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Strengthen Your Jeep JK's Dana 44 Axle Housing
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October 18, 2017, 09:34:32 PM


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Axle Tech:
A Stronger Front JK Axle Housing


 
JK Front Axle Strengthening Strategy
If you clicked on this article, it’s likely because you’re looking through the half dozen or more different products to strengthen your JK axle tubes. You’ve heard of issues with the housings under moderate to extreme use and you’re trying to figure out which solutions work best and are easiest to install. Do you use an axle truss? Gussets on the knuckles? Sleeve the inside or outside of the tubes? Or do you just re-tube the whole thing? There’s plenty of options out there, but if you look close at the issues common to the Dana 30 and 44 housings on the 07+ JK Jeeps, you’ll find answers to what is actually needed.

Common JK Front Axle Issues
If you google image search for “Broken JK axle housing” you’ll find the top hits are of a few good carnage shots of shattered front axles tubes on JKs (some aren’t even lifted JKs). And, you’ll notice that almost all of them break in the exact same spot, between the upper and lower control arm mounts on the passenger side (long side) of the axle tube. There’s just enough twist in that location because the arms operate on slightly different arcs of motion to cause a bind that can result in a broken housing. It’s compounded because of the extra weight of the four door JKs, and cheap tubes the factory used when they made your Dana 30 or 44 front end. Other issues that plague the JK front ends include ball joints and inner C knuckles that can’t well handle larger tires. Blown out ball joints and bent inner C knuckles are more common that most JK owners know because the issue results in sloppy steering and or increased tire wear due to bad alignment after the inner C’s bend. Since it’s not catastrophic like the housing shattering, those issues often go unnoticed.

I lifted Project Rock Recon almost a year ago, and hadn’t really heavily wheeled the JK for fear of one of the issues listed above. My day job had gotten in the way a little as well, but largely I was taking it easy till I could address the front axle’s shortcomings. I purchased a few items to address my concerns after reviewing the carnage shots online. You could see that axle tube on the long side of the front axle was a torsion type issue as opposed to a bend anywhere along the tube. Thus, the inner axle sleeve approach, which utilizes several rosette welds across the tube would seemingly be a nice solution to that concern so long as you could put rosettes on multiple axis of the tube, before and after the common break site. As for inner C’s, there were several choices as well. Some approaches “box” the outside of the upper and lower parts of the C knuckle with welded on 3/16th steel brackets. Other, and likely stronger (though, I’m not an engineer) approaches take a ½” thick piece of steel and weld it, centerline (top and bottom) on the inner C. This seemed easier to weld in, and stronger to me. TeraFlex sells a kit of inner sleeves and pre-cut ½” knuckle gussets that looked perfect for the job. This approach is becoming popular with several other companies as well now.


CAPTION: The Teraflex sleeves and upper/lower knuckle gusset kit.

Since you need to remove the ball joints when welding the gussets on, now is also a great time to replace those. Several options exists, some are rebuildable and some are not. A stronger, and greaseable, but not rebuildable ball joint is made by Synergy Suspensions and that would be what we used for the job. I felt compelled to change the diff fluid after all the drilling and welding in the tubes, so I also put on new diff covers from Poison Spyder Customs at that time. If you’re so inclined, this would be a good time to regear your axles too. I live in flat area on the east coast and the JK still has plenty of power that I just didn’t feel compelled enough to change the gears- yet. That new Pentastar’s extra power appears to motivate the stock geared JK on 37s just fine.

Helpful Tips: This won’t be a step-by-step install article, that’s not the point, there's instructions for that sort of thing. But I will impart a general method to installing all this stuff along with some tips and tricks we found helpful should you tackle this yourself. First you’ll remove the wheels and brakes (entirely, calipers and rotors). Now, you continue by removing the axle shafts from the front end on both sides, and taking off the steering knuckles. Removing the factory ball joints is where things got exciting for us.


CAPTION: The ball joint c-clamp and a rubber mallet will make life much easier when pulling your old ball joints and for installing the new ones.

PRO-TIP #1: You’ll find that a C-styled ball joint press tool is invaluable (Pictured above). Even with the one we had, this was the biggest time-sponge of our project. It takes some time to really figure which way the ball joints come out and how to assemble the press to do the job. But I’d argue that you really can’t remove them without the press tool. Get one. I rented it from Autozone for the day for free. They charge your card for around $100 and refund it when you return the tool.


CAPTION: As you can see, my axle tubes were still clean. We got away without pulling the locker from the front by just plugging the differential center with rags so that metal shavings couldn't get in there after drilling the tubes. Before sliding in the sleeves, we cleaned the tubes and just pulled the rags.

