How to Add Coachwhipping to Your Tiller Handle

Want to add a decorative grip to the handle of your tiller? It’s not hard to do in a couple of hours and almost free with a few scraps of canvas and/or cord you may have lying around.

Coachwhipping is one of those little touches you can add to your sailboat to give it a more old-school, handcrafted look. It harkens back to a time when sailboats were made almost entirely out of wood and lashing parts together with rope was the norm. It’s a nice contrast to all the sterile fiberglass and stainless steel used on modern yachts and boosts your seaworthy credibility (or at least gives that illusion). Learning the knots and braids is fun. It’s a great way to spend time on a cold winter evening near the wood stove while the snow is falling.

Endorsed by Robert Redford

Well, not exactly. If you’re a person who notices little details and you saw the controversial Robert Redford movie All is Lost, you might have seen the leather cover on the wheel of Virginia Jean. While not technically coachwhipping, there is a little braiding on the spokes.

A fitting wheel cover for rusty Bob

Whip it. Whip it good.

If you’re all thumbs when it comes to knots, there are a few people around who can do it for you. I was surprised to see one at the Seattle Boat Show 2015.

Whip out your wallet.
Whip out your wallet.

I first learned how to make coachwhipping from Don Casey’s 100 Fast & Easy Boat Improvements where you’ll find good instructions and helpful pictures for using either canvas or cord. In fact, the cover photo of the book is of a wheel being whipped.

Coachwhipping in 4 easy steps
Coachwhipping in 5 easy steps

There are lots of different ways to do it, from the simple canvas braid and Turk’s head knot described here to elaborate patterns and intricate fanciwork such as the example below from Frayed Knot Arts.

Wheel covered with several types of fine whipping

Bend the rule to fit a taper

When I set out to coachwhip my tiller, I was immediately faced with a problem. All of the instructions and examples I could find on the Internet were for tubular objects with no taper from one end to the other. Most tiller handles taper at least a little.

The problem is that, for a braided pattern, the width of the strips (or multiple cords) depends on the number of strips and the circumference of the object you’re whipping. In my case, I wanted to use 6 strips to make an 8″ grip. I chose canvas strips instead of cord for a different look. There’s already a lot of rope coiled up all over Summer Dance.

The circumference of the tiller where I wanted to add the grip is 4″ at the small end and 4.75″ at the larger end. The rule for the width of the strips is to divide the circumference by the number of strips and round up. Using either of the numbers meant that the strips would not fit easily at the other end. If I made the strips the right width to fit the smaller end, there would be gaps at the larger end. If I made the strips to fit the larger end, they would bunch up at the smaller end and not lay flat.

The solution proved was simple – use both numbers and make tapered strips, wider at the larger end and narrower at the smaller end. (I especially like when an answer is not one or the other, but both!) For smooth edges, cut the strips twice the width and fold the edges under to the middle. The rule for the length of the strips is to double the length of the whipping, 16″ in my case.

Using these rules, following are the cut dimensions of the canvas strips that I used:

Small end
4″ ÷ 6 = .666 (finished width)
.666 x 2 = 1.333 (cut width for folded edges)
1.333 rounded up to nearest 1/16″ = 1-5/16″ (1.375)

Large end
4.75″ ÷ 6 = .791 (finished width)
.791 x 2 = 1.583 (cut width for folded edges)
1.583 rounded up to nearest 1/16″ = 1-5/8″ (1.625)

Make the strips

Since there are only 6 strips braided around the tiller, I chose to add a detail that would make them look thinner and add some color contrast. I sewed a line of stitches in navy blue heavy thread down the middle of each strip. The thread matches the color of the Turk’s head knots at each end of the grip and the double visual effect matches the doubled Turk’s head knot construction.

After I cut and stitched the strips, I applied a piece of Seamstick basting tape over the stitches on the back side of each strip before I folded the edges. This held the edges of the strips straight and in the middle as I ironed them flat with a steam iron.

Braid the strips

Applying the strips to the tiller handle was the hardest part, I’ll admit. The tiller is varnished, so the strips tend to slide around and not grip well. You want them to slide a little as you adjust and tighten the braid. But when you get them where you want, they need to stay there. It helps if you can mount the tiller in a vise or clamp it to a table top to hold it stationary as you work.

What I did was wrap a piece of Seamstick basting tape (any double-sided adhesive tape will do) around the tiller at the starting end of the grip under the strips. This held the starting ends of the strips while I braided the rest. I also used two thick rubber bands, one over the starting end and another that I moved along to hold the braid together as I worked toward the finished end.

Canvas strips braided and held with rubber bands
Canvas strips braided and held with rubber bands

I found it easiest to concentrate on forming the braid without worrying much about how tight or straight it was. Only after I had completed the braid did I go back to the beginning and use a hemostat (needle nose pliers would also work) to straighten and tighten each strip. Even then, small gaps between the strips are unavoidable. Here’s where a little magic helps. Using both hands, grip each end of the braid completely around the tiller and push the ends gently toward the middle with a slight twisting motion. Presto! The strips should slide through each other like a Chinese handcuff toy and the holes disappear.

When you get the strips right where you want them, tie them tightly to the tiller with a few wraps of waxed whipping twine around each end before you remove the rubber bands. Trim the strips close to the twine. You’ll cover the ends and the twine next.

Tie Turk’s head knots over the ends

At this point, your whipping has uneven cut ends. Turk’s head knots cover the ends with a seemingly endless braid of cord. The knots also make comfortable palm-size grips themselves. I tied doubled, six bight by seven lead knots on each end of my grip with navy blue 550 paracord. Each knot took about 9′ of cord. There a plenty of web pages and YouTube videos that show how to tie the knot. Here’s an example of illustrated instructions.

To seal and protect

The coachwhipping is now complete but it won’t stay in place or look good for very long. The only thing holding it to the tiller is a piece of tape and a little friction. It will absorb water and skin oil, and trap dirt in its fibers. Apply several coats of satin polyurethane or a similar varnish over the whipping before you use it. That will cement it to the tiller, help hold the strands together, and seal the fibers so that they stay dry and looking great.

A coachwhipped handle, wheel, or rail on your sailboat is sure to get compliments from guests that come aboard. Try it out. You’ll probably think of other places where you could add a functional grip with a nautical look. Think about tool and knife handles. Mine reminds me of a samurai sword handle. I might add matching grips on my sternrail next.

The Bottom Line

Suggested price: n/a
$tingy Sailor cost: $4.29
Savings: n/a

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