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By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA

 

Tales of Terribly Tall Trailers
and Widening With Welding

Part 2

To Part 1

This month’s article might be a sequel, but it’s a milestone for me. September 2010 marks four years of my monthly offerings here on the altar of do-it-yourself. There’s not a lot of fame in this kind of writing, and even less fortune, but I continue to be honored to keep “how-to” alive. I have learned a lot and I hope you all have too. By all means, go pour yourself a libation! I will too.

Lift a glass for Chuck too. Print magazines tend to have editorial guidelines that discourage the sharing of mistakes or discussing a “good enough” approach that is less than perfection. Chuck never bothered with such nonsense and the result is an open forum where all of us are welcome to share our mistakes and successes and learn from one another. My regular career is in healthcare quality improvement, where it is well-known that sharing mistakes fixes things a lot faster than “favorable slant”. I guess that means we are ahead of the curve. Either way, thanks for being here and reading!

Okay, pour another and on with the show, assuming you can still read.

Last month we widened a boat trailer frame from 48” to 60”. In addition, we added a stern support and goalpost loading guides. Now we need to finish the job starting with the hard part – the axle.

Economics

Based on my experience, it’s almost certainly better to buy a new axle than attempt to widen one. I estimate I spent around $20 on cutoff wheels, $15 on welding rods and $15 on scrap steel for the axle widening. That $50 would buy almost half of a new axle. You can get an axle online for around $90. The shipping can get pricey though. I found a local source for $104, which provides a weld-together kit. This is a lot less welding than I did. I invested maybe $1 in cutoff wheels, $2 in welding rods and not more than a couple hours of time.

Do the math here. My potential savings after the costs of widening the axle were only $54. (I’m not counting a U-bolt kit, since this should really be replaced anyway.) Let’s spread that over the time required. Between cutting, aligning and welding, I spent 12-15 hours on the axle widening. $3.60 per hour isn’t a very good payback for a basically “invisible” part of the project.

I went into this project knowing the economics didn’t look good. In fact, I knew there was a good chance it would not work at all. I mostly wanted to see if I could do it. The answer is “yes and no”.

Challenges

Widening an axle is not for the faint of heart. Not only do you need to weld, but it must be precise. We can’t allow any warping at all because the straightness of the axle controls the camber and toe of the trailer’s wheels. My initial approach was to clamp the axle to a straight piece of steel while welding it. Be sure to check with a string. There’s nothing straighter than string pulled taut. Be aware that not all axles are straight. Some are cambered to make up for flexing under load. Fortunately, mine wasn’t. I’m not sure how I would have dealt with that.

It gets worse. I was expecting a normal tubular steel axle. This one was solid 1.25” square bar, which is used for class II hitch inserts. Worse, it seemed to be higher carbon content than typical mild steel. When grinding it, the sparks made feathery ends rather than tiny hot blobs. This means extra carbon, harder steel, and more likelihood of losing strength if I overheat it. Joy!

The easy way would be to buy some axle tube that these spindles would slip into, cut the spindles off, and weld it together. It could never be this simple in my world. I couldn’t find any square steel tubing with an accurate 1.25” inside measurement. Even if I had, it would not have fit standard trailer U-bolts.

I couldn’t find any matching shaft stock, but I don’t think it matters because I’m sheathing the whole joint inside what will end up being a 1.75” square tube with .25” wall thickness. It is sort of like a small and brutishly heavy version of the birdsmouth mast you’ve read about.

Let’s stop here for a minute to consider what we’re about to do and whether it is worth bothering (again). This is a lot of welding and cutting of thick stuff. It will be a lot of work and use up a lot of cutoff wheels and welding rods. You also need a welding machine that can handle operating at maybe 160 amps with a reasonable duty cycle. (The higher you turn it up, the longer it has to sit there and cool between beads.)

I began the process by cutting strips to form the box around the axle. These were four 3’ strips of .25” steel, 2” wide with one beveled edge. It is easier to make straight cuts and then grind bevels, but it is very time consuming. I managed to cut the bevels at the same time as doing the cutoff, but it requires care. I suppose the ideal would be a cutoff wheel in a table saw, but it would be a flimsy and expensive wheel. Another option is a metal cutting bandsaw. Most of us will need to make do with an angle grinder. Cutting .25” thick steel takes approximately forever.

