Something To Think About While You’re Mowing The Lawn

Well here we are, we’ve reached that time of year again at which our yearly ritual of resuscitating small internal combustion engines from their winter-induced morbidity is well under way. It’s lawn mowing season again, and a lot of us are spending our Saturday afternoons going up and down our little patches of grass courtesy of messers Briggs and Stratton. Where this is being written, the trusty Honda mower’s deck has unexpectedly failed, so an agricultural field topper is performing stand-in duty for a while, and leaving us with more of the rough shag pile of a steeplechaser’s course than the smooth velvet of a cricket ground. Tea on the lawn will be a mite springier this year.

When you think about it, there’s something ever so slightly odd about going to such effort over a patch of grass. Why do we do it? Because we like it? Because everyone else has one? Or simply because it’s less effort to fill the space with grass than it is to put something else there? It’s as if our little pockets of grassland have become one of those facets of our consumer culture that we never really think about, we just do.

Mowers, mediaeval style.
Mowers, mediaeval style.

If you consult the only history books worth reading, you’ll find that in Days Of Old there would have been a grassy area kept free of trees and other growth surrounding castles and other military installations, for defensive purposes. This can clearly be seen in contemporary films. As mediaeval castles slowly evolved over the centuries into aristocratic homes, so did the practice of surrounding them with close-cropped grassland. The mowing would have been performed by animals, but the result would have been to retain something starting to resemble a rough lawn.

When aristocratic homes ceased to have any military purpose, their gardens became an art form in themselves. Formal gardens took the lawn and incorporated it into their designs, maintaining it with legions of gardeners using hand tools. The lawn was thus an extreme status symbol; to have one you had to be in a position to employ people simply for the useless task of maintaining grass for pleasure.

So by the 19th century, combining the insatiable desire of the upwardly mobile Victorian middle class for status symbols with the seemingly limitless ingenuity of the engineers of the Industrial Revolution, it was inevitable that technology would democratise lawn ownership and set our civilisation on the slow but inexorable path to our current Briggs and Stratton servitude.

Lawnmowers

A period advert for a Budding mower.

We have an engineer from Gloucestershire, England, [Edwin Budding], to thank for the first lawn mower. His 1830 rotating blade cylinder derived from shears used in the wool industry and driven through a gear train by a roller in contact with the ground as the operator pushed it is a design that has stood the test of time. The gears may have been replaced by a chain, and the whole machine may have been made much lighter, but you can still buy substantially similar mowers today.

[Edwin Budding] is remembered in the 21st century through a charity in his name, the [Budding] Foundation operates a horticultural equipment museum and works in advancing education and opportunities for young people. You might ask yourself what other relevance he has for a Hackaday reader, until you learn that he is also credited with the invention of the adjustable spanner. Most of us will have one of those in our possession even if we have never used a push mower.

The [Budding] mower may have been the first machine to perform the task, but it and its imitators would still have been used by professional gardeners in employment rather than by homeowners in the way we might use our mowers today. Thus, although there were improvements to the design of the push mower through the rest of the century, it was not until the 1890s that inventors addressed themselves to the task of creating a powered mover.

The 1902 Ransomes motor mower.
The 1902 Ransomes motor mower. (Public domain).

The Lancashire Steam Motor Company, of Leyland, UK, (incidentally the ancestor company of all those dubious-quality British Leyland cars of the 1970s) is credited with the first steam-powered mover, and over the decades before the First World War there appeared a variety of similar designs. They were however heavy, unwieldy, and inconvenient, so it was not surprising that concurrent development led to the first gasoline-powered mowers. The Ransomes machine of 1902 is recognised as the first gas-powered mower to be manufactured, and when compared with the Coldwell steam engine machines, had a clear size advantage.

An early Atco cylinder motor mower. Mike Peel [CC BY-SA 4.0].
An early Atco cylinder motor mower. Mike Peel [CC BY-SA 4.0].
In the years following the First World War both the demands of an emerging suburban middle class for labour-saving devices for their lawns, and the refinement of internal combustion engines, led to new machines with much more modest sizes appropriate for domestic use.

