Why and When Are Beadlocks a Good Idea?
By Justin Banner
If there is a defining character of a hardcore off-road Jeep, it’s a set of beadlock wheels.
What is the purpose of a beadlock, what kinds are there, why would you use them and when? We’ll talk about beadlocks in this article. Much like the previous articles, you’ll probably want to read it and the Wheel Basics articles before continuing to read this article. A few terms might get glossed over here. Don’t worry, if you happen to get lost on a term head back to those. Most every other term will be fully referenced in them.
What is a Beadlock?
The purpose of a beadlock is to lock one or both tire beads to the wheel. This will prevent them from slipping off their seats and causing tire failure when you don’t need it. This can be very easy to do when you drop the tire pressures on your Jeep to gain traction in the sand and rocks. With the right amount of pressure or tension on the sidewall, the bead will slip off its seat and your tire will lose all the air it had.
When you look at a beadlock wheel, you’ll notice it will only have a locking ring or device on that outside bead. Reason is that the outside bead will see the most tension to pull off its seat. When you run low pressures, you will usually see this failure on the outer side of the tire during a turn in the opposite direction (ie: while you’re turning left, the outside right tire’s bead will slip off its seat because there is greater pressure there).
The inside beads don’t usually see this pulling motion while turning because it’s usually being pulled in the direction of the bead. This won’t always be the case, but it is normally. Typically, you’ll see the odd inside bead pop off during odd crawling situations where a lot of a Jeep’s weight is being applied to that single area.
Parts of a Beadlock Wheel
There are only three main components to a beadlock wheel: the wheel, the ring, and all the bolts.
The wheel itself isn’t much different from your standard wheel save for one key feature. Rather than having a bead retaining hump, there is a ring in place of it on the outside bead. Instead, there is a large flange around the diameter of the wheel with a flat area for the bead seat.
The bead of the tire will sit here and be clamped between it and the beadlock ring. So, you are locking the bead mechanically to the wheel and why it gets its name. Now, some wheels will have a traditional bead seat and the large flange. We’ll talk about that in a moment.
The lock ring is the other side of the clamp that mechanically retains the tire’s bead to the wheel. It is removeable, so you can dismount the tire and mount a new one. Once the tire is mounted, the ring is bolted to the rim. These rings can be cast but are normally a forged aluminum part or made of steel.
There are wheels that feature a “beauty ring” that mimics a beadlock, but these wheels are NOT beadlocks. The ring in this case serves as a visual improvement to give the look of a beadlock. As mentioned earlier, some wheels with a “beauty ring” can become a beadlock if designed that way.
The bolts secure the ring to the wheel. These are made of a high-strength steel (or even titanium for those looking for all-out racing performance in weight-loss and strength) that match the length required to fit the ring. Some manufacturers offer longer beadlock bolts for thicker aluminum rings or for cases where the bead of the tire is thicker. Yes, much like advertised tire sizing, the beads will also vary from tire manufacturer to manufacturer.
Because of their unique design and use, beadlock wheels don’t mount like normal wheels. It seems obvious when you’re looking at it, but there is far more going on here. The inside tire bead will slip over the beadlock flange, but the outside bead will sit on the flange. You’ll want to make sure that the outside bead sits properly between the rim of the wheel face and the flange. If you don’t, you run the risk of pinching the bead as you install the lock ring.
Follow your beadlock manufacturer’s installation instructions, but generally you will want to tighten the bolts in a cross pattern in quarter to half turns. So, you’ll go from the 12-o’clock position to 6, 6 to 3, 3 to 9, and so on until you go the full diameter of the wheel. As you’re turning those bolts, you’ll also want to continue inspecting the tire bead. You want to make sure it hasn’t moved and is about to be pinched by the ring and flange.
Once they stop turning at hand strength, you’ll then torque to an initial setting in that same cross pattern before final torqueing, again in a cross pattern. Some manufacturers will recommend three torqueing setting, some will only recommend one. However, if they only list one, do that torque setting around the wheel twice.
Just because you’ve torqued your beadlocks doesn’t mean you’ll only do it when you install new tires. Beadlocks require regular maintenance and inspection. We’re talking about something that is holding a critical part of your Jeep. It is something you don’t want to fail at highway speeds.
So, every oil change and every time you air down your tires, check the torque of your beadlock bolts. If they slip into wells in the ring, clean them out before inspecting them. If a bolt requires a turn, remove and inspect it and the threads in the wheel to make sure they have not been damaged in some way.
Again, we can’t stress this enough: inspect your beadlock bolts as part of your periodic maintenance and pre-deflation and post-inflation of your tires.
There are wheels that can be both a traditional beadlock and standard wheel with a removable “beauty ring” or “protection ring.” For lack of a better word, these hybrid wheels give owners an option when it comes to their wheels. If they want to run a standard wheel, the show ring stays on and the tire slips over it to fit on the traditional bead seat and its retaining humps.
