101 Cheap Tips & Problem Solvers
Get more bang for your garage-tech buck
If the significant other has tightened up the 4x4 purse strings and the only thing collecting in your pockets is lint, then we have the cheap tips you need. We also threw in some problem-solver components that have made our garage wrench, fabricator, and off-road centric lives easier.
Welding on the ground is uncomfortable and not ideal for throwing down a good weld bead. Build or buy yourself a thick steel welding table. We’ve been using this portable Miller (millerwelds.com) F-Series ArcStation for several years now. When not welding, we use it as a workbench we can keep close to our project. The thick steel top can take a beating and there are several different clamps available that interface with the tabletop.
When installing your own suspension at home, don’t gun down all the mounting hardware with the vehicle in the air. Leaf spring bolts, shock mounts, and link hardware should be left somewhat loose until you set the vehicle on the ground where they can be tightened to proper spec. This keeps the bushings from being bound up and providing a stiff ride.
You can quickly and easily check the condition of wheel bearings on almost anything. Safely raise the vehicle, grab the tire at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions and check for slop. Any movement will indicate that the bearings need to be serviced, tightened, or replaced. However, make sure the movement is coming from the bearings. On a frontend application, worn ball joints will also cause sloppy looseness.
Tired of mud, water, and dust destroying the CD player in your 4x4? Switch out to a simple waterproof boat head unit like this Dual MGH30BT Marine digital media receiver with built-in Bluetooth from Crutchfield (crutchfield.com). It takes up a lot less space and can play all the music stored on your phone.
The dipstick/caps on GM Saginaw power steering pumps are notorious leakers. Adding a short section of 1 1/2-inch hydraulic or fuel hose and a billet cap from Pro-Werks (pro-werks.com) not only allows slightly more fluid to be added to the system, it helps control power steering fluid leakage.
Powdercoated beadlock wheels often have paint in the locking-ring threads. It would take forever to chase them out with a tap by hand. Carefully using a low-power 3/8-inch drill loaded with the proper tap speeds up the process immensely. Start slow and keep the drill straight—you don’t want to cross thread your new wheels.
Seized No More
Protect your expensive beadlock wheels from damage caused by galling, dirt, and corrosion. Anti-seize and beadlock bolts go together like bacon and pretty much anything. Reapply anti-seize to the locking-ring bolts every time you remove and reinstall them.
Slick Rod End
Speaking of anti-seize, it’s a good idea to smear it on tie rod and rod end threads to prevent corrosion, which can make adjustment and replacement a real pain down the road.
There are really only three common failures on trailers. This includes wiring, tires, and wheel bearings. On a road trip, check the hub temperature of each trailer wheel. If one is hot or warmer than the others, you could be losing a wheel bearing. Keep in mind that trailer axles with brakes will have significantly warmer hubs than non-braked axles.
Planning on painting your entire 4x4 with rattle cans? Do your fingers a favor and get your hands on a spray handle like the Krylon Snap & Spray (krylon.com). You’ll be able to lay the paint more evenly over a longer period of time with far less finger fatigue.
Need to move the spring perches or change the pinion angle on your leaf-sprung 4x4. Consider using these extra-long perches from Ruff Stuff Specialties (ruffstuffspecialties.com). They are much beefier than factory perches and a bit longer to help control axle wrap.
If you are getting the Ruff Stuff Specialties perches to alter the wheelbase of your 4x4 a bit, you might as well get the whole spring perch, plate, and U-bolt kit for a clean and easy installation. The kit allows the axle to be moved 1-inch forward or rearward from center.
When fabricating patch panels and other steel plate brackets, use cardboard to first make a template. It’s far easier to fit up and trim the paper with scissors than it is to grind steel. Transfer the final template shape to the steel plate for cutting.
If you are having difficulty making or seeing cut lines on steel plate, use a bright-colored spray paint to create a more contrasting line around your cardboard template. This is especially helpful when using a hand-held plasma cutter, which requires a darker lens than some other cutting methods.
