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Nuts & Bolts - February 2014

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on December 6, 2013
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Photographers: 4 Wheel & Off-Road Staff

Drum Dilemma
Q: I finally got the money to buy a Warn VR 12000 winch and a great new Buckstop bumper for my ’93 Dodge Cummins. When I tried to pull the line onto the spool, I cannot get it to lie right. I have a 9-inch-wide drum and a 7-inch-wide opening. How do I get the wire rope to lie correctly for that last inch on each side of the drum?

Also, where is the best place for the solenoid pack? I don’t like the suggestion by Warn to mount it over the wire terminals, since if it got loose it would short out. Thanks for the great magazine.
Name Withheld

A: We’ve wondered this ourselves in the past and initially chalked it up to flawed bumper design. Then one day we measured a fairlead and asked one of our contacts at Warn ( about it. After all, if the winch drum is 9 inches wide, why are most fairleads only 7 inches wide? It’s kind of a pain to end a layer and then start the next one while having the cable or rope lie nicely with many bumper and winch combinations.

As we suspected, the reason for the disparity in widths has to do with helping to protect against the cable bunching up on one side of the drum. Even though winch rigging is supposed to be as straight on as possible, we all know in the real world that rarely happens. Most of the time there’s some angle to the pull, and this leads to the cable bunching up on one side of the drum or the other. Apparently winch engineers are also clued into this real-world phenomenon, so they narrowed the fairlead in an effort to protect the winch. Left unattended, an angled pull can result in the cable getting bunched up enough that it binds against the “bridge” that holds the winch together, whether it’s the solenoid pack housing or simply rods that hold the two halves of the winch together (motor on one side of the drum, gearbox with planetaries on the other). This can happen even with a properly designed 7-inch fairlead/9-inch drum arrangement. In extreme situations, this binding can even cause the cable to jump off the drum and wedge itself between the drum and the rest of the winch housing. When that happens, things go boom and you end up breaking the winch in half, which doesn’t help the recovery process or your pocketbook one bit. Moving the cable opening closer an inch on each side helps prevent this from happening, since the cable has more room to wind itself on the drum before it causes any real trouble. Even so, this is why it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the drum as well as the vehicle you’re extricating during a recovery.

So how do you make those nice clean cable layers like you see in the ads when you’re winding up your new winch for the first time? It takes a little practice and some finesse to get it right the first few times. Keep in mind that new cables need to be stretched and wound in under tension, and tension doesn’t make getting the layers right any easier. We usually attach the cable to an anchor and set the parking brake a couple of clicks for some tension when we do our initial wind. Usually some manual side-pull on the cable one way or another during the transition from one layer to the next does the trick. Some bumper designs are easier than others to accomplish the task. We favor bumper designs that offer plenty of winch drum access for just this reason; it’s easier to manipulate the cable on the drum when you can access it.

As for the solenoid pack, we wouldn’t worry too much about installing it on the winch motor and instead would mount it wherever is easiest to access the controller plug. Motor-mounted solenoid packs have been the standard for years, and keep in mind that the in/out leads on the motor are only live when the winch is in use. Since you are plugging the remote into the box before you use the winch, you would notice if it was loose well beforehand. Plus, depending on the ground situation, the winch might not even work if the solenoid pack isn’t firmly attached and getting a good ground. As long as the positive lead from the battery to the winch is protected, you’re in good shape.

Q: On the second day of the trip in my Alabama Army Truck I had one of the 50-amp accessory maxi-fuses in the fuse block melt and burn to a crisp. It didn’t pop as usually expected. I assume I had too many items on that fuse, as it was running the dual 13-inch fans, interior gauges, wipers, defroster blower, and headlights, all of which were on since I was driving in the rain when it all went up in smoke. I was able to fix it and keep on driving, but got to wondering why it didn’t just pop the fuse instead of making a charred mess in the fuse box. I attached a photo. Maybe you can help me figure out why it did this. The fuse didn’t even exist when I stopped; the whole fuse was gone except for two spades stuck in the box. I have been told bad fuse, bad connection, humidity/moisture, enough of a load to heat the fuse but not enough to actually blow the fuse. Any ideas or experience with this before?
Fred Williams
Technical Editor 4-Wheel & Off-Road

A: It was probably a bad fuse or bad connection, but most likely a bad fuse. Resistance equals heat in an electrical circuit, and that’s the whole purpose of a fuse. When there’s too much current passing through the “little spot” in the fuse, the “little spot” heats up and pops, which breaks the connection before the load heats up the rest of the circuit enough to start melting wires and such. Obviously the needed pop didn’t happen in your case. If just one leg of the fuse in the fuse block was melted, that would be more indicative of a bad connection, but since both legs of the fuse obviously melted, most likely the circuit was overloaded but the fuse didn’t pop like it should have done. That said, it does look like the fuse block had gotten pretty wet at one time, and in general water and fuse blocks don’t mix. It’s possible that enough water got in between the terminals to complete the circuit whether the fuse had popped or not, but it would take a lot of water to make that happen. It might be a good idea to repair or replace the fuse box and relocate or devise a way of protecting it from direct contact with water and other elements.