A challenge here will be fully joining the new steel to the old without terribly overheating the old. My guess is that “stitch welding” will help here. This is, some parts are left unwelded to avoid ruining the temper. This requires a bigger overlap, of course. Overkill might not be bad here. It is a highly critical part and material strength will be hard to predict. On the other hand, we don’t want to go too radically overboard, because it increases the unsprung weight of the trailer’s suspension. The more weight there is on the wheel side of the springs, the bigger a hammering the wheels and bearings take on rough roads. So we might want to overbuild, but we can’t overbuild too much. (I suppose this also argues for buying an axle kit.)

Let’s return to the strips. The bevel is to let the weld penetrate all the way into the joint and form a completely welded tube. The “serrated” parts toward the ends are so the welding heat can get through to the axle. This will form the stitch welds. I didn’t put any of these stitches right at the end of the strips, because I didn’t want a potential weak point in the original axle shaft right where it will probably endure increased shear forces. I don’t know if this approach is ideal, but it made sense to me.

It’s time to weld.

Axle welding

Remember the main challenge here? The axle needs to be dead straight. My first approach to alignment was to clamp the original axles to a straight angle iron. Make sure it’s straight in both dimensions. Notice that I protected the machined spindles with a covering of newspapers. Any weld spatter will ruin them.

We clamp on one of our strips and tack weld it.
We turn the axle a quarter-turn and repeat.
Check for straightness

After repeating with the last two strips, we again check for straightness with string. Better let it cool first so you don’t melt the string. The results were not encouraging. Three times I came up with a misalignment and had to grind welds off. Good thing they were just tack welds! But still, this approach didn’t work. The welds were warping, but they being restrained in place by the angle iron. When the clamps were removed, the metal sprung to its new warped form. I had another approach to try.

New Approach

This time I supported the two axle ends on scrap metal. Lumber would have worked too. It was only to provide a space for clamping. Here they are aligned. Notice that I had to add a shim to get the supports approximately in line.

Checking for Alignment with String

This is a technique we’ll need for the next approach. It seems really simple. You just hold a string up against something and know if it’s straight, right? Nope. There’s more to it. String can trick you. You need to know that the string is just barely touching the line you’re measuring, not being stretched against its face.

To do this, you push the string away from the line under measurement. It should not deflect at all before moving away from the metal. If it does, your metal is slightly bow-shaped and you are stretching the string along a convex face.

This reaction can be uneven too. The string might lift away from one side before the other. This movement needs to be simultaneous. This takes a lot of adjustment, especially if you’re doing it in two dimensions.

I clamped on the strip and re-checked the alignment.
I had to adjust it a little. I tack welded only the inner welds. (Read below before you do this step!)

Now, checking again with the string, I tried to use a hammer to tap them back into alignment. You know what? I couldn’t! Getting the two ends aligned put the strip way out of alignment. This means I need an aligning step after the very first weld. So here it is with one of those welds ground away, again realigned with string. Take note that one tack weld can cause enough warp to throw off the alignment. This will be slow going indeed. Remember to double-check the distance between your spring seats before making this weld!

So now I made the real second tack weld. Then I realigned with a hammer. Notice that I have clamps on the un-tacked areas. I don’t want the hammer to move anything too far. This is a game of very small movements, then re-checking. It is easy to go too far without clamps.

It takes some time to be satisfied that everything is in line with two welds in place. When I’m finally satisfied, I make one of the next tack welds and re-check. This is mind-numbing even for someone as obsessive as I am.

Again, I need to check alignment and tap on things. There is a chance that the three weld points will not allow the axle to be completely in line. This means grinding off the welds and starting over. It’s time for probably opening a beer and coming back to it on another day when you’re less inclined to throw the whole works off a bridge. Or maybe it is a good time to consider doing just that and buying an axle. (Okay, I guess we both know I could never throw away steel that might come in handy for something else.)

