Tech Corner: Upgrading a 4×4 Axle, Part II

In a recent Tech Corner, we spent some time identifying different types of axle upgrades and when each one is appropriate. The next steps are to pony up for those parts and actually install them. Truthfully, upgrading a 4×4 axle can span from DIY-friendly to better-call-the-professionals. So, let’s discuss the necessary areas of focus and levels of difficulty when making such an upgrade. That way, you have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into.

Do I Need Specialty Tools?

One of the first things to ask yourself before getting started is: “Do I have the right equipment?” If you plan to spend any amount of time pulling the carrier or ring gear, then you’ll need a set of go-to tools for the job. In particular, you’ll need a micrometer, dial indicator, and some other specialized equipment for installation and adjustments. Tool kits for installation of differential components are readily available from a variety of sources, such as Complete Offroad, JEGS, and Yukon. Prepare to go shopping if you’re getting involved with upgrading a 4×4 axle yourself!

It’s also worth noting that some suppliers offer comprehensive installation kits that contain everything you’d need to complete a ring & pinion installation, all in one convenient package. A good sales rep will link you up with the proper kit when picking up axle components.


Carrier upgrades are very common and will require use of the tools we discussed above. Shimming and setting backlash are a crucial part of this upgrade—and that means it’s not as simple as just taking the old one out and bolting the new one into place. To remove and install a carrier, you’ll need to pull the axles, the ring gear, and will likely need, or want, the bearings within the assembly. So, this isn’t a small job. And as we said, you’ll need to shim the carrier accordingly to ensure it’s centered. Backlash will need to be set in order to avoid excessive wear of the ring gear and damage to other parts, potentially the carrier.

Each carrier and assembly will have different installation processes so you’ll need to do a little research before you start. Also, this job may take several hours; therefore, be sure to set aside some extra wrenching time. And as far as carrier supplier selection goes, spend your money wisely. You want a unit that has good internals and isn’t going to wear out or fail prematurely. When upgrading a 4×4 axle, you’ll want to consider brands like Yukon, G2 Axle and Gear, or Dana Spicer.

Ring Gear

Ring gear upgrades are also very common and will again require the use of specialty tools. Accessing the ring gear for upgrades is nearly the same as swapping carriers. You’ll need to pull your axles and the carrier in order to remove the ring gear. Your pinion must also be pulled, so you’ll need to pull the driveshaft in order to gain access to the pinion nut. As the differential will be pulled apart, you might as well replace any seals or bearings within. Suppliers like Yukon, Richmond, Motive Gear, G2 Axle and Gear, and Dana Spicer are all great options when selecting ring and pinion kits.

Again, shimming and setting backlash will be essential to a proper install here so you’re going to need to do some homework to make sure you follow the right installation process. You can expect to spend a similar amount of time installing a ring and pinion as you would a carrier assembly. This is usually not a job recommended for first-timers upgrading a 4×4 axle; don’t be afraid to call in a professional.

Axle Shafts

Throwing bigger axle shafts in a truck may also sound fairly simple, but the job can require the use of specific carriers that, in turn, require the use of special axle shafts. If this is the case, a few extra steps will be added to the process of swapping the carrier. If, however, you’re satisfied with the current carrier, or don’t need a special upgrade, you can simply swap the axles.

Doing so will still require you to pull apart the axle assembly to gain access to the carrier. The process, naturally, varies from axle to axle—so get reading. Overall though, the installation of aftermarket axles is pretty straightforward and won’t require much time.

Complete Assemblies

Sometimes, upgrading a 4×4 axle means that everything needs to be swapped. In the event that this is a necessary route, you should be ready to call a friend. There are two ways to go about swapping an entire assembly. One, you can grab the housing you need and add in all the components yourself, or two, you can pick up a preassembled unit, like those offered by G2 Axle and Gear.

When swapping out an axle assembly, you’ll generally be dealing with the rear assembly. Luckily, the science of doing so remains the same on nearly all 4×4 vehicles. To swap an entire assembly, you’ll need to disconnect the driveshaft, brake lines, and cables, along with shocks and springs. You certainly will have your work cut out for you here, but the hardest part will be wrestling with the entire axle assembly. This is where it’s important to have sturdy jacks and a helping hand.

Tech Corner - IntermediateDifferential work isn’t something one just tackles. Sure, you might be able to take it on without any problems, but ultimately, it’s better to have a trained hand involved. It’s also strongly recommended that if at any moment you feel uncertain about the job, you seek out a professional to correct the work.

Improper installation of axle components can be dangerous to both the internal workings of the differential as well as to the driver. There’s no shame in backing off from tackling this yourself and getting help. And besides, it’s a whole lot cheaper to have someone install things right the first time than to have to go through and repair your mistakes.

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