Parts of a Winch – 2021 Ultimate Guide

| Last Updated: May 20, 2021

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Winches are based on a simple bobbin and rope concept, however, with technological advancements, winches have become much more powerful and a lot more complicated at the same time.

Some winches are designed to pull tons of weight and to do so, they require a powerful motor, a gearing system, strong cables, and a few other parts.

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Let’s break those parts down into simple details, explore them, and get a better understanding of why winches need them to pull extremely heavy loads.

Winch Motor

The motor is the most important part of a winch; without it, you'd have to spool the cable by hand. 

Winch motors can utilize hydraulic power, air, gas, and diesel, as well as the most common source of power, electricity. Inside of an electric motor, there are two sets of coils, one inside of another. The inside coils (stator coils) create a magnetic field causing the outside coils (armature coils) to rotate once electricity flows through it, creating motion, and in turn, power.

Most usually located on top of the motor is a solenoid box that connects the motor to a power source.

Types of Winch Motors

There are permanent magnet and series-wound motors, each one with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Permanent magnet motors don't have field coils, they utilize permanent magnets for a stator instead. These types of motors are designed for light to medium-duty tasks, as they overheat quickly. However, they require less electricity to function and pull loads compared to a series wound motor. The more the permanent magnet motors heat up, the less effective they become.

Series-wound motors have field coils in a series that are connected with the outside (armature coil). These motors are more complicated and more powerful at the same time; better suited for heavy-duty purposes. Because of their design, they will also draw more current, but they won't lose power over time.

Winch Geartrain

The gear systems on a winch are usually a set of two to three gears that help better transform the power from the motor into pulling force. They transform the high speed from the motor into high torque output. The motor has to work much less if the gear reduction ratio is low, which can be achieved by more gears. That's why winches with 3-stage gearing systems cost more. 

Types of Winch Gear Systems

There are three winch gear systems, worm gear, spur gear, and the most common for electric winches, planetary gear.

Planetary gears resemble a sun revolving around planets, with a smaller gear set inside of, or on a larger gear. This is the most common system, especially for automatic transmissions. The planetary gearing system is powerful and smooth with good resistance to heavy loads. They consist of a central gear (sun gear), planet gears around the central gear, and a ring gear.

Worm gear systems are designed for industrial use, as they can hold heavy loads in the air. They're reliable, strong, and they have a built-in braking system.

Spur gearing systems is the most common type overall. These systems utilize two gears, one small gear that's connected to the motor, transmitting the power and rotating the larger gear. They're fast, and they're pretty strong, but the spur gear systems are very noisy.

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Winch Cables and Ropes

The rope or the cable on a winch is made out of a strong durable material that must not break under heavy tension. The rope length depends mostly on how powerful of a winch you have. The rope is connected to the load, and it spools around the rotating winch drum. 

Should You Use Steel Cable or Synthetic Rope?

Steel cables are more suited for rugged terrains as they won't fray against tough materials. They're made out of aircraft-grade steel, which makes them extremely durable, and on top of that, they won't freeze in cold temperatures.

Steel cable can, however, damage your winch if you're not careful. And one of the biggest drawbacks to steel cables is that if they break, they can snap and cause serious injuries.

Synthetic ropes are much safer, as the material stores energy. And even if the rope snaps, it's less likely to cause major injuries (although safety precautions should always be taken still!!). Synthetic ropes won't damage your winch unless they're improperly loaded onto the drum. Their only downside is that they easily get damaged and frayed against rough materials.

Winch Clutch

A winch clutch, or a carrier, is mounted onto the winch, and it is used to engage and disengage the gears. When the clutch is engaged, the gears receive the torque from the motor and rotate the drum, and when the clutch is disengaged, the drum doesn't receive power, and it stops rotating.

The gearing system on winches is most usually automatic, so the clutch has just an on and off switch. The clutch should be left in the off position even when the winch is turned off unless of course, you're pulling a load. If you're free spooling your winch rope out, disengage the clutch beforehand. 

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Types of Winch Clutches

The most common winch clutches are claw-type clutches. They're simple, inexpensive, dependable, and they're manually operated. This type of clutch is what you'll find on most light to medium-duty winches.

Friction clutches are a lot less common, but they can operate effectively under a load. They compensate for the difference in the speed of the rotation drum and driveline very well. These clutches can be operated manually or with remote control.

Winch Drum

A winch drum is a cylindrical shape that spools and rotates in a circular motion winding the cable onto and from itself. The cable should be neatly wrapped/layered onto the drum from one side to the other. The drum has an anchor point, which is where the rope is fitted and fixed to the drum.

