This website is now a van.
In my circles, “being a van” refers to something which needs constant upkeep and repair before it can be useful. If you have a certain arcane procedure and checklist for booting something up, or a very prescribed set of operating conditions and limitations, then you have a van. Vans do not have to be van shaped to be considered vans, as the state of van is a radically inclusive and individualistic phenomenon. Mikuvan was, for the longest time, a van. It’s still a van, just less in the van sense. Get it!?
Running on an installation of WordPress now over 10 years old that’s no longer supported and full of security holes, with plenty of my custom-hacked PHP and CSS dating back to 2007, and all plopped on a hosting which Godaddy has called me plenty of times about calling it “Legacy”…. this website is a van. You in fact might have noticed it, in fact. There’s a little annoying spambot that occasionally hijacks and redirects search engine referrals and tries to sell you dick pills on my behalf. I pry this thing off the PHP directories every once in a while, like an advertisement-laden barnacle. It doesn’t affect the site within itself, only search results like from Google hits and the like. Well it turns out everyone just searches ‘charles guan site’ because this site’s name is impossible to spell for normal people!
Anyways, that Van Factor along with my summer mechanical misappropriations is why this site’s been so dead lately. There is plenty of content, I just don’t want to keep updating it and maintaining it, so I walked for a while. But now I figure I’d get in a few more posts, download the database and file structure, then nuke the whole thing from orbit and try again with a modern CMS or something. We’ll see when I actually devote the mental energy and time to Internets again.
I’ve said it often before in various contexts including here, that modern social media just makes it too easy to share stuff to a big audience and so the extra effort of maintaining a static website presence is less rewarding. I’m no social butterfly, but Instagram has certainly made it easy to puke photos onto the Internet. As I am mainly a visual storyteller anyhow, I adopted it more in earnest this year. For the latest candid and disorganized photos, look here at my Instagram page @fakecharlesguan first. This is a deliberate choice in username, as if I get famous enough and someone tries to make a fake me page, they will have to necessarily use @officialcharlesguan or something similar, adding to the confusion and hilarity. Be prepared for many cats and electrical atrocities.
Obviously, a lot of the new not-seen-here content will eventually make it here in a static format, such as the series of posts I want to write called The Summer of Ven. You can guess what that might entail.
Anyways, let’s get back to the #RobotTrapHouse. You know what it has? A lawn. You know what lawns do? They grow, and while I’m technically under no obligation to perform lawn maintenance in my lease, I also don’t want to That Guy too much just yet for the neighborhood. For a few months into the spring and summer, I decided that I was done trimming grass in high school, so I paid for it As A Service. Then I decided that the yard isn’t really that big and maybe this was a chance to get another horrible machine of some kind to tear apart or improve.
I actually was looking first at a current-gen brushless self-propelled electric lawn mower such as the Harbor Freight Special. It was more about the curiosity of what kind of value engineering went into such a power system, in the same vein as my dissections of serial killer equipment. It got to the point where I actually went to Harbor Freight to inspect the goods in person, drawing up plans for using the dual rear drive wheels to make it autonomous. I kept an eye on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for used ones – that was my first mistake – but it seems like they’re a bit too new to begin circulating on the informal economy cruft cloud.
Then one morning, I saw this thing.
What in the hell? It looked like a walk-behind commercial mower at first, but other photos showed it had a seat. What the absolute, interminable fuck is with that drive belt? The “My granpappy left it to me” quip in the ad made me wonder if it was homemade by Granpappy himself, or so far cut up from a production model that it’s basically the same.
I obviously had to offer the insultingly low price of $200 – figuring it’ll get declined but I was out to spend $200 or so on something anyway. That was my second mistake.
Well, it’s the following Saturday, and my third and final mistake was complete: Renting the trailer.
Luckily, this thing was only about 15 minutes away by van. It was exactly as described: Covered in rat shit and lawn detritus, all tires flat, and with random parts everywhere. After looking it over, I decided… why the hell not. Worst case I attach two Overhaul motors to the drive wheels and make it remote controlled.
Vantruck carries my “yard wreckage recovery kit”, so I just busted out the tire filler and proceeded to fill up the drive tires. Sadly, the steer tire was completely destroyed and would not fill.
So the seller towed it out of the building with his truck and helped shove it into mine, which was a fair ways away since I couldn’t get right up to it and turn around.
