12v winch maintenance – Five ways to keep your low-mount winch winding

By Dex Fulton 9 Min Read

When it comes to off-road recoveries, especially solo ones, an electric winch has to be the most effective piece of gear you could own. Sure, they’re not as versatile as hand winches, they take a little longer to set up than a snatch strap and they’re inherently dangerous to use (what isn’t these days?), but if you’re well and truly stuck a winch will get you out of strife 99 times out of 100. And for the one time it won’t help, you’re usually in so deep that nothing short of an excavator with an operator who’s willing to play fast and loose with OH&S regs will be of use. 

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Winches really are the best insurance policy you can have when you’re out bush. However, a winch is a lot like a bloke who sits on the couch for weeks at a time, when he’s finally asked to get up and do something it’s going to hurt. And that’s if he gets up at all. 

The point here is that if you don’t maintain and regularly use your winch, it’ll likely seize up and be a bugger to kickstart back to life. Think about it: They’re sitting out on your bulbar in the dust, wind, rain, mud and smog their whole life, and most of us will maybe call upon it to actually do something a couple of times a year, if that. It’s little wonder that when you do get stuck, you hit the ‘wind in’ button and nothing happens. 

To prevent that truly heartbreaking sensation from ever hitting you right in the feels, you’re gonna need to regularly maintain your winch. Luckily, it only needs to happen once a season, and you’ll have it knocked over in an hour on a lazy a Sunday morning. 

Wash, rinse, respool

Throw the clutch lever into neutral and unspool your winch rope right down to the drum. If you like to party in mud holes then you can remove the rope altogether and wash it in a bucket of warm water with a little soap in it, but a good hose out will likely keep it in good nick under normal circumstances.

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Allow the rope to dry in the sun, but don’t leave it out for too long as ropes are susceptible to UV damage. A couple hours will be enough. 

Then it’s time to respool. This step should be done on brand new winches too as the rope is rarely spooled on properly from the factory. Basically, it involves winding the rope neatly onto the drum while under a little tension. You can do this with your rig on a slight uphill, or by winding it in on flat ground with the handbrake on a couple clicks (unless you own a Land Cruiser, in which case your handbrake doesn’t do anything). 

The brains of the outfit

Pop the cover off the control box and closely inspect the wiring to the solenoids. Give the contacts a once over with some fine grit sandpaper if they’re looking a bit crusty. Apply a little dielectric grease or contact spray to keep the moisture out and button it back up. If you’re doing a lot of water crossings or take frequent mud baths it may be worthwhile relocating the control box under the bonnet to keep it away from nature’s fury. 

Grease me up

The gearbox (the end of the winch with the lever on top) heats up and cools down a bunch during the lifecycle of a winch. This can cause moisture and muck to be sucked in past the seals, where it mixes with the grease and generally causes moving parts to become stationary parts. Not ideal. Pop the box off (usually about 8 small bolts), clean the gears with a solvent then re-lube with a smear of marine or high-temp bearing grease. 

Breathe with me

Down the other end of the winch body is the motor (the one with the cables connected to it). Much like the gear box this bad boy heats and cools rapidly under use and can suck in a muddy creek’s worth of crud. That’s bad, mmmkay. 

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Almost all motors have a drainage hole for this reason, and it can be a great idea to plug this hole (on the bottom of the motor casing) and drill and tap in a breather port on the top. Then run a line up into your engine bay with a cheap one-way filter (lawn mower fuel filters ftw). This allows for thermal expansion while preventing foreign body ingress and can literally save your winch. Oh, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, while you’re pulling motors and boxes off make sure the seals are in good nick too.

Use it or lose it

As stated, winches sit out front of your vehicle in all sorts of weather, environments and atmospheric conditions. Unsurprisingly, when left inactive, they tend to gum up (remember the bloke on the couch metaphor). Every couple of weeks or so, especially if you have a trip coming up, take the time to wind out and re-spool your winch rope. Not only will this allow you to check it for damage and make sure it’s properly tensioned on the drum, it’ll also keep everything internally moving and covered in grease, preventing rust and corrosion from setting in. You ain’t losing any value by putting some miles on your winch. It’s not a classic Ferrari. 

Wire vs Rope

Look, there are still some solid arguments for steel cable over winch rope. It’s strong, it’s able to be dragged repeatedly over rough ground, it lasts forever and it’s generally as dependable as people who listen to loud electronic dance music at campsites are annoying. 

However, there is very little reason for the majority of 4WDers to choose it over rope. It’s more dangerous, it’s way heavier, it’s more cumbersome – rope’s advantages outweigh cable’s by a hefty margin and will suit almost all off-roaders a lot better. But it’s up to you to determine what your usage will need. For our money, rope wins every time.

Cheap winches – are they worth it?

The last decade or so has seen a huge influx of cheap (sub-$500) winches that are assembled quickly and as a low-cost option. That generally also comes with low-cost reliability and dependability. In short, the failure rate among these winches is high. 

With that said, if you’re on a budget then we recommend doing the following to your fresh new “almost certainly assembled with child labour” electric winder. 

  • Pull it apart, properly grease the gearbox, thread locking compound on all bolts, seal box to winch body with high temp silicone
  • Drill and tap breather into motor, if it comes with breather then seal it up and drill and tap a new one (trust us), seal up drain hole, seal motor to winch body with high-temp silicone
  • Replace all mounting bolts with proper grade 8 hardware and locking washers
  • Replace control box solenoids with quality aftermarket unit like an Albright 
  • Do not ever rely on winch brake to hold vehicle in place. Like, ever
  • Spend the extra few hundred bucks on a decent mid-range winch like you should have in the first place (optional) 

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