Which type of roll cage is superior: bolted or welded?
A: A roll cage is a key piece of safety equipment for Jeepers. Some bolt together and onto your rig and others are welded. Your choice depends largely on your budget and expertise. Let’s take a closer look at each type:
Bolted (a.k.a. “bolt-on” or “bolt-in”) roll cages are attached using bolts, nuts or nutserts (a.k.a. rivet nuts) which can generally be removed. A lot of the time, bolt-in roll bars and other parts use holes already present in the application, requiring less modification to install. Bolt-on parts can generally be painted or powder-coated outside or off a vehicle for a custom or matching finish.
A bolted roll cage still requires some welding, but they are essentially just attached to the vehicle frame or supports. From a strength standpoint, bolting in a roll cage can be just as strong as welding if it’s installed correctly. Going this route can add a lot of options for Jeepers who do not have the means to build and install a roll cage from a fabrication standpoint.
Because bolt-on parts can generally be removed if needed with little to no evidence they were ever present, bolted roll cages are definitely a friendlier option for do-it-yourselfers.
Welded roll cages’ attachment points are heated to the point of melting in order to join them together. This process is very difficult to undo. Done correctly, welding parts generally takes two or three times as long as bolting.
Generally speaking, welded-on parts are more rigid than bolted-on parts. It’s just the nature of the install. Welded parts normally have to be painted after being installed due to the heat involved, so that’s something to take into consideration.
Ultimately, you will select your roll cage based on personal preference, experience, and the cost and time involved. Both work well in most situations. But I will leave you with this: I have never seen a true off-road truck or buggy with a roll cage bolted, rather than welded, onto its frame.
Nuts and Bolts
Mike Hughes is the parts and service director at Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge of New Port Richey (Fla.). He believes bolted and welded roll cages have distinct advantages but notes that “true” off-roaders tend to prefer the latter.
I am looking to get a CB or ham radio for my Jeep. What do I need to know?
A: Many Jeepers ask me about citizen band (CB) and ham (a.k.a. “amateur”) radios, and I always answer them with this question: What do you need to communicate to those listening, and do you want them to hear you?
Let’s be real: You can probably shout to fellow off-roaders and they’ll have a better chance of hearing you than they would over all the noise on the CB bands. It’s not regulated or monitored by anyone. It’s a free-for-all, and only those with the most illegal power are heard.
CBs are the dinosaurs of the communication industry. They’re cheap, and no license is required, so anyone can have one. But they are not as popular as they were in the ’70s, when “Smokey and the Bandit” came out and every high school student received a CB radio as a graduation gift. Today, even truck drivers are using cell phones more often. The CB is most useful when you’re outside a coverage area or in an electrical power outage or some other emergency in which cell phones don’t work.
As far as I’m concerned, if I’m installing communication equipment on my vehicle, I want to be heard, period. If I need help in an emergency or want to warn someone about a dangerous situation, I want to be heard. Even if I’m chit-chatting with anyone over the airwaves, I want to be clearly understood.
Nuts and Bolts
Joseph Ruiz is the founder and commander of Florida Wilderness Search & Rescue C.E.R.T. and an experience off-roader. He advises Jeepers seeking an emergency radio to look for mobile units that connect with CB and ham (or “amateur”) radio bands, noting that an FCC license is required to operate a ham radio.
For that reason, I’m partial to ham radios. You get more power and the capacity to connect with repeaters, amplifying your signal up to an 80-mile radius. In some cases, repeaters are linked with each other, giving you statewide coverage. Most importantly, if you seriously need help, you’re more likely to get it there than on a CB. Look for a mobile unit than can connect you with CB and ham radio bands for the most comprehensive coverage.
The only catch is that you must have an FCC technician license to operate a ham radio. Quite honestly, it’s not difficult at all to get. Visit FCC.gov or ask any Jeeper who has been through the process.
I’m told I need to work in new gears per manufacturer specs. Is this true or just hullabaloo?
A: Without a doubt, yes! Gears need to be installed to the manufacturer’s exact specifications, and they also have to be broken in properly: They have to go through heat cycles and must not suffer any major shocks during this time.