By the time this process was done, the rear wheel was definitely quite sad. Look at those rear forks and bracket it rests against – that’s solid 1/2″ and 5/8″ thick steel bar!
We’ve returned to the #RobotTrapHouse now with my absolutely HOA-terrorizing long unkempt grass. I decided that since it was still bright and early (for me… so, 3PM) and with the summer yielding plenty of sunlight, I’d try to get it running and drive it into the yard for more work and repair later.
(Note: This area doesn’t have an HOA, but again, everyone else does keep their yard nice and clean so I might as well give a superficial attempt)
First order of business was taking the rear wheel off. A nearby tire shop had a selection of lawn tires also, so I asked for them to put on a replacement. I’m used to non-automotive tires being split rims that use inner tubes, but it seems this thing is Pro enough that it actually uses one-piece tubeless wheels, so I couldn’t pry it off myself. Fancy!
As I worked on it, of course, I started doing research on what on earth it was I actually bought. Why didn’t I do this beforehand, you say… well what’s the fun in that?
So this thing is a Yazoo Master Mower, built by the Yazoo Manufacturing company out of Mississippi. Yazoo has now reached semantic saturation for you and just sounds funny. Yazoo.
It seems to be good ol’ redneck ingenuity sent straight to production, which was exciting. The company appears to have made some legendarily durable/serviceable commercial and consumer lawn equipment into the 80s when they merged with another company, and the bloodline today lives on in Husqvarna lawn and garden equipment.
Judging by how many “THIS PRODUCT IS UNSAFE” stickers are on it, it’s right in line with my interests! This is how all products should be made, by the way. The goobermint can set safety bars, but you should be able to voluntarily not abide by them. If I then buy your brightly labeled unsafe product because I think it’s cool, then that’s kind of on me, no?
Look at this wild drive belt. Just look at it.
The major innovative feature of this transmission, apparently fully built in-house, is that it contains a set of double clutches with reversing gears. One lever will flip it between forward and reverse not by crashing gears together, but just by engaging the clutches. The rear wheel steered like a forklift and allowed a near-zero turn radius. I know nothing about the lawn care industry at all, mind you, just that this is dope. The only thing they couldn’t do with this transaxle, it seems, was make it take a sideways input shaft. Instead, we have Pretzelbelt here.
Here’s why I like maintaining a real website. I discovered someone else has a website about servicing and modifying this incredibly obscure, niche piece of equipment that I bought without much planning. I get e-mails all the time from people who bought some obscure, niche piece of equipment and then it turns out I dissected it or fixed it up on this very website, whether that’s random scooter motors or the Ryobi chainsaw or even up to the giant Surplus Center gearmotor. I have apparently sold people on getting their own piles of Chinesium because they read about it on this website. At least one person got a Mitsubishi van project because of all the posts about Mikuvan showing its ins and outs.
This is the kind of thing that is very hard to do with contemporary social media which is very focused on The Now and not The Later. Even Youtube videos are hard to search through since you have to remember what video title contained what content, at what time, and if the user account got hard-canceled by Twitter or not.
Interestingly enough, while looking it over harder, I found a very faded decal from a local lawn equipment service company. They’re not far away, and are still in business. It was very tempting to tow the thing right then up to their door and make it their problem again.
It was getting late in the day now, and I couldn’t get the thing to really stay running. It would happily run if I fed it a steady trip of starting fluid (ether), and did independently run once for a short time. It seemed like it was having fueling issues – fuel was getting to the (oh no) carburetor, but seemingly not making it out. I figured it was just full of grunge from sitting in Granpappy’s shop forever.
Either way, it was getting later in the day now and I had to return the trailer, and I hate carburetors. I decided to just drop it off in the covered carport for later perusal.
Off the trailer it goes! I just pushed it to the edge of the ramp and let gravity do the heavy dropping. There was enough drag with it in gear and with all of the small idler wheels that it took some more pushing to even get it all the way off the ramp.
This is a carburetor. I hate it.
I was about to see if anyone made retrofit fuel injection systems for tiny engines as I took it apart. Anyways, fuel comes in the top left hose, some magic unicorn thing happens, and it exits in the airflow stream of the intake. The big lever on the horizontal runner is the manual choke, and the little stepped lever behind and under the whole assembly is the engine speed governor, which I learned pulls against your speed setting cable as the engine speeds up and therefore closes the throttle slightly to keep the engine speed steady. The uppermost twirly-gig with the adjustment screw is actually the throttle flap itself.
