Introduction: Tune Up Your Lawn Mower!

Picture of Tune Up Your Lawn Mower!

Keeping your lawn mower in good maintenance year-to-year is pretty easy, and only requires a few basic steps.

Read on my friend, then get out there and tune up your lawn mower!

Step 1: Basic Supplies

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There are some basic supplies you'll need to purchase, which are as follows:

  • New air filter
  • New spark plug
  • Engine oil

I recommend removing the air filter and spark plug as outlined in the following steps and taking them with you to the store when you buy news ones. This way you'll be sure to return home with the correct replacements.

Step 2: Replace Air Filter

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The air filter is important to replace at least yearly, as it ensures that clean air enters the engine for smooth performance.

Look for a panel on the side of the mower engine that will most likely be held on by one or two screws.

Remove the screws and pull the panel out to reveal the air filter. Mine is a paper-style filter with a rubbery surround that rests in place in a cavity in the panel, which is squished firmly in place when the screw is installed.

The outer edges of the housing where the filter presses in were full of dirt and dry grass on mine. I used a small brush to clean all of this off before installing the new filter and replacing the cover. That's it.

Step 3: Remove Spark Plug

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The spark plug may be located in different places depending on your lawn mower model.

However it will always be accessible and is easy to spot. Look for a rubber cable capped on the end of a white tube with a nut-looking thing on the inside where it meets the mower engine. The white thing is the spark plug.

Gently pull the cap of the plastic cable straight off of the spark plug (it will just pop off with a bit of pressure).

Use a spark plug socket (in all cases I've seen it is 13/16", but it could vary) to unscrew the spark plug and remove it from the engine.

Do not replace it at this point, though, as we're going to do some other maintenance first where it is safer to leave the spark plug out.

Step 4: Drain the Oil

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Remove the oil cap (which will be marked "OIL") and tip the mower onto its side so the oil drains out into a catch pan of some kind.

Leave the mower on its side to continue draining, and move onto the next step.

Note: Most mowers do in fact have a drain plug. You can use it to drain the oil rather than tipping the mower as I have done here. The logic is that this will allow almost all of the used oil to drain out, and keep the oil from potentially draining into the carburetor and potentially fouling your new spark plug. Like most things, there are differing opinions on this.

I've never had any problem with the tip method, but depending on your preference and style of mower, using the drain plug is an option.

Step 5: Remove Blade

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Sharpening your blade at least once a season will help the mower run smoothly, and lead to healthier grass (sharp blades cut cleanly, whereas dull blades smash and rip the grass blades which can increase the likelihood of disease).

Never attempt to remove the blade unless the spark plug is removed.

To remove the blade, you may need to place a block of wood or similar on the opposite of the blade in the direction you loosen the main bolt to hold the blade in place.

Use a large socket wrench with the correct size socket (5/8" in my case), and while standing on the block of wood, loosen the nut.

My blade was locked on pretty tight, so I had to use short length of pipe to extend the handle of my wrench to provide an extra bit of leverage to initially break it free.

Step 6: Sharpen the Blade

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Lawnmower blades are made with very mild (soft) steel, and don't require a lot of effort to sharpen.

Also, they don't have to be super sharp.

Many people use the term "butterknife-sharp" to indicate the ideal sharpness. You can sharpen your blade with a flat file, an angle grinder, bench grinder, rotary tool like a Dremel, or even 150 grit sandpaper.

I'd used several different methods in the past, but now I just use an angle grinder because it's quick and easy.

The goal is simply to remove any nicks or dents, and end up with a straight edge that's about as sharp as a butter knife.

For me, I just try to match the angle of the existing bevel and remove last years layer of grime. Unless there are large dings, this is usually enough to put a sharp enough new edge onto the blade.

If there are substantial dings or dents you may need to grind the edge down flat, and then grind a new bevel.