The 1921 Atco mower is visibly a [Budding]-style machine with a Villiers motor and chain drive mounted on top of it, and was an instant success. The petrol cylinder mower is now a design that can be seen on sports pitches and golf clubs worldwide, and is still in production from multiple manufacturers.

The 1929 Beazley rotary mover.
The 1929 Beazley rotary mover. From US patent US1827559A.

Meanwhile during the same period other inventors were pursuing rotary mover designs. One of the first American models came from [William Beazley], whose 1929 rotary mower starts to look slightly similar to the models we’d be familiar with today. However one aspect of the design reveals its early provenance, instead of mounting the motor on its side as we’d expect, it has an upright motor and a right-angle drive through a bevel gearbox. It was only through the next decade that engine manufacturers started producing motors designed to mount on their sides, and thus the rotary mower’s surge in popularity came at a later date.

Lawnmower Hacking

It’s all very well having a history lesson, fascinating though it is, but this is a hardware hacker’s site. What can you do with a lawn mower? To answer that query it’s worth looking at what parts a mower contains, as well as why an old mower might come into your possession.

The most basic gasoline powered lawnmower will have a rectangular pressed steel cover for the blade, upon which the engine sits with its crankshaft vertical, and which has four wheels, one at each corner. You will usually receive it because, like our Honda, the pressed steel has succumbed to the inevitable rust, and the whole thing is starting to disintegrate. Thus  if you can undo a set of bolts seized up by rust and repeated heat cycles, the chances are you can retrieve a perfectly serviceable engine and a set of plastic wheels.

More fancy mowers will be self-powered, and will have a rear axle with some form of gearbox, and either a shaft drive or a belt drive. Domestic ones are a bit of a gimmick, not good for much more than moving the weight of the lawnmower itself, but if you can lay your hands on a  professional mover of the type used for playing fields or similar then you have something with a lot more pulling power.

The vertical crankshaft motors are not usually the most high-tech of devices, but what they lose in that direction they make up in simplicity and reliability. The Briggs and Stratton sidevalve for example has been in production in substantially similar form for many decades, and if well-maintained is an engine which will remain a faithful servant. What you use them for is limited only by your imagination, but a quick YouTube search finds vertical crankshaft lawn mower engines in hovercraft, on frightening motorised bicycles, and in generators. Meanwhile we’ve featured one used to power a rudimentary outboard motor.

So as you trudge up and down your little piece of green sward, consider the machine that’s slowly vibrating the feeling from your fingers. You know a little about its history now, what are you going to do with its parts when it shuffles off this mortal coil?

Header image: Colin Thackeray [CC BY-SA 2.0].

86 thoughts on “Something To Think About While You’re Mowing The Lawn

    1. They seem that way until you use one. I have quite a large area of grass and the 18 inch cut path vs the 21 my gas mower has means it takes much longer. Also if you go on vacation and come back to a jungle the setup electric mowers have with several smaller blades do poorly on very long grass. If I had a town home or something with less lawn I’d have an electric just for the environment. Right now, there just isn’t a good electric mower option. I even looked very seriously at robo-mowers. My back yard has a complex shape, and is too large for the electric roomba style robo-mowers. Boo.

      1. My Black and Decker cordless electric, converted to run on Nissan LEAF cells, will cut through anything my lawn can throw at it with ease. The original version with lead acid batteries or corded electric mowers, not so much.

        1. 2 thoughts.
          Do your robo-mowers battle over turf? B^)

          A coal burning power plant typically (unless you live in China or India) burn their fuel cleaner than an ICE mower.
          But, there are the transmission losses…

          1. “Do your robo-mowers battle over turf?”

            Bah-dim-tiss B^)

            But to answer your question, not any more than two robo-mowers would in neighboring yards. Some sort of fence is always used.

          1. Well, you are obviously a disciple of Elon Musk, who has convinced a fair portion of the gentry that the solution–right now–to all our pollution problems is to transfer the emission of pollutants from the streets and highways of the world to the (usually out-of-sight) pollution-generating power plants of the world.

