How to Plan Your First Jeep Build

I’m a first-time Jeep owner. I love my new Wrangler but I don’t want to keep it that way. I am ready to ride and I really want to go off-road and maybe join a club. What do I need to know?

So you bought your first Jeep. Congratulations! You have joined an ever-growing family of people who know that a Jeep is more than just a vehicle; it can be a way of life.

Yes, you now belong to the club of Jeep owners, but, there are actual named Jeep clubs that, if you so choose, you can join too. Each one is different. All clubs have different rules, different levels of commitment, and different ways of running events and socials. Almost all clubs have monthly public meetings.

My suggestion is to find local Jeep clubs on Facebook. Look for their banners or symbols on Jeeps in your area. Attend their public events. If you are a completely new to Jeeps, but you know that you don’t want to stay stock for long, it’s a good idea to actively shop for a Jeep club that you click with and feel comfortable around, then join it.

Members of Jeep clubs possess a wealth of knowledge to aid you with your build. Clubmates are usually more than willing to lend a hand and may already have the specialized tools required to perform most modifications.

Wow — There Are a Lot of Jeeps Out There!

You’ll also quickly notice just how many Jeeps are actually on the road. Some may inspire you to upgrade, or maybe there was already a specific, customized Jeep that inspired you to purchase yours. Either way, you have caught the modification bug, and you probably have no idea where to start.

You must decide what the main purpose of your Jeep is going to be: daily driver, occasional weekend trailrider, full-time off-road toy, or a combination of the three? This decision will determine what your goal is and what type of a budget you are going to need to achieve it.

Once you have a vision and a general idea of where you want your build to go, it’s time to start shopping. Jeeps have one of — if not the — largest supply of aftermarket manufacturers and parts! This is where planning your build becomes a crucial step in achieving your goals.

I suggest that you join multiple online Jeep forums. Keep one thing in mind, though: Everyone has an opinion on which part and brand name is the best. Listen to them all. Read product reviews. Try to form your own opinions based on your own research, then compare the prices of your choices before making any final decisions.

Tires and Gears

Regearing is a critical component of any lift, but successful execution requires experience, skill and the right parts. This photo demonstrates the use of paint to ensure newly installed gears will mesh properly.
Most Jeep owners will agree that the tire/wheel/lift combination defines the look and functionality of each rig, and that is the most logical place to start. These four things go hand in hand, and in most cases, any one of these mods cannot be performed separately without complications.

The tire size determines the amount of lift needed as well as the gear ratio. (See “Regearing and Lockers: Six Things to Consider,” July/Aug. 2017, Page 32.) This is also the most critical — and expensive — part of your build. Everything else you do to your Jeep revolves around this first major modification.

Research is your friend. You also have to be brutally honest with yourself when planning your build. The first step is to admit your level of mechanical prowess to yourself. The largest percentage of the cost to modify your Jeep will be the labor prices, assuming you cannot perform them yourself. If you have a good working knowledge of automotive repair or mechanical ability, you can do most of the work yourself, leaving more dollars in your budget for parts.

Regearing is necessary when you increase the diameter of your tires. Larger tires cover more ground per revolution. It will take more force to turn them unless the gear ratio matches the diameter of the tire. It’s just like changing the gears on a 10-speed bike when you go uphill: It’s easier to pedal, but it takes more revolutions to get to the top of the hill.

You have to find a happy medium, and thankfully, a readily available gear chart does that math for you. The goal is to match the tire and gear ratio to keep your engine and transmission spinning at the same revolutions per minute (RPM) as they did with the stock tires and gear ratio.

Again, research is your friend. Find a gear chart that corresponds to the specific model and year of your Jeep online, and match your desired tire size to the chart. If you don’t regear to match tire size, you can and will notice a large drop in power levels, top speed, torque converter lock/unlock in automatic transmissions, ABS/traction control errors in equipped models, and inaccurate speedometer readings.

Regearing and changing tire size will also require the use of a handheld tuner to recalibrate the computer systems to the tire-and-gear combination in later models of Jeeps. (A simple speedometer gear change will fix it in older models.) Tuners can also change other vehicle functions and do add significant cost to the upgrade. Be sure to calculate one into your budget.

Gears and their installs are extremely costly. They require a very specialized set of skills and tools. They should only be performed by an experienced technician. A poorly or improperly installed set of gears will fail. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Spend the money to have them done at a reputable shop.

The tire size and gear combination is the one thing that usually stays the same the majority of the time that you own your Jeep. That is why it is so critical to make sure you have it right the first time. Wheel styles are simply a matter of personal preference, and there are a lot to choose from.

Lift Me Up

Lifts do more than improve ground clearance. Your lift can replace certain weak components of your factory suspension. There are lifts for all types of budgets, and your lift can always change and be upgraded over time as those weak stock components fail. You may also wish to adjust it as you become more confident on larger obstacles and want better off-road performance.

The one suggestion that I will make for your first lift is to invest in high-quality, nitrogen-charged gas shock absorbers. They cost significantly more money, but will make a noticeable improvement in the ride of your raised Jeep, and it will handle better both on- and off-road.

Wranglers built between 1996 and 2006 (TJ and TJU, a.k.a. “JL”) — among other Jeep models and years — were built with very weak upper and lower control arms. They are a known failure point. They can be replaced with much stronger aftermarket parts, and some lifts come with new control arms as an option.

There are also direct replacements that will bolt right in, or “long” arms which will require cutting and welding of new control arm brackets onto your Jeep’s frame. This can be costly if you have it done at a shop.

Short, stock-length arms can be ordered in a fixed length. Short and long arms are available in adjustable- or double-adjustable-length options. The benefit of the longer arms is more articulation (suspension travel) with the same amount of lift height. In most cases, unless you are an experienced Jeeper, most people do not start off with long arms. An adjustable arm is more desirable than a fixed arm, and double-adjustable is the best option.

Nuts and Bolts

Rob Rose is an active member of Blackwater Jeepers and a former ASE master technician and shop manager. He advises first-time Jeep owners to approach their first modification carefully, taking time to research parts and brands and consulting with fellow Jeep owners and experienced technicians.

Take the Wheel

Steering is the last integral part of your tire/wheel/lift upgrade. All Jeeps had a weak steering system up until the JK model was released in 2007. It has a definite steering linkage improvement over earlier models, but still has its own issues.

The earlier steering systems will eventually bend at the point where the drag link connects to the tie rod end. Larger tires will make it happen sooner than later, but stock steering can bend even with stock-sized tires under the right conditions.

Aftermarket steering systems can either use a stock configuration, with heavier-duty materials that are less susceptible to bending, or are made of heavier materials and also reposition where the drag link connects to the rest of the steering linkage, to eliminate the weak spot.

You should choose a steering system that best fits with the rest of your lift components, your budget and the intended use of your Jeep.

Patience is a virtue when building a Jeep. It should be a fun experience that you enjoy and learn from. Your working knowledge of your Jeep should grow along with your list of upgrades. Purchase and install components on your terms. I have personally purchased parts as my budget allowed, stockpiled them, and then waited until I amassed everything I needed to perform a complete upgrade. There is no shame in it.

Do whatever works for you and your budget, but remember: Extensive research, a solid plan, and lots of patience are the best way to achieve your goals.

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