4:19 PM on July 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

Just chiming in that I think I only was ever able to start my gas mower ONCE in my life. I never had to mow until after my divorce. And now, with shoulder issues, it was a no brainer to get a battery operated Ryobi. I gotta say I love it. Of course, my lawn isn't huge, so the battery lasts for the whole thing.

A nice lawn cut is such a satisfying feeling, isn't it?
posted by annieb at 4:21 PM on July 20, 2021

Late but throwing in that with my old gas mower, I’d scrape off the caked on grass bits off the whole bottom area- the blade, everything - and then I could start it.
posted by kerf at 5:18 PM on July 20, 2021

Late and probably slightly bad advice but a can of either/spray starter fluid. A small shot into the air intake and it fires right up. Just don't use too much or too often. Cleaning the carburetor in some cases may be the trick .
posted by sammyo at 5:35 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

One other late tip, my 5’3” wife stands up a couple porch steps while starting ours to get a better angle; anything that makes you taller would help.
posted by songs about trains at 5:42 PM on July 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm a little taller, a little heavier, and maybe a lot older than you. I've had similar problems with the damn pull cord mowers. Instead, for the last few years I've just used an electric weed wacker someone gave me to mow about 3,500 square feet. I don't care how the lawn looks as long as the grass is short.
posted by mareli at 5:55 PM on July 20, 2021

I am also 5'3" with a few more lbs on me than you. A few things I've learned along the way with my mower- I sometimes take the cap off the sparkplug and put it back on, I've also cleaned the grass out of the mower deck and blade, and that has made a difference. Using non-ethanol or premium gas with a stabilizer like Stabil or Seafoam is a good idea to prevent water in the gas line. Recently, my mower refused to start and after a new spark plug, clean air filter and some starter fluid it still didn't start. 2 weeks later I was ready either to buy a new mower or call the repairman again and went out to just try it one more time. Started right up- who knows why-perhaps the threat of being replaced was motivating for it. Definitely put some Moxie in to your pull- I have my dominant foot back and pull back or step back with that foot and pull at the same time. It's really a whole body movement to project dominance, as was so wisely observed above.
posted by bookrach at 6:21 PM on July 20, 2021

Electric lawn mower owner. Bought used for $75. Never repaired it once in 15 years of use. I sharpen the blades once or twice a year, throw a tarp over it for the winter. Come spring, out it comes, works fine.
posted by diode at 8:17 PM on July 20, 2021

Fwiw, I always had a hard time starting my gas powered snow blower. I would count, and I would not stop trying until it started. 25 pulls once. Hang in there. This problem is not unique to you. I am 6' and weigh 200 lbs.
posted by AugustWest at 9:43 PM on July 20, 2021

I'm 5'4" with bugger-all upper body strength, and the only way I could get a pull start mower going was to 1) Let it sit in the full sun so the petrol gets warm and toasty, 2) Start it on the path to remove any resistance on the blade.

But now I own an electric one. It's so light, it's more like vacuuming than mowing. Love the thing.
posted by kjs4 at 11:18 PM on July 20, 2021

Years ago when we did not have a garage, my husband bought ME an electric mower so that I could pick it up and store it in the basement. He wasn't as bad as that sounds.
posted by Cranberry at 1:17 AM on July 21, 2021

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