Photography by John Cappa
As a 4×4 and off-road enthusiast, you’ve probably dabbled with your share of garage-based automotive maintenance and repairs using common hand tools such as pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets, ratchets and so on. But what you might not know is that as a shade tree 4×4 mechanic, there are specialty automotive tools that you should consider owning too. These tools will allow for the repair and installation of more advanced components and in some cases just simplify the task at hand. As always, using the wrong tool can sometimes cost you more in the long run, especially when it comes to time, personal frustration and knuckle damage. We’ve compiled a list of tools every garage grease monkey should have in addition to the common standard, metric and universal hand tools you likely already have stored away in your tool box. Which tools you’ll need will depend on your specific 4×4, but we’ll set you straight for each one and where it’s needed.
If you’ve advanced past basic shock absorber and bumper installations, you should add a torque wrench to your palate of tools. The proper installation of most suspension, steering and other chassis parts requires that the hardware be torqued to a specific setting. Tightening hardware beyond the recommended torque range can stretch the bolts, strip the threads or break the hardware. It can also warp and damage the component being bolted down. Even the lug nuts on all 4x4s should be torqued to specifications. Over torqueing lug nuts can damage the wheels, cause the studs to stretch and fail and even cause the hub and brake rotor to warp. In most cases you can get by with a 1/2-inch torque wrench. There are several versions to choose from including a low-cost torque beam, an easy to use click-style and a version with a digital readout. We generally prefer the click-style 1/2-inch torque wrench with 30-250 lb-ft capability. A 1/2-inch torque wrench is ideal for properly cinching down parts like driveline yokes, leaf spring U-bolts, pitman arms, control arm hardware and lug nuts. If you find that you regularly need a lower torque setting for smaller hardware, you can add a 3/8-inch torque wrench with in-lb settings to your tool bin. A 3/8-inch torque wrench is ideal for jobs like replacing an oil pan gasket, installing exhaust headers and intake manifolds and assembling beadlock wheels.
Proper Hammer Selection
Your 4×4 will thank you for not using a framer’s claw hammer to indiscriminately bash parts into place. There are several specialty hammers that will do a much better job more cleanly than a claw hammer. Ball peen hammers are available in many different sizes that typically range from 8 ounces up to 3 pounds or more. How heavy a hammer you choose will depend on what you are working on and what you are comfortable swinging. A small 8-ounce ball peen hammer can be used for basic light tapping on unfinished surfaces and bolt heads. A larger 24-ounce and up ball peen hammer is ideal for freeing tapered ball joints from their seats and other heavy hammering. For delicate and painted surfaces you should keep one or more dead blow hammers around. These typically feature a urethane hammering surface that won’t deform the metal or mar the paint or powdercoating when massaging suspension components and other parts into place. Dead blow hammers typically range in weight from 1-pound up. In most cases a 2- to 3-pound dead blow can handle just about anything you might tackle in the garage. Finally, if you need to rap on machined surfaces, such as the threaded ends of bolts, you can add a brass hammer to your tool belt. A brass hammer features a soft brass head that deforms when pounding on harder surfaces. You get the effectiveness of hitting metal to metal without bending up the part you are working on. Your brass hammer is disposable. The head will become mushroomed over time and need to be replaced. How long it lasts will depend on what you’re working on and your swinging effort. A typical brass hammer will weigh in at 1 to 2 pounds
4 1/2-inch Angle Grinder
A 4 1/2-inch angler grinder can be used for a variety of tasks that might need to be performed on a 4×4. It can be loaded with several different types of wheels depending on the job. A thick grinding wheel is great for heavy material removal like smoothing or removing welds, but it makes a lot of dust. Thin discs are efficient at cutting or trimming brackets, buzzing through rusted bolts, and other random metal chopping. High-grit (fine) flap wheels are ideal for light material, paint and rust removal, while low-grit (coarse) flap wheels are a viable alternative to traditional grinding wheels. Flap wheels are more precise than regular grinding wheels and they create less dust too, but they’re typically more expensive, won’t last as long and won’t remove material as quickly. We prefer the 4 1/2-inch grinders with a paddle switch because it offers us more control when cutting and grinding, but the thumb-switch models are usually less expensive.
1/2-Inch Heavy-Duty Drill
Most do-it-yourselfers have a 3/8-inch drill, which is perfect for boring small holes in wood or body metal, but when you start drilling 3/8-inch and larger holes in the thick steel commonly found on a 4×4, you’ll want to step up to a torquey 1/2-inch drill. We typically prefer a corded drill, but powerful battery-operated 1/2-inch drills are in abundance nowadays. The slower speed and high torque of a proper 1/2-inch drill keeps the bigger drill bits running cooler and cutting longer than trying to drill the same hole with a high-speed 3/8-inch drill. Other features we look for in a 1/2-inch drill are a keyless chuck, sturdy adjustable handle and an easily accessible reverse switch. Be careful when drilling bigger holes in thick steel, it’s not uncommon for a drill bit in a 1/2-inch drill to become bound up in the workpiece. This will cause the drill to spin wildly, twisting your wrists and smashing your fingers. Hold on with all your might, but be prepared to let loose, especially when boring 1/2-inch holes or bigger in thick steel.