Remember, the manufacturer made that product, and if they do their part to stand behind a warranty, the break-in procedure needs to be followed as closely as possible. After the break-in period, the gear oil should be changed and gears need to be inspected for any signs of abnormal wear or problems that may arise.
Nuts and Bolts
John Ryzowicz is an experienced mechanic and trail leader and the owner of Trinity Auto Worx in Odessa, Fla. He recommends following the manufacturer’s specifications to the letter when breaking in new gears on your Jeep.
Failing to properly break in your new gears can cause overloading and overheating. It can also prematurely break down your gear oil. It can also void the manufacturer’s warranty, and they will know it the second they inspect it. So before you ride that expert trail or climb that new obstacle, follow the guidelines set forth by the experts at Differentials.com:
After driving the first 15 to 20 miles at around 60 miles per hour, it is best to stop and let the differential cool completely.
Maintain a speed below 60 miles per hour and drive conservatively for the first 100 miles.
The gear oil should be changed after 500 miles.
Drive at least 500 miles before any heavy use or towing.
During the first 45 miles of actual towing, only drive 10 to 15 miles at a time before stopping to let the differential cool.
My advice? Don’t skip a single step. Regearing requires time and money. You don’t want to waste either one, and you certainly don’t want to void your warranty.
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
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.
Q: I know I need to regear and add lockers to my Jeep. What else do I need to know?
A: It is important to know and understand the options available to fit your needs. Regearing is highly technical and requires precision to find the right balance for your rig. Since you or your mechanic will already be working on the axles, you may want to consider your options for lockers as well. Let’s start with regearing.
1. Engine Stress
Is your Jeep a daily driver that you want to put bigger tires on, or are you looking for it to be a dedicated crawler? You can adjust your gear ratio by playing with the number of teeth on the gear and pinion to achieve more torque or better fuel economy with larger tires. You have to find the right balance between torque and top speed. The specs of the tires you choose will affect the versatility of your vehicle after regearing.
2. Fuel Economy
Taller gear ratios will increase your top speed and fuel economy. Shorter gear ratios give you more acceleration and slower crawl speed. With a manual transmission, you have the control to shift into your highest gear. An automatic won’t shift unless the ratio is correct.
A manual also has a minimum idle, which makes slow speeds difficult, especially with taller gears. An automatic’s computer corrects to prevent stalling at lower speeds. This is important when maneuvering through difficult features. The key is to put time into understanding your personal type of use and needs for highway RPMs, acceleration and crawl speed.
3. Common Mistakes
There’s a break-in period for differentials. Change the fluid after 500 miles to get the metal shards and excess bearing material out. If you are doing the regearing yourself, make sure your measuring tools were calibrated recently.
Consider the age of your vehicle. You may be replacing more that you thought once you open it up — and spending more money than initially intended. I like using G2 gears. It’s a matter of personal preference, but they have worked well for me. You can find them at g2axle.com.
4. Equal Power
Without a locker, you will have limited slip. This means that, when you are freespinning, you are only working with two wheels: a front and a back. A locker gives all four wheels equal power all the time. The goal is to not overexert your engine by accelerating harder and faster because you only have two wheels doing the work.
Nuts and Bolts
Danny Tew is the owner of Trinity Auto Repair in Odessa, Fla. He believes regearing and adding lockers are essential elements of making a Jeep off-road-worthy, and he recommends consulting a professional mechanic and carefully selecting the parts for both jobs.
5. Different Hopes for Different Folks
Thoroughly research different kinds of lockers. Your choice will drastically affect your versatility and ease of demand. There are electronic lockers with a switch, manual lockers with a pull, and lunchbox lockers. I have seen spider gears welded together to get them to lock solid. This is an inexpensive route, but it’s irreversible, so I don’t recommend it. I mostly use Lock-Right lunchbox lockers. They are affordable and dependable. You can find them at powertrax.com.
6. A-Tech Job
It is important to have someone highly skilled to do both these jobs. There’s a lot to it. Regearing can cause rear-end whine if the gears aren’t meshing correctly because of too much backlash. The gears will eventually wear down and you’ll be replacing them again soon. When installing lockers, you need to know your process and the correct specs and have the right tools and lubricants on hand.
