If you spend enough time on the trail, there is one thing all of us will eventually need; that is a good off-road mechanic. Some of us may have the skills and the time, but the many probably do not. With all the modification done to our rigs, someone who understands that you may have a Jeep TJ with one-ton axles, a Chevy 350 engine, and atlas transfer case, is who you need. Sometimes we get in a little over our head and for the life of us, we cannot figure out why our rig is over heating, or cranking but not starting. That is where the mechanic comes in. An individual who loves to roll up their sleeves and get greasy. They are our friends, our wheeling buddies, our neighbors, and of course our heroes. They help keep us on the trail, and to that my mechanically inclined friend, we salute you!
If you go to your favorite forum and search for, “off road shop,” you’re going to end up with a mile-long list of everyone asking, “where should I take my jeep to get a lift put on,” or, “where should I get my locker put in.” After wading through years and years of answers you will inevitably come across someone saying, “you, couple of buddies and a six pack of your their favorite beverage”.
There is a very simple reason as to why everyone says you should do your own maintenance on your 4×4. When you work on your own vehicle you get to know it. You learn the ins-and-outs of what makes it work. Things begin to make sense and you figure out why the manufacturer did what they did. If you work on your rig long enough, a strange thing begins to happen: you start to like it. Some people would even say love it. You begin to look for things to modify and upgrade, or even just tinker to make your rig better, faster and stronger.
When I first got my Jeep Cherokee (XJ) I knew nothing about it. The jeep had a major oil leak that the previous owner said was the rear main seal. I went on a Cherokee forum and another well known XJ Cherokee website, and watched hours upon hours of YouTube on how to replace a rear main seal. After enough time I felt I could tackle it on my own. I changed the rear main seal but I also discovered the oil filter adapter and the valve cover gasket were leaking as well. I spent the first month just replacing parts. Now after 5 years of working on it, I have not only replaced the entire cooling system with upgraded parts, but I have switched out the steering, put in a new rear axle, and added a whole lot of accessory wiring.
There is one other major component when it comes to working on your own rig and that is the amount of money you can save. Most shops charge about $100 an hour. It may take you two or three times longer, but the money saved and knowledge gained can be a benefit to you and your wallet.
Most of us can change our own oil or rotate our tires. Many can even change out the water pump or something of the like, but what about the hard stuff? What about those things that come up that have us stumped; like a crank no start problem. Or consider this, we are out on the trail and we snap a ring and pinion, then what! Those of us who don’t have the skill set to tackle something that complicated, where we are dealing with tolerances in thousands of an inch, don’t know where to turn. There is always a buddy of a buddy who can do it in his garage, or the mechanic down the street. However, when you start dealing with modified rigs you need to make sure that the job is done right, so you are not on the trail breaking down because of a poor install job or poor electrical wiring.
One thing I always recommend is to make sure the mechanic of choice has some sort of certification. Certifications like ASE make sure that whomever is working on your rig knows that you don’t actually have a flux capacitor. It also helps if they can read a wiring diagram. You need to know they understand the ins and outs of compression engines and are competent to work for you. Whenever you call up a shop and ask them if they can help you, interview them. Now you do not need to ask them actual interview questions, but it is a good idea to measure their responses to your questions. For example, if they are short and irritable, then they may be short with your rig and not take the time to do the job right. Are they answering all your questions? Can they do what you need with confidence? Do they have a good track record? If the answer was no to any of these, it may be time call the next guy on the list.
There are many mechanics that specialize in a specific field such as transmission work or just engines. There is a shop locally to me that specializes in just doing gears. One thing that is nice, but not required, in my opinion, is a good all-around mechanic. They can do everything well, including custom fabrication. Eventually you will want some sort of fab work done. Whether it’s one-ton axles or a full exo-cage, you can use the name of who can help. Also, when you break down (and you will), they can take care of that too.
One source, whenever I have a question, are the local clubs or groups. What are they saying? Who are they recommending? Who is everyone else going to? It is a good bet that whomever that is, he/she will be a good mechanic and will take care of you. This applies not just to mechanics but also to most industries. If the majority of people are giving them gold stars, I would trust the mechanic based on popular opinion.
The most important trait in a mechanic that I look for, is honesty. They are doing something to my rig that I have no clue what they are talking about and they can easily jack up the price. My mechanic knows my ability level and he will tell me what is wrong. He will tell me “you can do that, but I will need to do this”. Here is a great example. I had my XJ in the local shop getting a locker put in the front differential. While he was in there he found several other issues. I needed new hubs, ball joints, and my rear diff was out of spec. He called me up and said we need to take care of your rear diff. He said it would cost X amount to redo the rear differential. He would not even quote me on the ball joints and hubs because I could do those myself. He was honest with me and has earned my business.
According to Chris, my mechanic who does both custom fab work and routine maintenance, you want to look at the rigs coming out of the shop. Are those builds the type of build you are looking for? If they are not doing anything like your build, more than likely they either can’t do it or do not want to. Is the routine maintenance done correctly? Is the electrical tied up nice and neat or just thrown in there? Make sure you are talking to your mechanic about your future ideas. A good mechanic will always help you get there, they’ll guide you to your end goal.
There is no denying that mechanics are expensive. Some shops charge over $100 an hour. This can hurt the wallet but there is a good reason why they charge so much. Quality equipment is not cheap. Diagnostic equipment, lifts, tools, it all adds up. Chris says that he personally will not touch a differential for under $350. It takes in the neighborhood of 5 hours to swap out a ring and pinion then line up gears; maybe more if they are installing a new locker. You want the job done right and quality is going to cost you. When you are on a 60° incline on a waterfall, you don’t want your vehicle breaking down because you didn’t spring on quality service.
Finally, if your mechanic tells you it’s ok to throw 40-inch tires on a Dana 30 axle, turn around and run, but that’s just my opinion. 😉
See you on the trail.