I began removing screws and separating the components. I couldn’t blow through the fuel inlet, so something’s just not passing…. gas
It took a while of friend consulting and fiddling for me to figure out what was going on. For one reason or another, the carburetor float (the brass soldered donut, which is hollow) and the needle valve it actuates was either out of position, incorrectly reassembled by someone, or was bent out of shape, because in what should have been a fully empty position it was barely letting me blow through the needle valve. Only if I let it hang down to a physically impossible position if assembled was it freely flowing.
Obviously this is going to mean almost no fuel enters the float bowl. I otherwise couldn’t find any “gunk” from it sitting.
I had to bend down the Lever of Needle Valve Actuation a fair bit to achieve a state where it would admit fuel in a physically plausible location.
Well it’s all put back together now, everything’s lubed up and resealed and freely working, so let’s just turn the key and see what happens.
And there we have it. I moved the vans far out of the way so I could practice driving a bit. This thing is weird. First, I’m not used to driving a lawn mower/tractor where you set a speed and aren’t really manipulating the throttle all the time. You really do drive it with the forward/reverse clutch lever, and it will reverse hard enough to throw me off the seat. What else throws you off the seat? Doing a hard zero point turn by swinging the rear-steer all the way! Everything you do seems to be ejecting yourself. No wonder they said it’s unsafe!
But fun? Very.
Now with it running and driving, it was time to make some other facility improvements before seeing if it’s good at its One Job.
First of all, like every other thing I’ve bought nth-hand, the wiring is atrocious. I repaired the positive side by cleaning up a lot of the corroded terminals and lugs, and ran a new ground wire to the battery because the existing one was just completely hopeless. It started far more enthusiastically afterwards. There’s not much wiring on this thing save for the starter/dynamo circuit and the ignition circuit.
The deck seemed to run fine, so I decided to just untangle and clean it out. While doing so, I pulled out this old ‘murican flag, covered in plant grunge and reeking of rat urine.
Guys. It emitted an American flag at me.
This is how I’m making America great again.
Notice the deck is lifted up by a jack here. I elevated it further with a chunk of 4×4 wood (leftover from workbench construction) so I could get under and inspect the blades and spindles. I couldn’t back off the spindle nuts to put new blades on, so for now, I did an in-place sharpen using an angle grinder.
The two large springs in the front counterbalance the deck and allow you to use a lever on the side to raise it slightly. With one spring broken, lifting the deck was kind of hopeless at my scale of force input. I’m sure a burly 300 pound gardener could do it just fine still, but I ordered replacement springs from McMaster the day before. They’re a bit weaker than needed, since it still takes some serious lunging effort to throw the lever, but at least now it’s plausible.
…and its first cut, one week after the purchase.
Okay, I’m not even. Even what? I dunno. Not mad, not glad, not sad, just d a d.
It’s been clean over a decade since I’ve cut any kind of grass, and I must say this …. device made very short work of it. And this was with crudely angle-ground blades in a position I could barely see what I was grinding!
It was hard to track straight since the forklift wheel had a lot of slop in it. relative to the steering wheel, even after I tightened the connecting #40 chain between them beforehand. Inspection revealed either a mostly stripped keyway or broken weld, so I’ll have to take it apart some day and bang it back together. Once I got going pointed in a direction, it was fine, but the corrections needed every U-turn needed getting used to. The top speed isn’t much more than a brisk walk, which is just fine by me, as I am not yet trying to race someone else’s lawn mower.
So afterwards, I gave it a good wash and blasted all the remaining grass grunge off the rider deck. I think I’m going to get a racing seat for this thing, as it absolutely needs bolstering. I’m not sure if you were supposed to anchor yourself from being obese or throw a ratchet strap on yourself or what, but the hardest part by far was just staying on the damn thing.
As a finishing touch, I was informed by a friend who used to be an actual lawn professional that the two mysterious forks in the front were for a roller to intercept obstacles. Not knowing what model roller would fit on this thing, I decided one round plastic thing was the same as any other and just 3D printed one in approximately the size and shape needed. The ridges aren’t for anything special, just adding more radial stiffness without having to make the thing solid.
And that’s it. With minimal fuss, crab-mower has done the lawn every 2 weeks. With fall and winter now approaching, I’ll probably lube and tune everything and tuck it away fairly soon. It was an interesting little distraction, a week-long dive into yet another obsolete technology. This and much more will come soon in the Summer of Ven post series!