If the blade has been bent, or has larger dings or dents that you aren't comfortable trying to fix, you can take it to a professional or just simply purchase a new blade. (New blades are pretty cheap and will generally take less time to acquire than having someone try to fix your old one.)

While the blade is off the mower, I also take the time to scrape off any layers of gunk so the blade stays relatively balanced.

It's important to have a balanced blade. In the case of a very unbalanced blade your mower may vibrate excessively and cause undue wear on the engine.

To see if your blade is balanced, simply hang it on a nail (pounded perpendicularly into a wall) through the center hole and see how it hangs. If it doesn't hang balanced, grind off some additional material from the heavier side until it does.

Step 7: Clean Under Mower Deck

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With the blade off, I like to quickly clean out any gunk from the underside of the mower deck with a putty knife and a wire brush.

PRO TIP from several commenters: Spray the underside of the deck with nonstick cooking spray (like PAM) at least yearly, and rinse off the underside of the deck after every mowing. This will prevent a gunky buildup like you see on my mower. Excellent tip people, thank you!

Step 8: Re-install Blade

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The blade is then re-installed in the mower. Stand on a block of wood or other suitable material to keep the blade from spinning, and tighten the nut back in place.

This nut needs to be on very tight. Use a large wrench, and perhaps even an extension made from a pipe as I am doing in this photo, and put your weight into it.

If you've got a torque wrench, you can follow the torque settings outlined in your owner's manual.

Step 9: Install New Spark Plug

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Install the new spark plug by threading it in by hand until it can thread in no further. Use a wrench and the spark plug socket to tighten the plug an additional 1/8 to 1/4 turn.

Then fit the cable cap back over the end of the spark plug.

Step 10: Fill With Fresh Oil

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A four-stroke engine like mine takes common SAE 30 motor oil. Make sure you refill into the oil reservoir and NOT the gas tank. That would be very bad!

I poured 3/4 of my 18 ounce bottle of oil into the reservoir, and waited about a minute for the oil to run down from the sides of fill pipe into the tank. This way I can get an accurate measurement of the oil level when I install and remove the dipstick/cap to check the level.

I was a little low, so I added about an ounce at a time and checked the level a couple of times until the level was indicating full on the dipstick. See note in photo 2 for details.

Step 11: Recycle the Used Oil

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Put the used oil into a suitable bottle for recycling. Any auto parts store will take it free of charge.

Step 12: Miscellaneous

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If you want your mower to look shiny and new, give it a wipe down with damp cloth.

Look for loose bolts on the wheels and handle assembly, and tighten if needed.

Look for any other signs of problems. On mine, the top end of the drive cable is cracked (see photo 2), however it still functions as needed. It is now on my watch list though, so if/when it breaks I won't be surprised by it!

The throttle cable should be adjusted if it is feeling loose. Refer to your owner's manual for this if needed, as the adjustment method may vary depending on your model of mower.

Step 13: A Few Final Thoughts

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If you are proactive, you can repeat these steps during the mowing season if needed (if you're in an especially dusty place, for example).

When you put your mower away for the winter months, some people recommend draining out all the gas and attempting to start the mower a few times to flush the remaining gas out of the lines.

Alternately, you can fill mower tank with fresh gas and the appropriate amount of fuel stabilizer (like STA-BIL), and run the mower for a few minutes to circulate the stabilized fuel through the lines. This is actually what I do, and my mower has always started up perfectly with one pull each Spring.

Any remaining gas in my gas container in the fall I just put into my car to use up.

There are many opinions out there on mower maintenance. These tips are the basics of what I do each year, and my mower has been running smooth for several years.

If you have anything to add or think I've missed anything critical, please let me know in the comments. Thanks for taking a look!


Bill WW (author)2015-03-29

At the request of the author, attached are a few photos I took while installing a fuel filter on my lawnmower. My mower's engine is similar to the one featured in this Instructable. Yours may be different, but the steps should be similar. You should first drain all fuel from the tank.

