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Building a Harbor Freight trailer in Pennsylvania

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I purchased a Harbor Freight kit trailer in Feb 2017. Here is what I learned building it and some details on registration, especially if you live in a State such a Pennsylvania

Overview


I was renting trailers from U-Haul for most of my needs. I ran into a problem when I switched to a Ford Explorer because U-Haul would not rent trailers to be used with a Ford Explorer. I could go in with my Mom’s Mountaineer, which the the exact same frame and they would rent to me. I’m not sure if that inane, idiotic policy is still in effect or not.

I looked at the trailers sold by Harbor Freight. With my super-duper membership and a sale price, I got the kit for about $300 or so. The two very heavy boxes fit in the rear of my explorer with the seats down.

Assembly

My son helped me get the boxes into the garage. We started the assembly.  Below is some of the contents of one of the boxes.  We started laying everything out. Unfortunately some of the parts are not labeled but with a little thought it all falls into place.

Unpacking a Harbor Freight Trailer Kit
Some of the contents of one of the two boxes from the Harbor Freight Trailer kit.

The main frame is composed of 2 4′ x 4′ sections. I used a large carpenter’s square to make sure those parts were square.  I also used a compressor and air wrench for most of the assembly. NOTE – I was working in the garage in February. I had to be careful to pre-warm the compressor with a heat gun before running it. I also set up an infrared propane heater. WARNING – using a propane heater in a garage can be risky in terms of fire and Carbon Monoxide. However, the garage is pretty drafty and I’d leave one of the doors open a crack. I have since started using a parabolic electric infrared heater. It seems a bit safer to use than propane. 

NOTE – if you download instructions online, be sure that they are for the exact same model you purchased. I found that there are subtle but important differences between the models. Also, in a state such as Pennsylvania, you need to send the EXACT instructions in when you title the trailer. 

Most of the assembly was a one man job. My son and I worked on it when we had time. However, there were a few steps where two people are definitely needed.  The clips to hold the wiring just don’t seem to work. I ended up replacing them with wiring holders screwed into the plywood frame. Be sure to run the wiring in a way to allow for folding and the tilt feature.

One of the more difficult tasks for me was getting the nuts on the bolts that hold the hitch on. It is a tight space and the cold certainly didn’t help.

Finally, I had it pretty much together and rolled it out.

The assembled  frame of the trailer
The assembled frame of the trailer

The Pennsylvania registration nightmare

The next step was to get it registered. NOW THE “FUN” BEGAN. I contacted a title company and found that the trailer was considered an experimental or home built trailer. In order to get it registered in Pennsylvania I would need to:

  • Get it weighed and get a weight certificate.
  • Go to a specialized inspection station

Registering out of state considered and rejected.

I briefly considered registering it in New Jersey where it would occasionally be used. Another option was to register in in Maine which had pretty much of a no hassle, no questions asked registration system. However, if I were ever to be involved in an accident, a shady lawyer might use that against me rendering the insurance useless. So, I decided to go legit and register it in Pennsylvania. .

Getting a weight certificate

I found that our local dump/recycling center would be happy to weigh the trailer and provide a certificate for about five dollars.  The problem was how do I transport it two miles to get it weighed?  If I trailed it, it was unregistered and that could result in a hefty fine (Happened to a friend). I could rent a trailer to trailer it but U-Haul wouldn’t rent a trailer if I used my Ford Explorer. So, I contacted the USS Enterprise. They beamed the trailer to the weigh station and back.  🙂

When I got to the weigh station, I had to show the certificate that came with the trailer.   Funny.. Most of that certificate was in CHINESE. The guy at the weigh station was very helpful and figured it out.  I got my certificate..

Special inspection

Now, I had to get to the Specially certified inspection station which was about 6 miles away. I also heard that there was an officer who liked ticketing unregistered trailers in that township.  Rather than take my chances I called on the USS Enterprise to beam the trailer there and back. The owner of the station checked out the construction and wheels. He also made sure that all of the lights worked.  That was something like $100 if I recall correctly. I had to have four pictures which he had to sign.

Filing for tags

OK , Great. All off mine paper are in ordung!! .  I took the paperwork to the local tag place.  They found the person who knew how to do the homemade trailer registrations. We sent all the paperwork out. NOTE – You need to include the construction manual in the package.

Application – REJECTED!

After about 4 weeks, some government employee in Harrisburg rejected it. It wasn’t complete. I needed to have the floor and sides installed.