Making several steel brackets exactly the same shape and size can be a near impossible task without an expensive trace-cutting table. Tack welding or bolting several rough-cut brackets together prior to grinding them smooth will provide you with identical brackets on the cheap.
Mocking up steering and suspension components so you can get a better look at the big picture under your 4x4 will save you a ton of failed fabrication mistakes. Use heavy-gauge wire to hang the links, steering, track bars, and other components from the frame and axles. This gives you the ability to easily move the components around to check for fitment prior to making templates and cutting out brackets.
Even the lightest weld spatter can destroy a shock or steering ram shaft. When mocking up these components with weld-on brackets, protect them from dings and weld spatter with a layer or two of masking tape.
Once mounting tabs are tack welded in place, remove shocks, stabilizers, and ram-assist cylinders prior to finish welding. The heat can damage these components. Use old hardware to keep the tabs in place while welding. The weld heat can cause them warp, forcing the mounting holes to be misaligned.
You can waste a lot of time and effort cutting out and smoothing common weld tabs. There are lots of off the shelf tabs available from companies like Ruff Stuff Specialties and A&A Manufacturing (aa-mfg.com).
Keep several different sizes of short sections of tubing and old sockets around to help seat hard to access seals and bearing races with a hammer. Proper distribution of the load will set seals in place without bending the sheetmetal body and ruining the seal.
Driveline yoke splines can be an oil-leak spot. Some newer applications include rubber gaskets for sealing. You can seal up older yokes by smearing silicone on the splines prior to installation.
Always smear a little grease on the sealing surfaces prior to installing a new seal, yoke, or other similar component. The grease will help keep the seal from being cut by splines and other sharp machined edges.
For machined non-gasketed sealing surfaces, like between the adjustment shims of a Dana 20 or Spicer 18, use something similar to Permatex (permatex.com) Spray-A-Gasket Sealant. It goes on easier and comes off cleaner than silicone in these tight-fitting applications.
When fabricating and 4x4 building in the garage, there are few tools that get as much use as our 4 1/2-inch angle grinder. You can use it to grind away and shape material, cut, and sand items smooth. Many different wheels are available for a multitude of jobs. We always keep a good assortment on hand.
Do you know if you are over-compressing your shocks? If you are, you could damage the shocks or tear off the shock mounts. Use a zip tie around the shock shaft to help identify how far the suspension compresses and if you need to relocate your bumpstops.
Front axles are extremely susceptible to rust, especially in the wet states. Spindles and unit bearings have a light press fit into the knuckle. Corrosion can make removal near impossible. When slapping your axles back together, smear some anti-seize on the mating surfaces. You’ll be glad you did next time around.
Getting a consistent weld bead takes time and practice. It also requires a bit of planning. Before you try and throw down a weld, cycle the gun from one end of the joint to the other in a dry run to make sure you are in a comfortable position and that there are no obstructions.
Foam bumpstops are incredibly durable and a lot less harsh than most rubber and urethane bumpstops. GM PN 15712438 (right) can be used as a good solid universal bolt-on bumpstop to fit many applications. You can find them on the rear of ’99-’06 Chevy Silverado 1500 pickups, among other vehicles. They run about $20 each new.
Trimming your fenders is an easy way to make more room for bigger tires. Protect your 4x4s paint from the foot of your preferred cutting tool by layering masking tape over the foot, as well as on the body prior to making the cut. The tape can also be used as a planning tool to help you imagine what it will look like where you plan to trim.
Replacing busted taillights can get expensive. If your 4x4 has flat panels in the rear, consider some of these inexpensive flush-mounted truck taillights. Most auto parts stores carry them. All you need is the correct-sized hole saw, jig saw, or body saw to get them in place. LED and traditional bulb versions are available.
More Weld Planning
Weld joints should be good and tight prior to finish welding. Gaps will make the joint weak. But don’t stop there—Plan where the tack welds should go. Place them in the middle or at the end of a planned weld, never at the beginning. That way you avoid stacking a cold start weld on top of a tack, which creates an ugly globular appearance.
