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The Shaftmaster

Tom Wood risked everything to start Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts, and his gamble paid off for his off-roading customers.
By: Kate Spatafora

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The Shaftmaster

Humble beginnings and an acrimonious split from a former employer led to the formation of Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts, an Ogden, Utah-based manufacturer of drive shafts for four-wheel vehicles. JCF met with Wood to get the story and learn what sets his equipment apart from the competition.

What inspired you to start Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts?

From my late teens or early 20s, I knew I wanted to be in business for myself. That is the American dream. I never knew what it would be, though. Because of my youth and being under-educated at the time, in about 1979, I took a job at a company that built drive shafts of all types. I looked at this as a “McJob.” I couldn’t remember my father ever changing a universal joint. To my surprise, there was never a day that was lacking for work.

I worked for this company for about 20 years. I learned about product, business and a little about engineering. I also made great contacts with magazine editors who promoted my work and the company’s products. I also made good contacts with those who would eventually become my suppliers.

While working for the “other” company, I built the shop to be their largest sales volume, single location, drive shaft shop; they had about 16 total. The other company was family-owned at the time, and they really didn’t like that I was making so many decisions without their prior consent and approval. One day, we had what I call a “BAM,” for “big ass meeting.” I was told that they were in charge and things would be done the way they wanted. I only wanted to see how big I could make things. I really didn’t care if it was for them or for me. How stupid was I?

After this meeting, I knew that I would never be able to accomplish what I wanted to under their employment. So, I bought some machines — a lathe, a mill and a welder — that would enable me to build the equipment that I would need to build drive shafts. I rented a small shop, called in my contacts, asked a few favors, and went out on my own.

In essence, what inspired me to finally start my own business was my previous employer not taking advantage of my skills and desires.

Nuts and Bolts

Tom Wood is the founder of Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts. His Ogden, Utahbased company builds shafts and joints for four-wheel-drive vehicles, including Jeeps. Visit 4xshaft.com for more information.

Are you or any other members of your staff Jeepers?

I own three highly modified Jeeps, all of which are more capable than I am. I really don’t get out as often as I would like. Much of this is because my favorite brand of wheeling is more akin to exploring. When I’m driving down the freeway, or even flying in an airplane, and see a road in the wilderness, I want to travel it. Unfortunately, though, there aren’t many events that accommodate my desire to explore, with no destination or time in mind.

I do have one employee who regularly takes his modified Suburban to Moab and seems to enjoy coming back with body damage. I’ve loaned him one of my Jeeps in the past, and he came back with body damage. I don’t mind. It’s good to know the Jeep is being used for its intended purpose and my employee is having fun doing it.

None of the other employees are into four-wheeling of any kind. That doesn’t bother me, though. You don’t have to be a woman to be a good gynecologist.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How long have you been in the automotive industry?

I’ve been working in the automotive business since 1979. I don’t have much formal education, with only two quarters completed at a trade tech. I’m self-taught. I would much rather read an engineering manual than a novel.

My father was raised a Missouri farm boy and a ninth-grade dropout. I was one of seven children, and we were poor. There were times when I had no shoes and there were times when I had shoes that had the toes cut out of them because, otherwise, they would be too small.

I had a life-changing experience when I was probably about 8 years old. I was watching my father use pry bars to change a tire on the rim because he didn’t have the $2 to go to the service station. I walked away and told myself, “When I grow up, I don’t want to be poor.”

When it came time to really plan on opening my own business, I talked with my wife about it. We were technically bankrupt — our liabilities exceeded our assets — but not declared. We both decided to give it our all. If things failed, we could always move back into a mobile home.

I’ve often commented that if I took my business plan to a college professor, I would fail the class. Fortunately for me, though, my plans worked out well. Having no money to speak of, I borrowed money from my previous employer’s retirement plan. It wasn’t much. I would get credit card offers in the mail with balance transfer checks. I took advantage of the checks and put the money in the bank. I also borrowed a small amount of money from a life insurance policy that I had. But the most important factor was the support I had from magazine editors, suppliers and friends. They were far more valuable than any money I could have had in the bank.

The rest is history. I had risked everything with the hopes that I could feed my family. Now, about 18 years later, Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts is feeding 13 families.

What products and services do you offer?

Other than the slip yoke eliminator kits that we sell, drive shafts for four-wheel drive vehicles are the only things we do. We do not even have installation available.

What do you do differently that makes you stand out from your competitors?

I really don’t pay too much attention to what my competitors are doing, but I am sure we do many things differently. First, many of the parts we use are made exclusively for us. This is never done for cost considerations, but for improvement in quality and strength. For example, most of the slip yokes we use are made from forged steel, while others use cast-iron versions.