            By the way, almost all small gasoline engines–even ones made in China–are not “…very dirty”, except: if you don’t wipe them down occasionally.

          2. @jawnhenry

            It’s no secret it’s easier to control pollution coming from a single source. There’s also the fact that bigger engines and turbines are more efficient than a tiny 2-stroke. Nothing to do with Elon’s pipe dreams.

          3. A few years ago, a couple of teens launched a lawn mowing business they called Join Go Green. They used only manual push mowers, making the claim that a single gasoline powered mower produced as much pollution as eight cars.

            I call bollocks on that simply due to the volume of gasoline used in one mower VS any eight non-hybrid/electric cars.

            Their website is no longer online, hopefully as the kids grew up they did their own research and found truth and facts instead of the quackery that inspired them to expend a lot of effort.

          4. Small gasoline engines are very dirty _because_ they don’t just burn gasoline. Two stroke engines mix oil into the fuel and then run the fuel through the engine as a lubricant before burning it, the end result of which is them burning the oil. Oil, never having meant to be burned, is far more polluting than gasoline.

          5. @Galane – it’s possible that a petrol mower produces “eight times” as much of certain pollutants. I don’t think mowers have catalytic converters, and I think some are still 2-stroke.

            In terms of CO2, as you say, they burn way less fuel so they can’t possibly make 8x as much.

            I’m not going actually research this, but I’d believe it for certain pollutants.

          6. Yes, lawnmower ICEs are exceptional polluters, and not very efficient .. all of the environmental regulations levelled at cars haven made them remarkably clean, and they are constantly getting more efficient.

            I’m eagerly awaiting electric lawn equipment that can handle medium duty tasks at a reasonable price. Quiet and low maintenance .. want.

          7. @packrat That’s based on the premise that the person is already running lean, which does not appear to be the case for many people, whom could benefit from a bit of exercise.

          8. @packrat and it’s based on the premise that people are eating fuel-for-fertilizer food which, let’s face it, nearly all of us do. It is possible, though it’s very hard work, to eat food grown only on recycled nutrients. That’s a goal of mine in life. But yeah, otherwise the article is sadly accurate.

          9. Don’t feed them with cheap dirty fuel, like car petrol. For my mower, I use the same “Alkylate” 4-stroke fuel I use for my Primus camping stoves. This stuff is clean, no soot, evaporates away completely with no lingering smells. I have not changed the oil in the mower for the 4 years I have had it, the oil is still perfectly clean and nice. Previous mower, using car fuel, the oil was black after about 3 runs.

            http://www.aspen.se/Canada/About_alkylate_petrol

        2. While electrifying everything doesn’t solve the problem, it makes it much more solvable. Much like pit toilets didn’t solve the human waste problem, it paved the way for modern sewage treatment by centralizing the waste. Or like a software compatibility layer, once all the clients upgrade, then we can dump all the old code that hosted so many bugs.

          1. But, now we have a toxic bitbucket waste storage problem. Why do you think major software companies have moved to 3rd world countries for software development? It is because of the huge amount of waste generated by nightly builds!
            B^)

          1. In the 1950’s, when everybody was prospecting for Uranium like it was the 1849 California Gold Rush.
            One company near Belfield, North Dakota was burning lignite coal to obtain the radioactive ash. Years later,
            their abandoned site had a higher than background radiation level.

    2. Had a corded electric mower in the 90’s and it worked well enough. It was quieter and light enough to be significantly easier to push that the gasoline one despite dragging around the cord, on the other hand it was corded so getting around the multiple trees in our yard was an issue and you were limited to how quickly you could go by the fact that it would choke very easily.
      So swings and roundabouts, it was what it was (and it was an oversized weed eater on wheels)

  1. I’ve been mowing with a reel mower for quite some time now. $150 at the start and you’re set for decades. Just spray it with a bit of WD-40 after washing it when you’re done mowing. It’s lighter to push around on our steep hills than a gas mower, and gives a good looking cut. Quiet, too.

    If your lawn is less than an acre and even (no ruts or mounds everywhere), give it a try.

