A New Mahogany Tiller

This page was last updated on 1 December 2003.

Click here to jump to the newest update (July 2004)

When the boat that was to become Glissando entered our lives, she was equipped with what appeared to be the original tiller:  solid oak, relatively short, and uninspired.  I never intended to use the old tiller, and replaced it with a store-bought tiller before launching in May 2001.  It was a quick and easy way to get a workable tiller.

The store-bought version wasn't a perfect fit, but it was longer, higher, and more substantial than the original oak tiller.  Laminated of strips of mahogany and ash, it was OK looking.  You've all seen these things everywhere.  In general, I liked the shape and function of it, but there was room for improvement.

Then, during the summer of 2003, the tiller developed a bad split down the longitudinal centerline, starting at the screwholes securing the tiller extension.  I repaired it temporarily by wrapping fiberglass cloth around it, which was enough to get through the remains of the season, but the handwriting was on the wall:  time for a new tiller.

With the old tiller removed, I began the templating process in order to build a new tiller.  I wanted a somewhat different shape than the existing--a tiller that came out of the tiller head more horizontal in attitude, but then curved up steeply to the ultimate height before continuing forward.  This design, at least in my head, seemed to solve some clearance and use problems that occurred with the old, basic-arch design, and would provide a horizontal section at the end where the hand typically grips.

tillerdiagram.jpg (28135 bytes)To begin, I drew a basic mockup of the cockpit sole, rudderpost, and tiller angle, using a bevel gauge to imitate the actual angles on the boat and transferring the measurements to a sheet of cardboard I had lying around.  Then, using the old tiller as a sort of guideline, I drew up a voluptuous new shape on the cardboard, using a flexible plastic spline and architect's ducks.  I cut the new tiller template out of the cardboard, and "installed" it in the tiller head to see how it worked in the cockpit.

tillertemplate1.jpg (26235 bytes)

tillertemplate2.jpg (30802 bytes)Despite the floppy cardboard, I could get a sense of the new shape, and saw that there was a need for a few changes.  The forward part of the template drooped down farther than I liked, and the after portion, above the "S" curve, was also a bit lower than I had hoped.  But the arch seemed generally OK, though the curve was severe, and the tiller cleared the seats easily when turned, without even needing to lift the tiller at all.  

tillertemplate4.jpg (30359 bytes)With version one in the bag, I decided to refine the general design and address the minor changes needed.  Instead of cardboard, I used a sheet of 1/4" lauan plywood to create a new template, making a few modifications to the shape of the original cardboard template.  I decided I wanted the overall height of the tiller end to remain about the same as the existing tiller (which is about 24" above the cockpit sole), so that meant raising the end (according to the cardboard template) by a couple inches.  I cut the new template out with a jigsaw, and tried it out in the cockpit.

tillertemplate3.jpg (24920 bytes)The lines and curves were a bit unfair, and the overall shape definitely needed some refining, but this was much more of the shape I had been envisioning all along.  It looks a little funny and awkward as it stands, since the tiller really doesn't follow a smooth line out of the tiller head.  Obviously, any final version will be much more refined and will hopefully flow more smoothly.  For the time being, the point is to test basic shapes and designs, with refinement to come once a final candidate is chosen.  

tillertemplate5.jpg (32444 bytes)I tested the new design out and was pleased to see that it cleared my knees when I sat in a variety of locations, and, as with the original cardboard template, cleared the cockpit seats nicely.  These were two of the main objectives for the new design.  It was also at a comfortable height for straddling while standing, which I like to do when powering, or sailing downwind (or upwind in light airs sometimes).

tillertemplate6.jpg (21214 bytes)This picture shows the evolution of the current design...though this design is not yet cast in stone, or even close to.  Starting with the existing tiller, the major change to the cardboard template is obvious, with its radically different shape and philosophy.  The evolutionary changes from the cardboard to the lauan template are also apparent.  Note that the three shapes shown here aren't necessarily properly angled according to how the rudderpost exits the cockpit, so please forgive any slight inconsistencies in their appearance or apparent shape.  The lauan template at the top of the photo actually sits the same height above the cockpit sole at its forward (handle) end as the original tiller at the bottom, and extends about as far forward.  It's just the way in which it reaches that height and length that is different.

tillerevolution3.jpg (23801 bytes)
After a few days' reflection, and some discussion with Nathan (Dasein 668), who also wanted a new tiller, I decided some modification was in order.  The funky new shape, while close to the ultimate goal, just lacked the proper aesthetic flow.  The solution was to more closely emulate my existing tiller's shape near the butt end, and to smoothly merge that shape with the new templated shape, eliminating some of the abrupt bend in the template that simply didn't look good.  The upper portion of the curve remained in the same place, allowing for excellent knee and cockpit seat clearance (one of the significant design goals), but sacrificed a small amount of the lowness of the butt end in favor of improved aesthetics--and, as I was soon to discover, improved possibility of successful construction.

tillermockup.jpg (26739 bytes)Satisfied with the lauan template of the new shape, I decided to build a more full-sized mockup with which I could actually test the operation of the new tiller.  From a scrap piece of 2x10 lumber, I jigsawed the tiller template, and installed it to the bronze tiller head for a test.  Both of us were pleased with the looks and performance of the new shape, so we agreed to go ahead with its construction.

The photo below shows the full evolution of the tiller shape, from the existing (and generally satisfactory) stock tiller to the ultimate shape of the new design.

tillerevolution4.jpg (26375 bytes)

I planned to make the new tillers out laminated strips of mahogany, deciding against adding contrasting strips as is common in stock tillers.  I cut enough 1/4" thick strips for the job from a large piece of 8/4 mahogany that I had on hand, a piece with excellent color and overall quality, and prepared to build a laminating jig with which to glue up the tillers.

Presently, though, I had a problem.  It seemed the designed curve was too tight for cold molding of the mahogany strips.  As part of the mold construction, I used a strip of the mahogany to help me create a fair, smooth curve between clamping block locations.  After I had installed several of the blocks, I clamped on a piece of the mahogany, but found that I couldn't make the two-direction bend without splitting the wood.  I wasn't sure if the problem was a factor of the wood simply not being bendy enough, the jig being too sharp and hard a surface against which to bend, or a combination of the two.  The difficulty arose because of the requirement for the wood to bend in two directions over a relatively short span; bending the strips through either of the two curves would work, but forcing them first into one curve, then almost immediately into a completely opposite curve, proved to be too difficult--at least with dry strips.

Discouraged, but far from beaten, I put the jig and strips aside for a while, and looked into building a steam box in which to steam the wood strips to make them more pliable.  Steaming the wood was but one possible option; changing the format of the jig might also work.

Click here to continue>

Glissando, Pearson  Triton #381

We recommend viewing this site with your screen resolution set to 1024 x 768 or larger.  Problems?  Email the webmaster.

1999-2014 by Timothy C. Lackey.  All rights reserved.  No duplication of any portion of this website allowed without express permission.  Permission may be obtained by emailing the webmaster.