Spending the down payment on a new house for custom bulletproof axles is a great way to shore up the drivetrain on any off-road vehicle, but there is a much less expensive alternative. Josh Huntley visited his local salvage yards to find a Dana 60 front axle from a 2006 Ford Super Duty F350 and a GM 14-bolt off the rear of a 2004 Chevy Silverado 2500. Total cost of the used axles was $1,100. The axles were intended for Huntley’s 2013 Wrangler Sport that had already been modified with plenty of salvaged parts, including a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 from a Durango, a 6-speed manual transmission from a Dakota, and a Rubicon transfer case.
“I like the later model Ford axles because earlier ones had smaller unit bearings, and I’ve been building my Jeep up for four years using mostly junkyard parts,” Josh told us. He’s not shy about driving his rig cross-country to get dirty, either. “I’ve done a 4,500-mile round trip to Rausch Creek, and gone to Moab.”
Both axles came with 4.10:1 gears and open differentials. Lockers were needed, and the original gears could have worked, but Josh wanted the added ground clearance that a Ballistic Fabrication shave kit would provide on the rear 14-bolt. Cutting off the bottom of the axle housing means that the factory ring gear would have to be machined to a smaller outside diameter to clear the bottom plate, or a special ring gear would have to be ordered. Huntley chose an available 4.88 from Ballistic that would fit inside the housing and added a Yukon Grizzly locker. Up front the matching 4.88 Sierra gear was installed with an Eaton ELocker. The differential and gear installation was performed at Dakota Customs. Josh used an Artec swap kit to facilitate the installation. This kit came with the necessary brackets to mount the links and springs from the Synergy long-arm kit that had already been installed. It also incorporated a truss to strengthen each axle.
Josh Huntley recovered the Dana 60 front axle from a 2006 Ford Super Duty F350 for $550 at a local salvage yard. A plasma cutter and high-speed cut-off tool were used to strip off the unneeded brackets. The brakes were removed so the rotors and calipers could be reused.
His off-roading buddy, Pat Helgeson, directed the bracket welding and shave-kit installation. Key to the effort was never letting one area of the axle tube heat up during the stitch welding of the brackets, and maintaining a 450-degree metal temperature of the housing while welding the shave plate and wear plate.
Final installation included swapping in Reid Racing knuckles on the front axle and switching to Adams Driveshafts for the front and rear. Josh also added wheel spacers in the rear so the axles would have matching track widths. The GM axle was three inches narrower than the Ford. The spacers also matched the Ford’s front bolt circle so that all four wheels could be ordered with an 8 on 170mm pattern. The rolling stock on Josh’s rig includes Pro Comp 17x8.5 steel wheels with 37/12.5–17 Pit Bull Rocker tires.
“Otherwise, I would have to machine the front hubs to match the GM in the rear,” Josh said. “If something broke, then I would have to machine it again. Now I can get the pieces from a dealership or parts store.”
The only other machining required was on the rear hubs to accept the ABS tone ring that was supplied by Artec. Spacers were also machined to properly align the tie rod on the Artec hi-steer kit. Overall total cost for the project (axles plus all other parts included) was estimated at $8,500, and the project took approximately three weeks to complete, mostly in his spare time and weekends. Here’s how it went down.
The axle tube surfaces were ground smooth and prepped for welding the Artec truss and suspension brackets at Pat Helgeson’s shop. He fabricated a jig to support the housing in the proper pinion and caster angles that matched the existing setup on Huntley’s Wrangler. The swap kit was positioned so the truss and bracket tops were level before tack welding, and then the finish welding was performed. Care was taken to alternate 1-inch stitch welds on different sides of the axle so that the tubes wouldn’t overheat in one area.
The rear GM 14-bolt axle was pulled from a 2004 Chevy Silverado 2500 and underwent the same bracket removal and axle tube prep as the front before mocking up the Artec kit.
Pat created a jig to accurately shave the right amount of metal from the bottom of the axle housing for the Ballistic Fabrication shave kit. First, the housing was leveled and secured. Next, a steel plate and square tubes were bolted or welded in place to provide a guide for the 8-inch circular saw. The carbide-tipped wood blade was set at a six-degree angle, per the instructions.
The circular saw provided a guide-cut for the reciprocating saw to finish the cutting.
A wear plate slightly smaller than the shave plate was cut out of 1/4-inch-thick AR400 steel.
The pinion angle was positioned at 8.5 degrees and the housing secured in a vice before setting the truss and brackets at level.
All the brackets were tack welded in place before final welding on them began.
During final welding, Pat made short stitch welds and alternated from side to side to reduce temperature buildup.
Here’s a mockup of the shave plate and the wear plate. Note how the mounting holes for the diff cover could be exposed on the bottom if not for the wear plate. The plates are tack welded once they’re in proper alignment and all the diff cover bolts are installed. The differential is also in place.
The axle housing and tubes were preheated to 450 degrees using an oxy torch and propane weed burner. The metal temperature is monitored with a temp gun, and care is taken to avoid a hot cherry color that indicates too much heat.
The plates were welded alternately and on different sides to avoid heat buildup in a single area.
A needle scaler was used to relieve residual stress at the weld.
The metal’s temperature was constantly monitored while welding the plates. If it dipped below 400 degrees, the preheating resumed as needed.
Here’s the finished welding on the outside.
While the housing and tubes were still warm, the diff cover and differential were removed for access to the inside of the case. Again, the metal temperature was maintained at 450 degrees.
The same preheating and welding procedure was followed on the inside of the case.
When the welding was completed, the housing and tubes were again brought up to 450 degrees, and then the axle was wrapped in fire retardant insulation and left for three days to cool.
Here’s the rear axle after paint and installation. No adjustments were needed to the Synergy long-arm suspension, and the axle bolted right into place. A rear track bar from another Jeep was used. Old Man Emu shocks completed the rear setup.
A notch was opened up in the backing plate to support the ABS sensor. The hubs had already been machined for the Artec ABS tone ring. New seals and bearings were installed during assembly, and Josh installed wheel spacers that corrected the bolt pattern and matched the axle width of the front.
The front axle was prepped with Reid Racing knuckles and an Artec high-steer kit. Note the spacers were machined to separate the joints and keep the tie rod low to support the hydro assist.
Here’s one motivation for the swap. Look at the difference between a Dana 60 ring and pinion and the same from a Dana 30 that comes stock on the Wrangler. Josh’s setup includes an Eaton ELocker with Sierra 4.88 gears.
The backlash was checked on the front Dana 60. Note the desired contact pattern on the yellow marking compound.
Shim thickness was determined to help set the bearing preload and pinion depth. A crush sleeve was not used in this setup.
Here’s the front axle fully installed with the Redneck Ram steering assist. Also note the spacer to correctly position the tie rod.
In order to provide additional clearance between the track bar and the housing, the track-bar bracket was modified to shift the mounting point forward. Also note that the factory Pitman arm was drilled out to accommodate the 3/4-inch bolt for the drag link.
Here’s another view of the completed front swap. The Mountain Off Road skid plate was cut to clear the truss.
Adams Driveshaft provided both drivelines—both slightly shorter than factory. U-joint selection is 1310/1350 for the front and 1350/1410 in the rear.
Here’s another view of the axles in place. The rear brake lines had to be shortened since the calipers were switched from behind to in front of the axle tubes.
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