Backyard Restorations

Tips on Taking it Apart and Getting it Back Together

Leonard's Snappin' Turtle

Leonard's Snappin' Turtle as found, a complete unit but needing a full tear-down, cleaning and repaint.

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The back yard of a townhouse in suburban Washington, D.C., is an unlikely place to restore lawnmowers and small walk-behind garden tractors, but that's the setting for my hobby of restoring these machines for fun, show and the occasional sale.

Getting Started

For much of the equipment I restore, exploded parts lists showing individual parts and how they work together are generally either not available, hard to find, or very expensive. But with the availability of digital cameras, I've found that problem is easily solved.

First off, try and take a 'before' picture, something I too often forget to take. That first photo will give you an overview of how the item should look when completed. I also begin trying to determine what color(s) of paint I'll need during picture taking. Often it is not hard to determine the basic color, but shade may be a problem because of fading over the years. Often times the item is 'painted' in basic rust. I only use commercially available spray paints, so most of the time my color choice is limited and I guess at the closest match.

Leonard's Snappin' Turtle after his 'backyard' restoration. Just goes to show you what can be done even within the confines of a town home.

During this early stage I start taking digital pictures from all angles; right, left, front, back, under and over. I take close-ups of any sub-assembly as a reference of what it looks like assembled, just in case I forget how it's suppose to look once taken apart - this is especially true for drive belts, chains and clutches. Digital 'film' is cheap, so take lots of pictures. You never know what you might forget once the equipment is in pieces and eight or nine months have passed since it got that way.


All that old, oily grease is a pain to remove, but it's also your friend. That oily grease has probably kept those nuts and bolts free, and as a result, not much effort is required to remove them. Than again, sometime more than one nut or bolt may be stuck, and sometimes they all are.

I've used WD-40, PB Blaster, kerosene, motor oil and diesel fuel to loosen stuck nuts. The most important ingredient, though, is always patience. If the bolt passes all the way through something (a handle bar, for example) I'm not too worried about breaking it. I replace nearly all bolts, washers, and nuts with new ones, anyway. If the bolt goes into a blind hole I take a lot more care, and so far I've been lucky (knock on wood) and haven't broken one of these. Occasionally, I've had to resort to a nut splitter to keep from breaking an important bolt or to remove a nut that can't be gripped with anything else.

During disassembly I continue taking digital pictures when I come across some hidden complexity. Disassembly is also the time I look for the true color(s) of an item. For example, on a mower I just restored I would have sworn the deck should be painted plum purple. Turned out, based on paint on the deck under the engine, that it started out life bright red. Even on the rustiest machine, bits of paint may have survived under washers, behind shields, under the engine, inside the engine shroud, or under that nice oily grease accumulated around axles and other moving parts.

For simple machines I do most of the disassembly all at once. For more complex machines I take some of it apart, waiting until later to do the rest. I find plastic containers of various sizes to be useful during restoration work for storing nuts, washers, bolts and other small parts. Using a piece of masking tape I label each container according to the machine and where the piece came from. I use a system of code letters, and I try not to have more than two machines or engines underway at any one time.


Putty knives, gasket scrapers, pocket knives, screw drivers and dental tools are all tools of the trade for removing that first layer of accumulated dirt and grease. Bolts I plan to reuse and other small greasy pieces go into a small kerosene bath, a few at a time, to soak before being scrubbed.

After the initial scraping I'll often find a lot of oil and grease left on some of the parts. If a part isn't too large I first wash it in my small kerosene bath, followed by a wash with Simple Green and water. If the part is large or unwieldy I use a large plastic basin and a squirt-can of kerosene so I can wash the part bit by bit, again followed by a soap and water wash. I've tried my luck using the degreaser cycle at a car wash for an engine and some large parts, but it wasn't too successful. This method may work with some modifications on my part, such as soaking the parts well with a detergent before putting my hard-earned money in the car wash.

After washing, I use various wire brushes to remove rust and loose paint, and sometimes I use a paint stripper and go to bare metal. Most of the time, however, I don't.

Painting and Reassembly

Once everything is clean it's time for a coat of spray primer and, if I have time, a coat of the final color after a short wait (four hours on the primer I use). If time is short, I'll let the primer dry for a week or two before putting on the top coat. If the part is very rusty I use one of those products that converts rust into a nice black coating. I use NAPA Extend because I can get it at the local auto parts store.

Now it's time to reassemble. This is when those digital pictures really prove their worth, especially if the machine has been apart for any sort of time. It's also the time I find out that I didn't take that one vital picture that would make it so much easier to put some subassembly back together!

Opinions vary among restorers about replacing nuts and bolts, but as a matter of personal preference I replace almost all of them with new ones. I've found a source for bolts (Farm and Country in my area) where I can buy them by the pound, and it isn't too expensive with the size of machines I restore. Of course, there isn't much choice about replacement when I've snapped the bolt during disassembly.

If drive chains can be loosened with a soak in kerosene, or if belts are in reasonable shape, I reuse them. If they're in bad shape it's off to the parts store for new ones.

And of course, it's also during reassembly that the new paint acquires its first scratches! It doesn't matter how careful I am, something always gets scratched, and it's usually the piece painted with the color in the spray can that ran dry on the very last shroud or shaft to be redone. Back to the store for more paint. Finally, it's into the truck and off to the show.

Contact engine enthusiast Leonard Keifer at: 8 Blue Silo Court, Gaithersburg, MD 20878, or email at:

'Opinions vary among restorers about replacing nuts and bolts, but as a matter of personal preference replace almost all of them with new ones.'

'And of course, it's also during reassembly that the new paint acquires its first scratches!'