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Trailer Axles 101 – What You Need To Know

Oh, I’ll just drop by the parts store and grab an axle.  Well, that’s how it seems when we talk so simplistically about trailer axles.  But actually, there is a lot we need to know to get the right one. Here’s a the quick guide to understanding trailer axles and how they measure up when building a trailer.  They’re not complicated, but fitting the trailer is a little more than picking a coffee mug to fit your personality.

For most DIY trailer builds, we recommend that you order the right axle for the needs.  Sure, sometimes you can find an axle off-the-shelf at a store (or online), but will it have all the options you want?  Will a “standard” size axle fit the functions of the trailer you want?

Trailer Axles — The Specifications

Axles (including the wheels and tires) have several key bits of defining information.  The list below has the big ones, while the images give a visual to go with the words.  There are also links with some items to other articles where more detail is available.  Items in Bold are in the dimension illustrations.

Trailer Axle Measurements and Definitions

  1. Suspension Type

    Leaf Springs, Coil Springs, Torsion, Rubber Compression, Axle-less, Trailing Arm, Walking Beam, and the odd unique Trailer Suspension, etc..  There are many, types of suspension (axles), but just a few are really common.  In this article we’ll discuss the Leaf Spring and Torsion types since they are most common, yet there are many similarities, and the info in this article is roughly applicable to all.  Some things don’t matter for one type or another, so if you’re considering one of the others, just ignore those items that don’t apply.  Read more in the Choosing Tandems & Triples article.

  2. Load Capacity

    How much weight can the axle carry?  Load capacity is the weight rating for the axle.  That’s a max, and that number usually defines the total capacity of the trailer.  For multiple axles (like tandems), assuming axles are the same, simply add the capacities for a sum total.

    Generally speaking, look for trailer axles with more capacity than you need.  Also, be sure to match springs and tires, because the real capacity is the lesser of Axle Capacity, Spring Capacity, or Tire Capacity.  Don’t get caught short.

  3. Mounting Position

    For this discussion, Mounting Position means the measured location where axle connects to the trailer frame.  For Leaf Springs it’s the Spring Centers distance.  That defines the mounting.  For positioning the axle fore and aft on the trailer, the article on Calculating Axle Position may interest.

    Because Torsion Axles don’t have springs to mount, it’s the bracket width (usually meaning the outside dimension of the frame members or Frame Width) that defines it’s Mounting Position.

  4. Hub Faces Distance

    This is the distance — from side to side — between faces where the wheels mount.  See the illustration.

    This distance is sort of meaningless by itself, but super important relative to other things on the trailer like the clearance to the frame, the tires, and the Overall Width.  It is also restricted by axle manufacturers with respect to the Mounting Position so you don’t get too much or too little Overhang.  Read more in the calculations section below.

  5. Track Width

    Looking at a front or back view of the trailer, this is the distance across the trailer between the centers of each tire track.  In the illustration above, it is the same as the Hub Faces Distance.  If the wheel mounting is centered in the rim, then the Track Width and Hub Faces Distance are the same.  In some cases they are different.

  6. Bolt Pattern (for Hubs and Wheels.)

    Axle hub style is partly set by the number of lugs (bolts) for the wheels, and partly by the choice of brakes.  The pattern of the lugs including how many and how far apart they are is the “Bolt Pattern”  Of course, these must match the trailer wheels you will use.

    There are many bolt patterns available, so be sure the pattern of the wheels match the pattern of the axle.  We call these patterns by the number of holes and the bolt circle diameter.  For instance, 5 on 4.5″ means 5 holes on a 4.5″ bolt circle.  Patterns with more lugs are for heavier loads.  Read this article on bolt patterns for a lot more information.
    Important Measurements for Trailer Axle Layout

  7. Brakes (or not)

    Some trailer axles have brakes, some do not.  Check your local laws to know if you need them.  There are a few types to choose, like Drum Brakes, or Disc Brakes, and the motive as Electric, or Hydraulic, or mechanical actuation.  Electric are most common, and have good control, though surge hydraulic types are arguably easier to adapt a variety of vehicles (illegal in some areas).

