Cutting The Deck: Cutting Deck Designs

Durable, versatile and efficient cutting decks will polish off a mower's power.

Choosing a mower compares to ordering a meal at a gourmet restaurant. Countless side dishes accompany rows of entrees, their extravagant names could stump a spelling bee champ, and the right side of the menu can ruin the whole flavor.

However, translating Tarte au Pommes is like decoding equipment vernacular – what sounds like a gobble of words is really just apple pie. Once contractors know what will fill their plates and satisfy their application needs, they can select each course – each mower component – and feed their appetite for productivity, quality and profitability.

This means remembering the meat and potatoes: the cutting deck. Without it, a dinner presentation is bland.

"The features and power of a mower are of little value without a quality cutting deck," pointed out Gilbert Pena, manager of market development, commercial mowing, John Deere Turf Care, Moline, Ill. "You might want the most power you can get, but if you don’t cover your bases on quality of cut, you will not be productive because you will have too many passes, your customer will not be satisfied or you will have more maintenance and downtime."

Cutting deck construction includes more than metal, blades and pretty paint. Along with size, depth, blade tip speed and maintenance ease, contractors also should consider features from floating decks to anti-scalp rollers. And the fusion of these elements to create a savory dish is, "almost more of an art than a science," described Art Evans, president, Dixie Chopper, Coatesville, Ind.

Cutting Deck Do's

When examining a mower’s deck for high-performance features, don’t cut out these considerations:

  • 7- to 10-gauge steel construction
  • Reinforcement plates
  • Blade tip speed
  • Availability of mulching kit or grass catcher kit
  • Ease of maintenance
  • Deckpan deck
  • Anti-scalp rollers
  • Floating deck
  • Airflow
  • Discharge
  • Belt- or shaft-powered drive
  • Cutting height adjustment increments
  • Sufficient horsepower
  • Appropriate deck size for cutting application

- Kristen Hampshire

IMPECCABLE SERVICE. Efficiency yields productivity, which creates profit. Contractors want a mower that will return their investment time and again. "They want to mow one pass at 8 to 10 mph, get a quality, finished cut and leave the yard looking striped like a ball diamond with no clippings," Evans described.

However, mowing more means paying attention to four key efficiency issues, Pena noted. "If you are going to be efficient when running the machine, make sure your maintenance is easy, you can quickly adjust your cut height, and you have a good, quality cut and trimability," he listed.

First, accessibility allows for easy upkeep, Pena explained. "If maintenance is easy, there is a higher chance that it will get done on a regular schedule," he reasoned, noting that spindle and blade access are common daily service points.

Along those lines, the fewer tools required to care for the mower, the more likely an operator is to care for high-use parts, Pena said. In some cases, one wrench might loosen the bottom of a blade while another hand tool unscrews the top of the deck. A one-tool-fits-all mower lessens daily maintenance chores.

Dick Tegtmeier, president and chief executive officer, Encore Mfg., Beatrice, Neb., said some contractors are swaying toward cutting decks that have blade spindles without grease fittings on the bearings, which require replacement rather than constant care. These parts seldom are replaced, he added.

"If you break a seal on a bearing, that’s when dirt and debris get into the bearing and your mower life is shortened," he described. "Some mowers have the bearings sealed and no grease fittings and therefore the bearings last longer."

Simplicity extends beyond maintenance to functions operators adjust on the job, such as cutting height. If changing this measurement is inconvenient, contractors might avoid catering the cutting height to soil and grass conditions, which, ultimately, can sabotage quality, Pena said. "Different customers in different seasons will require different heights of cut," he noted.

Smaller increments deliver precision, so ½-inch increments are preferable, Pena advised. "Smaller increments are also more responsive to customers’ demands," he added.

Quality – another efficiency key – is trickier than tweaking a lever or tightening a few screws, however. If a mower doesn’t cut well on the first pass, contractors can spend twice as long on a property retracing their path to produce a finished look to please clients. Trimability, or how well a mower clips hard-to-reach spots, contributes to cut quality and saves time, Pena noted.

Less time with a trimmer creates more time for careful cutting. Combine trimability with maximum tip speed, and contractors could save a bundle, Tegtmeier said. A sluggish or overzealous tip speed will not produce polished results. American National Safety Institute (ANSI) standards limit speed to 19,000 feet per minute, and the pulleys that drive the blades should be sized to reach that maximum speed, Tegtmeier explained.

"If you go too fast, you could be in jeopardy with the courts if someone gets injured," he added. "Ask the dealer: What is the blade tip speed of the mower?"

Contractors who opt for maximum tip speed are choosing efficiency, added Tom Benjamin, Mow’n Machine product manager, Woods Equipment Co., Rockford, Ill. "The higher the speed, the better the cut and the productivity," he said.

Purchase Picks

    Before investing in a mower, contractors need to consider various features - from the engine to the blades - before putting a dent in their budgets. The cutting deck is part of this package, pointed out Gilbert Pena, manager of market development for commercial mowing, John Deere Turf Care, Moline, Ill. Here, some smart shopping tips to keep in mind:

    • Look for a full service dealer so repair services and acquiring replacement parts is not inconvenient.
    • Check for clear, concise operator decals that are bilingual.
    • Ask for a demonstration.
    • Consider ease of maintenance.
    • Measure trimability - how clean is the cut?
    • Compare various brands for quality.
    • Ask about the warranty period.
    • Obtain referrals.