However, if the owner plans to air down, they can then pull the outside bead off their seats and replace the show ring with a real locking ring. This will make the wheel a proper beadlock wheel, with all the advantages and disadvantages that comes with them.
DOT Beadlock Wheels
The one major issue with those beadlock wheels is that, legally, they are not Department of Transportation (DOT) approved. In some states, they might not be legal as they may not allow wheels that are multipiece construction or don’t have some sort of DOT approval. If that is the case, there are legal beadlocks that can be used on the highway and work as a functional beadlock.
There are two companies who manufacture DOT approved beadlock wheels. Beadlock Assist Device (BAD) Wheels and Hutchinson.
Beadlock Assist Device (BAD) Wheels
What makes a BAD Eklipse 17 different from a standard beadlock is how it attaches its locking device. The ring you’ll see on an Eklipse 17 is normally just a sacrificial beauty ring (or one of their balance rings). The bolts go through the wheel face and a locking device is located inside the wheel. When you mount the tire to the wheel, you’ll keep the inside tire bead loose and off the wheel.
While holding the wheel bolts, you’ll slip the beadlock device over the bolts. You’ll then tighten the nuts down until they are all tight and torqued down. These wheels are also “maintenance free” and achieve this by using a hair pin clip on the bolts. This prevents the nuts from loosening off and causing bead failure.
Hutchinson Beadlock Wheels
The other manufacturer is Hutchinson with their DOT beadlock wheels under the Rock Monster Wheels brand. Unlike BAD, their internal beadlock device is clamped together by a two-piece wheel with a rubber beadlock ring that sits between the tire beads.
First, the bolts of the correct length are installed on the inside wheel half. This is how the Rock Monster Wheels are maintenance free, as well. Then, the rubber beadlocker is placed inside the tire so that it sits between the tire beads. The inside of the wheel is placed over the inside of the tire after being lubed.
Once set on the inside bead, the wheel half is propped up so that the bead sets firmly on the wheel seat. An O-ring is then installed on the outer half of the wheel and the outside bead lubed before lining up with the bolts.
A set of nuts are then threaded on the longer studs of the wheel assembly and tightened in a cross pattern until the halves are seated together. You also must make sure that the O-ring isn’t pinched as they are tightened. Then the rest of the nuts are installed and all of them are torqued to the specified torque setting in a cross pattern.
While they are labeled as “maintenance free,” it won’t hurt to inspect the nuts periodically as part of your regular maintenance.
Inflatable Beadlock Device
If the idea of dealing with bolts worries you or sounds too inconvenient, there is the option of using internal inflatable beadlocking devices. These are also DOT approved beadlocking devices, so you’ll remain legal in states that require DOT approval on wheels.
They can also be used on any wheel provided they fit appropriately. The only modification is to drill a hole for the valve stem of the inflatable beadlocker. You may also have to radius (round off) the beads of the tire as they can be sharp enough to cut some inflatable lockers.
You’ll mount your tire as usual until it comes time to mount the outside tire bead. Before slipping it over the outside wheel flange, you’ll slip the inflatable locker into the center of the wheel. Once it’s in the position that the manufacture recommends, you’ll mount the outside wheel bead over the outside wheel flange.
There is usually an air channel that allows the wheel’s valve stem to inflate the tire separate from the inflatable beadlocker, too. You’ll inflate the beadlocker to snug the tire beads to their seats, then use air pressure inside the tire to seat them. Finally, you’ll inflate the beadlocker and properly inflate your tires.
The Future of Wheel and Tire Bead Retention
While the beadlock wheel and beadlocking devices aren’t going away anytime soon, there is development on the horizon that may make beadlockers unnecessary. The main feature of the beadlocker is the allow Jeep owners to deflate their tires to very low numbers and either widen the contact patch or allow the tires to flex around rocks. However, tires are beginning to exhibit more flex while retaining the strength of the sidewall at pressure above 15-psi right now.
There are also rumors of a professional desert racing team testing such a thing right now. It uses a wheel and tire combo that allows them to get the contact patch they need at a higher tire pressure and without beadlockers. Once perfected, the off-road world will potentially revolutionize into something no one ever thought was possible. At least on the tire and wheel front.
Do You Need a Beadlock Wheel or Device?
If you do a lot of off-road driving in this point in time, you need to be able to drop your tire pressure low enough to get that wide contact patch or sidewall flex for the rocks. If that’s the case, you need a beadlocker.
If you don’t want to spring for a separate set of wheels, there are DOT legal options you can purchase to make it possible to have your beadlocker and drive it daily, too. Soon, though, a beadlocker and very low tire pressures might not even be needed as tire and wheel technology progresses. Those new technologies will allow for wider contact patches and more flexible sidewalls at normal tire pressures.
Until then, get a beadlocker for your off-road adventures.