Constructing the sides and installing the deck

The deck

My son and I were able to get a 4×8 sheet of 5/8 pressure treated plywood into the back of the explorer. Actually, he did it as he’s a weightlifter. As I was trying to get someone to help us, he picked it up and put it in the truck.

The trailer is designed to fold which would mean two 4’x4′ pieces of plywood. Since I have plenty of room outside for the trailer and no extra room in the garage or shed, I decided to use a 4’x8 piece. My thought was that this would make the trailer a bit stronger. I used carriage bolts to bolt it to the frame thinking that the rounded heads would be better for the cargo. I should have just used hex head bolts as the carriage bolts in plywood are difficult to tighten.

Slats and rear gate

I used pressure treated 1×4’s for the side slats and 2×4’s for the posts. Once again, I had to fit a bunch of 8′ lumber into my Explorer. I kept thinking “Dang, it would be nice to have a trailer”

A couple of notes

  • I used cut off pieces of the 1×4’s as spacers when doing the next levels.  I’d screw them into the side posts until the next slat was through bolted.
  • I used 2×4’s for the posts. Since the brackets are slightly smaller, I had to trim the posts a bit to fit into the brackets.
  • I added a bunch of red and  yellow reflectors to the sides, front and back
  • In order to make the rear gate easily removable, I used D-clips which you can see below through the post holder.
  • Locking hasps with D-Rings seem to make a pretty good connection. I had to play with the hasps to get the right orientation for the 90 degrees.
  • All hardware used washers.
  • The heads on the interior side for the hasps were slightly countersunk
Trailer stakes with a removable tailgate
Closeup of the rear gate for the Harbor Freight Trailer

Back to registration – AKA the nightmare of bureaucracy.

Here is the trailer ready to get re-inspected to satisfy the bureaucrat in Harrisburg.

Trailer ready for inspection photos
Trailer ready for inspection photos

Now, I am back where I was. I could not legally take it to get weighed and inspected again until it was weighed and inspected. I grabbed the communicator and dialed up the Enterprise. Kirk was a bit short with me. Something about trying to save Mining Colony Epsilon 12 from a Romulan invasion.  After a few minutes of whining he broke off from the battle and beamed the trailer to the weigh station, then the inspection station (The SPECIAL inspection Station) then home.  The new documents and photos went back to the tag place.

A couple of weeks later, my shiny new trailer tags had arrived. I bolted them on and was now legal in PA (About 2 months after completing the trailer).

Summary

After all was complete, I tallied up the costs for the kit, inspections, wood and hardware for the wood. Even without considering my time, I would have probably been better off to purchase a used trailer that was already registered in Pennsylvania.

As far as the trailer, I found the kit to be of excellent quality. My only suggestion is that Harbor Freight try to find a way to make buyers aware of the insane registration requirements in PA.

Some idiots demanded speed bumps on one of the roads between my Mom’s house and my house. As with any trailer, you have to take these idiotic bumps at 2 mph unless you want the furniture in the back to be splinterized. That creates some hard feelings with the drivers behind you.

Other things to consider.

  • I added a tongue jack that I re purposed from a boat trailer.
  • Cargo straps and a dolly are helpful
  • I plan on adding some light and heavy duty tie downs.
  • Depending on where you are, a trailer lock might be a good idea
  • At some point, I’ll rig up a full cover to use when storing it.
  • I did not immediately paint the deck and slats. As I understand it, pressure treated wood needs to season a bit. I’ll try painting the deck with a non skid paint in the spring.
  • I used a full 4×8 sheet of plywood for the deck. That prevents folding the trailer but since I keep it outside, I can forego that feature. If I ever need to fold it a careful cut or cuts with a circular saw should fix things. 

Here is the completed trailer with a full load of fine maple furniture.

The Harbor Freight Trailer I built fully loaded.
The Harbor Freight Trailer I built fully loaded.

Update November 2019

I’ve gotten a decent amount of use from the trailer for tasks such as:

  • Moving a bedroom set between houses.
  • Taking a bed and other furniture to my son’s college apartment.
  • Hauling 15 50 pound bags of asphalt cold patch for a pothole (aka tank trap) at the end of my driveway.
  • Getting firewood from a friend’s place.
  • Taking trash to the dump.

Overall it has been a decent investment. Had I known about the byzantine idiocy that I would have to navigate through to get it titled, I might have purchase a used trailer with a good title or even a new fully built trailer.

I found that Krylon Red Banner Gloss was a good match for touching up the frame. After the pressure treated wood had seasoned, I used white semi gloss paint and primer on the deck. I added a couple of coats of clear polyurethane on the sides.

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