New Steering Wheel Adventure, Part 1

16 Mar

Let’s cut to the chase here: If you’re going to buy a new steering wheel, make sure it fits your boat, cuz making your boat fit the steering wheel is a big deal.

The venerable steering wheel on my nearly 50-year-old boat is tired. It’s made of of aluminum and coated in Bakelite, or some such substance. The aluminum is bubbling and corroding through the coating in several places, and black electrical tape covers the horrors and protects my hands from injury.
I’d had my eye out in second-hand chandleries, and online, because new steering wheels are expensive. The cheapest you can posssibly get a brand new basic 24-inch (my size) stainless wheel is about $700, but if you want a little bling, like teak around the outside, you quickly get up over $1200. I once thought I wanted a classic teak wheel, for my classic yacht, with the spokes and handles – full Gilligan’s Island – but the handles can cause mischief. My dad once had the pocket torn out of his windbreaker by the classic teak wheel on our family yacht when our dutiful autopilot made a hard turn to starboard. And classic teak wheels, new, are also very expensive. This one, in 24-inch diameter, runs about $2300 from Edson:
So a destroyer wheel it would be, and when I found this one on Ebay for $200 I pounced:
It was advertised as having teak accents, but I think it’s actually rosewood, or some other kind of dense tropical hardwood. I was very happy with my bargain hunting. There was one little thing I didn’t pay much attention to, the hub or taper size (the size of the hole in the middle). I figured, from the photos, that there was plenty of meat in the hub of the new wheel, and if it needed to be altered it would mean a quick trip to my local machine shop.

Au contraire. The hub was indeed the wrong size. It was a 3/4-inch taper and my old wheel takes a 1-inch taper.
I popped in to see my machinist and he broke the news to me: “Thats’ actually not so simple.” It appears they do it on a lathe, and lathes don’t have enough room for something 24 inches across. I thought they would bore out the middle with a tapered reamer, like this:

Tapered reamers cost about $200, and I guess your average machinist doesn’t happen to keep a variety of them. I thought about buying one myself, as I’ve got access to a mill, but the reamer would cost as much as the wheel, and there was a good chance it wouldn’t work: The machinist said that because the keyway was already cut in the hub of the wheel the reamer might go all lopsided, or lock up, or just not work out. Just buying the reamer was dicey, because they’re measured by size and pitch, and I wasn’t terribly confident in my ability to measure whether I had a 1-inch, 7-degree taper vs. a 1-inch, 12-degree taper.

The machinist suggested removing the “steerer”, the part the wheel fits on, with bearings and a sprocket, and turning the shaft from the steerer DOWN to 3/4-inch. This would be a major project, as the steerer is well-attached and buried in the 50-year-old console on my 50-year-old boat. Replacing the steerer with a new one was also about a $700 proposition.

A steerer:
He also suggested cutting the hub out of the wheel, then turning it in a lathe, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to weld it back into my wheel exactly straight. Sigh.

I finally got hold of the biggest, baddest machine shop in the region that does all the big ship propellers in Alameda. They said they could do it for about $200 on their lathe, which was big enough to accept something 24 inches across, but I’d have to give them the steerer too, so they could confirm the fit. Sigh.

If the steerer had to come off the boat, I’d try to save myself $200 and turn it down myself, and thus began a fairly overwhelming boat project, which has rendered my boat a construction site and unusable till summer, if I’m lucky. To skip ahead, the project got out of control because to remove the steerer I had to largely disassemble the 50-year-old, crumbling wooden console, and in the process I decided to rebuild the console. Here’s what it looked like a few weeks ago. There was a steering wheel there once, and my boat could actually sail places:

…but back to that steerer.

I removed the greasy, rusty, filthy, 50-year-old chain and got the steerer out, then disassembled the steerer to extract just the tapered shaft, the part that would need to be turned down. Of course I would completely rebuild the steerer, regrease it, repaint it etc., which is just one small and relatively painless facet of this project gone awry.

Then I approached The Beast:
The lathe at my work weighs as much as a Ford F350 pickup, and is bolted to the concrete floor with 3/4″ studs.

I’ve always used it to turn plastic, which is relatively forgiving, with little black curlicues flying everywhere. This would be my first try with steel. If I destroyed the shaft it would be minor catastrophe, because replacing a shaft from a steerer built in England fifty years ago isn’t going to happen.

And what I needed to do involved a little guesswork. If you look at my crude diagram, you’ll see I knew where I needed to be at the fat end of the taper, and at the skinny end of the taper, and I knew how long the taper needed be, IE the distance from the fat part to the skinny part. I could measure all of these from my new wheel. And a bit of good news, the threaded part at the end fit through my new wheel, so I wouldn’t have to turn that part down and cut new threads.


A modern lathe can be programed it to do these things – I need to get from A to B at a 20-degree angle – but this feature was not available on the lathe at my work. As you can see, it was built in 1956, long before programmable anything:


If I wanted to do some math in my head I could figure that for each 1/1000th of an inch I went to the right I’d go .3/1000 inboard, but this would have been tedious and more prone to mistakes, methinks, so I planned to just take it slowly and remove the shaft from the lathe to check the fit with the wheel frequently. With trepidation and fear I approached The Beast, a machine capable of ripping off a human arm in a nanosecond.


A good trick I learned is pressing a flat file on the work while it’s turning in the lathe: this takes down the ridges and evens things out. After an hour or so of turning, it was a decent fit to the new wheel, but this was only the beginning…

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


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