How to repair damaged teak rubrails (or toerails)

20 Sep
Even the experts should put in a bit of manual labor once in a while, right?

As part of my ongoing scattershot of DIY articles, here’s an easy repair that I suspect a few of you have been planning on getting to ‘sometime soon’ (as in, within the next three years). Repairing rubrails is one of those mainly cosmetic repairs that can so easily remain uncompleted indefinitely but it turns out to actually be quite simple. Really, I promise.

This was a job we did when my father was in town helping on the boat. With him around cracking the whip I often miss out on the extremely important first stage of a project- the one which involves drinking beer while taking photos of whatever I’m trying to repair while imagining that it’s already finished. Under more amiable circumstances this stage can take up to a week but in this case we skip the preliminaries and jump straight into a blazing summer day marred with an abundance of work and complete dearth of cold beer.

The repair in progress, showing the damaged piece that has been cut out and its replacement.

Rubrails are nearly always teak and being as they are often the most abused bits of wood on the boat they should be repaired with the same. Still, the price of teak is astronomical these days so in this case a little thrift goes a long way. I did all my rubrail repairs with stock cut from my old cockpit coamings, which were beyond repair. I cut strips out of what was left of the coamings and laminated them together with epoxy to make them as wide as the old rubrails:

The old coaming
Stock for laminating, cut with a table saw

Using epoxy I glued two strips together to make a piece wide enough for a rubrail

If you’re going this route you want to end up with the same outside dimensions as your rubrails and if you’re as hesitant about your finishing skills as I am it pays to leave a centimeter of extra material on the outboard side that you will be rounding off. For reasons that will be clear in a moment you also need to make sure your replacement piece is a little bit longer than the portion of rubrail it will be replacing, say 2-3 inches on each side.

However you drum it up, with the replacement stock in hand it’s time to make some cuts. This bit is remarkably simple, if you have someone to show you how (thanks, dad!). All you need to do in order to get your new piece to seamlessly merge with the old is to securely clamp the old stock to the new and cut them both at once, using a very wide angle on your cut:

On the left is the original, intact rubrail. On the right is the new stock on top of the damaged piece which is to be replaced.

By clamping the new stock to the old piece and making a single cut you ensure that the replacement stock is going to fit seamlessly onto the old rubrail and by cutting at an oblique angle you give yourself a nice large area for a glue joint. Plus it looks nicer. You give yourself a bit of extra length on the replacement piece to allow for this cut. You can also use this trick if the old rail is completely broken off, just make your cut on whatever is left.

Here’s that picture again. The angles on the old and new pieces are identical because they were made with the same cuts
The joint should fit together nicely

Next up is the glue joint. If you want to use wood glue you’ll need to make some sort of jig which allows you to put pressure on the joint without the pieces sliding away from each other. Epoxy doesn’t require any pressure for a strong joint so all you need to do is push the pieces together and securely clamp them, though you do need to take care not to let the joint slide apart while you’re clamping. Also don’t forget some plastic underneath so you don’t bond the newly repaired rubrail to anything!

 Another way to make a joint is with a straight cut. This is a bit less elegant and not as strong, and is actually a bit more work because to do it right you need to pin the joint with a piece of dowel. We did one joint like this in order to join two pieces of rubrail that were undamaged but not glued together.

A joint like this has far less surface area for the glue

To make it strong you need to insert a bit of dowel into holes drilled into each side of the joint. Use plenty glue. Again, epoxy is an easy way to get the strongest joint possible.

Stick the two pieces together with the dowel going into both.

 However you go about gluing your pieces together the next step is shaping. Again, this is much easier than it seems. When I was in the early planning phase for this repair (the best phase, being that it also involves beer and imagining what your finished product will look like, but doesn’t even require taking photos) this was the bit that stumped me. I thought it would require a router and at the time I had only the vaguest ideas of how they work. Turns out you don’t even need one. The easiest way to shape your new bit of rail to match the original is with a good old hand plane. When they’re glued together the plane will easily cut the new down to match the old.

When you’re done you’ll have a smooth transition from the old piece to the new. If you’ve a bit more skill than me it might be even as well as smooth but it should be just fine either way.

The last step, if you choose, is a bit of sanding to get an even finish.

Just about as good as new

As with most boat projects it’s very nice to have a second person when you’re reinstalling rubrails.

Then you put plugs in your screw holes:

Thanks Libby!

 …and you should be all set for another twenty years. I mean, you’re not actually going to bump those newly rehabbed rubrails into anything, are you? Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to keep an extra bit of stock around…

It is also possible (with great care) to do all this without actually taking off the old rubrail. I did this later for a single damaged section of the toerail and it went smoothly, though it’s a bit awkward to plane the new stock down in situ.

 See my Index of DIY and How-to Posts

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


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