Many of the products we have made for us are because there are no other parts available. We do this to meet the needs of our customers. A prime example of this is our Super-Flex universal joint that nets an additional 10 degrees of flexibility before binding.

Our drive shafts are always shipped complete, balanced, greased and ready to install. With our 1310 series, CV type drive shafts, we send reduced head bolts for ease of installation and a service tool for re-greasing the center pivot point on the CV. Essentially, we pay attention to the finest details so the customer is less likely to experience a problem.

Finally, all of our drive shafts are built to order and shipped out the following business day. This means that, in a worst-case scenario, the customer can have their drive shaft in one week. And we are the one company that truly specializes in four-wheel drive shafts. Others will build any type of drive shaft they can sell. I tend to think that if there is only one thing that you do, you will be better at it.

What do you like most about working with Jeeps compared to other vehicles?

From an economic standpoint, I like Jeeps because of their popularity. Without the Jeep market, we would probably only have half the employees that we do now. From a builder’s point of view, I like that almost anything that can be done to a Jeep has been done and the recipe for the solution is already on the books, along with the availability of the myriad of parts required.

What should a Jeeper know before getting a custom drive shaft installed on their Jeep?

Much of the answer to that question will depend on how extensively they have modified the vehicle. With some vehicles — such as the JK, TJ or YJ — if there hasn’t been much more than a lift on the vehicle, the drive shaft solutions are fairly well established. This could involve a slip yoke eliminator kit and double cardan (or “CV”) drive shaft or simply replacement drive shafts for the JK.

If people have installed different transfer cases, differentials and lifted their vehicle, it will require a bit more research, on their part, to determine what type of drive shaft would be best for their application. While I don’t want to appear to be bashing the internet forums, I have seen a lot of dubious “information” out there. I would suggest they take the time to read up on drive shaft designs and what parameters they need to fall within.

Lastly, before getting to the point where a drive shaft would be needed, I think it would be a good idea to make sure what is planned can be done. One example of this is when people install a large lift on a CJ-5, install an automatic transmission — which shortens the length of the rear drive shaft substantially — and it turns out that they need a 10-inch drive shaft that will operate at 45 degrees. That just cannot be done.

Can you tell us about your trademark “Gold Seal” universal joint?

The development of the Gold Seal universal joint is a long story, but I think I was driven to it by politics. The company I previously worked for was the only local Spicer warehouse distributor for Spicer products. My previous employer didn’t like the idea that I was now their competitor and wouldn’t sell to me at a reasonable price.

Prior to this, I had always been a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of Spicer’s products. So, I “bootlegged” in the things that I needed from other companies, outside of the geographical area. I had contracted with one of these companies to provide me with a bit over 500 of the 1310 series universal joints, per month.

One day, the local Spicer representative came into my shop and asked about the universal joints I was getting. I showed him a large crate full of them. He then asked if he could buy one from me. My reply was, “What’s $5 or $10 among friends?” I gave him one. Within about two weeks, I was notified by my supplier that once the contract was fulfilled, I would no longer be able to purchase these universal joints from them. The cynic in me tells me the chain of events was more than coincidence.

What could I do? I needed product at a reasonable price. So, we reverse-engineered the Spicer universal joint, replicating — as close as possible — specifications for materials, hardness and dimensions. We also changed the color of the seals and gave them a better warranty than Spicer’s version. This changing of the seal color and the better warranty can be chalked up to simple marketing. Eventually, on the 1310 series, we had them made with the grease fitting in the end of the bearing cap, for easier servicing.

Do you back your work with a warranty or guarantee? 

We offer what I believe to be the best warranties in the business. If a weld ever breaks, we take care of it. If a Gold Seal universal joint ever breaks, we also cover any damage to the drive shaft, which often happens when a universal joint breaks. With most other companies, if the universal joint breaks, and if it is considered a warranty, all the customer gets is a new universal joint.

Our Trail Hazard Protection is an adaptation of Discount Tire’s Road Hazard protection (which I always buy and has proved to be a good investment). I want the customer to have the ability to know that whatever they may put their drive shaft through and in the event of a failure, which would not be covered under general warranties, they have the option of not needing to purchase a new drive shaft.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

If anything, it would be my sense of gratitude. I am grateful for the following that we have. I am grateful for the circle of people — customers, editors, suppliers and employees — that make it possible. Lastly, I am grateful to have been born in a country where success is possible for those who will take a risk and work hard.

The views expressed by the authors and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jeepin' Central Florida or any employee thereof.

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