Cut and Fold
Removing metal can weaken the unit body of some 4x4s. Rather than cutting out inner fender material, consider slicing and folding over the offending bits. This will actually help strengthen the body in some areas.
Rod End Remedy
If using rod ends in a single-shear application, like on a tie rod or draglink, install safety washers. These will help keep the joint together in the event the ball is pushed out of the body of the rod end. Companies like Synergy Manufacturing (synergymfg.com) offer radiused safety washers that do not limit movement.
Even if you are into primitive camping, a small portable generator can be incredibly handy to recharge batteries, run electric tools to make repairs, and so on. Small generators are more affordable than ever and they are much quieter than earlier versions.
Ratchet straps are incredibly handy when doing tube work on rollcages and seat mounts. The straps can be used to hold everything in place while you tack weld the joints. Use cheapie straps because weld spatter tends to make a mess of the nylon webbing.
Plan on working with tubing? Get your hands on a tubing notcher like the TN-100 from JD Squared (jd2.com). It makes fish-mouth cuts in tubing using common hole saws and is powered by your 1/2-inch drill. It’s quicker, cleaner, and more precise than using a grinder.
If you’ve swapped tires and axle gearing, then you probably have no idea how far off your speedometer is. There are several free iPhone apps that can help you figure it out via a GPS speedometer. The apps usually have other useful functions as well.
When driving through a new area you never know which gas stations are out to gouge you. Now you can find out with the Gas Buddy iPhone app. It maps the fuel stations closest to you and provides the price per gallon of your selected fuel. The information is constantly updated by other app users.
There is never a funnel around when you need one. Or is there? Plastic soda, water, and even oil bottles make perfect disposable funnels when you remove the cap, cut out the bottom, and flip it upside down.
Use the correct axlehousing end to build a spare flanged axle carrier. You can even find a seal for the backside to keep the axle bearing clean and lubed with grease. Spray paint the ’shaft and splines to prevent corrosion.
No Fun Flat
Got some old project languishing in the yard with leaky tires, yet you still need to move it around occasionally? We have successfully used Slime (slime.com) to seal up rotten tires that have long since given up safe use on the street. It might save you from buying a new set of tires for a rolling parts 4x4.
Corrosion on your battery terminals can cause hard starting and unpredictable electrical gremlins. A cup of water with a bit of baking soda stirred in will quickly and easily remove this mess and neutralize the leaked battery acid. Remove and scrub the terminals with the mixture for best results.
Battery cables come in many lengths and gauges, but sometimes exactly what you need isn’t available. Welding cable (far right) is able to handle high-amp loads and can be bought by the foot from your local weld shop. It’s perfect power cable for custom-length applications.
Need to do a body swap or lift a heavy object and your buddies are conveniently never around when you need them. Build a gantry crane. You can also purchase rolling gantry cranes from tool suppliers like Harbor Freight (harborfreight.com).
Save your money. Don’t ever bet John Cappa he can’t drink a pint of mustard in under a minute. You will lose that bet and probably get sick watching him take your money and laugh.
It seems like common sense but hose the mud, cow dung, and dead animals off of the underside of your 4x4 before going to work on it. No one likes a clump of mud or dead skunk landing on their forehead during an oil change.
Sometimes even new parts have burrs and inconsistencies that can cause leaks in critical areas. Inspect holes for burrs and smooth them prior to installation. Used parts can be suspect as well if they were improperly installed.
Spicer-style axleshafts can sometimes spit out their U-joint caps under heavy stress. If you plan to abuse your stock axles, consider tack welding the caps to the axleshafts. It’s not a good permanent fix. You need stronger ’shafts, but in most cases it can get you through the weekend if you catch the caps wobbling and pushing out of their bores.
Sometimes there just isn’t enough room for a car battery under the hood. The fact of the matter is that the battery will likely last longer if you can get it away from the temperature changes found in an engine bay. Think outside the box when mounting your battery. In this case, a rear wheelwell worked perfect.