Once you’ve removed the ball joints, you’ll clean out the tubes. PRO-TIP #2: Stuff a rag down tube all the way to the carrier bearings in both sides of tubes. This will help keep debris out of the diff while you drill into the tubes. TeraFlex’s instructions call for pulling out the differential at this time, but we did not. That choice is yours. My axle tubes were clean and with a rag plugging the diff housings, nothing was going to find it’s way in there. I disconnected all sensors and unplugged the locker so that welding wouldn’t short anything out. That appeared to work fine, but again, Teraflex suggests you pull the diff. Next, you’ll drill. Your axle tubes will get at least six holes drilled on the long-side and 4 on the short.


CAPTION: Here you can see the drilled holes on the long side.


CAPTION: Here you can see the back side of axle tube also go several holes. The short side also got the same treatment.

PRO-TIP #3: We drilled a few more on the long side, just make sure you've drilled places that you can reach when welding. The location of the holes is less important, though, again, you want several on both sides of the common shear point in between the upper and lower control arm mounts to counter the torsion issue. Once all is drilled, clean those tubes out again and remove all the fillings and bits of steel your drill left in there. You’ll need to get the tubes as clean as possible to ensure nothing gets rammed into the diff housing when you slide in the axle sleeves. Once you think you’ve gotten all the drill shavings out, go ahead and pull the rag plugs and slide in your sleeves. They should slide right in at this point needing very light taps from a rubber mallet at most. Prep your welding surfaces and fill the rosettes. You then give a nice weld bead all the way around the end of the tubes where they sit (flush) with the inner C’s.


CAPTION: You shouldn't need a lot of force to get the sleeves in (if it is difficult, that is a sign of a bent housing already). A few light taps from a rubber mallet should do the trick.


CAPTION: After filling in the rosettes, a final bead at the end of the tube will help provide additional torsion resistance.

While those cool, you can tack weld in your gussets. Because it was so cold out when we did this job, we heated the inner C knuckles with a torch for a while, did the welding with a MIG, and then used thick towels to slowly cool the whole knuckles - this ensures none of the welds will crack. This can happen if you’re welding steel to cast iron. Keeping the temperature up during the welding (though not so hot that anything warps- this can be a fine line of course) and ensuring it slowly cools is key according to our editor (and my top notch welder) Tony Carricaburu. We found that, at least with the AEV coils on this JK, we needed to notch the top gusset on each side to allow the coil to sit correctly. Also, some clearance was made for the AEV brackets. It was minor grinding, but worth noting. You will need the ability to grind if you're installing this yourself.


CAPTION: Here you can see the notching we did to allow for the coils to sit properly.


CAPTION: The lower gussets required far less modification to fit around the AEV brackets.

Once everything has cooled, you can begin re-installing your new ball joints. Again, the press tool will save the day, but this will still be the longest and most painful part of the install. Don’t even bother starting this step till everything has cooled, because the inner C’s will likely have expanded a little with the heat.

The next day I used a flapper wheel on my grinder and lightly blended in the rosette welds and repainted the axle tube and gussets. Out of an abundance of caution, I drained and replaced the diff fluid and I also installed the new Poison Spyder diff covers.



CAPTION: All rebuilt and ready for a trail test! The rear also got a new PSC diff cover to match the front.


Functions Test



CAPTION: After decent speed fire road driving and rock crawling opportunities, I feel safe that the front end will hold up to the abuse of 37's with ease.


CAPTION: The new ball joints should help keep the steering tight for many miles to come as well. The diff covers are likely to prove valuable in the future too.

After letting the welds all cool down, grinding the tube rosette welds and repainting the next day, we took the JK out for a proof of concept run. We tackled some local black diamond marked rock routes and then opened the JK up to some high-speed trail running. The axle held up perfect. No issues to report. I will say, that when I put on my AEV 4.5” Suspension a year ago, I also installed TeraFlex “Speed Bump” gas bump stops. These probably saved the axle up to the point I could do the rebuild noted here, and they’ll continue to save the front and rear from the heavy hits that might bend tubes in the future. They also smooth out the ride a considerable amount as well. They’re a worthy investment, and aren’t worldly difficult to install. I am confident that this approach to strengthening the front axle will continue to work fine with 37’s and serious amounts of trail abuse. This install was fairly involved, but was considerably cheaper than replacing the front housing with an aftermarket one. A little preventative work now should allow Rock Recon to play hard for years to come.

~JB~


Questions? Email me at jb@offroad-review.com







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