As usual, winter — or the slow season — is the time most drillers take the time to maintain their equipment in order to get ready for the peak season. One of the main parts that usually needs attention is the mud pump. Sometimes, it is just a set of swabs to bring it up to snuff, but often, tearing it down and inspecting the parts may reveal that other things need attention. For instance, liners. I can usually run three sets of swabs before it is time to change the liner. New liners and swabs last a good long time. The second set of swabs lasts less, and by the time you put in your third set of swabs, it’s time to order new liners. Probably rods too. It’s not always necessary to change pistons when you change swabs. Sometimes just the rubber needs to be changed, saving money. How do you tell? There is a small groove around the outside of the piston. As it wears, the groove will disappear and it’s time for a new piston.

The wear groove on a piston can be a good indicator of the general health of your pump. If the wear is pretty even all around, chances are the pump is in pretty good shape. But if you see wear on one side only, that is a clue to dig deeper. Uneven wear is a sign that the rods are not stroking at the exact angle that they were designed to, which is parallel to the liner. So, it’s time to look at the gear end. Or as some folks call it, “the expensive end.”

The wear groove on a piston can be a good indicator of the general health of your pump. If the wear is pretty even all around, chances are the pump is in pretty good shape. But if you see wear on one side only, that is a clue to dig deeper.

After you get the cover off the gear end, the first thing to look at will be the oil. It needs to be fairly clean, with no drill mud in it. Also look for metal. Some brass is to be expected, but if you put a magnet in the oil and come back later and it has more than a little metal on it, it gets more serious. The brass in the big end of the connecting rod is a wearable part. It is made to be replaced at intervals — usually years. The most common source of metal is from the bull and pinion gears. They transmit the power to the mud. If you look at the pinion gear closely, you will find that it wears faster than the bull gear. This is for two reasons. First, it is at the top of the pump and may not receive adequate lubrication. The second reason is wear. All the teeth on both the bull and pinion gears receive the same amount of wear, but the bull gear has many more teeth to spread the wear. That is why, with a well maintained pump, the bull gear will outlast the pinion gear three, four or even five times. Pinion gears aren’t too expensive and are fairly easy to change.

If the gears look OK and there are no obvious bearing problems, the next parts to look at are the crank journals; they ride in the brass at the big end of the rod and take plenty of abuse. This is where it gets interesting. To repair or replace is the big question. Replacement is pretty expensive and you may have to wait a while. Repairs are more my style because I know some excellent machinists and can tell them exactly what I need done. If your journals are deeply scored, you will have to turn the crank. It takes a pretty special machine to do this, but one of my friends has one and is a master with it. The procedure is to turn down the journals and press a steel sleeve over them, bringing them up to factory new specs. 

This process is fairly straightforward machine work, but over the years, I have discovered a trick that will bring a rebuild up to “better than new.” When you tear a pump down, did you ever notice that there is about 1-inch of liner on each end that has no wear? This is because the swab never gets to it. If it has wear closer to one end than the other, your rods are out of adjustment. The trick is to offset grind the journals. I usually offset mine about ¼-inch. This gives me a ½-inch increase in the stroke without weakening the gear end. This turns a 5x6 pump into a 5½x6 pump. More fluid equals better holes. I adjust the rods to the right length to keep from running out the end of the liner, and enjoy the benefits.

Other than age, the problem I have seen with journal wear is improper lubrication. Smaller pumps rely on splash lubrication. This means that as the crank strokes, the rods pick up oil and it lubricates the crank journals. If your gear end is full of drill mud due to bad packing, it’s going to eat your pump. If the oil is clean, but still shows crank wear, you need to look at the oil you are using.

Oil that is too thick will not be very well picked up and won’t find its way into the oil holes in the brass to lubricate the journals. I’ve seen drillers that, when their pump starts knocking, they switch to a heavier weight oil. This actually makes the problem worse. In my experience, factory specified gear end oil is designed for warmer climates. As you move north, it needs to be lighter to do its job. Several drillers I know in the Northern Tier and Canada run 30 weight in their pumps. In Georgia, I run 40W90. Seems to work well. 

Hope this helps. If I can be of assistance, gimme a holler. Until then, keep ’em turning to the right.