How to Refinish a Boat Tiller

Written by felicia greene
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How to Refinish a Boat Tiller
Refinishing a boat's tiller helps protect it from ultraviolet sun damage. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Boat tillers provide steering for small sailboats such as daysailers and small weekenders. A helmsman manipulates the tiller, which resembles a tapered wooden post, to sail the boat through different wind directions. The tiller connects to an underwater vertical rudder that moves the boat through the water. The rudder steers the boat in the opposite direction from the tiller's movement. Boat manufacturers apply numerous varnish coats to protect the wood-finished tiller from sun damage. Over time, the varnish peels off and loses its effectiveness. The sailboat's skipper must periodically reapply the coating to renew the tiller's protection.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Wrench
  • Plastic bag
  • Heat gun or chemical stripper
  • Medium-, fine- and extra-fine-grit sandpaper
  • Sturdy line
  • New tack cloths
  • Marine spar varnish
  • 1/2-inch to 1-inch bristle brushes
  • Blanket for tiller transport

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  1. 1

    Remove the tiller from the boat. Use an appropriately sized wrench to disconnect the pin and screws connecting the tiller to the rudder. Carefully lift the tiller away from the rudder, and place the tiller securely in the boat's cockpit. Place the tiller hardware in a plastic bag for secure storage. Remove the tiller and hardware from the boat and place them in your vehicle. Transport the tiller to your workshop.

  2. 2

    Remove the old varnish coats. Use a heat gun or chemical stripper to remove the tiller's existing varnish coats. This may be time consuming, depending on the number of existing coats. Do not attempt to apply new varnish over the old layers, as the underlying varnish will take on a yellowish cast.

  3. 3

    Sand the tiller smooth. Use medium-grit sandpaper to sand the tiller's curved surfaces and remove visible marks. Switch to fine-grit sandpaper for your final sanding before you re-coat the tiller. Perform the sanding by hand, as an electric sander can easily create gouges or marks on the curved surfaces.

  4. 4

    Suspend the tiller in the air. Tie a sturdy line through the holes attaching the tiller to the rudder. Attach the line to an overhead eye bolt or other connection point. Position the tiller at a comfortable level in front of your work space. This placement allows you to varnish without handling the tiller's freshly coated surfaces.

  5. 5

    Apply the new tiller varnish. Remove any residual wood dust with a new tack cloth. Open a can of marine spar varnish that contains ultraviolet protective additives. Evenly coat a ½-inch to 1-inch bristle brush by dipping it into the varnish can. Do not overcoat the brush and cause the varnish to drip. Start at one end of the tiller, and evenly apply the varnish with light, overlapping strokes. Follow the wood grain's direction. Apply one complete coat at a time.

  6. 6

    Apply additional varnish coats. Allow the first varnish coat to dry completely. Lightly sand the tiller with very fine-grit sandpaper. Wipe off the wood dust with a new tack cloth. Apply the number of additional coats recommended by the varnish manufacturer. Allow each coat to dry before you sand the tiller, remove the dust and apply the next coat. Add at least two more days' drying time before you return the tiller to the boat.

  7. 7

    Reinstall the boat tiller. Retrieve the bag of tiller hardware. Carefully disconnect the tiller from the overhead anchor point. Place the tiller on a blanket in your vehicle. Transport the tiller and hardware to your boat. Reattach the screws and pin that hold the tiller to the rudder.

Tips and warnings

  • Many boat owners apply multiple varnish coats to increase the wood's sun protection.
  • Sew a marine canvas tiller cover that preserves your tiller's finish.

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