Will I ever learn?

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A cockroach brain has barely a million cells, whereas a human brain has about 100 billion. Nevertheless, cockroaches are capable of learning and remembering things such as mazes.

I'm not sure about myself.

Last week I needed to install a new set of Baja Designs LED lamps on the FJ40—an S2 Sport reversing lamp, and a pair of XLR-Pro driving lamps up front. To incorporate the wiring harness of each into the existing reverse and driving lamp wiring harnesses, I wanted to properly solder the connections to ensure connectivity and longetivity. However, my good soldering gun was out at our desert cottage, 40 miles away, and we needed to stay in town for several commitments. So I thought, I’ll just buy a cheap soldering iron to have here, and ordered one from Amazon with next-day delivery. Just $19.99. You can already see where this is going, can’t you?

Indeed. The kit arrived, in a plastic box with a coil stand and some accessories. Next morning I got to work—and the iron proved utterly incapable of heating a connector sufficiently to melt flux-core solder on a 50-degree morning. Or, later, on a 65-degree day with a trace of a breeze.

Sigh . . .

So I drove to a hardware store and bought the identical 100/140-watt Weller soldering gun I have at Ravenrock ($36.95) and had the connections soldered in minutes.


Anyone need a heated coffee stirrer?

Buy good tools.


Effective backup lighting


I’ve never met a vehicle with factory backup lamps that were worth a damn, and I’ve never been sure why—granted, we don’t reverse at the same speed we go forward, but there are plenty of bad things that can happen at five miles per hour when your field of vision is reduced to a couple of mirrors, or your neck is craned at 100 degrees and you’re peering out the corners of your eyes.

In the context of a four-wheel-drive vehicle negotiating a difficult trail after sundown, this problem is magnified tenfold. If you’re backing up, it’s often because the trail in front has become too difficult to negotiate, and that means the trail behind you is not that much better. If you need to turn around and the trail is narrow with a steep dropoff, well . . . you’ve probably been there, as have I.

For those reasons, my FJ40 has been supplied with superb backup lighting for several decades, courtesy of a 7-inch round Cibie Oscar halogen fog lamp with a 100-watt bulb. The Cibie provided a massive amount of light, and drew enough power that I had to re-engineer the backup circuit with 10-gauge wire and a relay. But it’s gotten me out of tight spots more than once, and makes reversing in town a breeze.


However, time marches on, and halogen lamps are for many applications being quickly outdated by far more efficient LEDs, which last much longer (50,000 hours compared to 2,000 or so), are more resistant to vibration, and draw a fraction of the power. The Cibie had a very high cool factor in addition to its usefulness, but I decided an upgrade was in order. So I looked up Baja Designs, which in a lot fewer years than Cibie has been around has earned a stellar reputation for its auxiliary lighting systems. A quick browse through the online catalog landed me on the S2 Sport “work and scene” lamp, a two-LED lamp a fraction of the size of the Cibie (2.93 x 1.76 x 1.68 inches), yet which produces 1,130 lumens while drawing an absurd .9 amps, compared to 8.3 for the halogen lamp. 

The Cibie had always been mounted on a tab on the right side of the Stout Equipment rear rack on the 40, which was really not optimal, although it threw enough light that the loss on the driver’s side was minimal. I tried mounting the BD lamp there, but it just didn’t look right and would have suffered the same offset effect, so I remounted it to the bottom center of the rack, where it is well-protected and produces a perfectly balanced spread. I had to carefully trim away come copper filaments in the fat 10-gauge positive wire that had fed the 100-watt halogen bulb in order to be able to solder it into the BD quick-disconnect fitting, but otherwise installation was easy.


Results? The S2’s 1,130-lumen output is lower than the Cibie’s halogen bulb, which probably put out around 2,000 lumens. However, the fog-oriented focus of the Cibie produced an extremely bright horizontal strip of light about 20 feet behind the vehicle, with less bright light in front and behind, because it was mounted higher than a fog lamp normally would be. The BD S2 produces a much more even flood of light closer to the vehicle, which is slightly less impressive but actually much more useful.

The S2 has an IP69K waterproof rating, which means it is submersible to nine feet and impregnable to pressure washing. It also exceeds the MIL-STD810G rating, which means . . . actually I have no idea what it means, but it should mean this will be the last backup lamp I need to install on the FJ40.

Baja Designs is here. Stay tuned for an upgrade on the 40's driving lamps as well.


