The Value Of Spring Length
Why would you choose a long or short leaf spring for your trailer? They come in different sizes, not only for strength, but also in length. So, why do I want long ones or short ones? Does it even matter?
These are great questions, for sure, and it can certainly cause some confusion when looking at the specs. So, let’s look at some basic trailer leaf spring length geometry and reasoning. Since they make different lengths, there must be a reason.
Is This A Thing?
Let’s start by looking at some standards. Because the most popular axle capacity for DIY is 3500#, we’ll use this as our example. Other capacities have similar standards and effects.
To get a feel for sizes, we’ll turn to the Dexter Axle publication on 3500# axles. The image below gives a lot of information, but focus for a minute on the red circled items. This shows there are at least 3 popular-ish spring lengths. Looking at other sources we also find 27″ is sort of common (was more common), as well as 25″.
The info here is from Dexter, and since they are probably the biggest manufacturer, it makes sense to at least consider what they think is important to publish. Another big one to check is eTrailer.com And a quick search there shows similar available trailer leaf spring length.
As you can see, there really isn’t a true standard. However, from experience, the sizes that are close will all work with the same mounting. And, if you’re building new, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s suggestions for spacing anyway. Even with our trailer plans, we specify the spring mount positions — then, defer to the components you want to buy rather than forcing you to do it as designed.
The effect of spring length on trailer construction is shown with the green circles above. Distance between mounts and the resulting axle spacing (for tandem axles) are the obvious things.
Trailer Axle Leaf Spring Length – Why?
So why do they have so many different spring lengths? What trailer leaf spring length should I use? Does it even matter?
Let’s start with the last question, and work to the first.
Does Spring Length Matter?
In a word, yes. How much is debatable, and it depends on what you’re doing with the trailer. So let’s break it down into a few key points.
- The biggest advantage to long springs is ride. In general, longer springs give a better ride. You can see this in the evolution of pick-up trucks. As the years go on, truck and SUV manufacturers are finding ways to make rear leaf springs longer. They support load just as well long or short, but the bump handling dynamics are better with longer springs. Basically it helps absorb bumps better by allowing more motion with smaller force changes.
- Longer springs spread the load out more. With leaf springs, the load effectively divides from the axle so the front of the spring has half the load, and the rear has the other half. If we think about extremes, a super short spring makes all the load apply to the frame at one-ish point. A really long trailer leaf spring length puts two load points far apart — and that makes less stress in one area.
- Longer springs weigh more and typically cost a little more. So, if you want cheap, go short. That said, the small difference in price — if that’s the only reason — is probably just chincy.
- More suspension travel with longer the trailer leaf springs. Using the travel always feels nice because bumps are not as harsh — and this goes back to ride quality (#1 above). The side effect? Add a little more space for vertical movement of the wheels and axles. (Yet, for the differences we’re talking about, the added space is pretty minimal.)
What Trailer Leaf Spring Length Should I Use?
This second question is much more complicated. Not that choosing needs to be complex, but to give proper advice, I really should know your situation. In general, I suggest longer springs (as opposed to shorter ones) for most applications. While ride quality is not amazingly better by adding 2 or 4 inches to the springs, it is better. And, the harshness on the other trailer components is reduced. As a side note, torsion axles are touted for better ride, but like a couple inches in trailer leaf spring length, the difference is small.
The main reason I prefer leaf springs over torsion axles is stress distribution at the trailer frame. That said, longer springs spread the stresses even more, and from an engineer’s perspective, that has value.
So, without other considerations, choose longer springs. That is especially true for single axles.
Why So Many Spring Lengths?
Our third question is even harder to answer. I suppose the number of lengths has evolved for many reasons, but I don’t know them. It might have something to do with tire sizes, and it might be something completely unrelated. If you know, we would all appreciate sharing.
For Tandem Axles
Single axle mounting is not as particular with spring length. If you’re building new, you can specify the trailer leaf spring length and go with it. In tandem and triple axles, spring length becomes more important. For instance, if the springs are too short, the tires might interfere with each other. Look at the green circles above for the letter “C”. Axle spacing is set, in part, by spring length. Note the differences in the table.
For tandems, and triples, we recommend you look first at the tire size you wish to use. Add at least 3″ (preferably 4″) for space between the tires, then find an option of the next size up for axle spacing. For example, if you choose a 29.2″ diameter tire, add 4″ space, and it gives you 33.2″ ideal axle spacing. We can choose 33″ axle spacing (per the chart tables above), and end up with a 3.8″ space between the tires. That will work. Select mounting components to fit that decision.
If you are concerned about wanting larger tires in the future, go to the 35″ spacing.
Another generality for tandem suspensions is this. For shorter trailers, consider closer axle spacing. While it does not matter when towing straight down the road, it does make a difference with turning tight. Especially when man-handling the trailer.
Eye-Eye vs Slipper Style Leaf Springs
Does it matter if the springs are Slipper style or Eye-Eye style? Not a bit. Different base lengths are available in each of these categories, but the effect of spring length is the same.
One bit to understand, however. These two different styles come in different capacities and lengths, so they are not easy to compare apples to apples. Additionally, slipper style springs more often appear on the heavier duty trailers, so their tires are usually larger in diameter. That will usually dictate longer springs.
The concepts of trailer leaf spring length are not something to lose sleep over. While there are differences for performance, choosing one length over another will not make or break the trailer. We bias toward longer springs because it’s the right direction, but other factors can influence that decision more. A tandem axle trailer with really small tires, for instance, might want short springs just for maneuverability. There is nothing wrong with that choice.
The biggest factor in choosing springs should be the availability of correct components to give you the action and function you want from the trailer. All things being equal, choose long.