While bad fuel and a dead battery remain the primary reasons a modern outboard might leave you in the lurch, another area that deserves your frequent mechanical attention is the propshaft. The propshaft connects the pinion bearings of the lower gearcase with the propeller. It's the one part of the outboard that makes the passage from the cozy, lube-drenched confines of the mechanical womb out into the harsh, unfriendly environment of air and water. The two propshaft seals act as a membrane around the shaft to keep water from entering the gearcase. If these seals fail, it will cost you big bucks. Here's a simple propshaft inspection routine you can follow to help avoid seal failure.
Let's assume your boat is on a trailer or at least out of the water. Start by shifting the motor into neutral, removing the key from the ignition and pulling the kill switch to prevent any chance of accidental starting of the motor why you are working around the prop.
One of my service experts, marine technician Dan Jansen of Mr. Marine in Fond du Lac, Wis., (www.mrmarineinc.com), specializes in rigging and servicing high-performance bass and walleye boats, craft that see a lot of hours and a lot of abuse to the prop area from striking bottom. He starts by tilting up the motor to get the prop to a comfortable working height, and then gives the prop a spin.
"If you watch the end of the shaft, and sort of line it up with an object behind it, you should be able to see if there's any wobble when you spin the prop," said Jansen. "If it's wobbling, the shaft is bent and that needs to be fixed."
Boating with a bent shaft is like driving with a wheel out of balance - it will put a lot of stress on those propshaft seals and on the bearings that support the shaft. I watched Jansen use a dial gauge clamped to an outboard skeg to check the run out on a suspect shaft. He said run out of 0.007-inch is acceptable by Mercury service specs, and that you can notice a shaft with 0.015-inch with your eye.
Next give the prop a quick inspection. See if the blades are in the same plane when you spin it, and check for bent blades or bad dings in the blades. A bent prop won't perform well, and will also spin out of balance, again putting undo stress on the shaft seals and bearings. You might feel this through the wheel or tiller, although hydraulic steering can mask this vibration. A good prop shop can repair minor blade damage.
Now you'll want to remove the propeller. You'll need a socket (a 1 1/16th-inch nut is the most common size on mid-size to V6 motors) and a screwdriver to do this job. Use the screwdriver to bend up the tabs on the lock washer that fits under the prop nut. We used a Mercury 125 for our example in these photos. Some other brands have a slightly different style lock nut, and some older motors use a cotter pin that you'll need to pull out with a pliers.
Place a piece of wood — Jansen has a nice pine 4x4 — between a prop blade and the anti-ventilation plate to keep the prop from turning when you loosen the nut. Spin off the nut and lock washer and then slide the prop off the shaft. On our Merc, the composite Flo-Torque prop hub slides out of the prop first. On other brands splines in the prop hub mate to the shaft, and the prop will just pull off. Unless it's stuck on there due to corrosion. In which case you might need to smack it with a rubber mallet a few times. Behind the prop is the thrust washer. Slide this off next and pay close attention to which way it should go back on. The prop shaft is tapered, and the inside of the washer is tapered to match so it should only slide all the way down the shaft when it's on correctly. Jansen always wipes off the thrust washer and inspects it for wear.
"If it looks like the washer has been spinning under the prop, it may be because the prop nut was not adequately tightened," said Jansen. "If the thrust washer wears down, it can allow the hub of the prop to run on the gear case. The main thing is to remember to put the washer back on. I've serviced three motors already this year with no thrust washer because the owner forgot to replace it."
Your main goal here is to keep the prop shaft well-lubed so that the propeller does not corrode itself permanently to the shaft. Jansen likes a Merc product called Quicksilver 101 Lubricant, and he is liberal in its application to the shaft. Grease that thing up, drop on the thrust washer and prop, and using your wood scrap to hold the prop in place, tighten the nut. The torque spec for a Merc 2.5-liter outboard is 55 ft. lbs., which is pretty tight if you don't have a torque wrench handy. If the lock-washer tabs don't line up with the slots on the hub, tighten the nut a little more - NEVER loosen the nut to make the lock tabs fit. Jansen and the Merc service manual suggest retightening the nut after you've run the outboard once and thrust has seated all the parts.
While that prop is off, you've also got a chance to inspect the outer seal, which is right behind the thrust washer. This area is always going to be greasy from the prop shaft lube, but if you see anything that looks like 90-weight gear lube, a seal could be leaking. Other signs of trouble might be a little dribble of lube on the ground below the gear case when the boat is parked for awhile, or any signs of oil in the water around the motor. Of course if the prop shaft is bent, it could be causing the seals to leak. However, the most-common cause of propshaft seal failure is fishing line that gets wrapped around the shaft. I'll cover that unfortunate event in my next column.
Iron Fist: The Lives of Carl Kiekhaefer
When writing last week's column, I should have mentioned that a key source of information on the history of the Mercury test center at Lake X was the book Iron Fist: The Lives of Carl Kiekhaefer by Jeffrey Rodengen. Originally published in 1991 and recently back in print, this biography tells the incredible story of Mercury founder Carl Kiekhaefer's life. Kiekhaefer got into the outboard business in 1939 when he bought an industrial building in rural Wisconsin that contained a stock of Sea King outboards that were rejected by Montgomery Ward.
Rather than scrap the motors, Kiekhaefer made the Sea King kickers run, and then sold them to Wards. In a few months Wards ordered more outboards, and within decades Mercury Marine became the largest manufacturer of marine propulsion in the world.
The book details the rise of Mercury Marine, how Kiekhaefer's auto racing teams dominated NASCAR in the mid-1950s, the development of Mercury snowmobiles and other products, and of course, the construction of Lake X. At 696 pages (with 122 photos), this book is quite a read that sometimes gets bogged down in details. But it's a fascinating look at how one very determined man could come to dominate an entire industry. You can order a copy for $29.95 from Write Stuff Books at www.writestuffbooks.com.
Editor's Note: Charles Plueddeman is the editor at large for Boating, the nation's largest boating magazine.