If you don’t have a locking mechanism on your tiller yet, don’t you sometimes wish you did? Then you could lock the tiller in place while you attend to other things for a few minutes or under the right conditions, relax and let the boat sail itself. A tiller lock is the next best thing to having a crew member or an autopilot take the helm for you. There are several tiller lock designs on the market and all of them do a reasonable job. But like everything else marine-related, they can be expensive for what they are.
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If you’ve procrastinated adding a lock to your tiller, this project is for you. I’ll show you how you can make a simple but effective tiller lock for just a few bucks. The design is by Tom Luque, a personal friend and the mastermind at Mastgates.com. Tom invented and tested the design as a possible new product on his website. Instead, he decided to release it into the wild and he asked me to present it to you here.
Note: Except for the optional quick-release lever mentioned at the end of this article, neither Tom or I will receive any compensation if you purchase parts to make this tiller lock.
An Adjustable Rope Clamp on Your Tiller
All tiller locks are rope clamps of one variation or another. For comparison, one of the more popular commercial tiller locks is the Davis Tiller Tamer. Tom’s design avoids all unnecessary parts, complexity, and cost with an adjustable J-bolt mounted right through the tiller itself. In its simplest form, it’s three parts: a piece of rope and a J-bolt with a knob to clamp the rope between the J-bolt and the tiller.
Here are the parts that you’ll need and a few optional parts that you may want to consider:
- 1/4″ rope long enough to tie between both sides of the transom and to lead through the J-bolt on the tiller. For very small sailboats, this could be accessory cord or paracord.
- 3/16″ diameter stainless steel J-bolt 2-1/2″ long with 10-24 threads. A shorter J-bolt may be used if it is long enough to accept a knob on top of your tiller. An online source for J-bolts is Unicorn Stainless. You can substitute a zinc plated bolt if you don’t want to use stainless steel.
- Knurled knob with 10-24 threads tapped through. You might have one of these in your spare parts from a sail track stop. If not, try your favorite hardware store.
- #10 nylon or stainless steel washer to reduce friction when you tighten the knob and to reduce wear on your tiller
- 3/16″ compression spring to keep the J-bolt pulled against the rope so that the rope cannot fall out (optional)
- Saddle from a wire rope clip the same size to fit the J-bolt and increase the grip on the J-bolt against the rope (optional). Compress the J-bolt slightly with a vise to fit the saddle, if necessary.
The only tool you will need is an electric hand drill with a 1/4″ bit.
To install the tiller lock:
- With your tiller mounted on your sailboat and aligned with the keel, find a location on the tiller where you want to install the J-bolt. It should be easy to reach but out of harm’s way. A good place is behind where you normally grip the tiller.
- Tie the 1/4″ rope to both sides of the transom—around the pushpit stanchions is a good place. You can also tie it to the aft mooring cleats. Leave enough slack in the rope so that the middle can pass through the J-bolt. The angle formed by the rope should not be less than about 90°. See How to Install a Tiller Lock for a picture of the general arrangement.
- When you are satisfied with the location of the J-bolt and the rope ends, remove the tiller and drill a 1/4″ hole vertically through the tiller handle.
- Measure the distance across the opening of the J-bolt and drill a second hole on the bottom side of the tiller behind the first but not all the way through. Make this hole only deep enough for the short side of the J-bolt to recess into the hole and clamp the rope tightly without hitting the bottom of the hole. If you will use the optional wire rope clip saddle, the hole does not need to be as deep as it does without it. The holes should look like the picture below.
- Assemble the tiller lock as shown in the first picture.
- Make sure the J-bolt moves freely in the holes when the knob is loose and it clamps the rope tightly when you tighten the knob.
To use your new tiller lock on the water, just tighten the knob when you want to lock the tiller in place. Loosen the knob to take manual control again. If the threaded end of the J-bolt is long enough, you can loosen the knob to unhook the rope and tie it out-of-the-way when you don’t need it. If it’s not long enough but the hook end of the J-bolt has plenty to spare, you can cut a little off the hook to make it easier to remove the rope. Perfect fit and function depend on your tiller thickness and the parts you buy.
If you want to make the tiller lock even more convenient, contact Tom at Mastgates.com about a quick-release cam handle to replace the knob. Then you can apply and release the lock with a flick of the lever. If you’re an extreme DIYer, try adapting a bicycle seat clamp lever to fit the J-bolt.
If you make this tiller lock, be sure to drop by Mastgates.com and thank Tom for the great idea and his generosity. If you’re more interested in an electronic autopilot, see How to Install a Tiller Autopilot.
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