Fixing a Cracked Tiller

Rotten Cracked Tiller

The wood core of the tiller shows its age and part of the poor repair.

A log bobbed along the surface of the water, dead ahead. I quickly unhooked the auto-pilot, grabbed the tiller and yanked it up to comfortable steering level.


I looked down to see a small gap between the laminates near the base, where it connects to the rudder. We limped home and I was extra gentle with the tiller, lest it break off and leave us stranded without any ability to steer the boat. Luckily is was a calm day.

I replaced the tiller earlier this summer when I installed the auto-pilot. The varnish on the old tiller had worn off and it was looking pretty ratty. I had this spare tiller kicking around in the locker and it had a beautiful finish on it. The base was a little big, resulting in a more than snug fit when trying to install it.

Fixing a Tiller

I carefully wrapped the butt in four layers of six ounce fiberglass cloth.

After removing the cracked tiller, I discovered that despite its beautiful varnish, the base had been rotted and poorly repaired. Some previous owner gave it a good try, but this old chunk of wood had seen better days. What this tiller needed was a fiberglass reinforcement to breathe new life into her.

I used my four-inch rotary grinder to carefully grind a tenth of an inch off of each side of the base. A pair of digital calipers that I keep on hand allowed me to check and make sure I shaved off the material evenly. After getting the surface material off, I could see that the core was still structurally sound, if well weathered.

Fiberglass Tiller

The rot is gone and the core is now reinforced with four layers of fiberglass.

I carefully measured and cut out some six ounce fiberglass cloth and prepared my epoxy resin by mixing in thickener until it was the consistency of maple syrup. A little runny, but not too fast. I carefully wrapped the butt of the tiller in four layers of cloth. After each wrap, I painted on more epoxy. Then applied steady but even pressure to the cloth as I wrapped it as tightly as I could. The cloth whetted out really well.

I wasn’t sure how many layers it would take to equal the material that I had ground off. I was hoping to add slightly more than I removed as I could grind the finished fiberglass down to fit. I almost stopped at three wraps, but I’m glad I continued on to a fourth because that turned out to be just the right amount. I hardly had to do any touch up grinding before installing the hinge plates and mounting the tiller back in place.

Tiller Repair

The repaired tiller is better than new!

Better than new and twice as strong!

When the varnish eventually wears off, I’ll replace it with a coat of thickened epoxy and paint it with gel coat. I sure love beautiful wood like this, but I don’t have the patience to maintain it. I’ve slowly been covering every inch of wood on Solace with fiberglass. At thirty three years old, all the wood is at the end of its life, but the fiberglass hardly looks any different than they day she came out of the mold.

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6 Responses to “Fixing a Cracked Tiller”
  1. HI Chris,
    Nice article. May I use it for Dutch e-magazine “de CLASSIC Zeiler?
    Kind regards,
    ROB Kloosterman

  2. John M. says:

    Very well done! I can totally sympathize with the drop of the stomach when you hear that “crack” sound. Except for me it ended up very differently as outlined here.,..

    I learned a lot, and my replacement is coated in epoxy and I always keep a tiller cover on it when not in use!

    Fair winds!

  3. James says:

    One thing I saw in Good Old Boat magazine was to drill out the bolt holes to about 5/8″ over-bored and then go back and fill back the entire hole with thickened fiberglass filler.

    Only then shave te sides like you did and reinforce them. Make sure to mark or measure the centers of where your reinforced bolt holes are so they can be drilled exactly in the center of it again after the sides have been repaired.

    The reason for this is that the fiberglass is much more stable under the load of the bolts unlike the wood whxih is too flexible. Wood tends to cause te bolts to loosen under load as it flexes and this movement causes the wood fibers to be damaged and broken at the edge of the tiller bracket/especially when it gets loose. The fiberglass spools created by the thickened filler will be stable under the load of the bolts.

    We break tillers all the time in our club. The boats go out multiple times a day all season long and in all weather conditions. We have gone to having a complete tiller and tiller bracket ready to go with just the changing of single the pivot bolt.

    • Chris says:

      I also use that technique quite often: over-drill a hole and back fill it with thickened epoxy or epoxy pudy, let it harden, then drill the real hole in it. Any screw is encapsulated in the epoxy and doesn’t have a chance to leak through to the core material. Thanks for mentioning this.

  4. sandi says:

    thanks for sharing. you really know your stuff. true handyman. seems like you can fix anything!! mcGiver Chris!!

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