The drum capacity value depends on the total amount of cable that can be stored onto the drum. The wider the drum, the higher capacity for the rope it will have, however, wider drums have a larger distance from one side to the other making it tough to retain the desired pulling angle.

Single, Double, and Triple Drum Winches

The drum design stays the same no matter what type of winch you look at, however, some winches have multiple drums. These types of winches are used for mooring, hoisting, and pulling at a much larger distance. Winches with multiple drums deliver greater strength and are more efficient.

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Winch Fairlead

A fairlead is a simple tool designed to guide the line onto the winch drum, while stopping it from moving vertically. A winch cable without a fairlead will have a lot of strain on itself, as the material consumes pulling energy. The cable can also scrape on the mounting bracket. A fairlead is extremely simple to install, it will make your life easier, and it will save your winch cable from scraping.

Types of Winch Fairleads

The two main winch fairleads are hawse fairleads and roller fairleads. Each one has its upsides and downsides, and both are used on steel cables (only aluminum hawse fairleads are used to guide synthetic ropes). 

Hawse fairleads are made of aluminum is used specifically with synthetic roles. It has a center opening, and rounded edges. The entire device is made in one piece, without any moving parts. The advantage hawse fairleads have over roller fairleads is that they stick out less, which gives them a better approach angle.

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Roller fairleads are made out of multiple rollers (two vertical and two horizontal) that guide the steel cable, which slides on the rollers. Although they're made from multiple moving parts, they rarely break or fail. Due to the vertical rollers, the cable can be loaded onto the drum at any angle. 

Winch Braking System

A winch allows you to pull in and let out a cable, but under heavy tension, when the winch isn't in motion, the cable would wind out. A winch brake is put in place to prevent the cable from unwinding. Essentially, if you're pulling heavy objects, and you need to pause, or hold the object, the brake will allow you to do so.

Types of Winch Brakes

Winches have three types of brakes used, motor brakes, drum brakes, and gear system/transmission brakes.

Motor brakes have a brake disc that is fitted on the motor shaft. The brakes are pushed with a strong spring, locking up the motor. These brakes are the most common, especially on electric winches.

Transmission brakes are located between the motor and the gearing system, and they work similarly to that of a motor brake.

Drum brakes are often utilized as secondary brakes. The brakes are made out of a friction-heavy material that tightens around the winch drum and prevents it from rotating.

Winch Control Box

A winch control box is a box mounted on top of the winch itself, over the cable, or to the side. The control box can also be mounted inside of your truck. The control box is a compact package that's protected from outside conditions such as mud, dust, or bad weather.

The control box has multiple wires going from the car battery (or other electricity sources) into the winch. Inside are the solenoids which you control with buttons to turn the winch on and off, and to wind up or let out the cable.

A Control Box With Two or Four Solenoids?

Some winches have two solenoid control boxes while others have four. The two solenoid configurations are found in smaller motors, such as permanent magnet motors. The entire configuration has less power, it's less reliable, but it's cheaper. 

Four solenoid configurations are found in stronger, more heavy-duty-suited series wound motor winches. They're more reliable, more powerful, but they cost a bit more.

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Winch Remote Control

Winch remote controllers are essentially the same as control boxes mounted on a winch. But, remote controls have more flexibility and convenience. In fact, the longer you think about it, the more advantageous winch remote controllers become.

Remote control will allow you to stand further away from the winch, keeping you safe and far away from any danger. The installation is also much easier, and if you want to work the winch from inside of your truck, you don't need to spend hours mounting the wires. For some winches, you could use your smartphone as a remote control, from which you can also check the battery voltage!

A Remote Controller or a Smartphone?

Winch remote controllers are usually universal, and the only advantage they have over a control box is that they are remote. - You don't have to stand near the winch.

Smartphone-controlled winches are an even further upgrade. Connect your phone via Bluetooth to a winch, and you'll be able to measure the weight, battery voltage, and temperature.


As we can see, winches aren't as simple as we thought. They can get quite complicated, especially if you're looking at heavy-duty industrial winches. But, now that we understand every component of a winch, operating them will be much easier! However, if you need to learn how a winch works in detail, we're here to help out!

I used to work in construction and landscaping, so I've seen my fair share of ratchet straps, winches, and similar rigging gear. I started Winch Central because I've seen some nasty accidents due to crappy rigging or poor practice. I wanted to be able to recommend good equipment that's SAFE and also provide resources for how its used. I handle the research side of things here as well as product selection for gear reviews.