Fortunately, it lined up for me this time. Here’s the fourth weld. I don’t even want to tell you how many hours that took. Okay, about an hour and a half. Flip the axle 90 degrees and repeat the same process!!!

I simply have no words for that part of the process. I think you understand.

Tacking on the third and fourth strips should be simpler, since the axle is theoretical locked into straightness. Make sure you check after each tack anyway. We need shims of the same material as the strips to accurate string measurement.

We’re at 3.5 hours. Welding an axle kit together would have taken two hours at the absolute most.

I flipped the axle 90 degrees to add the next strip. The axle might be straighter than its supports. You might need some thin shims to support the metal. You will certainly need ¼” shims if you need to support it under the strips. Here again align, clamp, align and make two tacks.

After all the tacking of strips, I made a final check of all sides for straightness. I started to complete the welds. I completed them a stitch at a time, always flipping to complete the opposite stitch in the same pass.

I tested for straightness yet again. These welds could warp things, but thankfully they didn’t. From here, finishing the welds is a matter of simply adding more metal until they are done. I kept up with the pattern of alternate side stitching, just in case. In spite of these precautions, adding over 5 lbs of welding rod can easily warp things. As it turns out, it did.

That is a lot of work wasted. I figured I’d better at least try to straighten it. Lacking a giant hydraulic press, I tried a full-size van.

No luck and this means the toe and camber setting will be wrong. The tires will wear prematurely. I installed it anyway, but this axle is not a permanent solution. It is a good lesson though.

Axle Sources

Finding a trailer axle is not easy. Most people don’t build trailers, so you can’t exactly get these parts off the shelf.

There are online sources. The best prices and service I have found are from http://abctrailerparts.com. I have no relationship with ABC Trailer Parts, but they are worth a look. The proprietor’s name is Randy Finley and he’s an outfit like Duckworks – small, home-based, low overhead, no advertising, excellent service and low prices. It’s hard to beat that. Anyway, a 2000lb axle from ABC is $74.50, but 2000lb models are normally only made for 48” trailer frames. I would need to add $12 for a special size - so $86.50. If your wheel bearings are shot, you may as well get the hubs included for an extra $9 or so, which is less than the cost of the bearings that comes with them. The charge was $98, including my special size charge. Finally, I would need new U-bolts. ABC offers a kit with axle, hubs and U-bolts all together for $95, which my special size turns into $107. I didn’t call about shipping, but I’m guessing around $70 from Alabama to Wisconsin. The total would probably be around $180.

Another approach would be torsion axle suspension units. Northern Tool carries these for $155 for a pair. Add $23 for shipping and we’re looking at $178. I wouldn’t get new hubs, but these spindles would fit my hubs. This approach would lower the ride height and eliminate my old leaf springs. This approach might hold the biggest advantage for someone stuck with a non-standard width frame or someone with a V-hull boat and a drop frame trailer that matches it. (I would not care to attempt any major surgery on a drop frame trailer if I could avoid it.)

Ideally, you want to find a local source to avoid paying the shipping. Try the local leaf spring place – the people who fit truck springs. In my case this was Madison Spring in Madison, WI. From them I can get a kit that included two spindles, a really long axle tube and two spring perches. Welding these parts together is a much less demanding procedure than what I attempted.

This will have to wait for winter, since this axle works okay for now. It’s just wearing my tires out faster.

Reconditioning and New Parts

Let’s back up to the parts we initially unbolted from the frame. This stuff seldom comes apart without breaking. I broke a U-bolt and a spring bolt. Leaf springs are held together by a bolt in the center. This bolt sometimes has a strange round head that fits into a hole on the axle. Well, mine were rusted together badly. I tried to remove the nut, but this simply broke the bolt. Once hammered out of the spring, tapping side to side got it out of the axle.

If your springs look okay, it might be worth taking them apart, wire-wheeling the rust, painting and reassembling with grease. This will let them slip against one another properly. Robert Hesselmann has a good pictorial on how to do this at: http://vintagetraileraxle.blogspot.com/. Interestingly, his 1948 axle looks like the same kind of odd solid square stock mine is. It makes me wonder how old my axle is!

There are some pitfalls.