Just as you would take any vehicle to get a once-over prior to a long road trip, you should also be inspecting your Jeep so your next weekend adventure doesn’t become a nightmare. When riding off-road, even on light trails, your Jeep is subject to much more stress than it is in highway driving.
Why take chances? Inspecting the following items will make Jeepin’ more fun for all!
1. Check All Your Fluids.
Check your oil, transmission fluid and other critical levels before and after every trip. Create a checklist, and don’t forget the brake fluid, coolant and windshield washer fluid.
When checking fluids, you should check for proper level as well as color. A plastic syringe with a short piece of clear hose is great for taking a sample of differential and transfer case fluids. A milky white color (a.k.a. “milkshake”) could mean that there is water contamination. This requires further inspection before you do serious damage.
If your battery is unsealed and needs water, only use distilled water. The chemicals in sink water can destroy a battery from the inside. Inspect and clean the air filter or replace it.
Nuts and Bolts
Veteran Jeeper Ed Johnson’s pre- and post-ride inspection checklist includes a number of too-often-ignored items, including:
The levels and colors of critical fluids
The condition of brake rotors and pads
Loose and missing hardware along the suspension and driveline
Mid-maneuver cracking, popping, rubbing and grinding noises
2. Check Your Tires.
Inspect your tires for cuts, rocks, nails and other damage. Make note of any damage before and after each trip. You don’t want to have a blowout on the trail or, worse, on the highway. Even if you air-down on the trail, a pressure check before you go will let you know if there is a possible leak.
3. Check Your Brakes.
Look at your brake rotors and pads. Brakes will wear faster when used in the sand and mud. Check the rotors for grooves that may indicate abnormal wear and for discoloration — a blue tinge could signify a frozen brake caliper. Jack up each wheel one at a time and check for smooth rotation. On the front wheels, also look for side-to-side play steering components or ball joints for up-and-down play.
4. Don’t Forget the Suspension and Driveline.
This is probably one of the most overlooked items. Look at the springs, shocks, control arms, track bars, drive shafts and universal joints. Check for loose or missing hardware, rub marks, rust tracks, dents in the drive shafts and universal joints for play.
Have an assistant wiggle the steering wheel back and forth about 2 inches each way. Watch the steering components for play, binding and rubbing. While you are under the Jeep, it is a good idea to hit all the grease fittings on the suspension and universal joints. Everything will be under more stress than normal. Grease is your friend!
5. Check the Undercarriage.
Get a sense of your Jeep’s general structural condition. Look at skid plates, fenders and bumpers. Dented skid plates can interfere with steering or the fuel system if it is in the gas tank skid.
6. Check Your Recovery and Safety Gear.
Make sure your winch works. Test your CB radio and make sure your emergency roadside kit is intact. If you don’t have jumper cables, road flares, a basic first aid kit and everything you need to change a tire, buy those items today.
7. Listen Up.
While on your ride, make note of unusual noises. Listen for cracking, popping, rubbing and grinding, particularly during high articulation angles and tight turns.
8. Do a Walkaround.
Once you are off the trail, do a visual inspection. Check the drive shafts, wires and hoses. Make sure you didn’t pick up any branches or rocks. Check your lights and clean off the lenses. Dented fenders and body panels could cause an issue. Look at the tires so you don’t have a blowout on the way home.
9. Give the Baby a Bath.
After your fun in the woods, trails, rocks or mud, it’s time to wash your Jeep — and not just the outside. Hose off the frame, the brakes, the engine bay and, above all, the skid plates. Left unattended, sand and mud left will hold moisture and cause rust. It is also a very coarse abrasive that can rub through gas tanks, belts, pulleys, steering and hinges. Sand can also scratch glass if left in the wipers or window seals.
Now go back to the top of the list and inspect everything you looked at before the ride. If something doesn’t look right, fix it or get the advice of a professional. It’s better to miss a ride than to risk vehicle damage or personal injury! The name of the game is to have fun and be safe.
The first thing I ask anyone who approaches me about lifting their Jeep is “What are you going to do with it?” I then follow that up with several more questions:
Will this Jeep be a pavement princess or a weekend warrior?
Will you be the primary driver?
Will you take it on a few hunting trips a year, or do you want a rock-climbing monster?
Will you use it for towing?
Do you plan to add a roof rack?
Do you have car seats for the mini Jeepers?