Battery Charger And Maintainer
This one is kind of a no brainer. Almost all of us have accidentally left some electrical accessory on overnight and killed an automotive battery or split for a long vacation only to come home to a dead battery. A battery charger/maintainer could help in both of these scenarios. If you’ve upgraded to an AGM style battery, such as an Optima, you’ll want a battery charger/maintainer that is compatible with AGM batteries. Not all battery chargers are the same. AGM batteries have unique recharge qualities that can only be taken advantage of with an AGM compatible battery charger. Larger more expensive battery chargers often have a jump-start feature, which is great if your 4×4 needs a quick jolt to get going.
Propane or Map Gas Torch
If you’re in any of the salted winter states, then you’ve messed with rusty hardware on even a 5-year-old 4×4. The rest of us have a few more years on or rigs to get to the same corrosion level. There are no two ways about it, removing rusty nuts and bolts is an art form. You’re either a corrosion Picasso or it’s always a nightmare for you. Either way, one of the popular last resort rust releasing secrets is heat. In most cases, you don’t even need an expensive and complex oxy-acetylene torch setup. You might be able to get by with a propane or MAPP gas torch. Applying heat to a rust-frozen nut causes the metal to expand, and sometimes free itself from the bolt enough that you can spin them apart with a powerful impact wrench or breaker bar. When that doesn’t work, you can always chop the end off of the bolt with your angle grinder.
There always seems to be a job where you need a metal saw, especially for trimming bumpers, sheet metal and plastic body cladding to fit bigger tires. Cut off tools and grinders with cutting wheels can be used in some cases, but they can burn the paint and cause plastic to melt or catch fire. A fine tooth metal sawing blade can make quick work of both sheetmetal and plastic. We’ve successfully used reciprocating saws, air saws and even jigsaws on the exterior bits of our 4x4s. Reciprocating saws are very aggressive and should be reserved for thicker materials and the metal reinforcements hidden behind the fenders. Air saws and jigsaws are better for the delicate and precise cutting needed on the exterior of a fender. You can help protect the paint and any other finish by placing several layers of masking tape along the cut line as well as on the foot of the saw.
No matter if you have an old-school Dana axle with serviceable wheel bearings or a modern 4×4 with unit-bearings, you should have the proper hub socket. On serviceable wheel bearings a special hub socket is needed to adjust and disassemble the wheel bearing assemblies. On unit-bearing assemblies, a 36mm or other large traditional, sometimes deep socket, is needed to remove the axleshaft stub. The axleshaft nut needs to be removed prior to removing the unit-bearing from the upright. Those with serviceable hubs will want to add snap ring pliers and a set of picks to the garage tool kit as well. Older locking hubs and drive slugs have up to two kinds of snap rings that need to be removed prior to accessing the wheel bearing assemblies.
Have you stepped up to installing adjustable control arms, aftermarket driveshafts, and custom axle assemblies? Then you need an angle finder to help do that job properly. An angle finder is invaluable when checking the caster, driveshaft and U-joint angles. The control arms need to be adjusted to set the proper angles. Most angle finders are inexpensive and made of plastic. Some have magnets built into them to keep them in place and the more expensive versions are made from aluminum and feature an LCD digital readout. Any of them will work fine for the garage mechanic. Spend what you can afford and learn to use it properly before making the mods to your 4×4.
Special Suspension And Axle Joint Tools
Some high-end and long-travel suspensions feature unique high-misalignment joints. These joints may need to be lubricated, adjusted and rebuilt regularly for best performance. Special tools are needed to disassemble and adjust most joints. Be sure to purchase the proper tools when you order your suspension kit, you will eventually need them. Some drivetrain parts also require special tools for installation and removal. Before you know it, you’ll have a whole drawer full of weird-looking odd-ball tools that only serve one purpose. Without them, you’ll be banging parts and your head, neither of which will be any fun.
Drum Brake Spoon
If you’re rolling in an older 4×4 with drum brakes, then you should be adding a brake spoon to your toolbox. Don’t forget, most trailers have drum brakes too, where a brake spoon will come in handy for making regular adjustments. Of course, most modern drum brake systems are self-adjusting, but they usually never work that great. In some cases you can use a large blade screwdriver to make drum brake adjustments, but the handle sometimes gets in the way and hits the axle or suspension components. The bend in the brake spoon allows better access through the adjustment ports on the drum brake backing plates. Several brake spoon designs are available to meet different needs. If you do regular drum brake work, you might also appreciate some of the other drum brake specialty tools as well. These include brake spring removal tools and brake spring pliers.