I have gotten a lot of info from this site and feel compelled to respond when I see a newbie going down the rabbit hole. My first was a '79 cj5 and my second was a '83 cj7. Both suffered from the "loose, wandering, unresponsive & not returning to center syndrome". On my second purchase I recognized a lot of the issues and knew I could fix relatively inexpensively. When I started the repairs I told myself I would do one item and see how much impact it had on getting back the steering. First I started with the tie rod ends. Three were bad and went with all four. Test drive showed improvement but still a long way to go. Second was driver side ball joints that had noticeable wear. Test drive showed improvement but again had a lot of room for improvement. Passenger side ball joints showed to be in decent shape and I would replace when time permitted (beach trip approaching). Third was 4 degree castor shims. There has been a lot of debate, both pros and cons on the shims. After exhausted research I decided to install because the PO had installed a 4" lift along with taller/longer shackles which took my castor to almost zero. Also I've learned that my front diff yoke angle to T case was off and the shims would be correcting in the right direction. After shim install test drive showed that the steering wanted to start to return to center but still needed a bit more. Told myself I would decide after professional alignment gave accurate castor values whether or not to go to 6 degree shims. Got alignment done at a friends shop and results were surprising. Castor at 6+ degrees and toe requiring minimum adjustment. Test drive after alignment showed very little improvement. Next was a new Borgeson steering shaft as the factory original showed signs of wear with noticeable slop. The shaft showed a major improvement in removing side to side unresponsiveness not to mention peace of mind. The next step was to look at the steering box lash adjustment. This is the allen screw adjustment on top of the box. I was shocked to find that this adjustment was way out. This was a new box having a 2006 (I believe) factory sticker on the box. Several full turns were done before a mild seat was felt. I backed off a 1/8 to 1/4 turn and test drive showed much improvement. I am finishing up the passenger side ball joints and found the bottom stud very loose and the upper almost frozen. Have not test drove but curious. I did replace the driver side U joint as it showed extreme tightness and did the passenger side as well. I will look into spring/shackle bushings and other smaller impact items. My steering is now tight but still not returning to center. 6 degree shims maybe the answer. Anyone reading this have other ideas please respond.
The reason I wrote this is to show others that when trying to solve this all to common problem you have to realize that you are going up against many factors. First off the CJ is 32 years old. Parts have worn, broken or froze. The PO was neglectful, didn't know what he was doing or both. Replace what is obvious and go from there. The other thing I'd like to mention is after this frontend rebuild I have more confidence in what I have. Example is when replacing the ball joints I discovered that the PO had recently repacked the wheel bearings. It was done wrong and now it is right. I have found many other items the PO did wrong and didn't do because I feel he was lazy. Some were cosmetic while others weren't. I hope this helps those of you just starting out.