Zen and the Art of Maintenance – Theres a catch to it

Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is ever finished, Nothing is perfect.

I’m very aware of how nothing lasts. I seem to be spending a lot of my time these days in repairing and replacing things that I’ve done before, now I’m doing them again. The only trouble is that it’s so long since I did it last time that I can’t always remember how I did it and I have to re-learn or re-invent what I once knew and have since forgotten. Use it or loose it they say. I’m learning all over again how true that is.


When I built my current pottery workshop in 1883 after the old one was burnt down in a fire, I was shown how to make beautiful corners in the galvanised iron guttering by the local plumber. He was a good man, very careful and caring. He took me under his wing as it were and was prepared to spend a bit of time on me. I worked for him as a labourer when I first came here in 1975/6. I had no income, until I could build a pottery and kiln. He gave me occasional work when he needed  help on larger jobs. He was already 60 at this time and I was just 23. He saw some potential in me and mentored me. So when our work shop burnt down he offered to help in the way that he could by showing me the tricks of the trade of old fashioned roof plumbing, flashing and guttering.


That was 30 years ago now and all that old guttering is worn out, repeatedly patched and repaired, now rusted through and has stopped catching the rain water that we need to exist here in the bush.

It’s a big building and I need to do all of it. It’s 60 metres all around and I have to stretch my memory back to remember what we did back then. As I take the old corners apart carefully, It all starts to come back to me.


Joe never bought any pre-fabbed parts like corners or stop ends. He fabricated everything from the full lengths of gutting sections as needed. It was very impressive to see him cut and fold the guttering section, bend them and make everything fit together into a perfect 90o corner with all the correct overlaps and reinforcing gussets, all just sliding into place. Little tabs sticking out in just the right places to allow secure reinforcing of the joints, just exactly where they needed to be. All this done free hand, without any measurements of marking out. He’d done it so many times during his life, he could do it in his sleep. He was a true master of his trade. I was so impressed watching him work.


After a while of working with him, I could see the patterns in his methods, the sequences that were involved. At one point I could see the next step that was coming and had the right tool ready, so that before Joe could ask for it, I slid the tool forward into his hand at just the right moment before the words left his lips. He turned around and just gave a glance back at me. A small smile. Said nothing, and kept on working. That was all that was needed. We worked well together from that moment on.


I’m struggling to remember all the little subtleties in the making of a gutter corner in the middle of a long run of gutter section. The lengths are 6 metres long and a little bit unwieldy up on a ladder by your self in the wind. I measure from the last joint, allow an over-lap of 250mm. for a slip joint and cut my long section half way through with the tin snips. I make what I think is the right shapes and fold it around. It is almost right, but not quite. The next one will be better. I manage to man-handle the huge unwieldy ‘L’ shaped thing up the ladder and rest it on the roof. It takes some effort to slide it into it’s final position. Joe made it look so easy. I have to do it a little different from last time because in 1983 all the joints were soldered into place. These days it’s all silicon. I didn’t like the idea of having lead solder in my gutters catching drinking water, but even less keen on silicon rubber and plastic down pipes sealed with acetone.


I spend two days doing all this work and now the roof is resealed and catching drinking water again. I’m sore and tired, having used all sorts of mussels that I don’t usually use doing all that ladder work. Janine’s nephew calls in for a visit and is very polite about my roof work. He’s a builder and tells me that no-one makes so much effort in their joints these days. What I’ve done is so old fashioned. He also lets slip that it cost $100 per metre for gutting these days. I’ve just saved myself $6,000 of money that I didn’t have to earn to pay a plumber to do all that work. It’s cost me about $700 in parts. So I suddenly feel a lot better. I like these aches and pains.


Now it’s the lawn mower, the lawn mower that has given us such reliable service for the past 22 years is suddenly all wobbly in the steering. I check it out and find that the front axle is actually made of pressed metal and has fatigued away and started to split and tear in half on one side. A closer inspection reveals that the other side has splits and cracks in it as well. I decide that I will have a go at making a new one to replace it.


One of the first mowers that we had was an old ride-on mower that we were given for $50 by neighbours who decided to sell it when they sold their house to move into a smaller place in another village. They wouldn’t need it on the smaller block. The local mower shop had offered them only $50 for it, but only if they delivered it to them. They asked me to deliver it for them, as I had a trailer which would fit it. I asked them why they would accept only $50 for a valuable ride-on mower? They told me that they had previously been Sir Russell Drysdale’s caretakers up on the Central Coast. He had bought the ride-on for them to use to mow his lawns. When they left to come here 7 years later. He gave it to them and said that as Ron was the only person who could start it and keep it running properly, he should keep it and Sir Russell would get a new one for the new caretaker. Now 7 years later, they are down-sizing and moving onto a small suburban block.


Ron said that as he hadn’t paid anything for it. It was unethical for him to profit from his former boss’s generosity!