1. Remove the plate under the filter, as shown in the photo 3 below.

2. You will now see the carburetor and the fuel line going to it (photo 4).

3. Cut the fuel line and install the filter (photo 1 and 2), using hose clamps.

It is likely that your fuel line will be 1/4", same as mine (check yours). Most any lawn mower fuel filter should work, as long as it has 1/4" connections.

seamster (author)Bill WW2015-03-30

Excellent Bill, thank you so much!

This looks like a simple upgrade that I may do as well.

beefsupreme (author)2015-03-29

This Spring is going to be heavy on lawn tool maintenance for me. Between a busted up chainsaw, tiller/cultivator and a lawnmower, this is a really useful start so thank you.

I'm concerned though that everybody in the comments is discussing the carb(uretor) but there's no mention of it in the post. What is it, how does it work, and what can I do to maintain it?

JustinP6 (author)beefsupreme2015-03-29

Maintains air fuel mixture. Id say just clean it.

seamster (author)beefsupreme2015-03-29

To be honest, that's beyond my current knowledge, and just a bit outside the scope of this tutorial.

However, here's the wikipedia entry on carburetors. Also, a quick search on "small engine carburetor" brings up a lot of good info, including this guide that applies specifically to my mower (at least).

There's a lot of info available out there for those that want to dig in past the basic maintenance level. But for entry-level general lawn mower maintenance, the items I've shared here should get you headed in the right direction. Best of luck with all those tools! :)

Lumpy Cheeseman (author)2016-09-17

As a professional small engine mechanic, I have to advise against StaBil. Maybe they have different formulations across the country, or maybe it's how it interacts with the different gas formulations across the country, but here in the Midwest (Wisconsin) I see a lot of mowers come in with fuel that has StaBil in it that just won't run on the fuel. General rule of thumb for today's ethanol gas is a 3-month or less shelf life.

Your better bet for storage is:
A. for carburetors with a drain plug, siphon/dump the gas tank, remove the drain plug and drain the fuel, then pull start a few times to run out whatever fumes may be left and then store. Use fresh fuel at beginning of season, and keep fuel fresh.

B. for carburetors without a drain plug, keep your fuel tank topped up, don't leave room for moisture or condensation, and once a month run it for 10-15 minutes at a time, and when done, top the tank off again. This keeps the fuel fresher, and keeps it cycling through, so as to not let it grow stale while sitting.

Either way, try to find a local station that has ethanol free gas, otherwise use premium. If you are going to use any additive at all, look for a local retailer that carries the Briggs and Stratton Five in One fuel additive. It's a far better alternative to StaBil.

The above procedures work on just about all your equipment, not just your lawnmower. Works for storing your mowers and riders during the winter, and your snowblowers in the summer.

Your 2 stroke equipment is a different story. Trimmers, cutters, etc, regardless of the time of year, if you wont be using it for at least a month, then drain the tank, keep priming it until the fuel stops running out of the tank at all, and then pull start several times to make sure lines and carb are completely empty, and then hang up and store. 2 stroke mix should be done in small batches, and not stored for longer than a month.

I commend you for mentioning blade balance, most folks dont realize or dont mention this.

One other thing to mention, is don't do your tuneups until you're about to use them for the season. If you do oil changes, and then run the machine before storing it, you've started the breakdown process in the chemicals in the oil, plus you're now leaving it to collect moisture over the off season, and then running it all the following season with accumulated moisture in the oil. If you wait until the start of your season, then the moisture accumulation will be minimal as it will pretty much burn off during your use during the season. Anyone thats ever had a head gasket failure on their car has often later found out what happens when moisture finds it's way into the oil ;)

Hope this all helps!

I get well over 6 months out of pre-mix oil/gas and over a year out of gasoline. I have one tractor that is used about 30-50 hours in one week per year. Never had a gasoline problem with it. Never drain it. It also has the same tires on it that were purchased in 1961.

