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Old 04-11-2004
Don Casey Don Casey is offline
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Getting a Grip

A lurching platform under your feet means you'll need to grab someting to make your way safely around the deck. This is when proper handrails become a necessity.
Imagine an erratic chop, a tight grip, a sudden lurch, a startling crack, a sickening release. It can happen. The original handrails on an older boat are almost certain to be mahogany or teak. If they are mahogany and they have been neglected for a long time, they are likely to be split, checked, and even rotten—a very dangerous situation given that you may depend on such a handrail to keep you aboard.

Teak handrails, on the other hand, are much less likely to be rotten. They are also less likely to be varnished, and in the case of unvarnished teak handrails, unlike mahogany, you should hope that they have been neglected. Every time you or some previous owner lovingly scrubbed or sanded the handrails to that oh-so-attractive golden color in preparation for a treatment of oil or sealer, another millimeter or two of the wood departs through the scuppers. After a decade or two of scrubbing, handrails are typically too thin to be safe.

Look carefully at your handrails. If you think there's any chance that you could break them with a mighty tug, it's past time to replace them, because a mighty tug is exactly what's going to happen when you really need them.

Ready-made replacement handrails, like these stainless steel ones, are widely available and make reasonable replacements for older wooden rails that have outlived their utility.

Increasing numbers of cabin-top handrails have reached the end of their useful life, and ready-made replacements are now widely available. A lot of sailors go this route, seeing it as the path of least resistance. In fact, ready-made handrails have much to recommend them, including value: the cost of teak handrails is typically only modestly higher than the retail cost of the teak needed to make your own, and someone else has already done all the work. They may be your best choice if you are adding handrails to your boat, but as replacements, ready-made handrails have some drawbacks.

For starters, if you need or want mahogany you're out of luck—except from a specialty supplier at a significantly higher price. Likewise, if you need long handrails, say more than six feet, your chandlery is not likely to have them. But the biggest problem is that ready-made handrails have a standard "loop" distance (the distance between the standoffs) which may not be the same as your old handrail. At best, this will force you to drill new mounting holes and patch the old ones, but if the cabin top has molded pads for the handrail standoffs, or if a matching handrail on the overhead inside the cabin also functions as a backing plate, an unattractive installation is the likely result.

A much better course is to replace the old handrail with an exact duplicate—only stronger. You could have custom handrails fabricated by a local cabinetmaker, but I wouldn't recommend it since the great thing about handrails is that while they may look complicated, they are dead easy to make. All you need is access to a hand drill, a sabersaw, and a router.

"The great thing about handrails is that while they may look complicated, they are dead easy to make."
When you make your own, you can select mahogany or teak or, for a different look, an alternative wood such as ash or oak. Whatever wood you choose, begin with a clear plank a bit more than an inch thick—called five-quarter lumber. The width of the plank must be twice the height of the old handrail, but not less than five and a half inches. You will be construting two handrails at the same time, so you need a single board the length of one handrail for the pair.

If the plank is longer than the rail, now is the time to crosscut it to size. Next draw a line lengthwise down the exact center of the board. Lay your old handrail on the board with the standoffs against this centerline and the ends of rail and plank aligned. Put marks across the centerline to correspond to both sides of every standoff, including those at the ends.

To construct your own teak handrails, mark the work so that you can build pairs as easily as building a single one.

From the location of each standoff mark, measure along the centerline one and a half inches away from the standoff and put a distinct mark across the centerline. This is where you are going to place the pilot drill of the hole saw. Note that this distance is half the diameter of the three-inch hole saw we will be using, and it results in one-and-a-half inches of clearance between the underside of the grip and the deck. If you need greater clearance, you will use a larger holes saw (and need a wider plank) which necessitates shifting the drill mark farther from the standoff.

Chuck a three-inch hole saw into your drill, and carefully position the pilot drill on the "drill here" marks you made. Bore from one side until the pilot drill penetrates the bottom, then turn the piece over and finish the hole from the opposite side. When all cuts are finished, you will have an even number of holes on the centerline of your plank.

Lay a straightedge between pairs of widely-spaced holes, tangent to their edges, and draw a line between them. Draw a match set of lines on the opposite side of the hole pairs. Don't get confused and draw these lines between the wrong holes. Where the holes are close together is a standoff; you don't want to cut there.

Use a sabersaw to cut around the standoffs and shape the corners.
With the lines you just drew to guide you, use the sabersaw to make parallel cuts between pairs of holes. If you have done this correctly, your board now has one or more (depending on the length of the handrail) long slots with rounded ends, separated by three or four inches of solid wood. With a rasp or coarse sandpaper, straighten out any bumps where the saw lines meet the bored holes.

Using the old handrail as a pattern, or selecting a different radius you find more pleasing, use the sabersaw to put an identical contour on each outside corner of the board. Like Michelangelo chipping away all the marble that wasn't David, you have now cut away all of the board that wasn't handrail.

Then you can use a router to finish off the rails so that they're easier to get a grip on.
To round all the edges, you are going to need a router loaded with a 1/2-inch corner round bit with a ball-bearing pilot. For teak, a carbide bit is almost essential. Set the depth on the router to get the maximum cut from the bit without leaving a ridge on top of the wood. Test this on the scrap pieces you cut out of the slots. The router will cut better in one direction than the other—counterclockwise on an outside cut, clockwise on an inside cut. Get a feel for this on your scrap as well. With the cutter set properly (and locked!), round all the edges, inside and out. Turn the board over and do the same to the other side. Then all that's left to do is to run your saw down the center line and Shazam!—two finished handrails.

Well, almost finished. They may need the caress of a little 120-grit sandpaper. And to keep them from rocking after they're mounted, the base of each standoff should be slightly hollowed. This is accomplished by hand with coarse paper, by using a disk sander, or if you have a table saw, by running the handrails diagonally over the blade set about 1/16 inch above the table. Leave about an eighth of an inch of material on either side of the hollow untouched by the saw blade or the sandpaper.

Regardless of how your old handrail was attached, handrails should always be through-bolted. Get a helper to hold the rail in position while you bore the mounting holes from inside the cabin. A match handrail mounted to the cabin overhead with the same bolts makes a yacht-like and functional installation, and fabricating the handrails in pairs assures perfect alignment.

Once you experience the advantage of having handrails on board, you'll see they can be useful in different areas around the boat, like atop this companionway hatch.
Bolt holes in the handrails should be counterbored and fitted with matching wood plugs. Set the plugs with varnish. Polysulfide is the sealant of choice for bedding, and it should squeeze out all the way around every standoff. Let the sealant cure before trimming away the excess. Masking the handrails and the cabintop before installation simplifies clean-up. Do not bed matching handrails mounted inside the cabin; if water is penetrating the outside seal, you want to know as soon as possible.

Don't ignore those weakened old handrails; replace them. And while you're at it, add a pair to each side of your compaionway, or to the bottom of your deck-carried dinghy, or wherever they will give added security. As easy as handrails are to make, there is no excuse for not having an adequate complement aboard.