Make and Make Do

By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA

Wheel Steering – Part 2
Vertical Shaft Wheel System

Back to Part 1

Last time I finally figured out a remote steering system that would work well in a small light sailboat, for anyone fool enough to insist on one. Like me. Here’s how I installed the whole mess.

Mounting the Wheel

The nicest installation would have been running the wheel’s shaft right down into the compartment. Unfortunately that would have put the wheel where it would interfere with the mast. I wanted at least 3” clearance to decrease the likelihood of smashing the steering wheel when stepping the mast. So I stood the shaft off from the bulkhead, using an exposed cable drum.

The lower bearing is simply scrap wood nailed and glued to the bottom of the boat. The lower layer is a 3x5” square piece of ¾” plywood, and the upper part is a 3.5” length of 2x4. The upper part is bored to 1-3/8” with a hole saw. The bearing fits in this hole. Cut it so the fit is snug. Make sure this wood assembly gets attached so it centers the shaft on the boat’s centerline. This could be done without the bottom piece of plywood, but I didn’t want the shaft to jab into the boat’s bottom if something broke. Probably paranoia, but it’s cheap insurance.

Note how I cut limbers to allow the escape of any water that dribbles down the shaft.

The upper bearing block is built like a mast partner. I added one extra bearing to have bearings top and bottom on this block. That way the setscrew on the drum locks the shaft in place, so it isn’t actually riding on the bottom of the lower bearing block – it’s floating above the bottom. That bearing only keeps it centered against the cable tension. So the upper bearing block is made from a piece of 2x6 nail-and-glued to ¼” plywood sides and a 1x6 back, through-bolted to the bulkhead with plenty of PL400. Make sure you’re bolting to something substantial.

Note the limbers on the bottom of the lower block. These allow drainage of any water that finds its way down the shaft and through the bearing,

As you can see, my boring wasn’t 100% accurate. (In fact it wasn’t even close!)

No big deal – as long as the top looks OK and the bottom keeps the bearing from getting shoved into the block too far. A bit of rasping in the lower hole of the upper bearing block made it work well enough. As long as there’s a little wood left to support the upper block’s lower bearing it is good enough.

I switched to steel cable to minimize play in the system, but cable shouldn’t be bent into a circle less than 2” diameter. In fact, the Duckworks sheaves I was using were 2.5”. So I had replace my 1.5” wooden drum. While wood would have worked fine, I couldn’t find a 2” diameter dowel. This one was welded from 1.5” iron plumbing pipe, which has an outside diameter of very close to 2”. I welded on 3” flanges and collars of ¾” pipe. The shaft is ¾” mild steel rod welded to a 3” disk of 3/16” steel.

Right now some of you are about to tune out because welding is required. It’s not really required. You could do this stuff with hardwood without too much trouble. It was just faster to do it with welding because I’m equipped to weld. Besides, if you prepare the metal, this would be a very cheap welding job to hire. Any farmer or mechanic with an old “buzz box” could zap this together.

The shaft is installed with a collar made of ¾” copper pipe to lift the wheel above the level of the upper bearing block. This keeps fingers from getting whacked on the deck when spinning the wheel fast. (Why copper? For the best of all reasons – I had some laying around.)

At this point I test fit everything and bored the drum and shaft to pin them. Here you see the middle bearing and the drum, both lower than their final locations.

The drum has to be pinned in place on the shaft right under the middle bearing, because the drum is what holds that bearing into its block. So we hold it all in place and drill. Make sure the bottom end of the shaft is suspended above the bottom of the boat, but is deep enough into the lower bearing block to be supported by the lower bearing. With the shaft forced down and the drum holding the middle bearing in place, drill the hole. Actually, I drilled the hole in the collar of the drum before starting this. Then I drilled the shaft just enough to make a mark when holding this all in place. It was much easier to finish boring the shaft with better lubrication where it wouldn’t move around or make such a mess – in a vice.

I used a ¼” bolt for the pin. Be sure the hole isn’t oversized or the steering will have excess play.

All these parts got washed with Spic-n-Span, rinsed, dried and primed with Rustoleum Bare Metal Primer. If you use the brush-on type, you will probably need to apply this as you install the parts. You might not be able to slide the bearings onto the shaft with a thick coating of dried paint. But it would probably be OK with the spray version. I hate spraying paint, though, and have the feeling that a thick coating is good on a boat. Here is the shaft assembly installed.

And finally notice how I cut slots rather than holes for the cables. As they roll onto and off off the drum, their angle changes. So you need a slot instead of a hole to avoid rubbing.

Meanwhile, back at the rudder…

The wooden tiller from the previous effort rapidly showed itself to be far too weak. It snapped like a matchstick! Probably bad wood, but I made a much stronger one from steel plumbing pipe.

Note how the yoke fits over the pin on the tiller? This allows easy removal of the rudder for transport. A word to the wise – 1/2” steel rod usually fits nicely into 3/8” plumbing pipe.

I should mention that there’s another way to do this. I’m not sure which is better, but I think the above version can take more strain. But if you’re using Dacron line in place of steel cable, this one certainly works fine.

And you don’t really need to use steel cable unless you’re…

Steering the Motor

Since we're discussing the rear end of the steering system, let me save you some time. If you have a rudder anyhow, don’t bother rigging steering for the motor. The rudder will do fine. In really close quarters you can always grab the motor’s tiller.

There’s another benefit to this approach too. Using the rudder, the steering is much more stable than with the motor alone. You can leave the helm for some time and it will track straight. With motor steering you really can’t leave the helm at all. Trust me, I tried.

OK, time to run cables.