  8. Drop or Straight

    See the illustration.  A Straight Axle is what you might expect — a straight beam with hubs at the ends.  A Drop Axle just allows the trailer to sit lower, usually 4″ for a leaf spring style.
    A Visual Comparison - Straight Axle VS. Drop Axle
    Torsion style trailer axles handle the drop a little different.  A lift or drop happens because of the No-Load Arm Start Angle.  This is built in at the factory, but you can specify the desired angle when buying a torsion axle.  When that angle is ‘UP’, then it accomplishes a small “drop”.  Conversely, if the angle is down, it’s like giving the trailer a “lift”.
    No-Load Torsion Axle Arm Angles Illustration

  9. Spring Type (for Leaf Springs)

    With leaf springs it’s primarily Eye-Eye, or Slipper type springs.  This has to do with how the springs interact with the frame for mounting.  Typically Eye-Eye styles are best with lighter trailers (both single and multiple trailer axles).  Then, use slipper springs for heavy, multi-axle applications.  We normally recommend Eye-Eye whenever practical.  Obviously, with no springs, this item is not applicable for Torsion Axles.

    On this topic, it’s worth noting that not all trailer axles or mounting hardware are equal.  Be cautious with springs and axles that are made for a specific purpose — like mobile home axles.  Wrong assumptions about these will easily lead to big problems.

  10. Spring Length (for Leaf Springs)

    Yes, it’s the distance for supporting the load — like the distance from Eye to Eye on double-Eye style spring.  In general, longer springs give a better ride, but that’s not absolute.  We recommend the longest springs that are practical for an application.  For a lot more about spring length and choosing the right springs, read the article “The Value Of Spring Length“.  And of course, this does not apply to Torsions.

  11. Axle Spacing

    An item for Multiple Axle trailers.  See the side view dimension illustration.  While mounting hardware has an effect, Spring Length will largely dictate this distance.  Some standards exist, like 33″ or 35″.  Generally it’s good to stick with the standards.  Follow the manufacturer’s instructions — and make sure you get the right stuff for proper Tire Space.

    Read this article about Torsion Axles in Tandem or Triple before considering doing it.  While it’s generally a bad idea, the article shows you why.

  12. Overslung or Underslung

    Trailer Axle Leaf Springs Overslung and UnderslungSince it’s easier to illustrate than to explain, the image shows a pair of trailer axles — one with the springs mounted on top (or Overslung), and one with the springs mounted underneath (or Underslung).  This makes a big difference in trailer bed height.  It also affects stability in a smaller way.  Read more about the differences and the effects in this Article on Overslung and Underslung mounting.

    While these terms usually mean Leaf Spring axles, they sometimes apply with less common suspension types too.

    For torsion axles, the option that is somewhat similar is “High or Low” brackets and “Inside or Outside” brackets.  See the illustrations near the end of this article for more info on Torsion Axle brackets.

  13. Wheel and Tire Size

    Though technically not an axle part, choices about trailer wheels, including the Tire Type are very interrelated.  See Bolt Patterns above.  Also, the Tire Width and Capacity must fit the application.  Both Wheel and Tire load capacities should exceed that of the axle.  Read the post about Tires.

  14. Axle Camber

    Camber amounts to a slight bend in the axle which helps the trailer track the highway a little better.  It’s a little tweak that helps tracking and tire wear.  In general this is good if you’ll be on the highway a lot, but not necessary if the trailer is for short, local trips.  The image below shows a grossly exaggerated illustration of axle camber.  Order axles either with or without camber.
    Grossly Exaggerated Trailer Axle Camber Illustration


There are additional trailer axle details, but the list above covers the big ones.  With this info, we can make some important measurements for the trailer — or maybe more accurately, from the trailer (before ordering trailer axles).

Measurements and Calculations for Matching the Trailer

To get some of the information for fitting, we need calculations.  Here are some more definitions and explanations of key pieces to match and properly mount a trailer axle.

  1. Mounting Position

    Mentioned above — either Spring Centers or outside Frame Width.  This is a measurement from the trailer directly.  Note the difference in the measurement for Leaf Springs versus Torsion Axles.

  2. Hub Faces Distance

    Also from above.  This measurement is explicit on the axle, but must actually include other factors as shown in the images.  Think of the Hub Faces distance as a mathematical calculation:  Spring Centers + 2 times the needed Overhang.
    Chart Examples for Allowable Trailer Axle Overhang Dimensions

  3. Overhang

    The distance from the axle supports, out to the hub face.  Calculation:  Overhang = (Hub Faces Distance – Mounting Position)/2.  (Yes, that’s a circular reference from above.)

