Most winches are pretty reliable and in all the years we’ve been breaking stuff we’ve only ever had a few things go wrong with the winches we’ve abused. That is why we have no hesitation jumping on a screaming deal of a used winch, especially if it is from a big name manufacturer. Sure, there are a few things we like to check, and a few things that would make us walk away from a used winch deal (unless the price was almost free). But for the most part, when it comes time for a new-to-us winch for a new-to-us project, we are out scouring the Want Ads before we start thinking about plunking down the cash for a brand new, shiny, in the box puller.
The world of used winches is in an interesting one, and many winches fall into one of three categories: Either the seller used and abused the winch until it stopped working and they abandoned it until the time came when they needed a working winch and bought another one. Or the seller bought a new winch, put it on the Jeep, and there it sat for years or decades until they needed money or sold the Jeep and got tired of looking at the thing sitting on a shelf. Or, finally, there is the winch that was bought and never put on the Jeep, making it still new in the box, but that is kinda rare and usually more expensive than a new winch with no warranty is worth. With either of the first two categories, the seller usually has no idea if the winch works, what the condition it is in, and just wants to get rid of it. Even if the winch looks like the one in our lead photo, all is not lost -- so strap on your Sherlock Holmes hat and figure out if it is a gem or just a lump of coal.
The first thing to check is for cracks in the winch case or motor. If the motor is cracked, it might not be the end of the world, but it won’t be cheap to repair. Most brand name manufacturers (Warn, Ramsey, and Superwinch) still stock replacement parts for old winches, and if they don’t, they can often tell you where to look to get them. But if the case is cracked, or the mounting holes in the feet have jacked up threads, you are better off walking away unless the thing is free.
If the winch actually works off the bat, checking the cable is easy. If it doesn’t, that’s not a deal breaker, but you will still want to try and spool the cable out. New cable can run you anywhere from $150-$300 and running the cable out (whether in freespool or under power) will tell you if the gearbox in the winch is OK. Any weird grinding or pliers needed for moving the freespool lever means that the winch you are looking at should be at the bottom end of the price range. It is OK if you need to use your Jeep to pull the cable out, even in freespool mode, especially if the cable looks like this.
Most of the used winches we’ve bought didn’t work under their own power when we looked at them, and every time it came down to the solenoids. With disuse, especially if a winch sits outside for a while, it is fairly common for the solenoids to get stuck. On winches that can power in and out, all the solenoids are doing is switching polarity to the poles on the motor. If the solenoids are stuck, you can go straight from your battery to the motor to check the motor. Sometimes you can smack the solenoids and unstick them, but sometimes you need to buy new ones. In a few rare cases, the controller or wiring has been messed up. But whatever the case, if the motor works and you don’t hear any grinding, it is usually a good bet that you just found your new-to-you winch.