Mower Kicks Back--Replace the Flywheel Key





Introduction: Mower Kicks Back--Replace the Flywheel Key

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first ...

Your mower does not start. Sometimes it fires weakly, but yanks the starter cord from your hand.

Your flywheel key is sheared and it needs to be replaced. The flywheel moved and sheared the key. Now the engine timing is very much incorrect. The spark comes at a time that makes the engine want to run backwards, but it cannot.

As a safety precaution, always remove the spark plug wire before working on a small engine.

Step 1: Why?

The flywheel key shears to protect the crankshaft from twisting, which would cause a very expensive repair. A soft key allows the flywheel to move on the crankshaft when your mower blade hits a tree root, an old stump, a large dried clod of dirt, etc. If the mower blade is loose, that will cause enough shock to shear the flywheel key, too.

Pictured is a repair I made to the blade holder. It had two raised tips to fit the blade slot. Those had become battered and the blade had some looseness, no matter how tight the center bolt was. I drilled out the tips and replaced them with hardened bolts. (Because of space limitations, I had to grind one side of each bolthead away at the top of the blade holder. This blade is actually a thatching blade. Somehow it is causing flywheel keys to shear. I think I will no longer use a thatching blade on this mower.)

Step 2: A New Key

Although sold by Sears, my mower engine is made by Tecumseh. There are several flywheel keys used on Tecumseh engines. Even if your mower is sold by Sears, you can take the Sears model number to your local mower shop and they can find the correct key for you. The key shown is part number 611004. It has a wider, thicker portion at one end. That end faces down on my engine. I was assured the key and flywheel would fit only when the key is in the correct position. (The photo is from Google Images.) A new key is about one dollar (US) in cost.

Step 3: Begin

The first step is to remove the gasoline tank. You will need to remove the oil dipstick first and set it aside someplace clean where it will not attract dirt. Set the tank aside, even though connected by its rubber hose. Set it with the cap upward so gasoline will not leak out. Also remove the red cooling shroud.

Step 4: Prepare to Loosen the Flywheel

Most people will not have a factory issue flywheel puller in their toolbox. You do not need one, if you are careful. Remove the starter rope cup and put the nut back onto the threaded portion of the crankshaft. Turn it until the face of the nut is exactly flush with the top of the crankshaft.

Step 5: Pry and Tap Sharply

Use a long screwdriver to pry from below the flywheel. Do not pry too hard. You do not want to crack the crankcase. At the same time, tap sharply on the nut. The nut protects the threads. Turn the flywheel a quarter turn after 3 or 4 taps. It will come loose more easily than you would expect. When it breaks loose, remove the nut and lift the flywheel off.

Step 6: Remove the Old Key Fragments

The old key will come out in pieces. Use a finish nail to pry what is left out of its keyway.

Step 7: Insert the New Key

Insert the new key with the wider, thicker end downward. You can see the new key properly installed on the shaft.

In the photo the green spring attaches to the automatic engine brake. Before placing the flywheel back onto the crankshaft, tie the dead man's clutch lever against the mower handle so it is held as when you are mowing.

Step 8: Install Flywheel

Place the flywheel on the crankshaft. It should slide down smoothly over the new key. Oil the threads on the end of the crankshaft. Place the cup, the washer, and the nut onto the crankshaft. Begin to tighten. Never pry against the flywheel cooling fins. They break easily. Turn the flywheel a couple of times to make certain it turns smoothly and nothing is obstructing it. If you did not tie back the dead man's clutch, you will hear a terrible scraping sound. Torque the flywheel nut. The recommended specifications are usually around 33 foot pounds. On some engines the figure will be 35 or 39 foot pounds. In general, if you are shearing a lot of flywheel keys for no reason, the nut is not yet tight enough.

Step 9: Top Off the Oil

When turning the engine while the oil fill is open you are certain to have some oil belch out of the engine. Top off the engine with new oil. Usually you fill to the level of the opening.

When you place the cooling shroud back onto the engine, you will guide the oil fill tube back into the fill hole on the engine. There is a rubber gasket that goes around the fill tube. It is easy for this to become separated from the fill tube during removal. Be sure this gasket is in place before you finish.