Drake88 (author)Lumpy Cheeseman2017-06-08

My dad does most of his own mower work. He does the blade twice a year(mid-season and end-season), and the oil is done at the start of the season(when needed - buys expensive synthetic oil so he doesn't have to change it every year). The filters(gas and air) get done at the start of season, the air filter gets a second check mid-season(we get a lot of dust and junk sometimes).

BrendaH3 (author)2017-06-08

YES! Thank you so much! I've been looking for info on how to tune up my lawnmower all over the web -- found lots of written instructions, but needed photos and some suggestions, and most sites were just words. Kudos from a non-mechanically inclined sudden homeowner!

Flash635 (author)2015-03-29

My drain plug is located in such a way that it's impossible to get anything under it so the oil just spills out over the mower body.

bpark1000 (author)Flash6352015-03-30

Make a fitting with oil plug threads on one end, hose barb on the other. Put hose on barb. Tilt mower so oil drain is on high side. Remove oil plug, and replace with plug/hose. level mower, drain oil through hose. Tilt again, and switch to original plug. Level mower, and refill.

Flash635 (author)bpark10002015-03-30

That would probably work.

Drake88 (author)Flash6352017-06-08

An old mower of my parents(Sears) that I used to mow our lawn with had a oil drain plug that was above the deck(which had no hole to access the plug). My father(machinist/mechanic) took it to work one day. It came back a week later with a hole in the deck and a short extension tube(less than 2") that had the old plug hanging just even with the deck. He also re-conditioned the carburetor, fixed the cracked deck near a wheel(welded), and sharpened the blade using the $80,000 ruby-stone grinder they had for polishing certain parts. I'm not certain, but he might have even heat-treated the blade a bit - it didn't need sharpening for nearly two years ....

Syncubus (author)Flash6352017-06-08

Use aluminum foil (or cut up an aluminum can with scissors) to fashion a custom spout to direct the oil. Some mowers come with a plastic spout for this purpose that gets easily lost/never worked right anyway.

Harry Gumboot (author)Flash6352015-03-29

Can't you put the mower up on blocks?

fred3655 (author)Harry Gumboot2015-04-07

That's funny right there.

Flash635 (author)fred36552015-04-07

Heh, yeah.

Flash635 (author)Harry Gumboot2015-03-29

It wouldn't make any difference.
The oil would come out of the plug hole then fall about 1/4 inch to the mower body.

Take a grinder to it and remove whatever is in the way.

hagler (author)2015-04-07

One item to consider the drain plug for the mower is on the bottom of the case, which you can see in the photos above. The plug is removed by putting the 3/8" extension tip into the square recess in the plug.

Drake88 (author)hagler2017-06-08

Some have the plug, some do not. But if you do have an easy way to work under the deck while it is level, draining the oil using the bottom plug can be a pain(and even dangerous if you try removing it while the blade is on).

Some manuals even suggest the 'tilt' method because it is less problematic. If you cross-thread that bottom plug when replacing it, there is often NO possible way to fix it. I know someone who did this once with a 1 year old expensive mower - he ended up having a machinist re-thread the drain, and make a new plug for the new drain-hole(the machinist happened to be his son, which cost the owner little, except some pride for messing it up in the first place).

bennyj121 (author)hagler2015-04-13

My honda is a pain in that I have to tip the mower over, carb side up, and literally drain the oil from the full tube. What a pain in the butt.

Alternatively you can always use a siphon pump with a small hose

Syncubus (author)Lumpy Cheeseman2017-06-08

A cheap (dollar store) turkey baster can work as a siphon pump. Add a piece of plastic hose to get into smaller places.

