Self-taught mechanic turns a knack into a business
by Dale Short
Sep 01, 2013 | 3469 views | 0 0 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tony Johnson of Oakman has turned a self-taught hobby into a thriving business. At 5 years old, he began working on small engines. Daily Mountain Eagle - Dale Short
Tony Johnson of Oakman has turned a self-taught hobby into a thriving business. At 5 years old, he began working on small engines. Daily Mountain Eagle - Dale Short
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Tony Johnson was a small-engine repairman when he was 5 years old. The only problem was, nobody but him knew it yet.

”I was more or less self-taught,” says Johnson, who grew up in Oakman. “I was telling my daddy and grandpa, and them, what was wrong with their lawn mowers before I ever started to school. But they didn’t pay much attention to me, until I kept being right.”

He remembers clearly the day that he started getting some small-engine respect at home. The engine in question was on his grandfather’s fairly new Wizard lawn mower, which suddenly failed to crank.

”It was probably the first riding mower I’d ever seen,” Johnson recalls. “He bought it at the Western Auto, up here in town. This would have been 1967 or so. He never did anything to it, as far as keeping it serviced, and one day it wouldn’t start.

”So I took the air filter off of it, and the first time I pulled, the engine fired up and ran. I put the filter back on it and it killed the motor. So I showed PawPaw that, and I told him, ‘You need to go get us an air filter.’

”Then he had an older little push-mower I got running, for him, and everything kind of went from there.”

Johnson studied auto mechanics in high school shop class and worked on motors on the side, but after he graduated his day jobs for many years were mainly in the areas of construction — insulation, roofing — and welding. Then, nine years ago, he noticed a building out on the Old Birmingham Highway that had become available. A light bulb went on in his head, and the light showed him how the place would look filled with small engines. He got a shingle painted for out front that says “J&J’s Small Engine Repair” (his father works with him), and the business has been humming along steadily ever since.

On a typical August day such as this one, the order clipboard with its pages ruffled by a big belt-driven fan shows at least a dozen customers and their call-back numbers.

And a few of the customers have brought multiple jobs (lawn mowers and weed eaters have a tendency to show up simultaneously), so the number of active repair projects Tony is juggling in his head is closer to 20, but he seems unruffled by the pressure, fielding cell-phone calls from parts suppliers and clients without his socket wrench missing a beat.

As with any profession, there’s a hierarchy of jobs in small-engine repair: ranging from the types of challenges Johnson welcomes, to the ones that make him want to pull his hair out.

“The easiest thing to work on, for me,” he says, “is probably riding lawn mowers. That’s because everything is bigger and the parts are easier to see. Unlike small mowers and especially weed eaters, where things can get really tedious. The older I get, the blinder I get. And when I get a carburetor with little-bitty pieces, I have to go hunt my reading glasses.” But his biggest pet peeve? He just happens to have a visual display of it, close at hand.

“See these boxes?” he asks, pointing to a row of supermarket-sized cardboard boxes on a nearby folding table. “Every one of these is from a do-it-yourselfer. They try to fix something, and then when they hit a dead end, they bring me all the parts in a box.

“Sometimes I can help ‘em, sometimes I can’t. I mean, if I take something apart myself, and lay the pieces out on a table, then reassembling it’s no problem. I’m lucky; I’ve got kind of a photographic memory, that way. But reassembling what somebody ELSE has taken apart? That’s a whole different ball game. ”If it’s something that’s especially complicated, I quote ‘em a price based on how much of my time it’ll take, and they say, ‘I could buy a new one, for that.’ So they do, and it all works out.”

His current small-engine headache is the riding lawn mower on his loading dock whose rear end he’s hoisted with a chain and winch to expose its underparts.

The bottom portion is a two-blade affair, and what’s puzzling is that one of the blades is nearly an inch nearer to the ground than the other.

A closer inspection shows the real problem: the heavy cast-iron mount is warped out of kilter. “About the only way you can get that to happen,” Johnson observes, “is to use your lawn mower for a bush-hog. But, I’m not gonna judge anybody.” His most immediate problem is to remove the pair of black pulleys whose belt transmits power from the motor to the blades, and the pulleys on riding mowers are notorious, even coming fresh from the factory, for not liking to be removed.

“Worst case,” he says, “if beating it with a pry bar won’t get it off, I’ve had to use a welding torch and cut the son-of-a-guns off. Sparks flying everywhere on me. I’ve got still burn marks from sparks off those. So I guess that’s the most aggravated I’ve been, of projects in the shop.

“If the manufacturer would put just a little bit of grease under there,” Johnson says. “Or else some of this stuff called Anti-Seize ...” He holds up a round, gray plastic container a little smaller than a soft-drink bottle. “... it fixes the problem. You can get it at almost any parts store. Costs $9, but it lasts you a month or better.” Spring and summer are Johnson’s busiest seasons, because of the lawn-mowing aspects, but he works on enough different kinds of non-seasonal devices that fall and winter see a stream of business as well: pressure washers, the spray motors on pest-control devices, and more.

His busiest period of all is the first couple of weeks of lawn-mowing each spring, when homeowners across the county discover that their mower which worked perfectly back in September now won’t crank, for love or money. The most likely cause is that leaving gasoline in the tank of a stored mower throughout the winter causes the gas to separate into components, one of which bears a surprising resemblance to shellac and accordingly gums up the innards of your carburetor.

The preventive advice Johnson gives to customers (though it costs him some business) is to either drain your mower’s tank before cold weather sets in, or else just run the motor until all the gas is used up. There are fuel-additive products such as the popular Sta-Bil available, for keeping gas in a tank fresh over the winter, but Johnson is not a fan of them: “The stabilizers can oxidize the parts of your carburetor, unless you’ve got a plastic one,” he says, “and oxidizing is not good.”

There’s one part of the year when customers are guaranteed to find Johnson off-duty. He spends each January visiting his sister in California. But even that vacation isn’t totally work-free: “Year before last I put up some crown molding. Last year I did baseboards, and a drop ceiling, and a stairwell to the attic. But it’s an enjoyable time.”

All in all, it’s a long haul from the year he replaced the air filter in his grandfather’s Western Auto lawn mower. “Forty years ago is getting harder and harder to remember,” Johnson says, as the sun sinks behind the trees and his quitting time for the day draws nearer.

“One thing I remember is that, back then, my folks would never take a mower anywhere to get it repaired. If they couldn’t fix it themselves, they’d just buy a new one. And they kept three or four old ones pushed up under the barn, so once they realized I could fix them, they let me fix all those. And we put ‘em in the front yard and put a ‘For Sale’ sign up, and sold every one of ‘em.”

He ponders for a minute, and then laughs: “I just thought of something...I never did get my cut!”

Dale Short’s e-mail address is dale.short@gmail.com