Has your garage been invaded by small rodents? Try building a bucket trap. Run a bit of wire over the top of a 5-gallon bucket. Thread on a peanut butter-coated spindle in the middle and put about 4 inches of water in the bottom of the bucket. Mice will try to climb out onto the wire to get at the food, fall in the bucket, and drown. Make sure there is a ramp for them to reach the top of the bucket. You may need a garbage can or something bigger for larger rodents like rats, squirrels, and elephants.
A deflated tire can be easily unseated from the bead for repair or removal with the use of a heavy 4x4 and a Hi-Lift (hi-lift.com) jack. You may need to work your way around with some soapy water if it’s a tight-fitting tire-and-wheel combo.
Garage Frame Straightener
A Hi-Lift can be incredibly handy in the shop too. We’ve even used one to straighten out a bowed frame by clamping the two rails together. Creative users might even be able to correct a diamond-shaped frame with a Hi-Lift and a few chains.
Whenever possible, we prefer to use pinion shims instead of crush collars when regearing a 4x4. We’ve seen off-road abuse cause issues with crush collars. Shim kits are available for some of the more popular axles like the Ford 9-inch.
Chalk It Up
Use chalk across the tread of your oversized aftermarket tires to help figure out what air pressure you should be running on-road. Pull forward in a straight line for 50 to 100 feet on a smooth, level, paved driveway or parking lot. If the chalk is worn on the outside edges of the tire, add more air. If the chalk is worn away in the middle only, deflate the tire a few psi. Reapply the chalk and perform the procedure several times on all four tires until you get even wear of the chalk across the entire tread surface.
Four-Link Fab Tip
On a properly built triangulated four-link suspension, the most wear-prone joints are on the top links. Not only are they controlling the torque applied to the axlehousing by the engine, they are also keeping the axle from moving laterally. These upper joints should be just as beefy as the lower arm joints in order for them to last a long time.
Pay special attention to where you mount the water temperature sensor on your engine. We have seen many gauges read hot when the sensor is placed in the head too close to an exhaust port. To get a proper reading, the ideal location is near the water outlet headed to the radiator.
You may not always have the correct tap to chase out some dirty threads. Slice a groove into the proper-sized bolt with a cutoff tool. Clean the threads up with a nut or file and you have a makeshift chase tap. Dirt and gunk will collect in the groove as you thread the chaser into the threaded hole.
You should have the correct large-sized socket for your traditional serviceable wheel hubs. If you don’t, you can sometimes use a punch or chisel and hammer to loosen and tighten the hub adjusting nuts. Then head to the store for the proper tool, ya hack.
We have yet to find a brake line wrench that works every time. So far, the best tools we have found for removing stuck brake lines without damaging them are the Craftsman (craftsman.com) Adjustable and Knipix (knipex-tools.com) pliers.
Once a wheel bearing race spins out inside a wheel hub, the hub is ruined. You can get just a bit more life out of the hub by distorting the bearing seat surface with a punch. This is only a temporary solution until you can locate a replacement hub.
Keep a couple short sections of chain and a few bolts in your 4x4 trail repair box. You can use the chains to lash a steering box back to the frame, keep high-steer arms with busted studs in place, stabilize a broken motor or transmission mount, and more.
Your Hi-Lift jack handle can be used to straighten and strengthen a bent tie rod, draglink, or track bar. Simply straighten the offending component as best you can and slide the tube in place to get off the trail. Replace the bent bits with the proper new parts as soon as possible.
Replacing a U-joint at home isn’t exactly fun, and replacing one out on the trail without a vise or hard flat surface is downright hateful. Toss a 1x1-foot or similar sized sheet of aluminum into your trail toolbox to be used as a mini work station. The flat plate will give you a solid platform to pound the new U-joint into place in no time.
Reseating a popped tire bead can sometimes seem like an impossible job. Troublesome tires can be coerced with a ratchet strap around the center of the tread area. Clean the tire bead and wet it. Start filling the tire with air and quickly loosen the ratchet strap as soon as you see the tire catch and hold against the wheel bead surface.