Tire repair in the field

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I’d heard the unmistakable hiss of a punctured tire losing air, and alerted my partner, who was driving the Ford pickup we were using to conduct road surveys in southern Nevada. Our job took us down scarcely used tracks with significant incursion from creosote bushes, which leave vicious little daggers sticking out around the base of the plant as the perimeter dies off. This was our third puncture today—and it was not yet 8:00 in the morning. 

Two minutes later we had the tire repaired and had resumed collecting GPS data. We didn’t even bother to add any air, much less replace the punctured tire with the spare.

Tire failure is by far the number one cause of vehicle breakdowns in the backcountry, whether you are exploring Nevada or Namibia. Yet I’m astonished at how many people still rely on a single spare and maybe a can of fix-a-flat as backup on remote excursions far from AAA. The irony is that the farther you are away from well-traveled routes and outside assistance, the higher the possibility of running into projecting root splinters, knife-edged rocks, or even an off-camber rut that can pop a tire bead right off the rim and deflate it instantly. 

Why not be prepared, and self-sufficient? With a few tools, a good air compressor, and a proper repair kit, you’ll be able to repair any tire mishap short of a shredded blowout and be on your way.

Most tire problems result from simple punctures in the tread area, where the tire actually contacts the ground. Close to civilization, likely culprits include nails, bolts, and screws. Farther afield, you might run afoul of those creosote daggers or any number of other biological or geological hazards. At higher speeds, punctures typically occur on the rear tires—the front tire rolls harmlessly over a nail or screw lying flat, but pops it into the air where it can land pointy end up just as the rear tire passes. At low speeds, it’s more often the front tire that will find some projecting bit. A nail that embeds itself in a tire might not make its presence known for hours, since it forms a partial plug and slows deflation. A root end is more likely to puncture and pull out, causing rapid loss of air and possibly an audible warning. 

The easiest and quickest way to repair a simple puncture is with a plug kit (which is what we used in Nevada). A tire plug comprises a short length of rubber-adhesive-impregnated nylon yarn, which is inserted into the puncture with a special tool, after reaming the puncture with another tool. Cheap plug kits are available everywhere, but skip them—plugging involes a fair amount of force, and you don’t want to push very hard on a plastic-handled tool embedded with a steel rod. High-quality plug kits with sturdy tools and better plugs come from Safety Seal and ARB. By far the most comprehensive tire repair kit I’ve used is the Ultimate Puncture Repair Kit from Extreme Outback, which includes not only plugs but an exhaustive assortment of patches, spare valve cores, valve stems, a valve core tool—everything you’d need to be self-sufficient on any trip up to and including a global circumnavigation.

The basic tools in a plug kit comprise the plugs, a reamer resembling a round file, and an insertion tool that has a large, slotted eye at the end. How do they work?

 High-quality plug tools from Extreme Outback.

High-quality plug tools from Extreme Outback.

Picture yourself at the side of the trail with your plug kit and a slowly collapsing tire. You can jack up the vehicle and remove the tire and wheel if access is limited, or leave it on and slowly roll the vehicle while looking and listening for the source of the leak. Let’s assume you spot a nail head embedded in the tread, and it is accessible. The first step to repair the hole is to prepare the plug in advance, to minimize leakage. Pull a plug free from its cellophane packaging—you’ll find it ridiculously difficult due to the adhesive, but surprisingly it doesn’t stick to your fingers. Pinch one end flat, and insert it into the eye of the insertion tool; pull through to its midpoint. You’ll have to pull quite strongly to get it in there. Your plug kit should come with a tub of lubricant; once the plug is positioned in the tool dunk the end in it to adhere a small glob to the plug.

Now you’re ready to prepare the hole. With a multitool or pliers, yank out the offending bit (the ARB kit thoughtfully incudes needle-nosed pliers). The next step is completely unintuitive: You’re going to make that hole bigger, so the plug can fit. Insert the toothed reamer into the hole—it might take some real shoving—then work it in and out briskly a few times. Don’t be gentle; move it around and twist back and forth. If the puncture is in the tread area you’ll be able to hear and feel the steel belt as the reamer rasps through it.

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Once it moves back and forth easily, set it aside. Insert the tip of the tool and the plug into the puncture. Again you’ll need a strong shove to get the tip and the doubled plug into the tire. Push until just a half inch or so of the tips of the plug shows above the tread, then pull the tool straight back out—no twisting on this. The split edge of the eye will first pull the middle of the plug back into the puncture, packing it tightly with vulcanizing material, then free the plug so the tool pulls out, leaving the plug in place and the puncture instantly sealed—no waiting for glue to dry. Trim the plug as flush as possible with a knife or razor blade, and you’re finished. The tire manufacturer will warn direly that this is a temporary repair, but I’ve known tires with just a few hundred miles on them repaired thusly that went on to live out their full tread life. If the tire has deflated enough so that pushing on the insertion tool just pushes in the face of the tire, add some air with your compressor to give it more resistance.

