Building a Custom Tie Rod & Drag LinkPosted in How To: Transmission Drivetrain on January 19, 2017
There are many reasons to build custom steering for your 4x4. Whether you’ve bent stock wimpy parts or even heavy-duty aftermarket steering parts on the trail, reengineered your steering for more clearance or better geometry, or added a custom axle to the front of your rig, building a tie rod and drag link is something you will most likely get around to doing. We have built all kinds of steering systems, from full-hydraulic steering on custom 4x4s to adding a little inexpensive beef to budget beaters and everything in between. In general, building a custom steering system is fairly simple and requires a few specialized tools, like a welder, chop saw, drill, and drill bits. Beyond that, all that’s required are a few parts, a little time, and a little knowhow.
Follow along as we build custom steering for a budget-minded family wheeler with a Ford Dana 44 front axle, with help and parts from our friends at RuffStuff Specialties. RuffStuff offers all kinds of DIY fab components, including a wide range of steering parts, maintenance items, and full custom steering kits. We started with the company’s GM Crossover Steering Kit (PN XOGMSTE, $245) which comes with four 7/8-inch, 1-ton GM tie-rod ends (two right, two left); two 54-inch sticks of 1.5x0.250-wall DOM; four 7/8-inch jam nuts (two right, two left); and four 7/8-inch hex Weld Bungs (two right, two left). Combine these parts with a little fabrication and knowhow, and building custom steering for our our project rig becomes a simple task.
RuffStuff Specialities sent us several parts for this S10 Blazer solid axle swap. This included the company’s GM Crossover Steering Kit (PN XOGMSTE, $245) which comes with enough parts to make a tie rod and drag link. The kit includes four 7/8-inch shank, 1-ton GM tie-rod ends (two right, two left); two 54-inch sticks of 1.5x0.250-wall DOM; four 7/8-inch jam nuts (two right, two left); and four 7/8-inch Hex Weld Bungs (two right, two left). We assembled the tie-rod ends, jam nuts, and weld bungs so we could start mocking up the steering.
With the tie-rod ends assembled we installed them in the steering knuckles and pitman arm. By centering the steering wheel and setting the steering knuckles as close to straight forward as we could, we could take a measurement for the drag link and tie rod from the inside of the two hexes. By leaving about half an inch between the jam nuts and the end of the threads on the tie-rod end, we will have enough room for adjustment later when setting the toe and when centering the wheel by adjusting the drag link.
After the tubing is trimmed to length, there are a few more steps to building your new tie rod and drag link. To ensure a strong steering system, we like to bevel the tubing and leave a small gap (about 1/16 inch) between the weld bung and the tubing. That way we can ensure that the weld gets full penetration. We also like to drill 2 1/2-inch holes in the tubing for a rosette- or plug-weld for a little extra security.
Before welding, remove the tie-rod end and burn the parts together. If you are not an experienced welder this is not the time to learn. If these welds fail, serious injury or death could occur to you and your family, and ruin the lives of others.
Without high-steer arms it is sometimes necessary to run a Y-link steering system where the drag link attaches directly to the passenger-side tie-rod end. This system works well with lower rigs. Parts for a Y-link type steering system like this are also available from RuffStuff (PN YLINK, $240).
Occasionally flipping the tie rod from the bottom of the knuckle to the top is also necessary. You can do this using rod ends or you can retain tie-rod ends by using tapered knuckle inserts. These allow you to drill the knuckles out to 7/8 inch. Then these inserts can be used to flip the tie rod from the bottom of the knuckle to the top. Unfortunately our tie-rod would interfere with the leaf springs in this configuration, so for us, lower is better.
We also try to live by the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Custom steering isn’t always necessary since engineers spend lots of time designing factory steering systems that are frequently more than enough for what we do—unless you plan on bouncing the steering off rocks. Rosco P. Drivetrain uses the Factory Ram drag link and tie rod that came with the 3/4-ton 2012 Ram front axle we grafted under the truck. Also, since people are playing with 2012 3/4-ton Ram 4x4s, there is aftermarket support for the steering on these axles. That means if we need to upgrade, parts are available.
There is a wide variety of weld bungs and jam nuts in the aftermarket for all types and sizes of steering systems, for use with small tie-rod ends, rod ends, and more. The added hex profile of the Ruffstuff parts helps with adjustment, and we like that. We also like weld bungs with thick inner shoulders for good strong rosette weld anchoring as well as some of the threads extending past the weld point of the bung and well into the body of the tubing. That way it is harder for the weld around the circumference to become a potential pivot point between the tie-rod end and the tubing. With all weld bungs, if you need more strength just go to a thicker-wall DOM tube or step on up to chromoly for the ultimate in rock-bashing steering. Thread engagement is also important. As a rule you want thread engagement that is equal to, or greater than, 1 1/2 times the shaft diameter. So if you are using tie-rod ends with a 1/2-inch threaded shank, you want at minimum 3/4 inches of threads.