    1. Taylor is right about the unpowered reel push mower being totally adequate for lawn maintenance. They were the standard in America for many decades before small two stroke engines became affordable to the average household, sort of like cars. I’m surprised the verbally nimble Jenny completely neglected manual push mowers with their smooth cutting reels; they’re what I grew up with in the 1960’s. And when newlywed in the 1980’s they were all I could afford for a while, haha! Now I have a corded electric that’s quieter, just as powerful as a modest gas engine, and I don’t choke on fumes or wear earplugs anymore. The trick is good cord management. I should post a video about how to mow away from the house where the outlet is, ‘cos you can move elegantly with a little discipline and forethought–easy for adults! Of course they pollute less than little trouble prone engines that burn gasoline & oil together, belch through a Spark arrestor that’s not even a muffler, and have primitive carburetors not injectors! Battery power would free me from the cord, but my corded power is cheaper and kicks the lawn’s butt no matter what the skeptics say! That would be “sceptics” for you Brits, but that spelling comes with an untoward stench for us Yanks, haha!

  2. Hacks I keep meaning to do to my mower:
    1) Extend the handle. I’m 6’7″, my wife is 5’10” and both of us find the handle too short. Changing the angle (relatively easy) brings you too close to the machine to walk comfortably, lengthening or mounting a frame for a second handle is made difficult by the twin deadman levers (one for the engine, one for the self-propel): the cables would need to be replaced to be extended, and finding parts that function equivalently could be difficult unless I order them from the manufacturer or salvage from another unit.
    2) While I’m at it, a more ergo grip on that handle with the two deadman levers would be nice: the out-of-box induces blisters on my thumb. This might be as simple as some tape, keep meaning to get around to it.

  3. Lawns! A strange cultural “obligation”. Well, I just say no. On the first hand out of principle – I simply don’t want to spend my time being slave to a lawn (or a pool). On the other hand out of principle – I live in Arizona in the desert and while plenty of people irrigate lawns and landscaping here, it just seems wrong, not to mention high maintenance. So just say no and devote the time to hacking. (I used to love the reel mower I pushed around as a kid long ago in another state).

  4. I am 42 years old and I have never purchased a push mower in my life. Every mower I have picked up from the dump or off freecycle has run with the exception of the ones that have ejected all of their guts on the outside. Those usually have the best decks & hardware as the owner never changed the break in oil. I have never had any luck reviving Tecumseh mowers their carburetors are junk.

    1. Thanks for your comment, currently I have a couple of Tecumseh motors that won’t run,
      Replaced the carb in one with a new Russian clone, but it still doesn’t run…

    2. I used to know an engineer who worked for B&S. He always trash talked Tecumseh. I figured it was just bias because of where he worked. Over the years I noticed I had a lot of trouble with the various gas powered devices I owned that used Tecumseh engines. The B&S powered ones are much more reliable. My father in law gave me a B&S powered rototiller 30 years ago. It was old when I got it and it still runs fine.
      When I bought my last riding mower I made sure it had a B&S engine. Unfortunately, it died a few days ago half way through the lawn and I am waiting for a replacement part. It is not an engine part.

    3. I have never had much luck with Tecumseh, either, except for a 25+ YO Craftsman lawn edger which works reliably–as long as the carburettor [interesting: the spell-checker vomits on US-English “carburetor] is re-built every two years. Guess I was lucky enough to get a Tecumseh before the decline…

      I was–and am–somewhat dismayed to discover that Tecumseh had purchased Peerless–the manufacturer of most all small transmissions and transaxles found in lawnmowers and some riding mowers–some time ago. I hope that the Tecumseh curse’ doesn’t attach itself to Peerless.