Most people expect their daily driver to be very similar to what the Jeep was prior to any modifications. Most of today’s high-quality, 2- to 4-inch lift kits will allow a JK to run a 35-inch tire-and-wheel combo depending on the wheel offset. Going to a 35-inch with the 3.73 or 4.10 gears makes the Jeep very
drivable without greatly affecting the power.
Nuts and Bolts
Mike Hughes is the parts and service director at Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge of New Port Richey (Fla.). He recommends a 2- to 4-inch lift with 35-inch tires to improve your Jeep’s off-road capability while maintaining its street cred.
We have found that lifting a JK past 4 inches makes things interesting. The added height improves the off-road capability, but it also affects street-driving characteristics. With that much lift, Jeepers generally want to run bigger than a 35-inch tire. Thus begins the slippery slope of where to draw the line.
Running a large tire, such as a 37- or 40-incher, will most likely require a regear of the differentials to bring the Jeep back to factory power feel and RPM range. (See “Regearing and Lockers: 6 Things to Consider”) The larger tires add stress to the ends of the axles, causing the so-called “JK smile,” where the end of the axles flex, pushing the camber out of spec. Bracing and sleeves can help, but these modifications can get pricey.
Some lift kits have heim-joint ends, some have rubber-bushing ends, and some have poly-bushing ends. Heim-joint ends require more care and maintenance than other rod ends. These ends are known to cause noise, but they allow greater “flex.” Rubber ends offer factory-style characteristics and economy. Compared to rubber, poly-bushing ends are stiffer and transfer more vibration. But they will outlast the rubber and hold up to the elements better. Some kits come with nitrogen shocks and some come with oil-filled shocks.
The best approach is to do your research and then do some more. Ask a few professionals their opinions before deciding what’s best for your Jeep. Take your time and make a better decision. Happy trails, Jeepers, and keep it rubber side-down!
Q: I am ready to take my Wrangler off-road. I have a number of upgrades in mind. What’s the best way to start that process?
A: Whenever you want to make a change or modification, there are several things you need to think about to ensure you buy the correct equipment and you’re happy with the final product. Let’s review and discuss six of those things:
1. Know Before You Buy.
Are you a “mall crawler” who drives on light trails a few times a year, or will you drive moderate to hard trails several times a year? Do you have a “beat-it-’til-it-breaks” mentality? Manufacturers put different levels of engineering into their products. Some lift kits are designed for daily drivability and comfort. Others are built for rock crawling in Moab. Buy the one that suits your Jeep and your lifestyle.
2. Be Budget-Conscious.
If money were no object, we would all be running monster rigs. Don’t be afraid to shop around. Insist on quality parts. Cheap lockers and gears might be fine on the road, but you rely on them to get you home, so get the best you can afford.
3. Know the Cause and Effect.
A lift kit, bigger tires, heavy bumpers, winches and LEDs are probably all on your list. But remember, everything comes at a price: Extra weight reduces load and towing capacity, bigger tires can stress drivetrain components, and aftermarket components increase the electrical load on the system. Adding several hundred pounds of weight could require suspension modifications. Extra electrical loads may require heavier gauge wire, remote buss bars for safer and more convenient connections, and extra grounding straps to keep the wires from melting.
4. Prepare to Maintain.
Jeepin’ is not a gas-and-go hobby. You can’t go trail-riding all day in the sand and mud and not expect to spend a good amount of time cleaning the undercarriage, washing out the brakes, regressing U-joints and suspension parts, and checking for loose or damaged parts, leaks and slinging grease. A slightly different design from another manufacturer might cost more, but it may require less costly maintenance.
5. Research the Brand.
Brand names are only as good as the people who design and build the equipment. Even the best-known manufacturers occasionally have to change the way something is made, assembled or installed. There is no way to design a part that will work in every situation and for every driving style. You need to know you are getting a quality product for your hard-earned money. Be sure the manufacturer has a technical support system you can rely on in case you encounter a defect or overstress the equipment.
6. Find a Reputable Shop.
Even do-it-yourselfers need somewhere to go to order parts and get certain items installed or repaired. There are times when it is cheaper to pay someone with the knowledge, experience and tools to do the job correctly and ensure your safety and that of your family.