 Push the plug in until the ends stand just clear of the tread.

Push the plug in until the ends stand just clear of the tread.

What if the hole is larger in diameter than one plug will seal? Try two—or three, or four. My friend Tim once repaired a sidewall split with no fewer than five, and it got him back to civilization. While we’re on sidewalls, note that a plug repair there really should be considered an emergency fix only. The sidewall, even on a sturdy all-terrain tire, lacks the structural integrity of the belted tread area—it’s designed to flex, and can’t support the plug as well. Nevertheless, a sidewall plug repair should hold just fine for the length of a trip. (Also note that, as excellent as plugs are, they won’t seal every puncture. Recently on a trip to Mexico a friend holed a tire with a sharp branch right at the corner of the tread and sidewall. The result was a flapped triangular hole that I simply could not get to seal, even with three plugs. It happens.)

Tim’s five-plug repair notwithstanding, a much better way to repair a sidewall split (sidewalls collect splits from rock gashes and pinching more often than they do simple punctures) is with a patch on the inside of the tire. To do that you’ll need access to the inside, which means you’ll need to break the bead, a procedure that sounds alarming but really doesn’t break anything. 

The inside edges of an automobile tire, where they grip the rim of the wheel and seal the air inside, are each reinforced with a very stiff wire cable embedded in thick rubber—the bead. The wheel is made with a corresponding groove running around its inside and outside edge. When your local Discount Tire store tech mounts a tire, his fancy machine first levers the tire over the rim so the beads are inboard of the grooves. He then applies a sharp blast of high-pressure air, which pops both beads outward and into their respective grooves. The tire can then be fully inflated. The grooves hold the beads very tightly—even running for some time on a flat tire will rarely unseat them.

When your tech needs to remove a mounted tire, his machine pries the beads loose with a powerful automatic lever. In the field, you’ll need to be more creative. Trust me, just jumping up and down on a deflated tire won’t work. (Important note: Those of you with shiny alloy wheels—or shiny steel wheels for that matter—will find that some of the following techniques might scratch and gouge them. I hereby absolve myself from responsibility.)

The first step is to remove the valve core to ensure the tire is completely deflated and to easily let out additional air as you compress the carcass. Both the Extreme Outback and ARB kits come with a valve core removal tool. Mark the tire and wheel with chalk or anything handy, to make sure you re-install it in the same place and don’t mess up the balance (the EO kit includes chalk). To “break” the bead you need to apply inward force to the sidewall of the tire as close as possible to the edge of the rim, in order to force the bead out of its groove. One effective way to do so is to lay the tire and wheel on its side under your vehicle’s bumper, then position a Hi-Lift or bottle jack with the base plate on the tire and the lifting tongue or post under the bumper. Crank up the jack and the base plate will push the bead out of its groove. You generally only need to do this in one spot as the bead will easily pop out of the rest of the groove when stood on. Always break the bead on the outside of the wheel first; the groove on the inside has a ramp that makes it more difficult. 

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An elegant enhancement to the Hi-Lift technique is the Extreme Outback Beadbuster, which attaches to the jack’s base plate and incorporates a curved spade to precisely bear against the tire close to the rim, reducing stress on the sidewall. The opposite, cruder end of this spectrum is to lay the tire on the ground and simply drive over one edge of it with the help of a spotter. Effective, but a bit hard on the tire.

 The Beadbuster makes beadbreaking with a Hi-Lift jack easier on the tire.

The Beadbuster makes beadbreaking with a Hi-Lift jack easier on the tire.

By far the quickest—and most stylish—way to break a bead is with the Australian-made Tyrepliers. This cunning tool, which adjusts to fit wheels up to 19 inches in diameter, frees the bead using good old Archimedean leverage. It’s nearly foolproof, and so universally respected that it carries a NATO stocking number. I’ve lost count of the onlookers and students I’ve amazed by popping the bead on a tire in about ten seconds flat. You stand on the tire and use one foot to push the fixed hook of the tool under one edge of the rim, then work the lever hook under the opposite side with the paired handles. Push down on the lever handle and voilá. It’s not only fast, you’re bearing only on the actual bead, so damaging the sidewall is virtually impossible.

