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Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

The Horsedrawn Mower Book by Lynn R. Miller is back in print! The following excerpt is from Section Two, Restoration & Rebuilding. Order here.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Chapter Eight

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding?

by Lynn R. Miller

There are at least two potentially overlapping reasons why you might want to rebuild and/or restore a horse drawn mower. First, because you want to use it. And second, because you are enamored of antique farm equipment and pride yourself on accurate restorations. These two reasons can certainly be combined. I want to suggest that there is a valuable third reason. You might want to rebuild these important machines so that you can sell them to people who would want to use them.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Hopefully we have suggested to you that these machines are not all alike, though they certainly may seem that way. If you are in a position to choose which make and model of mower you might wish to work on might I put in my vote for either the McD/Internationals #7 & #9 or the John Deere Big Four. These were the last and most plentiful models made and some parts are still available with a fair measure of aftermarket cutter bar parts which are interchangeable. If you do insist on working with a different brand or model, remember that you will be challenged to find parts. A dream come true would be to find three mowers that are identical, and from that group, plan on ending up with one outstanding mower and a backup of parts. If you are somewhat uninitiated, you might reasonably wonder just how many makes and models of the old original mowers exist or existed.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Here’s a view of the choices in two categories and I am certain I have left a few out:

  • really old rare antique horse mowers
  • latest generation (circa WWII) horse mowers

Under that first category might fall these manufacturers names and their earliest models:

  • Acme
  • Adriance
  • Buckeye
  • Champion
  • Crown
  • Deering
  • Dain
  • Emerson
  • Independent
  • Johnston
  • Massey Harris
  • Milwaukee
  • McCormick
  • Moline
  • Minnesota
  • Osborne
  • Plano
  • Thomas
  • Wood Bros.

Under the second category would fall these manufacturers and their last models:

  • Case
  • Champion
  • David Bradley
  • John Deere
  • McCormick Deering/International
  • Oliver

In the over thirty years which I have spent with these machines, I have learned to gather up “parts” mowers of my preferred model, the #9. These have been quite valuable when it came to finding just the right piece to bring a good mower back into service. And frequently they can be owned at a reasonable fee, even scrap iron prices. Think of it this way, if you put a value on having, as a back up, a set of levers, a lifting spring, a yoke, a pitman shaft, a lead bar, etc., etc. You can see that rather quickly the old parts mower will pay its way.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

But I mention this now, at the beginning of this chapter because I want to make an entirely different point about the old beat-up parts mower candidates. Namely this: Don’t write them off too quickly. After careful inspection you just may find that the worst looking one, the one with a broken cutter bar and a cracked wheel will be the best candidate to be rebuilt. And vice versa you may find that the one that is shiny and all painted up, looking complete and serviceable, has serious unrepairable internal damage. That’s what this chapter is about, a routine you might employ to determine if a mower is rebuildable or strictly parts.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

At an auction (above) you might impulsively bid on a “yard ornament” mower, as I did, because it only went for $175. Then we take it home and wonder if it is worth trying to rebuild or if we got skunked. To my eye, I would immediately say we got a good deal and maybe we cannot rebuild it. Confusing? Read on.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding


Actually I purchased two “yard ornament” mowers (below) at one of our former Small Farmer’s Journal Auctions and took them home to analyze for the purposes of this book. They were both International #9 mowers, pretty much complete. One (the nearest in the photo) has a six foot bar and the other a five foot. One has wide “swamp” wheels while the other has mid-width ones. Having the two mowers, I felt 80% certain I could, by borrowing from one, rebuild the other into a serviceable mower. Born of my experience I, of course, had immediate suspicions of the relative worth of one mower over the other one. But also born of experience I knew better than to rush to judgement. Often the obvious is not the case. Often the good and/or bad news is hidden from easy view. You have to know where and how to look to see if, on the inside, either or both of these will want to return to the field. So I set to the process of reviewing these two and photographing their parts to build this chapter.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

If all things were equal, the very best way to assess a mower is to have it in a shop on a concrete floor with all the tools and stands you require. That just doesn’t always work out. You may find yourself pulling weeds off the old fence row sentinel and scratching your head. Well, even in that situation you ought to be able to make a quick assessment as to whether you want to acquire the mower. If it is somewhat complete with perhaps 10% of the removeable parts missing or damaged (parts like guards, sickle bar, pitman stick and tongue) AND it is your make and model, it is definitely worth something to you. How much is your call. But perhaps I can help you with a few other measures. Here’s what I do:


1.) I look at the wheels. If they are a rubber-tired setup, even if incomplete, I know I want the mower. These wheel assemblies are hard to come by and can be expensive.