As the tech editor of the world’s largest off-road magazine, you should know better than to have that much stuff on one circuit in the first place! Put the radiator fans, defroster blower motor, and the headlights on their own circuits, plus maybe the wipers. Repair the fuse block and peel out.

Chunky Tires
Q: My ’03 Tacoma is two-wheel drive. I bought the truck used and currently have a truck-type tire with a street-type tread up front and a different, slightly more aggressive truck tread on the rears.

I’ve been thinking about changing to four new identical tires all the way around with truck-type tread, something more aggressive. I got to thinking, though, why should I care about what’s on the front of the truck if they don’t turn under power?
Curt Kline

A: While most tire experts will tell you it’s always best to have matching tires on your truck, you bring up a valid point: Since the truck is 2WD, why would it matter if the front tires are less aggressive than the rear? The short answer is that it doesn’t matter. Looks are certainly a consideration here, as admittedly trucks with mismatched tires look a little funny, but people do it all the time, especially in those areas where white stuff falls from the sky in the winter.

What is important, however, is that the tire size should match front and rear. Why would that matter since your truck is two-wheel drive? Running mismatched sizes front to back can wreak havoc with your vehicle’s ABS system, especially if it also has some sort of traction control system. With mismatched sizes, the vehicle’s wheel speed sensors may read differently from front to rear, causing a false indicator that may trick the vehicle’s computer into thinking that the vehicle is in a skid. This can cause all sort of malfunctions, from subtle to extreme, and the last thing you want is for the ABS to kick in when it’s not needed or, worse, not to kick it when it is needed.

Keep in mind that the tire size printed on the sidewall rarely matches the actual size of the tire, so be sure to measure actual height with the tires installed on the rims. A little bit of variance is OK, but the newer the vehicle, the more sensitive the systems.

Also keep in mind that it is important for tires to match exactly side-to-side (on the same axle), and never run bias-ply tires on one end and radials on the other. Bias-ply tires are pretty rare these days, but they’re still available, so it’s worth repeating.

Portal Box vs. Drop Box
Q: I’ve often read about the joys of portal axles and the woes of driveline angles, so why not combine them? I mean, make a portal-type drop box that could bolt to the rear of the transfer case? It would lessen rear driveline angles and, if done right, could be an overdrive box as well. Has anyone ever made such a thing?
Gary D.

A: We’ll bet more than one reader has pondered this question from time to time, as it seems like a good solution. In fact, drop boxes have been developed for specific racing applications. You often see gearboxes similar to what you describe in monster trucks and really tall mud trucks. Instead of being a box that bolts to the transfer case and lowers the driveshafts, however, these are complete replacement gearboxes that are available in a variety of “drops” to alleviate driveline angles in really tall applications. Like a regular transfer case, they bolt to the back of a transmission and use gears or a chain (usually gears) to lower the output shaft anywhere from 9 to more than 20 inches!

Here’s the bad news: Most of these drop boxes are purpose-built for racing and we weren’t able to find one that offered two speeds (a high and a low) like a regular transfer case. In fact, there are only a couple that offer a two-wheel-drive and four-wheel drive option. Most do have a quick-change type of gear reduction that allow the user to easily change the low-range ratio, which is kind of cool. Regardless, most are four-wheel drive all the time with a 50/50 split, making them impractical for street use. Further, we doubt they were designed for sustained speeds on the highway.

There is another reason you don’t see drop boxes in trail applications, and it has to do with ground clearance. With portal boxes, the wheel attachment point is lowered in relation to the centerline of the axle, and therefore the main portion of the axle is raised relative to the ground. The lowest point on a regular 4x4 is the axlehousing, so raising the axlehousing by using portal boxes improves ground clearance and alleviates driveline angles, both of which are beneficial in our world. A drop box on the back of a transmission would alleviate driveline angles, which is good, but it would also reduce ground clearance and breakover angle because it would hang below the frame between the front and rear tires. This would make it a prime target for getting snagged on obstacles and leave the driveshafts even more vulnerable than they are with a regular transfer case. Lastly, most existing drop box designs require the axle differentials to be centered front and rear, which isn’t the case with most 4x4 front axles.