I said that I would be prepared to pay him the $50 and just deliver it to my home and keep it to use myself, as we had 4 acres and didn’t have a working mower. He was thrilled that it would go to a good home directly and to someone that he knew and liked. So we got a 15 year old adolescent, difficult, temperamental, fickle, changeable, unreliable and often intermittent working mower.

I don’t know if it was true that only Ron could work it reliably every-time. I doubt it. The problem was that the old Briggs engine was ‘cooked,’ It blew clouds of smoke out the exhaust and took a lot of pulls on the cord before it would begin to ‘kick,’ and then only weakly. Once it did start, it only had enough power to run on the level. It had enough power to actually ‘mow’ while it was going down hill, but it didn’t have enough power to actually carry my trifling weight up hill and mow at the same time, so I could get off and push it up hill while it mowed, or stay on and turn off the mower function so that it could cary me up hill, where I could re-engage the mower and mow another down hill strip, etc.


After a couple of years of this it couldn’t mow and carry my weight at the same time, even down hill! Something had to be done. I looked around and finally found a Honda motor that would suit the fittings on this old mower and wasn’t too expensive. The sales man said that it was identical to the old Briggs motor. Same mounting bolt diameter and spacing, same shaft size. So I bought it.

It didn’t fit!

What he didn’t tell me was that it was an overhead valve motor, while the Briggs was a side valve. This made the new motor 100mm wider.

I had to cut the mower in half and add 100mm. to the length of the chassis and weld it back together again, just to allow the extra space for the longer motor to fit into its housing.

Amazingly, it actually worked!

I was the most surprised of all.

You know, that mower might have been Sir Russell Drysdale’s, but the paint job wasn’t that good — and he never signed it!

I wonder if it was a forgery?

Anyway, I eventually gave that mower to a friend, and we bought the new one. That new one is now the old one and is worn out too, although the motor is still good. See what the years do.


I examine the old axle assembly. It’s pretty much had it, all torn asunder with metal fatigue and stress. I can imagine what my arteries might look like after all these years? I decide that the best thing is to start again and build a new one from scratch. Not a new mower, but just a new front axle. I jack up the mower and take it to bits. Once stripped down of all it’s plastic bling, it doesn’t look too flash. Maybe I should start to wear make-up? It doesn’t appear to be such a big job. I have a small length of thick walled steam pipe and I cut a couple of panels out of 3mm steel plate on the guillo. The jobs almost done.




I measure the angles, make the final cuts. I need to get the camber and rake correct, and it has to be able to swivel to allow for uneven ground. I plasma cut the necessary holes in all the right places and weld it all together. A coat of primer and it’s ready to go. As good as new — if not better.

I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to restore something vaguely complicated back to working order and forestall waste and save expense like this. I don’t like throwing anything away until it is really worn out. I think that this mower now has another decade in it yet. And it was all made out of bits of scrap, that others may have thrown out. I guess that this is not so much maintenance as rebuilding.

Because things come in threes, the kitchen stove firebox door catch finally gives up the ghost after 35 years. We bought this slow combustion stove 2nd hand in about 1977.  It was out of date when we bought it and there were no spare parts to be had then, never mind now. It has given good service when you consider that we light it almost every day of the year, at least 300 days a year. It cooks our meals, heats our hot water and keeps us and the kitchen warm on cold nights. It’s lovely to come inside on a cold evening after working outside all day, in to a warm house and snuggle up to a hot stove. The only days that we don’t light it is in the heat of summer, when we already have enough solar hot water and lighting up the stove will heat the room too much for comfort.

Now after infinitesimal turns of the screw, it has completely worn the threads off the shaft of the catch, to the point that it won’t catch anymore. If the firebox door can’t be reliably kept closed, we can’t risk burning wood in it at high temperature in a timber floored kitchen.

It’s not a big deal, but I know that I can’t buy one to replace it. We have been making our own specially shaped firebricks to replace the ones that wear out in the firebox for years now. In fact the ones that we make ourselves last much longer than the original ones. I use my good kaolin clay and hard fired high alumina grog from my recycled wadding to make them and fire them in the wood kiln. They turn out remarkably well and last forever.

Rather than try to fix the old worn out firebox door catch, I decide to keep it as a pattern and cut a new one out of a block of steel bar. 35 years is a lot of catching and locking. They don’t make appliances like that any more. I spent an hour making the new one to replace it. Cutting out the basic shape and filing it to a nice finish, then tapping a new thread into it.

It looks good and works well. The old one was cast, this new one is fabricated.

No firebox door catch — no dinner! Necessity being the mother. I invent this new one. More waste forestalled by recycling old metal scrap.

Friends of ours recently bought a new kitchen stove like this one. It cost them somewhere around $13,000 + installation!


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We couldn’t afford to live here if we had to pay for everything. In this case, there’s a catch to living simply.

These repairs aren’t perfect, maintenance is never finished, nothing lasts.


Best wishes from Heath Harrison and his Mother of Invention

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  1. Pingback: The Old Wood Heater | Tonight my Fingers Smell of Garlic

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