Brake fluid does bad things to paint. We always seem to spill it when pouring with an open top. To keep this from happening, we use a gear oil bottle top and a small section of hose to direct the fluid exactly where we want—in the master cylinder and not all over the paint.
Can’t find the correct rubber grommet to protect the wires passing through the firewall? No worries. Split a short section of fuel hose down the middle and push it into place around the sharp edges of the hole.
Factory and aftermarket skidplates often fill up with oil when performing an oil change on your 4x4. Use masking tape to help direct the flow of the draining oil down into the drain pan instead of allowing it to make a mess.
Setting the toe on a solid axle 4x4 can be easily done with a tape measure and a straight circumferential line around each front tire. Measure from the front and back side of the tires. The tires should be towed in 0- to 3/8-inch in most cases.
Worried about your electronics getting wet when wheeling? Place the components in a Tupperware container on the firewall. Seal the holes for the wires with silicone. Install the cover when you plan to hit deep water.
Protect high-amp wiring from being chafed and shorting out by slipping old heater or garden hose over the cable in suspect areas. Use zip ties to keep the hose in place if it’s not a tight fit. Stubborn cables will slide through more easily if you wet them with window cleaner or silicone spray prior to pulling them through.
Your First Welder
Buying your first welder? Buy more machine than you think you’ll need at first. That way you can grow into it and not have to buy twice when your projects become more complex and involved down the road. We’ve never seen anyone ever need less welder capability and duty cycle performance as their skills develop.
If you plan to install your own lift kit, swap axles, or do any other sort of undercarriage work, soak the hardware with penetrating oil for a couple days prior to spinning any wrenches. This will make removal go much smoother in most cases.
HREW vs. DOM vs. Chromoly
The most cost-effective structural tubing for rocker guards, rollcages, and bumpers is 1026 DOM. It’s about twice the strength of typical HREW tubing. In most cases 4130 chromoly is only about 10 to 20 percent stronger than DOM; however, to achieve that strength, it needs to be heat treated after welding. This is not something you can really do in the garage. Chromoly tube is also significantly more expensive than DOM.
The cost of aluminum AN race fittings can add up quick. If you don’t mind the added weight, you can use common steel AN or JIC fittings that you can find at any hydraulic shop. These steel fittings are about a third of the price of aluminum AN fittings.
Track Bar Tackle
Manhandling an axle around to install a track bar can be simplified by the use of a ratchet strap. Simply attach one end of the strap to the axle and the other to the frame. Ratchet the axle into place so the boltholes line up.
The first thing you should do with a new radiator is cut up the box it came in and use the cardboard to protect the core front and back. Radiators often get inadvertently banged around during installation, and the last thing you want to do is damage it.
Multi-colored bolts all over your project can make it look sloppy. Bolt heads can be easily painted to match by pushing them through cardboard and painting them the desired color. It’s also a good way to keep the bolts organized when pulling something apart.
Brake lines can often get wrapped up into bumpstops, steering components, tires, and shocks where they can be torn or chafed. You can keep them safely away from other components by using a few light throttle return springs.
We’ve always liked using this compact ORI urethane spare tire wedge (PN 99-4440) when building a spare tire mount for the bed of a pickup or other 4x4. Several different companies sell the mount.
The best way to keep your wheels and tires on your truck and out of the hands of thieves is to use two different types of wheel locks. Also, don’t leave the lug lock keys in obvious hiding spots like the center console or glovebox.
Most clutch slave cylinders are a push type, the problem is that they can often interfere with the exhaust routing. This Wilwood (wilwood.com) pull-type slave cylinder (PN260-1333) offers lots of adjustability and can be installed out of the way of most exhausts.
If you need to run wires through a rollcage, bumper, or frame, do what any electrician would do. Greenlee (greenlee.com) offers several fish tape tools to help pull wire and even fuel lines through tight spaces.
U-Joint caps can fall off when you remove a driveshaft, causing the needle bearings inside to get lost in the dirt or on the shop floor. Use electrical tape to keep the caps in place when storing a driveshaft.