 First lever both hooks of the Tyreplier under the rim.

First lever both hooks of the Tyreplier under the rim.

 Then push down on the outside lever to force the bead out of its groove.

Then push down on the outside lever to force the bead out of its groove.

Once the first bit of bead pops free of the groove, it’s generally possible to stomp the rest of it out around the circumference of the rim. If that doesn’t work, reposition the jack or Tyreplier.

Once the outside bead is free, turn the tire over and do the same to the inside bead. The tire will now be loose in the well of the rim, but you still will not have access to the inside of the carcass. For that you’ll need a pair of automotive tire irons, which look like and are just butched-up bicycle tire irons about two feet long, and work exactly the same way. (Extreme Outback's Deluxe model is the best I've used.) Start near the valve stem, insert one iron and lever the tire over the wheel edge. Insert the next one near it and lever that section of the tire over. Leave the first iron in place as you proceed around the tire until it pops free. With one side of the tire off the rim, you’ll have adequate access for most repairs; if not, you can use a tire iron and a dead-blow hammer to take the tire completely off the wheel. But getting the second bead over the edge is significantly more difficult.

 Using tire levers to pull the bead over the rim.

Using tire levers to pull the bead over the rim.

If the sidewall split is short, you can simply patch it from the inside; again think glorified bicycle repair. The patches in the Extreme Outback kit cover a range from small to terrifyingly huge. If the split is severe, you’ll want to stitch it to hold the edges together and reinforce the patch—yes, more or less like a surgeon would do with a bad cut. I use a cordless drill, or an awl with a cutting edge, to make a line of small holes on either side of the split, an inch or so apart and a quarter inch from the split, then stitch it together tightly with whatever is handy. Small-diameter wire works best; heavy fishing line works too but is difficult to knot. (I’ve heard of people using dental floss, which might work if it were tripled or quadrupled.) With the slice secured, you can roughen the area behind it, spread cement on both tire and patch, wait until dry, then apply (obviously your patch needs to cover the stitch holes). This is another repair to be considered only in a fix-it-or-walk-home situation, but I know of stitched tires surviving dozens of rough miles. Incidentally, if you have a tire off the rim and you’ve done any plug repairs, note that now is a good time to trim the plug and install a patch behind it for ultimate security. 

Now you have to put everything back together. Starting this time opposite the valve, use the tire irons to pry the bead or beads over the rim and back into the well of the wheel, so you have a loose tire completely inside the rims. Remember the fancy machine the tire tech used to blast air into the tire and seat the beads? Again, we’re going to improvise. 

There’s a long-standing myth that you need a very large volume of air (or hold-my-beer pyrotechnics with starting fluid; see below), to reseat beads. But I’ve done it with very small compressors and proper technique—as long as the wheel is not too wide for the tire. If you run showpiece alloy wheels ten or twelve inches (or more) in width, so your tires’ sidewalls barely protrude past them, you might have a devil of a time reseating beads in the field—and you’ll also stand a much greater chance of damaging a wheel rim on the trail, since there’s no protection offered by the sidewall. The steel wheels on our Land Rover 110 and FJ40 Land Cruiser are 6.5  inches wide, and I can easily reseat beads on 255/85/R16 BFG tires (higher-profile tires help as well, with their more flexible sidewalls).

I mentioned that I’d reseated beads with very small compressors, but the larger volume of air you have, the easier and quicker the process will be (see sidebar on compressors). A CO2 tank will work very well, but be aware that CO2 can leak out of tires over time.

Here’s how it’s accomplished. Stand the tire and wheel upright, and center the tire as evenly as possible in the wheel with your chalk marks aligned. If tire and wheel are well-matched the tire’s beads will naturally bear against the inside of the grooves and form a partial seal on their own. Use water, with some detergent in it if you have it, to thoroughly soak the perimeter of each bead—this functions more as a lubricant than a seal. In a pinch any liquid is better than nothing—my nephew reports that Keystone Light beer works well, which is as far as I’m concerned the best possible use for Keystone Light.

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Your valve core is still out, right? Apply the air chuck to the valve and start inflating. If the tire is not centered properly you’ll see a lot of bubbles in one spot; stop and reposition. If the seal is good you’ll see the tire’s walls expand slowly until, with a distinctly alarming metallic PING, they will seat in turn, usually the inside one first because of the ramp. Release the chuck—air will rush out but the beads will stay put. Re-insert the valve core, inflate, and you’re finished.