When all of the shrouds are back in place, untie the dead man's clutch and put the spark plug wire back onto the spark plug. Check the oil just to be safe. Push the primer bulb three times. Grab the dead man's clutch and pull the rope. The engine should start on the first pull of the rope.



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22 Discussions

Hi I had a question since I am not really that mechanical with engines. My JS40 Walk behind mower was running ok and then all of a sudden I went to start it and the pull chord just locks up and will not turn the flywheel. First I thougt it was a spark plug so I replaced it. nothing. Then I seen it could be a flywheel key and I removed it and it looks perfectly fine? Any advise? Because the chord is still working off the engine but so hard to pull and make the flywheel move?

1 reply

If you take the spark plug out, can you turn the engine by means of the mower's blade, or is it very difficult to turn? (Do not turn the engine with your hand on the blade underneath unless you have removed the spark plug. You do not want it to start accidentally with your hand under the mower.) If you remove the plastic oil fill tube, is there oil up to the top of the engine casting where the plastic fill tube fits into the hole on the metal crankcase casting, or can you barely see any oil? I am wondering if the engine was run without enough oil and the rings may have seized in the cylinder. You can try putting a spoonful of oil in the spark plug hole and slowly turning the engine slowly in a clockwise direction to see if it loosens up. (I once ran a small 2-cycle engine with a gas oil mixture that was too old. After a few minutes the engine rings seized. I thought I had ruined the engine, but a little oil in the spark plug hole after letting it cool and slowly turning it with a long wrench brought it back.) it will probably be best if you keep the mower level so oil does not flow into parts of the engine where it does not belong,


I hit a rock in my yard and my Briggs and Stratton mower stopped running. It sounded like the most common issue with this would be the fly wheel key. I took mower apart and replaced the fly wheel key and tried to start the mower. The mower started but with low power and only lasted about 30 seconds. I then did this all over again with the same results. This time I heard a bit of rattling before it died. Any suggestions on what this might be?

1 reply

The flywheel key is supposed to prevent damage to the crankshaft by absorbing the sudden deceleration and shearing. If and when it does not, there is the possibility the crankshaft bent. Remove the spark plug and set the mower up on its side, the side that does not allow the oil to get into everything. Look at the crankshaft closely as you turn the blade. Is there any wobble? There are ways to straighten a crankshaft. It might be time for a different crankshaft from a donor engine, or a different engine.

I have lawn mower Craftsman model # 917.377823.
I am having
problem to fix it. flywheel key has been sheared , I did replace key on new one.
After I was able to start engine for testing, after running engine about 2
minutes I turned off engine, but after I could not start it back. After
dissembling I realized it sheared key again. Any advice about this problem will
be appreciated.

Thank you in advance.

1 reply

I ran into the same problem. I found the torque specifications for the crankshaft nut on my engine. I believe it was around 30 or 35 foot pounds. That was just the minimal amount needed to keep the flywheel from shearing the key again. More would have helped, but I am cautious about torquing more than specified.

Phil B,
I just took apart my lawn mower, replaced the key, put it back together and she runs like new!

2 hours, including improvising a jig for my bearing puller and a trip to the hardware store for a new key. Next time I could do it in 30 minutes.

Thank you very much Phil!


1 reply

Bill, Welcome to Instructables. I am glad you found my Instructable and that it solved your problem. I hope you enjoy Instructables. I am eager to see anything you might want to publish here. Once I had a situation that caused our mower to shear the flywheel key often. I eventually made timing marks on the engine shrouds so I could check the timing before the work of tearing into the engine. Here is the AC powered timing light I made.

My B&S mower stopped working after running over a small piece of styrofoam. Initially, it would sputter for about 10 seconds before dying. Now it does that the first try, and nothing after that. I'm not much of a repair guy, but I've checked the carb, gas line, replaced filter, spark plug, gas & oil, & cleaned everything out with compressed air. Thought it might be the flywheel key, but couldn't get the 15/16˝ nut that covers it off, even with PB Blaster and a blowtorch. Starting to think I should bite the bullet and take it to a repair shop, but worried about the cost. Anything I missed?