    - Kristen Hampshire

MAIN INGREDIENTS. Without the nuts and bolts, there is no bon apetit. Strong is the staple for cutting deck construction so parts can stand up to tough terrain and intensive use. This strength starts with the steel.

"The thicker the gauge, the stronger and the smaller the number, the thicker the steel," Pena said. "Sometimes people are misled and think that a 13-gauge is thicker than 7-gauge, and it is the opposite."

In addition, material should be equally thick on the top and sides of the deck, Pena said. "If you have a lot of sandy soil, those blades are throwing a lot of sand along with the grass. The skirt is not as thick as the top, and the soil could blast a hole in the left side of the deck."

To enhance strength, contractors also should inspect high-impact areas, such as the bottom edge of the deck, for reinforcement, Benjamin suggested.

Just as stronger is better, deeper is duly so. "With the deepest deck and highest lift blade, the mower should do a tremendous job vacuuming and bagging," Tegtmeier noted.

Pena added that deeper decks create a tighter vacuum, the airflow trapping grass underneath the deck and standing it up so blades can clip grass neatly and evenly. "That means in wet conditions, the mower can handle the capacity of grass because of the airflow," he explained.

Accompanying a deep deck with a wide discharge shoot disperses grass. "Imagine a 60-inch deck with three blades trying to send the grass to the right side," Pena described. "That is a wide mower deck, so the wider the discharge shoot and the better the airflow, the better the grass dispersal will be."

When examining cut necessities, contractors also need to tune into the blades – the type, quantity and arrangement, Benjamin said. Serrated cutting tip blades break up grass if the operator is mulching the property, and coated blades, such as tungsten carbide blades, can triple the wear life. Regardless of the material, changing blades and sharpening them daily enhances the cut.

Furthermore, overlapping blades ensure the user is not missing grass, Pena said.

Sound cutting deck construction also allows mowers to level lawns, leaving little to trim.

"If you have a deck that’s warped, you can tell," Tegtmeier commented. "Picture one side of the deck being up, and if you mow around and around, it multiplies itself and compounds. You can notice it right away – it’s just not a manicured lawn."

HEARTY PORTIONS. Cutting decks come in several sizes – some suitable for jobs like large expanses and others designed for squeezing into tight spaces. Adding more inches requires characteristics to prevent sloppy cutting, Pena pointed out.

"The large size has to be compensated with features that give you a quality of cut," he noted, suggesting anti-scalp rollers or floating decks, and reiterating the importance of overlapping blades. "When you get to uneven terrain, the likelihood of scalping or cutting down to the dirt is increased."

Floating decks extend from chains or bolts with springs on them so the mower deck can hug terrain contours, he described. Where a rigid deck, often found on smaller-sized models, can cut through the ground when climbing out of ruts or crossing berms, the floating deck will skim over turf.

In addition, fully floating decks provide contractors with optimum cut quality, Benjamin said. "If the deck just floats from side to side and you are coming out of ditches and you can’t float from front to rear, you may end up scalping or leaving patches of tall grass where the deck was not able to follow the contour," he described.

Anti-scalp rollers also ensure minimal scalping, Benjamin added. Depending on the deck size, mowers will need rollers positioned on the left, right, front and rear. Decks larger than 50 inches also might have wheels positioned in the center of the front and rear.

Despite extra features needed to bolster the cutting capabilities of sizeable decks, contractors sway toward these models for productivity purposes, Pena said. "The wider the cut, the quicker you get done," he related.

Evans put it simply – "Yes, size matters. You need the biggest deck you can practically use with the most power you can get on it."

Fifty-, 60- and 72-inch decks rank highest in popularity among contractors, Benjamin said. However, before running with the masses when deciding on deck size, operators must consider their applications and the machine’s horsepower, he said.

"Smaller decks are used in areas where there is a lot of landscape hazards or tight places the mower needs to get into," he noted, adding that grass type also dictates deck size requirements. "In Florida, contractors go with a smaller deck because the grass grows so quickly and the type of grass just seems to tax the mower and the deck more."

No matter the turf type, contractors can’t achieve a clean cut without power to move the machine. Outfitting the mower with a power pack to match the deck size ensures efficiency, Benjamin said. "You can’t drive a 72-inch deck with little horsepower," he noted.

A LA CARTE. Several on-the-side options complement cutting decks, and more manufacturers are catering new designs to please their consumers’ palates. "Now, people are looking for options," Tegtmeier observed.

Evans agreed that versatility creates productivity. "Mowers are kind of like a sprint car – you should be able to set them up for the task at hand," he compared. "The cutting deck should have some flexibility in design. Buying just a mulching deck to mow grass 365 days a year will work as well as using your snowblower all year in Atlanta."

This is why attachments allow contractors to tailor equipment to turf conditions – add mulching kits to handle wet, heavy grass or hook up a floating deck kit to lessen scalping. Also, operators gain more command over the machine with extras like operator-controlled discharge chutes, which allow users to open and close a gate on the end of the deck to adjust the discharge, Evans said.

These extensions dress the full package – operators truly need a combination platter of features to achieve productivity, efficiency and quality, Evans said. What is the most important mower characteristic? "All of the above," he answered without a pause.

The author is Associate Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

August 2001
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