Plastic shipping stretch wrap is extremely handy when storing greasy components you want to keep dirt free. Birfield and Rezeppa joints, transmissions, transfer cases, axles, and more can be sealed up keeping dirt and gunk out and the greasy oily mess in.
We use large square plastic pickle containers to organize loose hardware by size. We can always easily find the exact bolt or nut we are looking for, rather than sifting through one large container with every size stuffed in it.
The absolute strongest way to attach a tow point is to cut a hole and weld the mount on the front and back side. Thick materials should be preheated for proper weld penetration
Tall narrow fuel cells are better for off-roading. Fuel slosh is less likely to cause starvation than on short wide fuel cells when crawling over obstacles at all angles.
Bink’s Fabrication (binksfab.com) offers these trick ECM mounts for GM engine computers. They are perfect for anyone making an engine swap with GM EFI.
If you’re using a MIG or flux-core welder, you need a pair of USA-made Channellock (channellock.com) 360 9-inch Welder’s Pliers. They are designed specifically for use on wire-feed welders to help accomplish all of the common tip cleaning, tightening, and cutting tasks.
An OCD fabricator we know swears he gets a cleaner weld start when he cuts off the melted tip of the filler wire before starting a new MIG bead. He does this every time. You can try it for yourself and see if you agree.
The absolute fastest way to air down your tires is to simply remove the valve core. There are lots of low-cost tools available to perform this task. Carry spare valve cores because you will eventually lose one in the dirt.
It’s hard to beat the precision of an air saw when cutting fenders and other body metal bits. Unfortunately, the blades can be expensive. Hacksaw blades can be broken down into 2 to 3-inch sections and used in an air saw for far less money than the actual blades.
We’ve seen Bink’s Fabrication use a MAPP gas torch to lightly heat-faded plastic TJ fender flares back to black. A heat gun is said to work too but not as quickly. Watch the paint and don’t light your Jeep on fire. Remove the flares first. And we thought it was only good for burning spiders in the garage.
Twitchy Throttle Fix
Got a throttle pedal that’s twitchier than the hair trigger on a buffalo gun? Edelbrock (edelbrock.com) offers a linkage extension (PN 8012) that allows you to ease into the fuel. The bracket fits popular carburetors and some throttle bodies.
$1 Car Alarm
The best way to keep someone from stealing your 4x4 is to keep them from starting it. Install a hidden switch that shuts of the fuel or ignition. Clever electricians can wire the switch to sound the horn when a thief tries to start the engine.
There are many different ways to waterproof the vital components of your engine. We have had great luck with K&N (knfilters.com) Air Filter Sealing Grease (PN 99-0704). It’s really thick and gooey. We’ve used it successfully on air filters, around the distributor cap, dipstick tubes, and on oil filler lids.
Sometimes urethane bumpstops just don’t want to pop into their cups. A little silicone spray and small bottle jack gets them in every time. Just make sure the axle is properly supported.
Universal Tube Bushings
Wrangler YJ leaf spring bushings have a 1.25-inch and 1.50-inch diameter so they fit into 1.5-inch, 0.120 wall and 1.75-inch, 0.120-wall tubing, respectively. The bushings are perfect for custom motor and transmission mounts as well as many other uses. They can be trimmed and drilled to fit lots of applications.
One-man brake bleeding is easy with a brake bleeding bottle. Build your own with a small lidded container and short section of hose that fits over the bleeder screw. You can push caliper pistons back into their bores with a C-clamp or large pliers when installing new brake pads and flush out the old fluid at the same time.
Plastic bumpers and trim bits can sometimes be bent back into shape with the help of a heat gun. Crushed components like this bumper end may need a little coercing from the inside out. Drilling an inconspicuous hole on the backside will give you access to the dent.
A quick way to tell if a used 4x4 has been abused off-road is to take a look at the undercarriage. Dents and deep scrapes are clear signs that a 4x4 has been used hard off-road. If you’re looking for a clean daily driver, look for a clean undercarriage.