Some bush mechanics suggest running a ratchet strap around the circumference of the tire and tightening it prior to setting the beads, the idea being that it will push the beads outward and making sealing easier. I’ve tried it with and without and never noticed a difference, even with a big strap—and to me the strap just adds one potentially dangerous bit to fly off if something goes wrong. The other seating technique is the infamous starting-fluid routine, which involves spraying starting fluid or another flammable aerosol around the bead of the tire laying on the ground, then tossing in a match to create a minor explosion that blows the beads onto their grooves in a split second. When this works it is a crowd-pleasing spectacle, but search YouTube for videos and you’ll find plenty of crowd-pleasing, spectacular failures as well. I prefer the more civilized approach.

There is another situation in which you might find it necessary to reseat a bead. Occasionally on very rough trails a rut or rock will catch the side of a tire with enough force to knock a bead loose and produce a startling whoosh as the tire deflates. This seems somewhat more likely to occur if you have aired down to enhance traction (or if you’ve been indulging in a bit of Baja 500 hooning). Frequently only one bead—usually the outside one—will be pushed off. While it is sometimes possible to reseat the bead with the wheel still on the truck, you might find it necessary to remove the wheel and actually unseat the opposite bead to get the tire to sit properly for reseating with an air compressor.

Once you’ve mastered the art of demounting tires and reseating beads in the field, dealing with simple punctures will seem like child’s play. That day in Nevada? If memory serves, we collected four more punctures before the day was out, and each one was repaired in a couple of minutes. We never even considered putting on the spare tire. That would have been way too much work.

 Just part of the contents of the  Extreme Outback  Ultimate Puncture Repair Kit (about $100).

Just part of the contents of the Extreme Outback Ultimate Puncture Repair Kit (about $100).

  . . . and the also-excellent  ARB  kit, well-organized in a blow-molded case ($42).

 . . . and the also-excellent ARB kit, well-organized in a blow-molded case ($42).

Hammers . . .

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Lately I’ve been trying to expand my dedicated set of bicycle tools, largely the iconic blue-handled items from Park, which I described last time as the Snap-on on of bike tool makers. Honestly, besides the specialty bits—bottom bracket tools, brake compressors, head-tube reamers, and the like—there really is no particular “bikeness” about Park’s hex keys, wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers. But they’re inarguably of high quality, fairly priced, and, well, the pegboard just looks sharp with color-coordinated tools, and it makes me feel like I’m a better bicycle mechanic than I really am, and perhaps if you feel like a better mechanic you’ll actually be one.

Or whatever rationalization you like . . .

In any case, recently I decided it would be nice to have a dedicated hammer for bicycle work, for when certain things just need a tap or two either to get where they’re supposed to be or to be removed (the cottered cranks on Roseann’s vintage Raleigh come to mind). So I ordered a Park hammer with one hard face and one (replaceable) plastic face.

I was expecting a 3/4-scale tool suitable for not endangering expensive Campagnolo parts or brittle carbon fiber; instead I got a full-sized brute of a thing that weighs 2.1 pounds. 

Hmm . . . that got me thinking, and I pulled out the One Case Tool Kit (full-size version). In it I currently have two hammers—a sledge for rough work and a Craftsman plastic-faced product with one soft and one harder face. The sledge weighs 2.4 pounds, the plastic hammer just under a pound. Honestly, the plastic hammer has proved too light. Even as something designed to be gentle on parts it lacks sufficient mass and kinetic energy to be effective. Comparing the new Park hammer, it is not that much lighter than the sledge for rough beating, yet usefully twice the weight of the Craftsman plastic hammer. And by replacing both previous hammers I actually save almost a pound and a half. 

So, er, now I need to buy another bicycle hammer . . .  

The most perfect tool on earth

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Okay, that might be a bit of an overstatement. But every now and then you come across a tool that does exactly one thing, but does it so perfectly that you wonder how you got along without it.

In this case, the one thing to which I'm referring involves a fastener found, among many other places, on Land Cruiser carburetors. It's a near-microscopic springy bit known generally as a hair-pin clip, or colloquially as a Jesus clip (is it sacrilegious to use a capital there?)—either because some of them are shaped like the letter J, or because of the epithet used when one flies out of your grasp. On carburetors they're used to secure linkage rods by popping into a groove at the end of the rod. Removing and replacing them has always been a dicey proposition with needle-nose pliers or, slightly better, hemostats. Dicey because if one of these things pops out of whatever you're using to hold it, it's gone.