Lumpy Cheeseman (author)hagler2016-09-17

Not all engines have this plug.

fred3655 (author)2015-03-24

Can anyone recommend a product or method to clean built up crud and varnish from an old carb? Or is it easier to just replace the carb assuming it's not too expensive?

taylor_s2 (author)fred36552015-03-25

If only the outside of the carb is dirty, and carb cleaner from an auto parts store will clean it right up. If it's dirty on the inside, does the engine still run well? You can spray inside the carb without harm. After the spring tune up, if the engine is running rough the carb is probably contaminated on the inside. Disassembly may be required to blow out the very small orifices. Sometimes it's easier to just replace the carb. It depends on your commitment and how much you value your mower. Personally, I consider mowers disposable. I don't spend to much on them. I replace them every 3-5 years.

oland1 (author)taylor_s22015-04-19

Ahem. Why would you consider a mower disposable? I've had a Sears lawn mower for almost 30 years with the engine running well. What eventually gave out was the rusted mower deck made of ordinary pressed sheet metal. I hope to remedy that by cannibalizing a metal deck from another machine.

We have to get back to a society that repairs and maintains rather than simply disposes and replaces to avoid landfills and economic waste.

Drake88 (author)oland12017-06-08

Part of the problem is that some cheaper lawn mowers are(intentionally or not) designed to be replaced every few years. Trying to buy parts or do much more than the most basic maintenance will quickly cost more than the mower itself did.

I've actually seen a couple of import lawn mowers from China. On one the deck is made from thin metal(I'm not sure what, but it is magnetic) and has a simple metal frame to support it that has the wheels attached to corner portions of the frame. The other one is basically the same, except the deck is actually a thick plastic. The motor sits on the frame while the deck is screwed to the frame in a few locations. If the user were to hit a rock or piece of metal while mowing, I wouldn't trust either deck to prevent the object from cracking or passing though the deck....

One 'advantage' to those cheap mowers - they are usually a lot easier to push because they are so light-weight.

Bayhop (author)oland12017-06-08

I agree 100%. Why throw it in the landfill when a little maintenance can prevent that. Plus save a little money.

perhans (author)oland12017-06-08


John Frum (author)oland12016-09-02

Landfill isn't the only issue. We've become a consumer society that only knows how to buy and sell, and have forgotten how to actually do things. That's why we now value beliefs over facts and knowledge. It leaves us highly vulnerable to bigger countries that are growing faster than we are.

Instead of spending $25 and a half hour on tuneup kits every year, we're spending $3-400 on mowers every 3-5 years. Besides it not being economic, it diminishes our mental and physical capacity.

Soon, no matter how many legal barriers we try to erect, the ambitious will overtake us. Superior logic can't be defeated indefinitely.

Bumbling Bee (author)oland12016-05-17

Well said Oland1. I don't want to pay higher landfill prices either or mess up the water I drink. I think I'm more considerate than that. But people call me stingy rather than considerate.

Syncubus (author)fred36552017-06-08

Aerosol "Carburetor Cleaner" is available at any auto parts store.

bpark1000 (author)fred36552015-03-30

There are commercial cleaners available. You can also use toluene of xylene. Sonic cleaners work miracles if you have one.

jvandeyacht (author)fred36552015-03-29

Its not difficult. Just pay attention to what goes where and open things carefully incase there are springs. I clean with diesel fuel and a brass gun cleaning brush. You can use carb cleaner from auto store but its just expenive stuff that evaporates fast. Best to replace gaskets but on small engines. . Reused gaskets will work considering you didn't rip the old ones. Blow out with compressed air when done cleaning then put together exactly the way it came apart. I do lawn mowers, weed eaters, motorcycles and snowmobiles. Just remember to pay attention to how it came apart and put together exactly the same and you will bo ok.

JGDean (author)2017-06-08

The recommended torque for installing the blade on a walk-behind mower is 38-50 ft-lbs, while riding lawnmowers generally need 70-90 ft-lbs.


If you don't have a torque wrench, just snug the bolt on a walk-behind mower up tight. Don't lean on it and certainly don't use a pipe to add extra force. This can either strip the threads of the bolt or even shear off the head!

jeane.d.allison (author)2015-04-19

Fantastic instructable for us newly single women who are trying to figure all these things out and keep the house afloat. But what if there's gas in the mower? Can it still be tipped? How do you get it out if need be?

