Huddled like sheep in a pen, dozens of lawn mowers crowd the back alley of Jeffrey Lundberg's mower shop in Vienna, Va.
Soon, they will be sent out to graze in narrow rowhouse yards, in sweeping suburban pastures, along the grassy edges between highway and sidewalk. But before they are returned to their owners, they will get the Jeff Lundberg treatment.
In his workshop, I find that he has wrangled a silver-and-red Honda mower onto his workbench. He takes a wrench to the double blades, removes them and cleans the deck of dried grass crud before moving on to a transmission cog, which is cleaned before getting a squirt of lubricant.
There is something agreeably old-fashioned and constant about this low-tech motorhead haven: The air is perfumed with a faint mix of gasoline and solvent, the radio is putting out some rock music, and Lundberg and two other technicians add their own music with bursts from compressed-air tools.
"Let's sharpen the blades," he says, handing me a pair of safety glasses and taking me to meet the grindstone. This involves a journey through the showroom of Lundberg's Vienna Lawnmower Sales and Service, where mowers, chain saws and other pieces of outdoor machinery are sold.
The twin-wheeled grindstone is tucked behind one of the showroom walls. On the coarser stone, he makes two or three smooth passes that put a bright edge on the blade, before turning it over to grind the blade on the finer wheel. He sharpens the other side, checks the balance and skims here and there to even the weight. The job creates a fireball of sparks. He seems not to notice them.
Lundberg is only 32, but his skills seem as honed as his blades. He has been working here since 1997. He was still in his 20s when he bought the business from the former owners, who were retiring. "I was in high school, I was mechanical, working on cars. I had a friend who worked here and I asked if I could come and help. I got completely hooked."
He leads me to another bay where dozens of mowers are placed in rows, and then we go outside into the alley, where the numbers grow even greater. Most of them are red, some are dark green, some lime green. The mowers start to appear in January and will peak in a couple of weeks, just as the grass begins to stir. "We have 250 mowers right now and 375 jobs," he says.
He laments the fact that customers didn't drop off their mowers in November and December; I'm just amazed that so many people have had the foresight to be this far ahead of the curve. (I once reached urgently for my lawn mower and mice came out of it.)
But Lundberg has so many mowers to work on at this time of year that he and his employees spend two hours a day just moving the machines in and out of the premises to secure them at night.
The tuneup ($73 plus parts) typically includes changing the oil, spark plug and air cleaner. Lundberg and fellow technicians also lubricate cables, tighten nuts, adjust belts and clean the carburetor. Ethanol in gas causes water to build up, which makes running rough or impossible after a winter in the shed.
About 80 percent of his customers are homeowners, the others mom-and-pop commercial landscapers. He has a few ride-on mowers, but most are self-propelled, gasoline-powered walk-behinds with 21-inch blades.
The scene in the workshop looks almost timeless — not Currier and Ives, but certainly Ozzie and Harriet — though the world of mowers has changed since even Lundberg got into the game: Basic push mowers have fallen out of favor, and reel or cylinder mowers are tough to find, as green as they are. (They also cut the grass too short for our climate.)
Electric-cord mowers are okay, but there are a lot of low-quality models out there, Lundberg says, and the cord stretches only so far.
He says that cordless, rechargeable electric mowers still aren't up to the job of a quarter-acre lot. He sold them but found out that their advertised battery charge life of 45 minutes turned out to be about 12 minutes. He stopped selling them. "I think the battery technology is still a few years away," he said.
The bigger change has been less obvious. To find better-quality mowers, you have to beat a path to a dealer: The mass merchandisers might sell the same brands, but the mowers they stock, typically, are models of lesser quality to achieve a price point.
Decks are of thinner steel instead of aluminum, the wheels might be bearingless and short-lived, and the transmissions are not as strong.
Lundberg sells both mass-market and high-quality mowers; the less expensive ones are in the mid- to upper $300s and will last eight to 10 years with annual maintenance, he says. The higher-grade dealer models start in the low $500s. "This is my most expensive," he said, gesturing to a $629 Toro. With care, he said, it should last 15 to 18 grass-cutting seasons.
Soon after buying the business in 2008, the market stagnated. "People stopped buying the high-end machines," he said. "It's slowly beginning to come around."
After a few minutes of chatting, Lundberg's credo reveals itself: Buy a high-quality machine from a dealer, and get it serviced annually, in December. But he has to go. The mowers are stacking up back there. The grass is waking.