Jesus clips.jpg

A few months ago, our master Toyota mechanic friend Bill Lee was visiting, and while he was here he addressed some issues on the FJ40's carb. When he started disassembling the linkage he pulled this out of his kit: a simple plunger-activated rod with a tiny hook in the end of a tiny tube.

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The hook grabbed each Jesus clip and popped it off (and back on again) with effortless security. A groove in the end of the tube ensured the clip stayed straight, even when pushing it back into place.

OMG. I had to have one.

Except it turns out the company that made them, Lisle, discontinued part #46500. Little demand for fiendishly clever carburetor tools these days, I guess. I haunted eBay for weeks but failed to find a used one—until Bill visited again, and handed me one a mechanic friend, Jeff Bell, had given him. I'm going to be rebuilding my carburetor every six months just to employ this thing. Brilliant.

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More on the OCTKL

 Snap-on and JH Williams screwdrivers

Snap-on and JH Williams screwdrivers

The One-Case Tool Kit Lite (OCTKL) has been gathering dust the last few months. Trail dust, that is. It’s seen enough use that I thought a report was warranted, although I’m not sure the kit has assumed its final form. (See here and here for the initial articles.)

In many instances the contents simply migrated from the OCTKL’s 60-pound progenitor. But I wanted to try a few different things, and I explored a couple of new-to-me manufacturers. Here’s what I’ve been doing.

I go back and forth on screwdrivers. Sometimes I think Ace Hardware stuff is just fine. A 12-piece set there will run you $29. Snap-on charges $187 for seven pieces—four standard, three Phillips. That’s $26 each. Yes, they’re U.S.-made. Yes, the Snap-on items incorporate hex fittings so you can apply a wrench for extra torque, so they’re obviously durable. But seriously? I’m perfectly happy to drop $180 on a half-inch Snap-on ratchet, which might be the critical tool for a major repair. Less convinced I need the same commitment for screwdrivers. 

Out of curiosity I started browsing Snap-on’s “Industrial Brands,” which comprise various subsidiaries that make tools for Snap-on in various countries of origin. One intriguing brand was JH Williams, which in at least some cases appears to manufacture tools equivalent to Snap-on tools of earlier generations. On Amazon I found a basic five-piece Williams screwdriver set, #100P-5MD—three slotted drivers and two Phillips—for $38.23. Also available was a comprehensive 19-piece assortment for $115. The Williams drivers appeared to be exact clones of the Snap-on screwdrivers I, er, actually bought about 15 years ago—right down to the hex fitting. The handles are identical—a rather slick black composite, which at first seems contra-indicated. However, they are shaped well for grip, and the finish makes them easy to clean up in the field—an important benefit in my book. I bought the basic kit as an experiment, and so far they’re performing perfectly. 

I was surprised to see the Snap-on Industrial Brands website lists the origin of the Williams screwdrivers as the U.S. I figured they had been made offshore. As best I can determine, these are indeed identical to the previous generation Snap-on screwdrivers. Hmm . . . Seems like a bargain to me.

So . . . what about other Snap-on Industrial Brands? One that’s been around forever is Blue Point, which I seem to recall originally was used to label Snap-on’s power tools. Now Blue Point covers a wide range of products, including hand tools. I decided to try a set of 3/8ths inch, 12-point deep metric sockets, which seem to be impeccably made, and grip fasteners with every indication of the tight tolerance that is a hallmark of high-quality sockets. The Blue Point sockets are made in Taiwan, which has become the source for high-quality tools from several other companies such as Facom.

Blue Point deep sockets.jpg

I wanted to keep the OCTKL compact and as light as possible, but I didn't want to simply dump my sockets into one of the pockets of the Blue Ridge Overland bag. So I ordered a set of flexible urethane socket rails from Off Road Trail Tools. They come in 1/4, 3/8, and 1/2-inch sizes, weigh next to nothing, and can be cut to length if you don’t need all 14 posts. 

 The ORTT urethane socket rails are flexible and trimable

The ORTT urethane socket rails are flexible and trimable

On to . . . needle-nosed pliers? Yes. I find myself using these frequently, yet I’d never found a reasonably priced pair that I really liked—until I tried the ones pictured, from Park Tools, who are more or less considered the Snap-on of bicycle tool makers. Their NP-6 pliers have five different gripping, cutting, and crimping sections, fat and extremely comfortable and secure grips, and a gentle spring that keeps them open unless squeezed, meaning you only have to manipulate them in one direction. Well worth $25.

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More on the OCTKL contents shortly.

Snap-on (including Blue Point) is here.

Snap-on Industrial Brands is here.

