Boat Wooden Grab Rail Plans

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Bulwark, in a West-country merchant schooner (c. 1880)

(Drawing courtesy of Basil Greenhill, The Woodshipbuilders)


Bulwark planking Bulwark stanchions

Topgallant rail and railcap

Main rail

Scupper (open)

Covering board Deck planking

Lodging knees


Bulwark stanchions may or may not be top timbers of the hull frame, depending upon their location for bulwark support.

It is customary to fasten bulwark stanchions through planking, beam shelf, and ceiling, independently of the hull frames, to ensure their easy removal for repairs or replacement.

Hanging knees Paired hull frames

Beam shelf

Ceiling figure 16-8 Cabintop grabrail

Boat Wooden Grab Rail Plans

Hardwood stave

Grips cut deep enough to pass a line through

Screwed or bolted through housetop beams

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down to the deck, inside this line of posts (with maybe a VB-inch shim on each, to move it in from the edge), set your scribers to the greatest gap, and mark the whole length, inside and out. If your boat has a full bow, and much flare forward, you may need posts forward at 18-inch intervals to hold that end down (or, if the rail refuses to hook down to the stem, you may even have to cut it to shape out of a wider piece), but at worst you have the nasty thing under control. So take it to the bench and plane the bottom fair and tenderly to the lines you have scribed on the two faces. Clamp it back in place again (the forward end let into the rabbet in the stem—or jogged into the heavy block just aft of the stem—and the after end cut for the scarf, as shown). Scribe once more if the fit is less than perfect, but drill for fastenings now before you remove it for the final shaping. As for fastenings, you'll be shocked to hear that we have used flathead galvanized spikes, from 30-penny in Vi6-inch holes up to Vb- by 10-inch spikes on 4-inch-high rails over 11/2-inch hardwood sheerstrakes. You'll probably be happier with long bronze screws or, best of all, long and skinny galvanized lag screws. For these you will, of course, counterbore to take the thin-walled socket wrench that fits the square head of the lag.

If you have more patience than I have, vou'll soak the contact surfaces with oil and j poison, and wait a day before fastening down in a fine smear of sticky stuff. Fastenings should be two to the foot, deeply countersunk, sealed with a slug of oil before the bung goes in. Fit the next piece to the scarf joint shown; clamp, scribe, bevel, fasten; true the whole length to the proper profile and either level or parallel to the deck crown across the upper face if you plan to cap it. (A cap is expendable and easily repaired—and you can smooth it and shine it to match your heart's desire.) Look at Figure 16-6, and make up your mind.

If yours is a real little ship with a proper laid deck and covering boards, you may be tempted to build this fence big-ship style, with top timbers, knightheads, waist plank, wide cap, kevels—a bulwark that is strong and beautiful, but requiring constant vigilance against leaks around shrinking top timbers. (Shape these timbers from the best black locust, or bone-dry hard pine, or even teak; soak the mortises writh a week's worth of oil and poison; caulk around the timbers with cedar wedges in the traditional way, or fill the gaps with an old-fashioned pitch-based seam compound that will soften and expand when the sun hits it.) You understand, of course, that the top timbers in big vessels are extensions of the main sawn frames, rather than extra pieces. Our small ones are mortised through the covering boards, one at a time, to extend down at least two planks below- the sheer. You'll fit them between frames, fasten a light plank around them, and cover them with a flat cap. This will likely be sawn to shape, in three or four lengths scarfed together, and grooved and mortised to sit tightly over the buhvark and top timbers. The wharf brigade will approve, even if you question whether it was worth all that effort. I hope Figure 16-7 will clarify some details that I have treated lightly.


When we were very young (and perhaps possessed of more enthusiasm than knowledge), we considered stanchions and lifelines to be something for old men and small children, W7e reserved one hand for ourselves, and sailed in an intoxicating mood of dare-deviltry. But we did have sense enough to provide one more item of deck furniture. This, of course, was a pair of grabrails, running the length of the housetop, port and starboard, shaped to fit the hand, and fastened beyond reproach. These grabrails immediately become anchorage for boathook, rolled-upawning, deck mop, dinghy, sail bags, and anything else that needs to be kept up out of the wet. If they are to sustain, with elegance, all this gear (and you, too, in times of peril), they deserve some careful planning.

As you probably know*, you can buy (or cast from your own pattern) a set of bronze brackets, fasten one over each beam, and thread a round wooden dowel or bronze tube through them. You can even buy short sections of rail, shaped from solid teak, ready to drill and fasten. The castings are expensive, and the ready-made rails never come with the correct spacing of gaps, or the right bevel to stand plumb on the sloping housetop. I therefore suggest that you look at Figure 16-8 and cut your own to fit— with gaps deep enough to take big hands, or 3/4-inch lines, and looking as if they belonged to this particular boat. Fasten them with a bolt or big bronze screw through each beam that they cross. Your wharf-side critic will approve of scoured teak here, or mahogany shining under 10 coats of varnish. You'll be wiser to put your faith in black locust or tough oak.

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