Winch Overhaul and Repair

27 Apr

Winches, especially the older non-self-tailing type, are very simple machines, and quite easy to overhaul. This is also a VERY important job. If your winches are crudded up it may cause the pawls to stick which can lead to the winch snapping back dangerously under load. A few months back a friend of mine suffered a nasty head injury from exactly this (Well, and from standing in the wrong place. You should never, ever, place your body in range of a winch handle when it is in use!). Winches are even easy to repair. As long as damaged wasn’t caused by a series of hammer blows (or the sailing accident equivalent) even one which appears completely busted can probably fixed with no more than three tools. You’ll need an allen wrench, a good stuff brush (such as an old toothbrush), and maaaybe a hammer. Just not too big of one.

The first step is to open things up. Remarkably, most old-school winches are held together with nothing but good design and a single allen bolt in the top of the winch, right in the middle of where you insert the winch handle. It may be obscured by gunk, but it’s probably there.

I’ve just removed the 1/4″ allen bolt holding this winch together

Remove this bolt and the cap which it holds in place and you can take everything off one piece at a time. There should be no need to remove the winch from the boat, as a well-designed winch can be (almost) completely disassembled without removing it from its base. Just be careful not to lose anything overboard!

With the top bolt out the first thing is to lift out the top of the winch. This should pull straight up and out with little effort. If you’re having trouble getting a grip on it, try inserting a locking winch handle and using that to (gently) tug directly upwards. It is unlikely but possible that when you take this piece out two spring-loaded pawls will pop out so old a towel around it just in case.

This is the first piece to come out
It contains your first set of pawls so be very careful removing it. They ought to stay in place, if they pop out be sure to carefully inspect them and the springs which hold them in place. More on this in a minute.

With this top piece out the next step is to lift off the body off of the winch. It should also pull off directly upwards with very little effort. Depending on the state of gunkiness this body might come off with a set of bearings inside of it, which is fine.

Grasp the body of the winch and pull upwards

Here is the body removed with the rest of the winch in the background

The guts: bearings and cogs

At this point you should remove the bearings for cleaning. A two-speed winch like this will have two sets, a larger one on the outside of the winch guts and a smaller one inset into the top.

Removing the larger bearings. These should come out in one piece, don’t attempt to disassemble them!

This is also a good point to remove the guts of your winch from its base for further disassembly. There should be a few bolts holding the base down, in my case it was three 1/4″ allen bolts. (Actually these are technically machine screws rather than bolts, but for simplicity we’ll call them all bolts). At this point you can pull the rest of the winch apart, one piece at a time.

Here we are almost completely dissasembled.

And now completely so. You can see that I’ve separated the cog in the center of the photo from the arbor (the cylindrical metal piece) that is just above it. Again be careful when doing this because there are pawls that could pop out.
           Now, with everything dissasembled it’s time to clean! If you’re so inclined you can can soak everything in kerosene, mineral spirits, or some similar solvent overnight. Probably though you’re winch isn’t too badly gummed up and you’ll be ok just scrubbing everything with a solvent. Get out your toothbrush and mineral spirits and go to it. 

Make it shiny

Time for a note on pawls. The pawls are small, vaguely key-shaped bronze pieces which are held into the winch body with small springs. They should have stayed in place when you dissasembled the winch, if they did not it’s likely a sign that you should at least replace the springs.

Here is one of a set of pawls. Most winches will have at least two.

 Any winch overhaul kit will come with a few replacement springs and in my experience they are even likely to be interchangeable with similar-sized winches from other manufacturers, although this is by no means certain.

However, if your pawls remained in place when you took the winch apart there is really no reason why you need to take them out. I would just scrub them well with the mineral spirits to make sure there is no gunk in the cracks and leave them be. When you’ve cleaned them up check that they are working by pushing them in flush and then letting go of them. They should snap smartly back out. If they don’t, replace the springs. The pawls themselves will almost certainly be ok.

If you do decide to take them out, (or if they come out inadvertently) they are easy to put back in. Simply place the spring in the groove of the pawl and then hold it in place while you slide the pawl down into its groove.

Another view of a pawl showing the spring. Test it by pushing it inwards and checking that it pops back out.

If your pawls check out it’s time to put everything back together. The key here is to know where to use grease, and where to use oil. Pawls should be oiled, not greased, and the bearings and cogs should be greased.