Off Road Trail Tools is here.

Park Tools is here.


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Just a quick note for those of you who, like me, prefer to keep your equipment looking good as well as performing properly. The other day I needed to polish the lovely English-made brass bell on the Thorn Nomad, and remembered to dig out the Simichrome polish. This stuff has been around for ages, but there's still nothing to beat it for shining up virtually anything that should be shiny, from bicycle accessories to chrome bumpers. Just look at the mirror finish on the bell:

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The JL Wrangler Part 2: Rubicon

 Scuffing tires on the demo course. Matt Scott photo.

Scuffing tires on the demo course. Matt Scott photo.

I wonder if any of the corporate liability attorneys who signed off on the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon’s front and rear diff locks, anti-roll-bar disconnect, 4:1 transfer case, and 77:1 crawl ratio were ever given a demonstration of the vehicle’s capabilities.

Probably not. “Oh, those modifications? They, um, just help traction. You know, to enhance safety,” the engineers told them, winking broadly at each other. 

And in a very real sense the engineers were telling the truth—it’s just that they were referring to traction on, say, a 30-degree hillclimb studded with boulders the size of engine blocks. Which is where I found myself, with FCA’s Scott Brown in the passenger seat, in an arrest-me-if-you-can-follow-me-red two-door Rubicon, top removed and windshield folded down. The eight-speed auto box was manually selected to first in low range, anti-roll bar disconnected, and both diffs locked. I noted with approval that (along with the anti-roll bar switch) the JL’s diff-lock selector has been moved to the center of the dash for easy access (in a bright red escutcheon to boot), and hugely simplified from the JK’s: Push down for rear lock, up for front and rear. Amazingly, the new electrohydraulic power steering gave me zero indication that the front wheels were rigidly joined; normally a locked front diff firms up even power steering noticeably.

 Much-simplified diff-lock control. "Sway bar" button disconects front anti-roll-bar.

Much-simplified diff-lock control. "Sway bar" button disconects front anti-roll-bar.

Through the windshield there was a lot of blue Arizona sky, and spotter Jim Horne’s arms motioning me straight up, and up, and then left across the boulders. Scott and I transitioned from being pressed into our seats to being pressed, respectively, against the center console and driver’s door. The side/down slope was enough to make Scott give a little whoop of excitement, and for me to appreciate the integrated roll cage surrounding us. The Jeep, of course, was loafing, idling in that 77:1 crawl ratio at half walking speed, each BFG All-Terrain tenaciously gripping granite (the techs hadn’t even bothered to air them down). A turn right back towards the sky, a pause while Jim wedged an extra rock under the left rear tire, then we were over, and being waved on to the next obstacle by the next spotter. (That particular hill would shortly be closed down for rebuilding after another journalist repeatedly applying too much throttle while ignoring instructions managed to send a bunch of those engine blocks tumbling down the slope.)

 Jim Horne guides a Rubicon Unlimited up the hill.

Jim Horne guides a Rubicon Unlimited up the hill.

The JL Sahara Matt Scott and I had driven to get to the staging area had impressed me with its capability, and driver-independent traction-control systems are getting better with each generation. But the Rubicon is in a different universe. Even the best ABS-based traction control can’t match the ability to manually lock one or both axle differentials in advance of a limited-traction situation. Flip that center toggle switch upward in the Rubicon and you have Four. Wheel. Drive. Period. Combine that with the disconnectable front anti-roll bar, which hugely increases compliance—and comfort—on a rough trail, and a crawl ratio slow enough to let you watch cactus grow on your way past, plus excellent approach and departure angles (44º and 37º), standard BFG All-Terrains, etc. etc., and you have a vehicle unmatched by anything in its class in terms of backcountry capability—either in the U.S. or the rest of the world.

That much capability necessitates a strong foundation to withstand the stresses involved in powering a 4,300-pound vehicle up a torturous slope. While the JK Rubicon was more than up to the task, the JL raises the bar. The fully boxed chassis now employs 80 percent high-strength steel, with five boxed crossmembers. Torsional rigidity is up by 18 percent, yet, the factory claims, weight is down by 100 pounds. The next-generation Dana 44 axles have been improved as well: The front axle tubes are 10 percent larger in diameter, 14 percent thicker, and twice as strong as the previous versions. End forgings on the Rubicon are 11 percent stronger. Components no driver could ever notice have been studied, critiqued, and tweaked.

 FCA's Scott Brown rides along. Matt Scott photo.

FCA's Scott Brown rides along. Matt Scott photo.

