This blog is devoted to my John Welsford designed 15' Navigator yawl Ellie. I built her in my garage over a period of 18 months and launched her in 2011. She sports a sliding gunter main, roller furled jib and sprit-boomed mizzen. Her construction is glued-lapstrake over permanent bulkheads and stringers. This blog is a record of her construction and her voyages here in the Puget Sound area and (hopefully) a useful resource for fellow Navigator builders.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

How to build an adjustable tiller lock for a couple bucks

It's that time of year again.  Spring Tweak time!  This year's Spring Tweak is a DIY tiller lock.

This tiller lock is fully adjustable, easy to make, unobtrusive, easily removed and set up, and only costs a few bucks to make.  I'll show you how to make one.

Tiller Locks:

When it comes to tiller locking devices, there's certainly no shortage of them.  Do a Google search for "tiller tamer", or "tiller lock" or something similar, and before you know it you'll have spent your entire day looking at a bewildering assortment of different types, both commercially available and home made.  Don't ask me how I know that.

Tiller locks generally fall into four main categories.

CCCC Small Business Center aids WaveFront successFirst, you've got your on-off lever action type, like this TillerClutch for example.  These usually have a lever mounted towards the front of the tiller that allows you to alternate between locking the tiller in place, or allowing it to move freely.  It's always locked or unlocked, there's no in-between. 
tiller lock boxThen there's the Solid Brace type.  These consist of an adjustable rod that goes from the tiller to a box usually mounted on the seat back.  They're designed to be rugged.  The rod doubles as a tiller extender and can be easily detached to unlock the tiller.  The rod's length can be adjusted as needed.

Next, there's the Friction Knob type, like the ever popular Tiller Tamer.  Here, a knob is used to adjust the amount of friction anywhere from very loose to a full lock.

Also using adjustable friction technology are a variety  of  DIY Shock Cord, Rope and Bungee types.  These are usually home-made and can range from a single piece of rope stretched between two cleats, to devices constructed from bungee cords, fairleads, camcleats, blocks, hooks, and various other items.

Of course they all have their pros and cons.  So how do you decide which one to buy or build?

What makes a good tiller lock (in my opinion):
  • Adjustability means flexability.  I favor the devices that allow the friction to be adjusted from completely free tiller movement all the way up to a full lock.  Dialing in just enough friction to hold the tiller in place still allows an occasional nudge to adjust the boat's course.
  • Don't get in the way.  Most devices have ropes that lead from the front of the tiller to the sides of the boat that block access to outboard motors, block seats, and so on.  This can be a major drawback on a boat with limited space to begin with.
  • Quickly disabled and enabled.  I want to be able to quickly and easily disable or remove the device when I'm done using it, or in case of an emergency.
  • A DIY solution, inexpensive and easily constructed from readily available parts.
  • Strong, reliable, and should not be unattractive.

How my tiller lock works:

My tiller lock is a Friction Knob type.  Tightening the knob pulls up on an eye-bolt, pinching a line against a strip of leather with increasing friction. The amount of friction is fully adjustable from very loose to a full lock.  The friction between the rope and leather is smooth, consistant, and the leather will not wear out any time soon. It is not necessary to locate the tiller lock near the front of the tiller on a boat the size of mine, or on any boat with a well balanced helm.  I located mine slightly forward of my aft coaming and ran the line almost straight across. There, the line is not blocking my way at all but still functions perfectly, so long as I keep the line free of slack. Two jam cleats on my coaming allow me to easily tension the line tightly.  I can instantly remove the device by pulling the line off the jam cleats. A leather washer under the knob protects the tiller from damage and its friction prevents the knob from turning on its own.

Materials needed:

To make my tiller lock you'll need a stainless steel eye-bolt and a few other small items that you can probably find lying around the house or garage.  The eye-bolt I used is a Stanley V2161 that I got from Lowes for $1.28.  You'll also need a small scrap of leather, a couple stainless steel screws, a short piece of rope, and a couple small scraps of wood.  You may also need to purchase a couple small jam cleats.  The knob can be made from a scrap of wood by tapping a threaded hole in it or using a threaded insert, or you can buy a threaded plastic knob at a hardware store for $2.60 like I did.  Or simply use a stainless steel wingnut.

Building the tiller lock:

The lock is very simple and building it should be quite self-explanitory.  Here is a cutaway diagram of how it goes together:
You'll need to drill a 1/4" hole through your tiller for the eye-bolt.

Make the bottom piece from a scrap of wood measuring 2-1/2" long by 1" high by 3/4" thick.  I used white oak.  Cut a 1/4" slot completely through it, long enough for the eye-bolt to fit through, and counterbore a couple of screw holes in it. Round off the corners.

Cut a strip of leather as wide as the inside diameter of the eye-bolt and long enough to wrap around the wooden piece.  Leather from an old belt works fine.  Insert the eye-bolt, then add the leather strip, holding it in place with glue or a couple brass tacks. Make a leather washer for under the knob. Drill the hole in the leather washer oversized so the eye-bolt can freely move up and down through it.

Attach to your tiller, kick back and relax!


  1. Nice idea
    Like it - very smart. Outstanding engineering and quality craftsmanship as always Joel. brilliant post


  2. Very nice, Joel. I have been considering the tiller clutch, but I like the DIY aspect of your design.

    Not having used one of these before, I had assumed I'd either want it locked or not. And when I want it locked I would want it to happen right away. So I was thinking maybe a cam mechanism like a bike quick-release seat could be used. One flip of the lever to lock things down.

    Do you often find it useful to have the tension on partway, adding drag to the tiller movement?

    Thanks - Dave

    1. I find it very useful to have the tension on partway. It allows you to make minor course corrections by giving the tiller a nudge without having to latch and unlatch the device. But it's really a matter of personal preference, and to some degree how the boat performs with the tiller locked (ie how often it needs course corrections may dictate which type of tiller lock works best).

  3. Love this! I'm just coming to the completion of building an 11' dinghy which I intend to coastal tour, and being able to lock the tiller from time to time has great appeal. As I've well and truly blown my budget already, this low cost but seemingly effective DIY solution is a jem of a find! Thanks!!

  4. Hi Joel,
    This DIY solution looks like perfect to me. I have a small traditional wooden boat and have looked tiller lock for "her". Seems like all industrial versions look stupid in old looking boat. But this DIY version is good. Thans for sharing this. I found your blog reasently and I'm kind of fan of your blog :D

  5. Joel,

    Very smart design. I have used the Tiller Clutch and found it to work good, but I like the partial lock afforded by this devise. Thanks so much for sharing. I'll use this on my next build.

  6. I like this Idea, its not too complicated for us simple people, only question I have is the drilling thru the tiller handle, wont that create a weak spot for possible breakage under extreme strain, how bout devising some sort of sleeve that will go around the tiller to act as a support. just a thought

    1. Use your best judgement. The helm on my little yawl is so well balanced I can steer with two fingers on the tiller.

  7. I made one similar to that one, mine has two eye bolts, one on each side of the tiller, so as to not to have to drill holes in my tiller.

  8. Making one for my DS II. I'd rather make than buy for the fun and next up will be your furler modified as needed. Two thumbs up !