If you bought a winch overhaul kit it will have both grease and oil. If not you can use any high-quality bearing grease and fairly viscous oil. The important thing is stability across a variety of temperatures. If you’re cruising in the tropics you don’t want your grease melting and running out over the decks and if you’ve gone up into Newfoundland you don’t want your oil to get so viscous that the pawls stick and allow the winch to snap back dangerously. Being a bike mechanic I have used Park Tools grease and an oil called Phil Wood Tenacious Oil. This is a highly viscous oil which is very useful to have around on a boat.  You can buy it at a bike shop for around $10/bottle, which is approximately a two or three lifetime’s supply.

Thoroughly oil each pawl
Then lightly grease and re-install the bearings
Grease the teeth of this cog and if you want add a little oil to the shaft it spins around.

At this point you should be ready to put the winch back together. This is done from the bottom up. Start with that arbor. It will have two pawls at the bottom and it fits into the small cog, going in from the bottom.

Put it in upside-down. You can hold the pawls in as you insert it, or you can slowly spin it counter-clockwise while pushing it in.
Installed it will look like this.

Taking care not to let this drop back out slide the arbor into your winch ‘guts’ until the cog on the arbor fits into the cog on the winch guts. This is easiest with everything held upside down so nothing wants to drop out.

Spin the arbor slowly as you push in until the cogs match up.

If you’re having trouble keeping everything together this is a good time to bolt your winch guts back onto the base but it might be worth waiting until the end as the final step is a tad easier with the winch off the base. When flipping this assembly upright be careful to hold everything in place.

If you haven’t already, re-install the bearings now. Grease them lightly.

Almost done. You’ll now re-install the winch body. Grease the teeth on the inside of the body lightly.

Drop the body over the top of the guts. Again spin it slightly to get the cog to engage with the teeth on the winch body.
Starting to look like a winch again, right?

The last step is to put the top piece back in and bolt everything together. This top piece will have two pawls in it, be sure to check the springs and oil them.

As this piece goes in the pawls will drop into those angular grooves in the top of the winch and the hexagonal cutout will fit onto the hexagonal top of your arbor.

Again, slowly spin the piece as you insert it so that the pawls drop in place. If you’re having trouble getting it to drop all the way in, and you haven’t yet bolted the winch to its base, try this: Holding the winch from the bottom allow the arbor with the pawls to drop down by about 1/2″. Then spin your top piece into place and push the arbor back up from the bottom, spinning it into place. If you only drop it by 1/2″ it will keep the bottom pawls in place but drop that hexagonal top just far enough that it doesn’t interfere with your spinning the top piece as you set its pawls. Trust me, it’s much simpler in practice than in writing!

Now your winch is back together. Just re-insert the top cap and bolt and tighten it up. You want it tight enough that there is no vertical play in the winch body but not so tight that it will bind or be hard to open back up.

Don’t forget the little cap that the bolt fits into!

And we have a winch again

A primer on winch repair:

This winch, actually, was not quite a simply to overhaul as I made it look. The problem was that the winch was completely frozen up, and would not spin. When I went to overhaul it I got as far as taking the bearings out but then the arbor would not slide out the bottom.

The hard part was getting it out, as I had to tap it out with a hammer. In doing so I foolishly used a steel socket which was harder than the bronze arbor and did a little damage. Because of this I had to grind the top of the arbor a little and re-tap the hole for the bolt which holds everything together. The proper thing to use would have been a length of softwood dowel.

When I did eventually get this arbor out , I discovered that corrosion had roughened up the arbor and the surface it rotates against just enough to create a good deal of friction.

Not the spots of corrosion and damage on the arbor
And corrosion and wear on the surface it spins against.

The repair was easy, I simply took a piece of emory cloth (sandpaper for metal, you can but it at any decent hardware store) and smoothed out both surfaces. I did this a little at a time, checking the fit often, until the arbor once again slid in and spun smoothly.

 That was all there was to it, the winch now works like new. This is often the case with ‘frozen’ boat parts, if (and that’s a big if) they are made of bronze or similar high-quality materials they can probably just be cleaned up, lightly sanded or lapped, and re-assembled.

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


  1. Tom

    I have recently had one of the bronze gears fail. Where can I have a custom gear fabricated. My winches are not a major brand. The only identification is a crown. They are aboard my 40 foot Sparkman and Stephens teak built yawl. She was build by Wind on Shing in Hong Kong in 1960. Thanks

  2. John Coleman

    I have a selftailing lewmar winch that is original to my 1983 Hunter. When I use my winch to take up the slack in the jib sheet it feels very rough, like the gears are not meshing properly. When I use the other “gear” to tighten the sheet it seems fine. The winch has been serviced. Do you have any thoughts on what might be wrong?

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