FCA’s introduction and their excellent driving course left little doubt that the JL Rubicon is everything the JK Rubicon was, and more. (Some might see the move from BFG Mud-Terrains to All-Terrains as a retrograde step, but it’s not. In a majority of situations not involving mud, ATs are the equal of if not superior to MTs. And the new tires certainly help reduce road noise, and definitely bump fuel economy.) So the Rubicon’s bona fides for competency in extremely rugged terrain remain unmatched by anything in its class. If you’re looking for a vehicle that can serve as a perfectly comfortable daily driver, then be nearly invincible for weekend explorations of any trail you have the skill to drive, it remains the icon.

The question is: If I were considering a Wrangler as an overlanding vehicle—that is, for long-distance, self-sufficient travel on a mixture of paved and dirt roads, with four-wheel drive sections definitely in the mix but little emphasis on difficult passages unless they were unavoidable due to route or weather—and if my funds were not bottomless, which way would I go? I evaluated two approaches, both of them the Unlimited (four-door) body style:

  1. Go basic and order a Wrangler Sport with suitable options. On FCA’s new Wrangler build site I specced a Sport with the same Pentastar V6 and excellent ZF eight-speed automatic transmission as the Rubicon, the standard black hardtop, Anti-Spin rear diff, all-terrain tires, and a few other relevant bits such as heavy duty electrics (240-amp alternator, 700-amp battery), etc., for $36,305. It would have the simple Command-Trac part-time four-wheel-drive transfer case with ABS-based traction control (which Jeep refers to as a differential brake). To be honest, this system is capable of handling 99 percent of the terrain I have experienced on extended journeys in South America, Australia, and Africa, even completely off-tracks forays into Egypt’s sand seas. (The Anti-Spin diff is designed to seamlessly handle slight differences in cross-axle traction; the more intrusive ABS- based traction control kicks in for more extreme variations.) Jeep lists the cargo capacity if the Sport at a middling 1,000 pounds, not including the driver. (One of the few disappointments of the JL redesign is the lack of a heavier GVWR option. I wonder if the upcoming pickup version will raise this.)
  2. Finance a bigger chunk and go for the Rubicon. In addition to the drivetrain and suspension features—4:1 transfer case, electric locking differentials front and rear, driver disconnectable front anti-roll bar, 4:11 diff ratios—the Rubicon boasts other standard features not available on the Sport: premium seats, an AC power outlet, a seven-inch touch screen, power heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, plus several premium options. I went through its build list, not going crazy with leather upholstery or any similar spurious extras, but nevertheless equipping it more upscale than the Sport, and came to $48,090. (I could easily have added another $4,000-$5,000 in bling.) Cargo capacity of the Rubicon is even less than the Sport—890 pounds.

Despite the slightly higher GVWR of the Sport, I’m pretty sure that for either vehicle I’d want heavier-duty rear springs and shocks if I planned on traveling with a passenger and a full load of equipment, food, and water. Even a load nearing but not surpassing the factory limit would depress the stock rear springs enough to upset the ride height and headlamp alignment. So that modification would cost about the same for either vehicle. Otherwise, what does one get for the extra $12,000 of the Rubicon besides—let’s not diminish this—the knowledge that anywhere in the world you traveled you would be able to tackle the toughest routes passable by any stock vehicle? 

One answer worth considering lies in those next-generation Dana 44 axles, a significant step up in strength and durability from those fitted to the Sport. Note: I absolutely do not think the Sport is under-equipped in that category (as long as you don’t try to cram stupidly oversized tires on it), but the overwhelming priority for an overland vehicle is reliability and durability, and there is no doubt that the Dana 44s would optimize that in a Wrangler. 

On the other hand, the higher (i.e. numerically lower) final drive ratio of the Sport—3.45 vs. 4.10—might make for slightly more relaxed freeway cruising at the expense of low-range crawling. However, with the eight-speed auto transmission on each, and taller tires of the Rubicon, I’m not sure how noticeable this will be, and I did not have a chance to directly compare the two, as I only had access to the Rubicon in the dirt. 

Of course the extra comfort (I wouldn’t classify them as “luxury”) items standard or available on the Rubicon would make traveling a bit more relaxing.

In the end—and I hope this doesn’t sound like a copout—I would buy the Rubicon if I had the funds, and be completely happy with the Sport if I did not. In fact, I’d leave for a trans-Africa trip in either with no hesitation.

Remembering to pack carefully, of course. 

 Thanks for the photos, Matt!

Thanks for the photos, Matt!