      1. Me either… Growing up my folks bought an Ariens mower with a Tecumseh engine (Told Dad to get the Honda electric start one, but it had no way to start it if the battery died so he opted for the Ariens).. Ran great except my grandfather would occasionally pour gas in the oil fill and nobody noticed, eventually it shredded the plastic camshaft drive grear. Replaced the camshaft and it ran another 6 months until the seal at the bottom gave out, found out the crank bearing had wallered out from lack of oil. New shortblock and it was purring again, until Dad accidentally tried to mow a rock and bent the crankshaft :-( Hung onto it for a few years thinking I’d throw another shortblock at it, and never did, ended up scrapping it along with another junk mower I had.. Currently have a cantankerous Craftsman with a B&S motor that I got for free because it wouldn’t start, crankshaft key had sheared throwing off the timing. New key and new carb seal, air filter, and spark plug and it purrs again, just have to hunt down the right blade for it.

        I also have a chipper that has a B&S motor on it, managed to run it out of oil (Drain plug fell out and I didn’t notice it until the engine slowed down and siezed), thought it was just a chunk of wood caught in the blades.. Figured out what it was, replaced the drain plug, filled it with fresh oil and it runs fine, just smokes a little, rebuild kit is cheap though, plus it’s like 20 years old so the engine is fairly tired anyway…)

    4. I worked as lawn mover mechanic for a year or three, eventually figured out the Tecumseh carbs had an O ring above the main jet, often forgotten lost or melted away by people trying fix carbs under a tree. that and the cracked primer bulb.

  5. I have not paid for a mower in decades. We have a couple acres of lawn and I keep finding free mowers roadside or friends bring them over. 90% of them will run with a very little tweaking or simple parts swaps. A large percentage of them use the Briggs engines with pulse jet carburetors. If the governor hunts or the engine runs poorly until it is just about out of gas a $1.99 diaphragm replacement kit and a quick pass of the old spark plug through my spark plug sandblaster will usually have it starting on the first pull and purring like new.

    1. Yeah, my garden tiller has a 4HP B&S “Easy Spin” engine with a Pulse Jet carb. When I purchased it 12 years ago, it didn’t run, it took the carburetor kit, including the fuel filter and adjustments. It usually starts by the 2nd pull of the rope.

  6. Here is “Something To Think About While You’re Mowing The Lawn” :

    Any machine designed for service [with its shaft] in the horizontal position should not be used otherwise. Early and exciting failure is the price paid for using a fairly massive (say, 3-4 KW and up) generator in the vertical position in order to match to a vertical-shaft engine. The reason for this is that the generator needs robust thrust bearings in order to support the weight of the rotor. One may use an automotive alternator–for light-duty generation–in the vertical position, but only for a short while. And the failure mode is (usually) devoid of any fireworks.

  7. The cleared area around a castle/fortification/etc is a strategic part of defense. Prevents the enemy from sneaking up to your walls.
    In more modern times, it has more to do with health and sanitation. If you don’t keep the growth pushed back away from your home, you get a lot more pests. (rodents, insects, etc)

    1. If you live in an area prone to wildfires, a healthy, green lawn (and metal, slate, concrete or at least fiberglass asphalt shingle roof) is your best defense.

      So is having a well and a generator because for some reason firefighters like to cut off electricity to neighborhoods when fire comes near.

  8. I’ll be amazed when my 3 hp B&S powered mower dies. It was Sears’ cheapest mower, on sale at the outlet store because of a dented air cleaner cover.

    I’ve had it for over 25 years and never done anything to it but change the oil, etc. It has had only the most cursory care. Every summer it starts right up, often on the first pull even without a primer pump. I *am* very religious about checking the oil before use. Admittedly, it takes a while to mow waist high grass with a 3 hp mower, but I’ve done it many times. IMHO a genuine engineering triumph.

  9. My first mower mod was to convert a manual reel mower to electrical power by adding a 12 volt motor and small lead acid battery. A V-belt drove the reel shaft. I prefer the cut of reel movers to “rotary” mowers and, at that time there were no electrical reel mowers available. Recently I had a lot of fun rebuilding a non-working ride on mower to clear a fire safety zone around another property. Mechanical hacking is a lot of fun. Combining it with electronics is even more fun so maybe it is time to make the ride-on self driving!

