A winch is a great tool, and when you need one you really need one. That means you need a winch you can count on because using it is usually your last resort. In today’s flooded market of inexpensive (dare we say cheap?) new winches, a great compromise between a $300 hot-off-the-boat cheap winch and a better but more expensive new winch is to buy a used high-quality winch. We’d take a reliable old quality winch over a cheap one that smells like toxic off-gassed plastic any day. And given that with some looking and a little knowhow you can find a great used winch for a fraction of what a new high-quality one costs, why wouldn’t you buy a used one?
We’ve bought our fair share of used electric winches, and we have learned a few lessons about what to look for and what to avoid. High-quality winches, like any other part of your 4x4, can be rebuilt. A slightly broken older Warn, Ramsey, or Superwinch probably has a better chance of working when you absolutely need it. By “slightly broken” we mean it doesn’t need much more than a few new parts and a little love. If that’s the case, then you can bet it will last longer than some unheard-of manufacturer’s new winch with all the flashy modern bells and whistles. We prefer reliability over flashing LED lights and beeping computers.
First step to buying a used winch is to know what you’re looking for. What style winch do you want, and how heavy a rating do you need for your rig? The second step is to bring a 12-volt battery and power leads or at least a set of jumper cables so you can test the winch to see if it works. The third step is to enjoy your newly purchased used winch for years to come.
The key to buying a used winch is to know what you are looking at. This is a Warn M6000. It looks almost exactly like a Warn Belleview winch and darn similar to a Warn 8274. Spanning the timeframe between the M6000 and the 8274 is the rare Warn 8000 and 8200, which have characteristics of both the Belleview and 8274 winches. All of these winches are tried and true, but the 8274 is the most modern and the best of the bunch.
This M6000, like its predecessor the Belleview, has a manual brake and won’t power out. That means you’re pulling the cable out by hand. Often the clutch and brake were cable operated from the cab of the vehicle. These winches are popular for vintage rigs and can work well if well maintained. Replacement parts are available on the internet, such as at Herm the Overdrive Guy (hermtheoverdriveguy.com). And while these winches are technically rated for 6,000 pounds they are well known to pull a lot more weight than that. Just make sure all the key components are present. This unit is missing the brake drum.
This is a Warn 8274 that we bought used. If you can find one that works for $300-$500 you’re doing pretty well. That may seem like a lot until you realize that a modern version of this winch is still sold new for just under $2,000. This is one of the fastest and most durable winches you can find and carries 150 feet of cable. Updates to this model include an automatic brake and power in and out.
The Warn 8274-50 is the latest evolution of Warn upright winches and one of the most desirable winches available today. Again, in our experience the 8,000-pound rating is merely a suggestion. Parts and upgrades for most if not all 8274s are available, such as a dual motor kit like the one from Gigglepin (gigglepin4x4.net). The gear train on all of these upright winches is similar in that it gets its reduction from a couple of pinions that spin large multitooth gears. On all 8274 winches the brake pawls skip across the brake, creating a unique clicking noise when in use that is very recognizable out on the trail.
If the winch you go to look at works, then spooling out the cable to inspect it will be easy. If the winch doesn’t work that doesn’t mean it’s junk, but getting it into neutral and unspooling cable allows you to inspect the cable and make sure the drivetrain of the winch is not locked up. You want to inspect the cable for frays and rust. Replacement cable costs about $150-$300, and synthetic rope is even more expensive.
Most winches have a data plate. The serial number can be crucial to identifying the winch’s age for ordering replacement parts. Many generic parts like solenoids or control packs can be replaced on any winch, and most electric motors can be rebuilt at specialty shops. But for replacement drums, gears, or shafts you may need to drill down further, and that’s when referencing the data plate helps a lot.
This is an old Ramsey industrial winch we scored for a great deal. We don’t know if it works or even what model it is, but the price was great and we have plans for it to go on a period-correct bumper for one of our vintage 4x4s. This winch shares a lot of the design with the Ramsey PTO winches, and while not fast, it pulls like crazy thanks to its worm-drive gear reduction. The good news is it seems like Ramsey, a company that sells lots of industrial winches, still carries some if not all the necessary replacement parts for these and other older Ramsey winches.
OK, this is not exactly an old winch, but it brings up some good points. Many wheelers obtain a used winch when they purchase a used vehicle that already has one mounted on it, or buy one that was installed on a 4x4 simply for looks and was hardly ever used. The latter is the best kind of winch to buy unless the price is very close to new (because no matter how nice, a used winch has no warranty). Also, while we love the safety afforded by synthetic rope, wire cable will undoubtedly age better. However, wire cable in poor condition is very dangerous if it snaps. If you’re buying a winch with synthetic rope, look for sun fading and fraying as well as cuts and knots.
If an electric winch will not power in or out when the power and ground leads are hooked up, chances are one or both of the solenoids is bad. Solenoids get stuck with age and exposure to the elements. Often they need to be replaced, but sometimes a good whack will free them up enough to work. If that doesn’t work you can try sending power directly to the winch motor to test it. If the winch you are looking at doesn’t have a controller, it’s hard to test, but you can use a dime, needle-nose pliers, or a bit of wire to jump the posts where the controller would plug in. If a winch will power in or out but not both, that usually means one of the solenoids is bad.
This is a Warn XD 9000i winch we bought several years ago and mounted on a TJ rockcrawler. The seller told us it had been on a trail rig and he hadn’t used it in a few years. The winch motor would spool the cable in and out, but the clutch knob wouldn’t turn nor would the clutch disengage. We got a decent deal since the seller knew something wasn’t right. We got home and pulled the clutch housing off and found that a little water had gotten inside and the ring that slides to disengage the transmission had some rust holding it in place. We freed it up, cleaned out the rust and water, and resealed the clutch housing, and it has worked flawlessly for five years. This style of winch, like most modern winches, uses an internal brake and sun-and-planet gears for reduction.
This is another Warn XD 9000 with remote-mounted solenoid pack. This winch came with our 1969 Bronco and, while rusty, hasn’t been used much. That’s a good sign that it should run with a little work. When you’re testing a winch, if it powers in and out you want to listen for grinding or popping noises; those can indicate broken bits in the drivetrain. The drivetrain of a good winch can be rebuilt, but parts will add up quickly. You also want to check for cracks in any of the winches housings. Cracks can indicate internal damage or massive overloading of the winch, and cracks will allow water to damage internals. We would avoid any winch with cracks in the housings unless it was free or nearly free and might have some usable parts