Nuts, I’m Confused
Identity Crisis
Q: I just picked up a 14-bolt rear axle for free. It’s basically just the axlehousing. First off, I’m not too sure how to tell if it is a full-floater or semifloat. Second, I plan on rebuilding the axle for my K5 Blazer if it is a full-floater. I’m also not too sure what gearing to go with. I want to run 40-inch TSL SX Super Swampers for this off-road rig. Basically I don’t know if it would be cheaper to buy a complete axle setup or better to rebuild this one. Thanks again for reading this. I’ll appreciate all the feedback I can get.
Tim Brown

PhotosView Slideshow

A: While it seems like a good score, your “free” 14-bolt will probably end up costing you more than a complete 14-bolt purchased from your local salvage yard. Maybe it’s different in Colorado (we doubt it), but we can’t swing a dead cat in an average self-serve junkyard locally without hitting half a dozen complete 14-bolts at any given time. There are loads of retired landscaping trucks, box trucks, work trucks, you name it. They’re everywhere, and they can usually be had under $200 if you look in the right places.

The problem with a bare housing is sourcing all the rest of the stuff you need to put it together, and that’s a lot of stuff: axleshafts, wheel hubs, brakes, ring-and-pinion, carrier, diff cover, pinion housing, yoke, and so on. Plus, the 14-bolt was offered in lots and lots of Chevy trucks for a very long time, so there are many different axleshaft widths among dualies, vans, single-rear-wheel 1-tons, and so on. Short of starting a totally custom axle build, which you wouldn’t need to do anyway, we wouldn’t bother with a bare housing. Even if you’re doing things like converting to disc brakes, it’s a whole lot easier when you start with a complete axle because you know what initially fit together and can take measurements to see what you need, plus the parts you need to reuse will be there. And remember, you can sell off the parts you won’t be reusing to help offset the cost of the axle build. You’d be surprised what you can get for a serviceable brake drum, for example.

Full- versus semifloat identification is easy: If the housing has what looks like front axle spindles on it with external bearing surfaces and threads at the very end, then it’s a full-floater. If the housing ends are squared-off, it’s semifloat. The semifloat axles are not desirable because they’re 14-bolt in name only; they have a 91⁄2-inch ring gear and C-clip axleshafts. The genuine full-floaters are pretty unmistakable in appearance and were used in lots of trucks for a lot of years.

If you’re looking for a nearly bolt-in swap, look for one out of a ’73-’873⁄4- or 1-ton SRW truck (don’t forget military CUCVs), or a ’73-’91 Suburban. Dualies and vans can get problematic in terms of getting the right width for your Blazer. The 14-bolt was used a lot later than that with widths that will work for you, but you might have to do more work to get the swap right (like moving spring perches).

As for gearing, that depends a lot on motor, transmission, and transfer case combinations. We’ll assume you have a small-block and a TH350 with an NP205 or NP208 transfer case for the moment. If you plan on building a trail-only rig, then 5.13s isn’t a bad choice; the max you can do with a 14-bolt is 5.38s. Keep in mind that your truck’s front axle will need to be able to match axle ratios and hold up to 40s as well. If you have a 10-bolt, that’s doubtful for anything other than a trailer queen. Even a fully built Dana 44 is going to be marginal at best if lockers and heavy wheeling are thrown into the mix. For either front axle, remember that you will need eight-lug “knuckles-out” assemblies to match the 8-on-61⁄2 pattern of your 14-bolt.

Submission Information
Confused? Email your questions about trucks, 4x4s, and off-roading tech using “Nuts, I’m confused” as the subject and include a picture (if it’s applicable). Digital photos must measure no less than 1600 x 1200 pixels (or two megapixels) and be saved as a TIFF, an EPS, or a maximum-quality JPEG file. Also, I’ll be checking the forums on our website (, and if I see a question that I think more of you might want to have answered, I’ll print that as well. Otherwise drop it old-school style with the envelope addressed to the address below. Letters published in this magazine reflect the opinions of the writers, and we reserve the right to edit letters for clarity, brevity, or other purposes.
Write to: Nuts & Bolts, 4-Wheel & Off-Road, 831 S. Douglas St., El Segundo, CA 90245
fax to: 818.566.8501
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