    1. Only thing about (some*) reels, is they’re more for grass that hasn’t gotten too tall. Rotary can deal with taller.

      *There’s the type that’s cuts like hair trimmers with an aggressive blade that can deal with very tall grass.

    1. Spot on. The local ordinance merely says it has to be *maintained*, and Zoning admins will tell you that has latitude. If, however, you try to keep it in natural prairie grasses, to pull a random example, you *will* be talking to codes people on a regular basis. Cities (and HOAs, doubly so) have bought into putting green lawns as a necessity. If you don’t have a lawn, and mow it regularly, Something Is Wrong, and Something Has To Be Done About It for the good of all people. Pushing pollutants into the air, spending that part of someone’s limited lifespan stunting the growth of vegetation, it’s all Very Important, and keeps you busy, rather than having time to dwell on questions like why could it be unquestionably that important.

    1. I was thinking of something a step above that. More like what the military does with their drones. Be in a trailer somewhere and with a monitor and joystick can drive it around the big properties.

  10. Replaced half of my front lawn with river rock and edibles (and one rose bush, because it was pretty damn it!)

    Now instead of a law I’ll have highbush cranberries, honey berries, and currants. (and my rose bush.)

    Not sure what I’m going to do with the other half, but I’m leaning towards more of the same.

    Backyard still has a sizable portions of grass, 1/10th of an acre or so. also a large vegetable garden, some fruit trees/bushes, and other edibles… I am get several 100 pounds of food from my yard each year, and many of the plants aren’t mature yet…
    When everything is mature getting a ton (2000lbs) doesn’t seem particularly far out of reach.

  11. I have a early ’60’s e-mower, it just hums along. No mandated mamby-pamby attachments. I found a lead acid one and it’s plastic wheels were worse than the dead battery. I found a neighbor’s trashed plug in and straightened the blade. It is ten times louder, because NOISE SELLS. I took off the plastic junk on the handle, no switch just plug it in and go.

  12. I’ve seriously considered getting miniature sheep because I hate the toxic feeling I get from using a petrol powered lawn mower. However my local council has rules that prevent people from keeping farm animals as pets. It is irrational and I should fight it however I think that a hack on the mower would be time better spent.

    So how can I fit a formic acid or urea fuel cell and electric motor to a mower with enough power to do the job? Both of those give me power without toxic exhausts and without the risks associated with hydrogen, otherwise I could just electrolyse water using solar power in a fixed location and run a converted piston engine on Brown’s Gas with water injection to help with cooling.

  13. Until military jets, passenger jets, and huge ocean liners of assorted sorts have to obey emissions laws, I will continue to use my mower, trimmers, and chainsaws, and any 2 stroke engine with zero guilt, period.

  14. Talk to any old (+60 yr old) gearhead and he will tell you it all started with a B&S lawn mower engine. At 12 yr old we all brought home a junk lawn mower and told our dads we were going to rebuild it. No one told us we needed a flywheel puller. None of these engines ever ran again but they did come apart. I remember taking the piston to school to show off to all my buddies. The vertical shaft engines were useless but the horizontal shaft motors eventually became minibikes.

    1. I learned about small gas motors in 9th grade shop class. We spent one entire marking period on them.

      My grandfather had a reel mower with a horizontal shaft motor, it became a go-cart for my brothers. As well as our old “snapper” style riding mower (just removed the mower deck).

  15. I got one of those 48v lead acid Ryobi mowers on craigslist for almost nothing. I simply removed the old battery and placed on 12S 36AH LIPO directly to the terminals where the old one connected. It’s overkill, but it weighs far less than before and absolutely demolishes everything in its path. The complaints about it online were that the self propel “went too fast” so I knew that was the one to get. I only charge the lithium batteries to 80% for longevity, and can still mow my 8,000 sq ft lot 2-3 times on a single charge. Highly recommended mod.

  16. I have had an EGO lawn mower for two summers and love it. It mows about a 1/4 acre on one charge of the 5Ah battery. I can mow before dawn or in the evening when the weather is hot and humid because it has headlights. When I turn it over for maintenance it doesn’t spill gas and oil on the concrete like the old mower.

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