    Axles are specified with a Max and a Min Overhang.  (True for both leaf spring axles and Torsion axles as in the tables.)  If the overhang is too short, the frame will interfere with the tires, or mounting becomes ridiculous.  If the overhang is too large, it reduces axle strength.  Axle specifications are available from vendors (like in these data tables from Dexter) showing the allowable Overhang distances.

  4. Tire Clearance

    Like it sounds, this is the space between the moving tire and everything else.  We must have Clearance between the frame and the tire as in the (front view) image, and also radially around the tire (side view image), especially vertical for suspension travel.  Usually 2″-3″ all around the tire is sufficient, then 3″-4″ vertical Clearance to the Fender for suspension movement.  Finally, 3″-4″ or more as Tire Space between the tires for multiple axles.  Don’t skimp on clearance.  In a battle between steel of the trailer frame and rubber of the tire, the tire loses.  Unfortunately, trailers don’t operate so well without tires.

  5. Overall Width

    The total distance from side to side including the tires.  It’s a summation of everything between.  It’s the Hub Faces distance plus the Tire Width.  Check local laws if you want to go wide, because most jurisdictions limit width.

  6. Ground Clearance

    Needed clearance over the ground is really in 2 parts.  First, the clearance of the axle itself over the ground; and Second, clearance for the main portions trailer.  Clearance for the axle is set by being a Drop or Straight axle (No-Load Arm Start Angle for torsion axles) and the tire outside diameter.  Bigger tires give more ground clearance.  Trailer ground clearance also adds in Overslung or Underslung spring mounting as well as any spacers used for frame lift.  These two combine to define ingress and egress angles for the trailer.

These items are really important when specifying the axle to buy for your trailer.  Or, as the case may be, to know as you build a trailer for the axle(s) you just scored from your uncle.  (Hey, I know, I’ve been there.)


Ready To Order?

When you order an axle, here are the details you must provide.  We think it’s best to make a list, and perhaps even a sketch.  Refer to the information above, because we’ve covered the basics.  That said, it’s not bad to research trailer axles by following the links or Googling these terms.  Oh, and don’t just take someone’s word, because there is a lot of misinformation around . . . like this guy.

For a Leaf Spring Style Trailer Axle
  • Load Capacity
  • Spring Centers
  • Hub Faces
  • Straight Or Drop
  • Underslung or Overslung
  • Hub Bolt Pattern
  • Brakes or not, and what type – Drum or Disc – Electric or Hydraulic
  • Spring Type and Length
  • Axle Camber — Yes or No
For Torsion Style Trailer Axles

Measurements for Mounting Torsion Style Trailer Axles

  • Load Capacity
  • Frame Width — and Direction of Mounting Brackets
    Torsion Axle Bracket Orientation
  • Hub Faces Distance
  • Hub Bolt Pattern
  • Torsion Arm Start Angle —  Angle Up, or Angle Down (see images in “Straight or Drop” section above.)
  • Height of Mounting Bracket — High or Low Mount (see above).
  • Brakes or not, and what type – Drum or Disc – Electric or Hydraulic
  • Axle Camber — Yes or No

Typically, trailer wheels and tires order separate from the axles.  For those, they need the Bolt Pattern, the Size (like 225-75R15) and the required Capacity.

Learning More

The above is basic information for trailer axles.  Please follow the hyperlinks to other posts with more detail on the linked topics.  While this information does not include specifics for your trailer, we are confident you will handle it from here.  Bookmark the page to come back and review again when you’re ready to order your trailer axles.

Just so you know, the Mechanical Elements Trailer Plans have all the necessary information to order the right axle(s).  The information is in the instructions in the list of materials.

Good Luck With Your Trailer Axles!

14 Comments About “Trailer Axles 101 – What You Need To Know”

  1. I work Pressure Washing and in the process of buying my first trailer. Most of the last year has been about buying the right equipment and learning the ins and outs of the trade, understanding that this time, assembling my own trailer, would come. The trailer had always been an afterthought and I only viewed it as a way to get my equipment from A to B…now that I’m ready to purchase, would you recommend getting a trailer with brakes? They aren’t required, from my understanding, in my state, but I’ve been eyeing a 7×12 tandem axle trailer, they say was designed for heavy landscaping…but no brakes.

