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Maintenance Made Easy: Repacking Wheel Bearings

Maintenance Made Easy: Repacking Wheel Bearings


Most hot rods with modern suspension designs need their front wheel bearings repacked every 24,000 miles or two years. “Old School” style hot rods that use vintage chassis set ups may need this done even more frequently.  

If you’re planning to be repacking wheel bearings, wear rubber gloves and eye protection. It’s a dirty job, so old clothes are a good idea, too.

Set the emergency brake. If the car has automatic transmission, put it in park. Use wheel chocks to prevent rolling. Loosen the lug nuts. On some cars they loosen counter-clockwise on the left side and clockwise on the right side.

Use a floor jack, scissor jack or bottle jack to raise the front end. Lift one side until the tire is off the ground. Use a stand jack under the axle or suspension to support the car in this position. Do the same on the other side.

Remove one wheel and tire. Pry the dust cap off the hub. You’ll see a nut with that looks like a castle turret. A cotter pin will run through this nut. Bend the ends straight, pull the pin out and turn the castle nut off with a wrench.

Remove the washer that fits into a slot on the hub, then the outer wheel bearing assembly and bearing race. To get parts out, you may need to rock the brake drum. Handle bearings carefully. Dropping or scraping them can ruin them.

Remove the drum-and-hub assembly. As you remove it, be careful not to drag the inner wheel bearing on the spindle. The brake drum may simply pull off. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to back off the adjustment. Turn the star-shaped wheel on the rear of the brake backing plate upwards with a brake-adjusting tool.

Take the brake drum off and set it aside. Clean the outer wheel bearings and races. Use a non-flammable cleaning solution poured in a coffee can. Wear protective gloves. Slosh the wheel bearing in the cleaner to wash the old grease off. Place it on a clean surface and let it air dry because a cloth may leave lint.

Carefully inspect the bearing for cracks or nicks in the smooth metal. It should be free of all rust. Check for wear patterns or excess one-side wear. Make sure the bearing race has no similar damage

If the bearings is damaged, you will need to replace it. This is easier than ever before since there are numerous bearing size Websites on the Internet. For example, this chart tells you the sizes of different automotive bearings and who sells them. When you’re online just type “Bearing Finder” into your web browser and a large number of sites will come up. Many require you to know various measurements and specifications. A local machine shop can also help you locate the bearings you need for your rod.

You can buy wheel-bearing grease at a parts store for $5 or less. By hand, or with a special tool pack the inside of the hub and spindle with a light coat of grease. Don’t over-lubricate or grease may get on your brake shoes.

Set the repacked outer wheel bearing on a clean surface. To remove the inner wheel bearing, race and grease retainer or seal, have the hub side of the drum facing up and use a hammer to lightly tap a large dowel against the inner bearing race. This will force the parts out the backside. Clean and re-pack them.

Place the repacked inner wheel bearing and race into position on back of the hub. Reinstall the retainer/grease seal. This seal keeps grease from leaking on your brake shoes. If the seal is damaged, get a new one.

With the bearing parts repacked and reinstalled, slide the brake drum into position. Re-install the outer wheel bearing and race, the washer and castle nut. Do not tighten the castle nut until you adjust the wheel bearings. If you have a repair manual, it tells you how to make the adjustment or use this procedure:

1. Remount the wheel and tire and tighten the lug nuts.

2. Use a wooden wedge to eliminate for any king pin or ball joint play.

3. Tighten the castle nut with an 8- to 10-inch long wrench using only arm and shoulder strength to seat parts.

4. Back off the large nut until the first perceptible looseness is felt when grabbing tire top and bottom and shaking it.

5. Then, tighten the nut until the slot in the “castle turret” lines up with hole in the spindle. Insert a new cotter pin and cinch tight.

6. Re-install dust cap and spring-type radio static suppressor if there is one.

You’re done. Do the same on the other side. Adjust the brakes with the star wheel and you’re ready to roll. Record the mileage at which you repacked the wheel bearings, so you’ll know when to do this maintenance job again.

A bearing race being placed over a tapered roller bearing. Most bearings have part numbers and/or specs stamped into the edge. These help you locate the bearings you need. Many online bearing finders are available today.

Gene’s Bearings in Antigo, Wis. (Phone (715) 627-7300) is typical of shops nationwide that carry bearings and seals for everything from hot rods to lawn mowers.  Since hot rod parts are often custom or adapted, face-to-face service can be a big help.

Since most bearings fit into neat, small boxes, a local bearing shop such as Gene’s Bearings can stock thousands of parts in a small amount of shelf space. Local machine shops can also help you find bearings, races and seals.

Slide the brake drum into position. Re-install the outer wheel bearing and race, washer and castle nut and make the required adjustments. Line up castle nut with pi hole in spindle and tap the cotter pin through with a small hammer.

Pack hub with grease and then install the grease cap. These photos show a traditional drum brake system. For modern hot rods with disc brakes the basic job is the same, but the parts and details may vary according to manufacturer.