My grill was hurting. Its fires were burning out of control. Unless I fixed it or replaced it, I would face the distinctly anti-patriotic prospect of celebrating the Fourth of July without a smoky backyard barbecue. That could surely make the Founding Fathers roll over in their well-tended graves.
I considered buying a new grill. But sentiment and frugality stopped me. I was attached to the old charcoal burner, a Weber One-Touch 22 1/2 -inch grill. I had cooked many a meal on it. It was at least seven years old, probably older.
A comparable new kettle grill could cost about $150, which is small potatoes compared to the thousands of bucks some guys spend on the big, glistening gas numbers. I thought I could find a cheaper remedy. I also believed my faithful backyard partner still had some life left in it. All it needed was a new part.
Getting the new part, a set of damper blades that both remove ashes from the bottom of the kettle and control the flow of air to the fire, was pretty easy. Removing the old part was quite a challenge, a whole other shooting match.
Replacing barbecue grill parts is, I discovered, a thriving national enterprise. Weber-Stephen Products has been selling replacement parts since 1952, when it rolled out its first kettle grill. Nowadays, it sells parts for its line of about 50 different grills. "People get attached to their grills," Ernie Boys, Weber's vice president for product management, told me in a phone conversation from the firm's Palatine, Ill., headquarters. Most grills last between 12 and 17 years before their major parts need replacing, he said.
Weber has a Web site (weber.com) that helped me identify the part I needed and gave me the option of buying it online or going to a nearby store that sold the part.
I couldn't stand to wait for the five days it would take to get the damper blades if I ordered online, so I ended up buying it at Watson's Garden Center on York Road in Lutherville. Many grill guys had been there before me.
"As soon as the weather warms up, customers start coming for grill parts," Bob Salmond, a manager at Watson's, told me. The store also employs a full-time grill specialist, Matt Antosiak, who travels around Baltimore fixing and assembling grills at $75 an hour.
To get the correct size blades, I had to know my grill's measurements. The Web site helped me out, reminding me how to measure the diameter of the cooking surface and to ascertain details such as whether I had an open or closed ash catcher. In addition, I determined that my ash catcher used the old hex-drive system, not the newer h-drive system.
I shelled out about $15 for the replacement damper blades kit and hurried home to put it on the grill.
When I flipped the kettle grill over, I saw that removing the old hex-drive assembly was going to be a chore. Years of grit, meat drippings and marinades had settled on its bolts and washers, making them a rusted, melded mess. I applied some Liquid Wrench and let the grill sit overnight.
The next morning, I bounded into the backyard and attacked it with a pair of pliers. Instead of coming loose, the top of a crucial screw snapped off. I was in trouble. Attempts to drill out the screw failed.
So I pulled out the hacksaw and started working on a metal washer that held the hex drive in place. I sawed and sawed and sawed. I was soaking with sweat and pestered by hungry mosquitoes. Finally the washer gave way and, with a little help from a baby sledgehammer, the old part came off.
Later Antosiak, the professional grill fixer, chuckled when he heard about my sweaty sawing sessions. He uses a grinder, a powerful cutting tool, to remove that part, he said. The task that had taken me the better part of an hour to complete usually takes him about two minutes, he said.
Nonetheless, when I got the old part off and the new part on, the grill was back in fine fettle. Now I could control my fire, roast a hunk of meat and properly celebrate our nation's independence. God bless America, land that I love, a land of grill parts.