3 replies

Please add to the checklist below a look for loose screws or hardened gaskets that do not allow the carburetor body to seal completely against the intake mount on the engine block. This is something that you cannot detect visually, but any screw even a quarter of a turn loose can allow air to leak into the gas/air mixture. That makes the mixture extra lean and lessens the engine's ability to draw fuel into the combustion chamber. If gaskets are ten or so years old, they are probably too hard to seal well. You can get some gasket material and cut your own gaskets using the old gasket or the flange on the carburetor as a guide.

I've checked many of these things already. I need to check compression and the carburetor diaphragm - it could very easily be one of those. Thanks a lot for the thorough check list!

The symptoms you describe seem to be consistent with an engine timing problem caused by a sheared or partially sheared flywheel key. I have always been able to remove the flywheel nut on the crankshaft with a long wrench handle and the blade as levers to work against one another. That must have been some piece of Styrofoam.

I usually go through a process of steps when checking a small engine to discover why it will not run. You may have already covered these. Be sure to look at the final paragraph marked "IMPORTANT." It is crucial on certain popular B & S engines.

Clean, fresh fuel?

Fuel flows into the carburetor float bowl freely?

No dirt obstructing the idle mixture screw valve?

Clean air filter? (Test by removing the air filter and starting the engine. Air filters can appear clean to the eye, but are not.)

Adequate compression? (If you have a compression tester, you need 60 psi at minimum. Or, if you spin the top of the flywheel clockwise rapidly by hand, it should bounce back in the reverse direction on the compression stroke, not just stop and wheeze a little.)

Clean, "new" spark plug? (Spark plugs can appear clean, but degrade with age so that they do not fire under the pressure of the compression stroke.)

A good blue spark when the engine is cranked? (Remove the spark plug from the engine, but leave it attached to the plug wire. Wrap some bare copper wire around the threads and fasten the wire to the engine frame for a good ground. Deactivate any "dead man clutch" that cuts the spark out. Spin the mower engine and look for a blue spark. The fatter the spark, the better.)

Engine timing? (This is the matter addressed in this Instructable. It is necessary to remove the nut and washer holding the flywheel on the crankshaft and seeing if the keyways in both the flywheel and the crankshaft align exactly.

IMPORTANT--Many vertical shaft B & S engines use a rubber diaphragm in the carburetor. This diaphragm is about 2.5 x 3.5 inches in size (just guessing from memory) and it has a stiff wire fastened to its center. After 5 or 6 years these diaphragms stretch and do not pulse properly any longer so that the choke plate is not controlled properly in the carburetor. Unscrew the top half of the carburetor after removing the air filter and replace the diaphragm if the mower is more than 5 years old. There is no way to tell visually that this diaphragm is defective, but replacing it makes a big change in the way the engine starts.

I think one of these checklist items should help you find the problem.

Very good instrucatable!

The comment about oil on the flywheel taper is correct. There must be no oil on the taper, but light oil on the thread. (better too little oil on the thread than too much.)

The taper works by friction, which is why the nut must be tightened to a correct torque.
The key is only to locate the flywheel and ensure the timing, which is indeed what the instructable here tells us :-)

Nice instructable! Simple and to the point. You even have some reminders for an experienced small engine mechanic!

1 reply

Thank you very much. I also take things apart just because I can, as you said in your profile.

The part of the crank shaft that the flywheel touches should be clean and dry.
I got some oil on mine and the key sheared again when I mowed over a stick. spraying on some brake cleaner got the misplaced oil out when replacing the key for the second time. I agree that the threads for the nut need oil sparingly.

1 reply

Your comment makes a lot of sense. The flywheel is held in place by a compression fit on the tapered shaft. Oil would have the effect of making the fit less secure. The key really has very little holding power. Thank you for the comment.

Thank you so much for this Instructable. I just did in 15 minutes what I paid a "mobile lawnmower medic" too much to mention to do last year after waiting for two weeks for him to show up. You should have seen my grin when the mower started up again.

1 reply