If they are cast iron I look at the wheel lugs. If they are sharp-edged and pronounced, I try to curb my enthusiasm, because, you see, this usually means the mower had very little use. If on the other hand the lugs are worn down, rounded, and perhaps even pock-marked, I judge that this mower has seen a lot of use. And maybe hard use.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

WHEELS: The pictures above are of a wheel on an old fence row mower which excited the author. They exhibit zero wear. See how sharp the cast lugs are.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Compare these with the swamp wheel, an excellent wheel but exhibiting a normal amount of wear on the lugs which are rounded and smooth-edged.

2.) That points to the tongue. If it is cut off and setup with some sort of hitching apparatus I can safely assume it was pulled behind a tractor. That would account for worn lugs and maybe some other problems which I will look for.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Finding an old mower that still has its hitch assembly is a piece of luck.

If the tongue has not been cut off, even if it is broken, I am happy because I can assume that its working life was spent at 3 mph rather than 7 to 10 mph.

3.) Now I look over the frame to see if there are any breaks, paying attention to any welds. I don’t want to see any.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

This mower had a severe break which had been welded. Cast welding is an iffy business and the chances of this holding up against the normal pressures of mowing are doubtful at best. I will never bother to rebuild a mower frame with such a break.

4.) Next I eyeball the levers and linkage to see if there is any evidence of problems. I am watching for homemade repairs.

If the seat is missing or the seat stem is broken, I am not overly concerned unless I see some other indication that the machine may have been dropped from a height or in a nasty runaway.

If this mower has its original hitch, grass board, carrier rod and nut, I consider myself lucky.

5.) With a pair of pliers or a crescent wrench I remove the gear box lid carefully, anxious to preserve any gasket. I look inside to see if there is evidence of damage to the edge of the gears. Sometimes, when the mower is pulled fast, the gear teeth will begin to crystallize with hairline fractures and bits falling off. This is a serous indication that this machine may not be a candidate for rebuild and use. After I decide on the condition, I replace the lid and screw it back down.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

GEAR BOX: The photos of gear box “A” (above and below) show what pristine condition this mower is in. It is the one with the sharp wheel lugs and, as they did suggest, these gears would suggest a maximum of a few hours of actual use. Compare to gear box “B”, (bottom) which, besides being dry and rusty, exhibited pitting and wear marks and some fatigue.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Along with the appearance of the gears, all other aspects of the mower, except for the rusty patina, suggest a near new condition.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Gear box B may very well be salvageable but since it comes with the mower that featured the welded frame we know it will be used strictly for parts.

6.) I take hold of the pitman fly wheel and lift up and sideways. I am feeling for any play in how the shaft seats in the housing.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

Here Justin takes hold of the Pitman flywheel and lifts up to feel the bushing fit.

7.) And finally I look at the cutter bar assembly, sighting down its length to see if it has any untoward bend. I know that I can and probably will replace all the guards and the sickle bar so these things don’t overly concern me. Taking hold of the end of the cutter bar when it is down, I push it and pull it to see if there is excessive play in the yoke pins, another problem caused by tractors pulling the units.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

This is the cutter bar that went with the mower with the welded frame. All in all not too bad, missing a few guards. Lots of serviceable parts here. And a six foot bar to boot. The largest percentage of the horsedrawn mowers featured five foot bars. In the semi-arid west and under certain appropriate conditions many farmers wish they had a six foot bar for the field time it saves.

Is This Mower Worth Rebuilding

The mower with the sharp-lugged wheels and the pristine gears featured the cutter bar above. Note the straight sharp guards (a), the clean-edged ledger plates (b), the wear plates (c), and clips (d) demonstrating NO wear.

To summarize: If the mower’s frame is solid, the wheels are good, the pitman fly wheel well-seated, the gears are sharp and clean, and most of external mechanisms intact, I know I have a mower I want, one which, after closer inspection, may be a candidate to rebuild.

On the other hand: If the frame is broken and/or welded, the gears are seized up, the wheels are worn and/or broken, the fly wheel sloppy, and/or the gears rough, this mower will probably only be of value to me for those external parts I can rob off her.

The Horsedrawn Mower Book