When tipping the mower to the side to drain the oil, or service the blade, always tip to the exhaust side (muffler), never tip to the carb (air filter) side as it can lead to oil running through the crankcase vent, into the carb, and then into the cylinder where it will foul the plug and flood the cylinder.

4onthefloor48 (author)2015-03-30

One thing I do is i always add stabilizer to every gas can of lawn mower fuel I use. Especiallty the two cycle gas can. Just a little added insurance. Have had no carb. Issues since doing that. Also drain the fuel and run the motor dry. Maybe a little anal , but works for me.

Very true about stabalizer being a waste during mowing season,but with my memory not being what it used to be, better for me to add it at every tank full. Gives me peace of mind for very little added cost. To each his own I guess !

bpark1000 (author)4onthefloor482015-03-30

Gas and oil mixed is not stable, even with stabilizer. The oil loses it lubricative power quickly when mixed with gasoline. Ideally you should mix each tank as you need it. During the mowing season, using stabilizer is a waste as you are regularly using the engine. It is during prolonged storage that you need the stabilizer.

michael.schueszler (author)2015-03-25

When my mower was only a couple of years old I struggled to figure out why it would sputter, speed up, and slow down randomly. It turns out since the carb on these motors are usually very small when you clean them you have to make sure it is completely dry inside all of the passes before you put it back together (i.e. blow it out with compressed air). Because the parts were mostly plastic I cleaned it with water and simple green rather than risk deteriorating the small plastic parts and rubber O-rings with carb cleaner. If there is a drop of water in one of these passes it has nowhere to evaporate to and it will result in your mower running poorly indefinitely.

I would find that hard to believe! If the engine is running, any liquid contamination in the carburetor will be flushed out and gone in a few minutes. What the water in the carb will do is make it a pain to start. (If this happens a few drops of gasoline in the intake pipe, then replace the air filter, will get things going to flush out and evaporate water from engine heat). Where water causes trouble "indefinitely" is in the gas tank or in the air filter element.

That is really good to know, thank you for the tip!

steve000 (author)2015-03-30

Good instructable. A thing I always do is I use a 250ml water bottle that I emptied and dried long ago to mix 2 stroke fuel that way I don't make too much and waste it. I read once that some massive number of liters or gallons of fuel goes to waste from lawn care related disposal. I try and share it between tools. When I have finished the slasher I pour it out into the chainsaw etc.
I also learnt that on a riding mower 4 blades are better than 2, it uses a bit more fuel to spin 4 but each blade only has to cut half as much so it kind of works out in the economy stakes. I get a good 4-5 hours out of my 800cc 16hp ride on. which is about 6liters or 1.5gallons.
Also don't over fill fuel containers, its a pain to empty them as pouring is so hard to get started without it splashing all over the place. I did find putting some hose into the container while pouring speeds it up immensely as the hose allows the air to enter.

Thanks for posting this. Hopefully in coming years we wont need to worry about small engine maintenance and instead have to worry about battery and electric motor maintenance.

seamster (author)steve0002015-03-30

Thank you for the excellent and thoughtful comment! I've never heard of using four blades like that. That's an interesting idea.

steve000 (author)seamster2015-03-31

Most push mowers cant take it without a custom plate made up. It does put more strain on the engine but in heavy stuff its actually less strain so it kind of evens out. I wouldn't recommend for light, well manicured grass

mikeasaurus (author)2015-03-23

These are all good tips.

Where does 'swift kick' and 'rage quit' fit into this when the mower still doesn't start?

seamster (author)mikeasaurus2015-03-23

Ah, that's step 14, which is followed by step 15: "Go buy new mower."

I guess logically, Step 16 would then be "Take apart old mower; turn it into X."

(What would you turn an old broken mower into?)

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