Cable Runs

This is a particular challenge in this case. The simple approach would be to run the cables along the side, then bring them straight across the bulkhead to the drum. But I have hatches in the way, and I do actually need them. If I had run the cable outside the center compartment, I would have needed some awkward 45 degree sheave mountings to keep the cable away from the port hatch cover. So I decided it was better to run the cable inside the compartment, only having it come out to meet the drum. This required running all the cables down the port side to avoid the daggerboard case. By keeping the top of the drum high up, I got away with only six sheaves total inside the compartment.

As you might imagine, this was a huge pain the butt to work on through 12” square hatches.

I seriously considered cutting them larger, but managed to do it without. Suffice it to say that you’re far better off doing this kind of thing before the decks are on. (Or using a tiller…)

Here’s a trick, though. With a 12” hatch, you only ever have one hand to work with unless the compartment is very shallow. Thus it is almost impossible to mark hole locations by holding a piece of hardware in place and marking the holes (with the other hand). I got around this by marking the holes on paper, then sticking the paper to the bulkhead with double-stick tape. A punch awl provides centers to drill on, and drilling can be done (if awkwardly) with one hand.

As the cables come through the bulkhead from the drum, a 90 degree block turns the lower one up to the bottom of the deck. From here, a pair of blocks turn the cables to the port side of the hull. This photo shows both.

There, another pair turn them aft to the holes in the bulkhead, under the side deck. Each time you make a turn, you need to hold all the blocks in place with the cable under tension to make sure the cable ends at the right spot without rubbing on anything. Including the other part of the cable! And be sure to have your masts stepped when doing this if there is any chance at all they could interfere! Here are the blocks that turn the

The same is, of course, true of the underdeck cables and getting them to the motor well bulkhead. Running the cable through the motor well bulkhead is fairly simple, but remember that the locations of these holes will determine the locations of the next set of sheaves or holes if you are to avoid rubbing the cable against things.

Then the cables run to the tiller steering mechanism. The extra pad eyes are from an attempt at steering the motor. Like I said before, don’t bother.

The springs are set to about 50 lbs of tension, and the cables clamped. These springs then absorb any unevenness in the system and help keep it under tension at all times. It is easy to stab yourself in the hand with a screwdriver while tensioning these springs, so be careful.

Special Blocks

You’ll notice that this system requires a lot of sheaves. On the other hand it does work pretty well, and Duckworks helps keep the cost under control. But we need a special fitting. Steering sheaves are made for where the cable is pulling away from the anchor point. But the way my wheel is set up, I need the opposite kind to take cable off the drum without it rubbing in the hole through the bulkhead. These are readily available at decent hardware stores and agricultural suppliers. I got these at Farm & Fleet for about $4 each. That’s a little pricier than I would have guessed, but to get 2” sheaves you’re stuck with a weight rating that is radical overkill for a boat this size.

Stiffening the Rickety Wheel

I finally came to realize I was never going to make time to build my own wooden steering wheel. So I resigned myself to stiffening my junky Ebay wheel. To do this I removed the wheel and wrapped the bolts in lots of plastic packing tape. Then I mixed some epoxy and added thickener to get something about like mayonnaise or a little thinner. I put the taped bolts in place and removed them one by one as I pumped in epoxy with a large veterinary syringe. This epoxy goo oozed out the cracks where the wood spokes joined the “tin can” hub. With all the bolts back in place I placed packing tape over the oozing cracks to press the goo as flat as possible. Finally I flipped the works over so the bolt heads would hold the epoxy in, and shot a little more into the bolt holes on the bottom.

Then I hung a 100 watt light as close as I could and started checking frequently. When the epoxy reached the rubbery stage it was time to act again. I could tell because I could still make an indentation with my thumbnail, but it wasn’t easy. The easier way to tell is that the leftover epoxy is no longer try to sag. It is solid, but still a bit soft.

At this point I pulled off the tape and removed the bolts. I had pull them with a prybar and block, but they came out without too much protest. Epoxy is pretty easy to scrape off in this soft state. I should have waxed the metal and spokes by rubbing with a candle. Then no epoxy would have stuck to them. I forgot, so rather more scraping and polishing was needed than I had hoped. Then I refinished the entire wheel with thinned boiled linseed oil. It is more stable than before, but still not what I’d call ideal.

But wheels aren’t everything.

Emergency tiller

This system has a lot of moving parts that could break. When motoring one can always grab its tiller. But we are not always motoring, so we need a backup for steering the rudder. (Especially with complicated sail rig and a motor that needs to be “romanced” into action!)

This is no mean feat, since the tiller has to reach up over the motor. It has to lock in place so it can’t turn in its socket, yet be very fast to install.

I made the tiller socket from 3/4” steel pipe with a slot cut to mate with the stub tiller’s internal weld seam. This keeps it from turning. I had to sand down the ¾” pipe to get it to slip inside the tiller’s 1.25” pipe. Then I welded on some ½” steel pipe and bent it to clear the motor. The motor isn’t present in the photos, but believe me, it really does take up that much space!

In case it tried to slip out of place in rough water, I provided a vertical pin that could be lashed to the yoke pin on the stub tiller. This would force them together. Note that I haven’t tested this, however.

Nobody wants to hold onto a steel tiller very long, so I will eventually finish it with some twine lacing like on my oar handles. Or maybe I won’t. It’s just for emergencies, after all.

It lays flat on the bottom and ties to a screweye on the chine. Reasonably out of the way, but enough in the way to remind me that wheel steering isn’t ideal on a small boat.

Like all the modifications I have made on this boat, this wheel steering business suggests that a different design would have been a better fit for me. Live and learn.

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, Wisconsin, USA

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Cable Steering