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Steering 101

Steering 101

Posted by Doug Langford on Aug 9th 2019

Let's talk about steering components...

In the interest of the targeted audience here, that audience being whoever doesn't have an intimate knowledge of Solid Axle steering systems, we're gonna keep this simple.  You may have seen or heard terms like drag link, sway bar link, dampener and a plethora of other terms that can leave the average Jeeper speechless.  It's time to clear up some of the confusion and we're gonna start right now.  

In this article we're gonna talk about the basic components of your Jeep's steering system and what they do.  We will go further in depth in the next steering article about aftermarket modifications and the like, but for this article, just the basics.  Steering 101, if you like.  So let's jump right in.

What are the parts of the steering system we're gonna cover?

Pitman Arm

Drag Link

Tie Rod

Steering Stabilizer

Sway Bay

Ball Joints

Here's a little photo for you visual learners out there...

For the purposes of this article, we are going to start with the Pitman Arm and work our way out from there.  Yes, there are some other items in the steering system, but that could be a whole other article and will usually involve the conversation about hydro steering, so we'll mostly leave those parts alone, for now.  Suffice it to say all those others parts have the job of taking the driver steering wheel input and directing it to our first part in this discussion, the Pitman Arm.  

Pitman Arm

The Pitman Arm is simply a small arm that connects the steering gear box the drag link.  The Pitman Arm moves left to right as you move the steering wheel.  This is the first part in the steering system you can actually see move when the steering wheel moves.  This part is not generally upgraded or changed in the majority of Jeep upgrades, but its good to know where it is, because it is connected to the drag link, which is a very important part, so you should at least be familiar with where it is and what it looks like.  In this picture, the larger end with the splines connects to the steering box.  The smaller end connects to the drag link. 

Drag Link

The drag link is extremely important as is connects the pitman arm to the steering knuckle.  This is the part that pushes and pulls the whole steering system when you turn left and right.  The drag link has a pretty stressful job and is one of the first parts to be upgraded when Jeepers lift their rides and add bigger tires.  The reason for this is weight.  The stock drag link was designed to push/pull the weight of the stock steering and wheels/tires.  When you add weight by adding bigger, heavier, tires you increase the stress on the drag link. Offroading increases this stress as those conditions often call for the driver to have to steer when the tires are against rocks or other obstacles.  This will cause the drag link to "deflect" when loaded.  Deflecting simply means the drag link can bend slightly when subjected to the heavier load (think of it like a guitar string).  Over time, this will fatigue the link itself, as well as the ends, and can cause all kinds of issues.  Hello, DEATH WOBBLE!!! 

Tie Rod

The tie rod is simply a long bar with flexible joints on each end.  The purpose of the tie rod is to maintain a set distance between the right and left wheels and to transfer the steering input from one side to the other.  Since the drag link is only attached to one side, the tie rod continues that line of force by ensuring the wheels both do the same thing, at the same time.  Tie rods can also be adjusted to dial in how straight the wheels are oriented.  This is referred to as "TOE" in alignment terms.  Toe just means how the straight the wheels are oriented toward the front of the vehicle.  As the tie rod is basically in line with the drag link, all the issues that can effect a drag link play out almost identically on a tie rod.  This is why the tie rod is also an often upgraded part.  It also can be the unfortunate recipient of a lot of abuse offroad, as it sits relatively low on the Jeep and is generaly located at the most vulnerable part of the steering system.  Big tires and offroad trips in your future, look at upgrading your tie rod.

Steering Stabilizer

Ah yes, the cause of every death wobble since 1941.  In fact, not much could be further from the truth.  While it is true that a bad or defective stabilizer, also referred to as a dampener, can cause issues, the simple fact is that this is not the cause in the vast majority of steering issue complaints.  The job of the stabilizer is simply to dampen vibration from the steering system and make the steering "feel" better for the driver.  As a matter of fact, a lot of offroaders don't even run a stabilizer because they feel like it only gets in the way.  However, most people keep the stabilizer and if "bigger and heavier" in your Jeep's future, best to upgrade to one that is designed to handle the increased vibrations and oscillations.  

Sway Bar and Sway Bar Links

While the sway bar doesn't really matter to a lot of offroaders, as it is almost always disconnected offroad, it is a vital part of your overall steering system when on the road.  The sway bar, mounted to the frame, connects both ends of the axle to each other.  By being mounted to the frame, it controls the movement of the frame/body as it relates to the axle.  Basically, it controls body roll.  This is vital in cornering and high speed, highway driving.  Without a sway bay, you would feel like you were in boat......at sea.....in a storm.....with massive sails.  You get the idea.  The sway bar links are metal rods with flexible joints on each end that allow enough articulation for drivability but still keep everything connected.  When lifting a vehicle, sway bar links should be replaced.  This is due to the frame and body being moved up and away from the axle and has the effect of "pulling down" the sway bar.  Replacement links will be longer in order to put the sway bar back at its desired position, which is parallel, or slightly above parallel, to the ground.  Replacements links will also, often, include a quick disconnecting feature that makes it easier to disconnect the sway bar for offroad use.  We disconnect for offroad use because, while we don't like body roll on the road, we want that axle and body to move free of each offroad.  This makes a much smoother ride offroad and a much more enjoyable experience for all.

Ball Joints

While not exclusively a steering component, the ball joint plays an important role in your Jeep's steering system.  The ball joints serves some very important functions.  The ball joints handle the weight transfer of the vehicle at the axle ends.  As the vehicle sits on the ground, the weight of the vehicle, obviously, sits on the tires, but that weight transfers through the ball joints (the amount depends on your axle set up., but that's a whole other article).  The ball joints also have to allow the entire steering knuckle to move freely so you can steer the vehicle.  In addition to all of this, ball joints are also critical in maintaining alignment angles.  First of all, in a solid axle vehicle, the ball joints control camber.  Camber is the vertical angle of the tire/wheel.  In Jeeps, stock ball joints do not allow for this angle to be adjusted, so if its off suspect a ball joint issue.  Another alignment angle, "caster", also involves ball joints.  In a solid axle vehicle, caster is a measurement, in degrees, of the relationship between the upper and lower ball joints.  Depending on the setup, we want anywhere from 5-7 degrees of caster in modern Jeeps.  Check out the images below to get a visual of what we are talking about with various alignment angles.


Image result for camber angle

Image result for ball joint caster

So there you have it, a quick and basic run down of the top Jeep steering components and what they do.  This was a very basic article about Jeep's primary steering components.  There is, obviously, much more that can be delved into and we will do that in another article, but this is a great start for all you beginners.  As always, if you have questions about anything Jeep, you can always reach out.  You can email us, use social media or give us a call.  Hopefully, you learned something and we'll see on the trails soon!  And remember...

"Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt." -John Muir

Doug Langford is the owner of Outlaw Offroad, Inc., based in North Carolina.  He is ASE Certifed in Steering & Suspension, Brakes, Parts, Service Consulting and Maintenance & Repair.  You can reach him at dlangford@outlawnc.com.

If you have an idea for a future article or video, feel free to reach out.  We will credit you if we use your idea.