It will be obvious. In fact you may be able to tell if the key is partially
sheared without even removing the flywheel. just look at the shaft/flywheel
contact area. If there's a square aluminum 'key' there and it's still
square, it's not the problem. But, most likely you'll have to remove the
flywheel to find out for sure.
I don't recall seeing the key being obvious; until I removed the
retaining nut from the flywheel.
You can test for movement in the flywheel (FW). Remove the plug wire
for safety. With some help, hold the blade steady and rotate the FW to
observe for any movement back and forth. It is not totally accurate,
but a seriously damaged shear key will be obvious. YMMV.
Small fractures in the key will not be obvious, as well!
About the hammering on the shaft. I use a block of wood to deaden the
blow AND I always leave the loosened nut on the shaft. It prevents
damaged to the thread.
"I don't have anything against work. I just figure, why deprive somebody who
really loves it."
It does sound like the timing has advanced. And the only way for that to
happen is for the key in the flywheel to shear and the flywheel slip on the
crank. I'd check that first.
OR you have some really piss poor gas. <G>
The last time I had one do that, the blade was loose from the crank shaft.
Flip the mower on its side, and see if the blade is tight.
The other person's suggestion about flywheel out of time, that's also very
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