How To Fix a Snowmobile Recoil Starter

Recoils look pretty simple hanging on the side of the engine, but don’t assume. The complexity of rewind starters is highly underestimated. Fortunately, their intricate parts can be tamed with the right tools and determination to get the job done.

A broken recoil rope or failed components seem to happen at a bad time or place, and it isn’t an easy trailside fix. Once you can make the repair, follow these steps. The whole job should take about one hour.

We repaired a recoil from an Arctic Cat for this story, however design and construction is similar among all manufacturers. Variations exist among the components, but they perform the same function and the principles apply across the board.

Step 1: Unbolt recoil assembly from engine
Twist out the screws that fasten the recoil housing to the engine. There will usually be enough clearance between the engine and chassis to allow easy recoil removal, but in some cases there might be a frame rail or chassis component in the way and the engine will need to be lifted off of the motor mounts to provide access.

Step 2: Remove recoil from the sled
If the recoil rope is broken, the recoil can be removed from the machine at this time. If the recoil rope is still attached to the handle, you’ll want to prevent the rope from retracting into the recoil. Untie the rope from the grab handle and pass it through the guides, tie a loose knot and remove the assembly from the sled. Inspect the mounting holes on the recoil housing for cracks or other damage. If cracks are severe, the housing might need to be replaced.

Step 3: Get ready to disassemble
Before you start to disassemble the recoil, put on a pair of safety glasses. Recoils contain small parts that are under a lot of tension. Place the recoil on a flat work surface with the guts facing up. If the rope is still intact and is under spring tension, let the rope pull through the hole in the housing and inside the recoil as far as possible while holding the rope. At some point, the recoil will retract until the spring loses its tension on the rope. Now you’re ready to disassemble the recoil.

Step 4: Disassemble, and pay attention
Remove the nut on the center of the assembly. Also remove the pawl and pawl spring. Note the orientation of these components for reassembly when the recoil repair is complete; you should draw a sketch or take a picture. These components vary a little in construction from brand to brand, but they all perform the same function.

Step 5: Find the problem
Remove the plastic reel, but be careful because the spring is likely still under some tension. If you did not know the problem with your recoil up to this point, you should be able to identify it now. Obvious problems before getting to this point are a broken rope or broken coil spring. However, this is the time to inspect for other problems. Inspect the tabs of the reel to make sure they aren’t worn, cracked or broken. The spring may have a broken hook on the end, or it might have popped out of position, which is usually caused by a worn part.

Step 6: Replace broken/damaged parts
Replace components that are damaged, and start the assembly process. With the plastic reel removed you’ll see a fiber washer under the reel; this is to reduce friction. Remove this washer, clean it, and reinstall it with a small dab of clean grease on the washer face.

Step 7: Determine the direction of rotation
Before the coil spring can be installed, determine the correct direction of rotation for assembly. The spring needs to be installed so it’s wound under tension when the rope is pulled out of the housing. Here’s a tip: Visualize an arrow on the inside end of the spring. The arrow should point in the direction the rope travels when it’s being pulled out of the recoil.

Step 8: Wind the coil spring
Now make a jig to make it easier to wind the coil spring. Install three screws in a roughly 16-inch 2-by-4 piece of wood. Hook the inside spring hook on the screw and wind the spring around the center screw and the screw the spring is hooked to. Make sure you wind it in the direction determined in Step 7. Wind the spring one rotation at a time, keeping the coils tightly wound. After the whole spring is wound, hook the end of the spring on the third screw.

Step 9: Put coil spring in the recoil
Clamp a locking, needle-nose pliers on the spring to prevent the spring from un-winding. With the pliers securely locked and holding the spring, remove the screws from the block of wood to free the spring from the jig. Now set the spring in the recoil housing with the full coil inside the housing’s raised ridge, and secure the outside hook of the spring on the tab in the recoil housing ridge. While holding down on the spring with firm pressure from a gloved hand or block of wood, slowly and gently release the locking pliers. With a hand over the spring, it will slowly unwind but remain inside the ridge. Set the recoil housing and spring aside during the next step.

Step 10: Wind rope in reel
Most snowmobile recoil ropes are 6 feet long. Determine the direction the rope needs to be wound on the reel. This should be obvious when inspecting the rotation of the reel and the exit path of the rope from the housing. Tie a knot in one end of the rope and secure the knot to the reel at the same location from where the old one was removed. Wind the rope around the reel two or three turns, and then wind the excess rope around the inside hub of the spool. The rope should transition from the inside groove of the reel to the hub through the slot in the reel.

Step 11: Put reel in housing
Place the reel in the housing so the spring tab on the reel lines up with the spring hook. You will know this is correct if the spring builds tension when you rotate the reel in the direction the rope exits the housing.

Step 12: Install pawl spring
The pawl is the component that, when the reel rotates, catches the recoil cup on the flywheel and turns over the engine when the rope is pulled. The tab of the pawl spring will be secured in a notch of the pawl and spring tension holds the pawl in place. Now install the pawl spring and pawl. Refer to your sketches or photos to make sure you do this correctly. Install the washer and cup retainer clip so the tabs located on the end of the clip contact the pawl and open the pawl when rotated. Install the washer and nut to hold the cup in place and tighten to manufacturer’s torque specification.

Step 13: Tension the spring
The recoil spring now needs to be wound and put under tension. Turn the spool about five turns in the direction that increases tension. Push the rope through the hole in the recoil housing and tie a loose knot. If the end of the rope is frayed, melt the end of the rope with heat from a torch or lighter to make it easier to slip through the hole.

Step 14: Test it
Test recoil operation before installing on the engine. Make sure the knot in the rope located in the reel lines up with the hole in the recoil housing when the rope is fully extended. If not, the coil might bind and cause damage. If the knot and hole don’t line up, go back to Step 10 and start over.

Step 15: Bolt the recoil in place
Install the recoil assembly and then route the rope through the guides. Inspect the rope’s path to make sure it won’t rub on anything and suffer premature wear. Check for edges that may damage the rope and could have been the cause of the broken rope you just replaced. Secure the rope to the starter handle with two knots and give it a tug.


Thank you to Heinen’s Arctic Cat-Yamaha in Osseo, Minnesota, for its help with this story.

Trailside Emergency Starting

If your recoil fails, a temporary way to start the engine is by wrapping a rope or strap counter-clockwise around the primary clutch. Make sure it is wrapped in a manner that allows the rope to be released from the clutch once the engine starts. Most tool kits come with a temporary starting rope. If your sled does not have one in the tool kit, add one.

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