On rust patrol, going to war on the red rot

4x4s are designed to take a beating; for this reason, most are still made from steel. Steel skid plates protect vulnerable parts like your engine and fuel tanks from rocks and other hazards.

The problem with steel is, if left unprotected, it rusts. When the bare metal is exposed to the elements, that gritty-red rot we call rust can take hold in any ding, scratch or gouge in the metal.

For most 4×4 owners, rust is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do to prevent it. In fact, preventing rust isn’t all that hard it’s just time-consuming and a little dirty.

On Rust Patrol

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I spent the better part of my last Saturday doing some much needed preventative maintenance. The sun was shining; it was a beautiful spring day in Western Wisconsin, and Niecie and I were on rust patrol.

Well, I was on rust patrol and she was supervising from her fuzzy blue lawn chair. Never the less, I was happy to have the company.

Winter hadn’t been kind to the Jeep, it left its mark on the Jeep in the form thick of patches of rust

All the skid plates that protected my Jeep from catastrophic trail damage over the past year, hadn’t managed to protect me from a much more insidious hazard, Mother Nature.

Armed with a wire brush and a bucket full of a soapy water, I methodically cleared away the surface rust that was taking hold on my frame, suspension and skid plates. Next came a quick wipe down to remove any dirt or dust clinging to the frame.

To make things easier, we had the Jeep up on ramps, and we’d pulled the bumper off for easier access.

Covering it up

With the easy part out of the way, next came the hard part, covering up the rust. For this, I used a combination of Rustoleum Rust Reformer and Rustoleum Black Engine Enamel.

The rust reformer helps to convert the rust to a paintable surface. In that sense, it’s kind of like a primer for rust. The advantage here over a regular primer is you don’t have to perfectly sand the rusty bits, saving a bunch of time.

The engine enamel, on the other hand, acts as a protective coating.  It’s designed to withstand massive temperature changes and take a beating.

But, before I started painting a few protective measures had to be taken to prevent overspray.

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A cheap tarp cut into two pieces and taped down protected my painted fenders from getting damaged by overspray.

So, for almost two hours, I writhed around the underbelly of the Jeep, spraying the frame rails, skid plates, suspension components and axles.

Once the rust reformer dried for about an hour, on went the engine enamel, and back under the Jeep I went. While I don’t think you necessarily have to add another layer of paint the engine enamel is an extra layer of protection.

In hindsight, I probably should have been wearing eye protection and a dust mask. I was blowing black boogers for a few hours after we finished.

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Lessons learned

I learned a few valuable lessons during this project.

  • Preparation: I should have spent more time taping off areas I didn’t want to spray. A little preparation beforehand might seem more painful than it’s worth, but it makes everything go smoother and look better in the end.
  • Prewash: I wish I had gone over the undercarriage with a pressure washer the day before to make cleaning the frame a little easier.
  • More paint: A can of primer and a can of paint isn’t enough to do the undercarriage of a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited right. If you’ve got a rig with fewer skid plates you might get away with it, but I recommend at least 2 cans of primer and paint.
  • Clearance: When you spend that much time under your rig you can quickly spot where you are scraping on obstacles. My fuel tank skid (one of the lowest points on a Jeep) had a pretty serious dent in it.

Further reading

If you enjoyed this post we know you’ll enjoy these.

Please comment and share

So tell us in the comments section:

  • How do you prevent your rig from rusting?
  • What paint/primer combo do you like?
  • Do you have any tips for undercoating your car or truck?

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow, takes a lot to be ready for the adventure trail, but, it seems you are doing the things needed to be able to enjoy the trail for quite a while.
    Underbelly rust is typical on every vehicle and can cause major damage unless it is taken care of. Generally, washing the underbelly in the spring can help tremendously, but, you have went the extra mile.
    So, on another note, you referenced your gas tank skid plate having taken some damage, does this mean you are going to raise fer up a bit?

    1. tobiasmann says:

      It does take a lot to stay ready. You need very little really to be trail ready. With the proper recovery gear, a few snacks, plenty of water and a little bit of luck you can have a great time.

      I like to say every mistake I make is lesson to be learned. I’ve had and shared in plenty of misadventures that have taught me different things.

      When my brother Morgan and I almost put the Jeep in a ravine, (how the damage to the skid plate happened) I learned the value of having the right recovery equipment and an insurance policy (my next upgrade being a 10,000 lb winch). It also taught me that I knew less about driving off road than I thought.

      I use lessons like these to guide my decisions for how to modify the Jeep.

      The damage to the skid plate had nothing to do with a clearance issue. My front passenger tire went into a ravine and the whole Jeep was resting on sharp rocks bent and scored the plate when we were pulled free.

      I have since raised the rear end 1.75 inches when I rebuilt the rear end suspension. I should get another 1-inch of clearance from the new tires later this year or early next.

  2. Doesn’t sound like this was your first rodeo! Good job! Next time wear goggles and a mask. Save your eyesight and your lungs for the future!

    1. tobiasmann says:

      I have certainly had enough problems with the Jeep. $10 doesn’t seem like a high price to pay for some preventative maintenance. I’ll definitely be wearing a face mask and safety goggles next spring when I do this again.

      Maybe I’ll by a cheap Harbor Freight angle grinder and wire wheel to make things go a little quicker next year too.

  3. I’d probably spend more time under my Tacoma if it were not for the fact that we live in a dry, salt-free climate where rust (at least obvious rust) isn’t a constant threat. So I’m usually the one in “fuzzy blue lawn chair.”

    1. tobiasmann says:

      There is always preventative maintenance to be done. Spring is a good time to do it in my opinion. It isn’t to hot yet and I find it to be a natural time for spring cleaning. I hope your Tacoma serves you well. I love those little trucks.

  4. computeruser6 says:

    Rust inside of frame rails and cross-members can be much worse than surface rust. If you get a chance you’ll want to clean them out and spray a coating like this inside of them. Wire wheels and angle grinders are also a lot faster than a wire brush.

    1. tobiasmann says:

      Thanks for your comments. You make a great point about washing out the inside of the frame rails. The good news is most of my rust is from rock strikes off-road. Wire wheel, angle grinder combo is definitely going to happen before the next rust patrol.

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