Making Cockpit Coamings – Fun With Fire Edition

5 Nov

Here’s a fun project to add a little something extra to your woodwork. For months now, on and off, I’ve been plugging away on a new set of cockpit coamings. Coamings, being little more than a couple flat planes, seem easy enough to maintain so I decided to finish them bright (against my father’s typically utilitarian recommendations). For this we bought a couple very nice mahogany planks.

My coamings-to-be after shaping and sanding. The light in my shop is terrible so you’ll have to bear with the photos..

After a bit of shaping these planks sat for months while I focused on other things and during this downtime I came up with a plan to pretty them up a bit. I wanted to put a sort of compass rose on them, my original idea involving a bicycle chainring as well as cardinal directions but for space reasons I scrapped the chainring idea. Instead, I made my cardinal letters (N, S, E, W) out of copper, heated them, and burnt them into the surface of the wood. It was simple as that, and I really like how it came out. Here’s the process:

I started with plane-jane household wiring and stripped the copper out of its insulation. This stuff is reasonably malleable as is but the process of shaping is much easier if you anneal the copper wire with a torch. Like many metals copper work-hardens, meaning that as it is worked it gets progressively harder to bend. Unlike most metals though copper softens when it is heated and then cooled again, so if copper you’re working with ever gets tough to bend you can just hit it with a torch until it is red hot and it will soften right up.

My work area. This really is a very simple project, requiring no special tools.

So I annealed my copper wire and then I shaped it into letters, using just my hands, a pair of needlenose pliers, and whatever I could find around my shop to give me the bending radii I wanted. Once I was happy with the shape I bent up about 6″ at the end to act as a handle and then I placed the letter on the top of my vise and pounded the round wire flat with a hammer. The copper is soft enough that this doesn’t require any heat.

Here are two of the completed letters. They’ve been pounded flat and each has a tail so I can hold it when hot with a pair of pliers.

With my letters made I did a few test runs to be sure they would work and I found that while they heated up easily and burnt the wood well they also cooled fast enough that it was hard to keep an even heat. The solution I came to was to heat them with a blowtorch on a bed of charcoal. This worked like a charm.

My makeshift brazier

I also made a press to help get an even pressure, consisting of just a block of soft plywood with a handle screwed into it:

My press in action – I would heat a letter and then carefully place it where I wanted on the board and follow immediately with plenty of pressure from this block.

It was finally time for the big moment. I admit that actually burning the letters into my irreplaceable mahogany planks was so terrifying that I put this off for about three weeks. Finally, I just went for it one day, deciding that I would have to just live with it if I screwed it up a bit.


It worked great. There were a couple spots where the letters didn’t burn into the hard mahogany but I just touched these up with a soldering iron. At first I was a little disappointed in how this made it a little spotty looking but I found it looked even better than I had dared hope after a very light sanding and a couple coats of varnish (only eight to go… per side… maybe dad was right!).

Bare wood
With varnish.. Better photos to come!

 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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