    Reply
    • Brakes are normally required for trailers with capacity of 3000lbs or more. Requirements like that are an attempt at forcing common sense. Yes, if you’re considering a trailer that big, please include brakes. No need to seek a Darwin award.

      Reply
  2. I need to get more ground clearance on my trailer and flipping the axle will only add about 3 inches. I am wondering if it is possible and or reasonable to change the spring hangers to something longer to add more total height? The local RV dealer said they could use some “aluminum blocks” to increase the clearance some more but quoted me about $1000 on top of the cost of flipping the axle and while I am not sure what this entails, the cost seems totally unreasonable. I would appreciate some expert opinion. I should also mention I live in Canada.

    Many thanks. Phil

    Reply
    • I agree with you, $1000 seems really steep. You can put spacers between the leaf springs and the axle, but don’t go very high with that. It will make things less stable. Read our article on underslung and overslung springs for more info. Without knowing more of your situation, I’d personally be inclined to use taller hangers or weld spacers between the frame and the spring hangers. You could cut off what’s there, or just add new ones immediately behind the existing ones, but taller, so the existing ones don’t get in the way. Just be careful to spread out the load a bit with spacers that are bigger (longer along the main beam) than the new hangers. You might need to grind the spacers to fit around the existing hangers. Good luck.

      Reply
    • Thank you for the informative website. I have an 20×8 trailer, with the frame only 13″ off the ground. It has a structure built on it. I would like to increase height off the ground by 6″. Instead of flipping axles and springs, can we simply increase the length of the mounts? Or weld a 6″ square insert in between the beams and mounts? We have a complete welding shop.

      Reply
      • Off the cuff, that generally works. Obviously I can’t see your situation, so verify before acting, but inserting a beam between the spring hangers and the frame is a good way to lift things. Lifting 6″, I’d also put a brace across to make sure the extra 6″ doesn’t allow things to sway side to side with road dynamics. Good Luck.

        Reply
    • Good question. If it’s not marked on the axle somewhere, we can only make guesses. A serial number or part number + manufacturer would let you call the manufacturer and they might be able to look it up.

      Reply
    • Divide the max required capacity by the number of axles, then round up to the next available axle size. I don’t know what is available in metric axles. Good luck with your project.

      Reply
  3. Hi, trying to figure out what type of axle I need to replace my current axle on a trailer. It seems that the current axle is bent since the tread on the tire is worn much more on the inside than the outside. I replaced the tire once already, and the tread is wearing away already in the same area while the rest of the tires are still fine. What type of axle is recommended? The current axle is rated for 8,000 lbs. Also what type of specs do I need to know before placing an order for a replacement axle.
    Thanks

    Reply
    • I think you are right that something is out. I’d take it to your local trailer parts place and have them identify the axle. Ideally you want a matched pair. They don’t have to be from the same manufacturer, but it helps so parts are all the same. That said, it may well be the rim, or the mounting, and not the whole axle. I’d look carefully at alignment before buying another.

      Reply
  4. I’m planning to rebuild an old trailer given to me that was originally used as a mower hauler. All my friends tell me I would be better off buying a new trailer rather then save this POS, but they underestimate the value of a good DIY project.

    The trailer is 6’8″ long and 4’8″ wide, tilts, 15″ auto wheels and spindles, and has no suspension. While I have a lot of questions about how to proceed, my main concern is whether or not to add leaf springs. I see a lot of small trailers without suspension for some reason. So, what are the pros and cons of leaf springs on a small trailer?

    Thanks…AO

    Reply
    • No question in my mind — it needs suspension. OK, unless it is way overbuilt and you will only be going very slow like a farm tractor trailer. I suppose if you are going to use bubble tires with really low pressure you might get away without suspension, but that’s a different discussion and they are not allowed on roads. Anyway, shock loading from bumps on the ground to the trailer frame are high — the suspension is there to take the edge off. So a bump that might initiate an 8G impulse at the ground will only give a 3G impulse through the suspension. Much less likely to damage the trailer frame or things on it. I’ve measured this on my truck going on a washboard road.

      Reply

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