With all the bolts out, you’ll need to figure out how to remove the clips that hold the leaves together. These are basically a one-way clip. You can hammer the little tab back and remove them, but if you try to re-crimp them you can count on fatiguing the steel to where it will break.

Hesselman had the nicer (older?) kind of clips that are held on with crossbolts. Good luck finding any sort of spring clip for sale. I ended up simply welding my broken-tabbed clips together in place on the springs. These springs won’t last long enough to need another set of clips.

Before we get too worked up about the clips, let’s look at the springs. I used a wire wheel to get the chunky rust off of the springs.

These springs are noticeably pitted from rust.

This makes me less excited about doing a lot of work on them. A new set of springs is around $35. My timeline dictated using the old springs at least to get the trailer home, so I fixed ‘em up a little.

After painting the springs, reinstalling requires a new set of those weird round-headed bolts. Hesselmann used regular grade eight bolts and ground the heads round. If you go this route, grind them after you install them!

Another approach would be to leave the bolt head intact and bore the hole in the axle out to 9/16”. I didn’t do this because I thought this axle might need all the metal it could muster.

Make sure you grease the leaves with stiff chassis grease. I put it on with a putty knife to insure good coverage. It keeps water out. The red grease in the photo is what they’ll give you if you tell them you’re greasing a 1980s GMC pickup truck. The yellowish stuff is common lithium grease, which I am afraid might ooze out of place sooner because it isn’t as stiff. Time will tell.

It is probably a good idea to do the spring refinishing before the main trailer work. That way the paint has time to cure hard before you assemble the springs.

Also, I only bothered to replace the two U-bolts. I broke one, but they come in pairs. Really all four should be replaced, but the pitting on those springs tells me I’ll be looking at the suspension this winter anyway. I didn’t want to buy any more hardware than necessary before getting the new axle, since it will require different sizes. For the same reason, I couldn’t justify replacing the shackle bolts, which actually looked pretty good.

Wheel bearings

This is a tangent, but it’s important. Most of us don’t repack the wheel bearings nearly often enough. We assume that our bearing buddies keep us from needing to. They do keep water out a lot of the time, but the grease still wears out and gets dirt and metal particles in it, which will of course destroy the bearings and races. Bearing buddies aren’t perfect either. I found water and rust inside one of mine. These bearings almost never wear out. They rust because we ignore them. I haven’t ever gotten stuck at the side of the road, but I have certainly worn out some parts that I could have easily saved by catching it earlier.

It will save you money too. The cheapest I have seen is a bearing kit for $13 per hub from http://abctrailerparts.com. You can get both hubs for $18.50 on sale sometimes. You do have to add in the shipping cost, and you’ll pay more if you get them locally. This is sometimes as much as double when you are in a hurry. I promise that you will buy fewer bearings and races if you take the time to repack annually.

If you’re hazy on the how-to, see Dave Luckenbach’s excellent tutorial at http://www.sailingtexas.com/Movies/TrailerBearings/trailerbearings.html.

Dave doesn’t like bearing buddies at all, because he thinks the difficulty of removing them makes people postpone repacking. I don’t think it’s all that hard to take them off. Tap them with a hammer working your way around them. It takes maybe a minute each. I like them and use them, but only because they help postpone the bearing repacking process until winter. He makes a good point about the huge amount of grease bearing buddies require. EZ Lube and UltraLube spindles are easier to service than bearing buddies, but they have the same hunger for grease. Still, grease is cheaper than bearings.

Here are the maintenance rules I try to follow:

• Every trip: lay a hand on each hub after driving on the highway to feel if they are getting unduly or unequally hot. (Spit shouldn’t ever sizzle on a hub!)
• Every month: jack up the trailer and spin the wheels. They should turn with silky smooth silence. Any roughness or noise means you should remove and inspect the bearings very soon. I would only put it off if it is already very late in the season.
• Every winter season: Remove, inspect, replace as necessary and repack. Use some of your leftover gasoline to clean the bearings so you can inspect them.

I don’t adhere to this schedule perfectly, but getting to it with any kind of reasonable frequency should be enough to keep you from getting stranded or losing a wheel on the highway.

Okay, back to setting up this trailer.

