I sometimes wonder if I give the impression to people that I’m a bit of a technophobe and hater of all modern electronic things. As a teenager I drove a number of old Fordson Major tractors which required me to push down a lever which engaged the starter motor. This action also connected two contacts which powered the starter motor, which was a simple process but always worked perfectly. 

As a youth I could run across a field, jump onto one of these old tractors, push the lever down to start it, knock the throttle down and set off in top gear accompanied by a puff of black smoke. This was a well-coordinated exercise which took roughly two seconds.

Now fast-forward 40 years. I now have a big FG Wilson generator from Ireland at 500 kVA or roughly 600 hp, driven by a Perkins diesel engine which I’ve now owned for roughly two years and which I start by reconnecting the battery lead. Failure to disconnect causes the computer to flatten the batteries, which, incidentally, I had to replace with larger ones as the original batteries weren’t up to the task. The next part of the sequence involves pressing a button which informs the computer to go into start mode. A few seconds pass and then it sends power to a slave solenoid on the starter motor. This then sends a bigger power source to a bigger solenoid which in turn sends an even bigger power source to the starter motor coils which again aren’t large enough for the job and so a planetary gear system has been fitted into the starter motor to gear it down. This in turn is driven by the starter motor VIA which is a corkscrew device drive similar to the mechanisms found on cars from the 1970s.

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This mechanism has a habit of disengaging and if anyone reading this is an avid viewer of Bangers and Cash on TV then you’ll be familiar with the sound of the starter whirring and crunching, particularly, on ’70s cars. With mine at this point, if I’m lucky, the generator will fire up. When the engine then reaches a certain rpm, the computer then informs it to stop cranking the engine. Talk about making a very simple process extremely complicated! This is my daily morning ritual, at the end of which I find myself asking, ‘what else can go wrong?’ The answer, unfortunately, is lots, and almost entirely due to the starter motor.

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You see, while the engine is made in Peterborough, the starter motor is assembled in Mexico, which I presume means the components were made in China. But whether it’s made or assembled in China or Mexico is irrelevant as it’s a piece of junk which is totally inadequate for the job. To make it start I’ve got to cross the contacts on the slave solenoid, otherwise the starter whirs and doesn’t engage. Just to achieve this I have to time it to perfection so the computer doesn’t realise human intervention has taken place. If the timing is out it will display a fault code and shut the engine down. This can only be cleared by connecting and disconnecting the battery lead three times. All in all, starting the generator is a slow and stressful process. Replacing the starter motor, which is the most obvious solution to some of the problems, is proving very difficult. What is interesting is that, according to the numerous wagon drivers who call at the mill, starter motors are a hot topic, with many people having similar problems with them.

It appears that in an attempt to cut costs, manufacturers have scrimped on copper, using less and less in the windings, so we’ve gone from a 1950s Fordson Major, which started straight up with no problems (and many are still in full working order 70-plus years later) to the current computer-uncontrolled version, which seem to throw up problems from day one. 

Apart from the cost and the inconvenience of trying to obtain a more robust and reliable model of starter motor, the stress of not knowing whether I can get the mill started in the mornings adds to the burden and is very draining. This is made all the more galling by the fact I invested a huge amount of money in a new product presuming it would be reliable. It’s not what I’d call progress!

And so it goes on. I’ve just had a trip for an edger fail after only 11 months service, then a bearing ran dry on the motor of a four-headed trim saw, which is hardly surprising as I bought it 25 years ago from P Irving sawmills and it was old then! However, we stripped it down in less than an hour, noting that everything was perfectly machined, popped in two new bearings and had it running again in less than two hours. Testament surely to the standard of skill and excellence to which things were manufactured 50 years ago and just how I like machinery to be.

In reality I’d rather have machinery that operates at a slower rate but reliably and after several years of high demand things have slowed right down. We now have to cut a far larger range of sizes and it’s work that can’t be rushed. For instance, we can cut 20’ battens in the mill but I have to go very slowly at the end of each cut to prevent the log from bouncing back off the rubber stops as I only have 2” between the log and the stops. We are also splitting the 9” blocks straight off the big saw to avoid heavy work on the resaw.

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Normally a mill like ours would only cut down to 100 mm between the blades, but I’ve managed to use it right down to 75 mm. By having it set up mm-perfect and angle-grinding a few bits off that were sticking out, it all makes our lives a lot easier because we aren’t constantly re-handling.

However, it makes my life on the saw a lot harder as I need to concentrate even more as there’s no room for error.

With things a lot slower due to this dreadful summer and people generally having a lot less to spend, there’s definitely been a slowdown in the local economy. Hoping to try and play my part in keeping it going, I put some lengths of live-edge oak on the wagon and headed to a local fair. I never expect to gain much business from the exercise, but it’s more about being seen and getting your name out there and I approached the whole episode with my usual sense of duty.

When I arrived at the show I quickly constructed a bespoke bench from two hay bales and the lengths of oak. This was very quickly occupied by a group of local older gentlemen in what seemed like a scene from the 1920s. However, to my great surprise, the old fellas on the bench acted like a magnet and I ended up selling everything on the wagon. An event which I’d approached with a certain amount of trepidation turned out to be a really enjoyable experience. I ended up chatting to customers old, new and potential. Someone even asked me if I’d come and remove an old diesel-tank bench which I would be welcome to keep.

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I’ll certainly be back next year, maybe with an old sawmill. Over the years you get roped into these events and I used to do a couple of shows annually, even using a steam engine. The trouble here is the blades required for these machines are getting fatigued and getting them sharp is a real challenge.

However, one thing that has improved is the quality of circular saw blades. Some of the blades produced in Sweden now are absolutely amazing and in fact we have some edger blades in the mill which are still sharp after a year. So, what might be quite interesting next year is to combine an old mill with modern blades. At least if it’s powered by a big old Lister with a starting handle I know it’s going to start up!