Reassembly & Setup

Obviously, reassembly is a lot like disassembly. To save some future hassle, use anti-seize lubricant anywhere you won’t be using grease. As soon as you get the axle and wheels on, take it for a spin to make sure it tracks straight.

We still have plenty of work to do. We need to put some bunks on to support the boat. We don’t need the tall ones we used to have. Flat 2x4s get us closer to the water. I added some outdoor carpeting to the bunks - use roofing nails on the sides. Those bunks are scrap red cedar that someone was throwing away. I guess it used to be a deck. Either way, I won’t have to mess with them for a while and I didn’t need to bother with painting them. That’s a relief after how long the axle took.

I also coated the carpeting with spray silicone. This helps the boat slide on and off easier. There’s a marine product called something like “liquid rollers” that does this, but I’m pretty sure it’s just spray silicone. I used the original keel roller forward, but it is better to leave it set too low until the boat is on. I got lucky and its lowest setting was perfect!

The height of the bow eye on the stem was a little low after making these changes, but it was close enough that I could leave it. I should probably drill an extra hole in the winch post arm and adjust it. I was also going to add goalpost loading guides, but since I can winch on this turned out to be unnecessary.

We also need fenders. This trailer had none when I got it, so I stole these from my utility trailer. (I’ll make some plywood fenders for that.)

This trailer has adjustable spring hanger locations, so it would make sense to make the fender brackets adjustable. It is much more effort than simply welding them on. Ever drill 3/8” holes in 3/16” steel? It gets old fast and you spend a lot of time sharpening drill bits. I welded the brackets. I’ll cut them later if I have to.

Unfortunately, most commercial trailers won’t give you any good ideas for fender brackets. I am not sure why most of them are so complicated, but it probably has something to do with mass production. My approach was the simplest possible. I cut 2” wide strips of 3/16” steel and bent them into “L” shapes. The long end needed to be long enough to accommodate both fender bolt holes. With the axle and wheels in place, I simply clamped it all together and tack welded the bracket. After getting the clamps out of the way, I could cut off the excess bracket and finish welds. I still had to bore eight tedious holes to mount the fenders. The fenders were thin enough that any attempt to weld probably would have only melted them.

If you go this way, make sure you rivet on the fender backs first. The fender is flexible enough to spring a little wider or narrower and the back locks it in place. Well, not exactly “locks”, but if you try to force it narrower the back will bulge away from the frame and might take rubber off the tire on a big enough bump. It is a lot easier to weld the brackets on in the right place than to mess around with making up the fender to fit the brackets.

I also welded a cleat and hook to the winch post for a safety rope. A chain and hook is the common approach, but rope is easier to feed through the bow eye.

Results

This widening project ended up soaking up around $200 and 20 hours. This probably isn’t any more than I would have wasted on some cockamamie scheme of rollers and it works with no fuss. The boat always launches without getting the Jeep’s hubs in the water. I can haul it in (and usually launch it) without even getting the trailer hubs wet.

Here I show before I started winching.

As I crank, it centers accurately as the skids fall between the bunks.

Then when the bow eye is almost to the roller, I slack the winch and feed the safety tether through the eye. If my hook wasn’t so big I wouldn’t need to slack the winch.

Finally, I winch the bow to the roller and cleat the tether.

I can even launch without getting the trailer hubs wet by using the tilt bed. This is a pretty cool trick, because bearings can last a lot longer without attention if the hubs never get immersed. How much depth of water you need behind the trailer depends on how high the motor tilts up and the slope of the ramp. The only way to figure it out is to ease the boat into the water using the winch to control its descent while a friend watches the distance between the motor’s skeg and the bottom. This is more of an issue when doing acrobatics like launching with no ramp at all. Thalia was kind enough to take some pictures of the process.

The first shot is after pulling the pine on the tilt and giving the bow a shove.

As you can see, that’s pretty much the whole story. Then I just walk it off.

With the tilt unhitched, don’t step too far aft of the axle or you’ll get wet.

Tilt or not, there’s no more messing around with tongue extensions! I should have done this over the winter when I first thought of it.


Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
robrohdeszudy@yahoo.com

 

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