How secure are you moving about below in rough weather? Can you safely negotiate from the companionway to the vee-berth when things are bouncing? Our Columbia 10.7 has a typical layout for an older 35-footer. A galley to port and nav station to starboard, both next to the companionway. The galley and the nav station both butted up against a partial bulkhead that was also the aft end of each settee. There were handholds at the upper corners of the companionway, very useful when coming down the companionway ladder. However, once you reached the cabin sole, it was a long stretch to reach the overhead handrails over the settees, especially for a shorter person.
I looked at other boats in magazines and at boat shows and found many varieties of handholds and handhold locations. Visits to these boats and sister ships convinced me that adding handholds to the nav station and galley would be practical additions and easy to accomplish. In addition, a properly designed handhold on the galley side would also allow me to add an additional storage cabinet over the galley sink.
An improperly located or awkward handhold would be almost as useless as no handhold at all. Therefore, before I cut any real wood, I wanted to make sure the handholds were in the right location and were the right size. I started out with a length of 1-1/2” x 1-1/2” aluminum angle, available at any building supply store.
I held this up against various parts of the galley and nav station to see what impact it would have on the existing structures. I immediately discovered that the handhold had to be aft of the partial bulkheads or it would interfere with raising the settee backs. The galley sink would prevent me from burying the base of the handhold inside the galley cabinet. Similarly, the nav station handhold would have to be on the outside of the nav station to allow the top of the nav station to open.
My next step was to jury rig the aluminum angle in the chosen spots with C-clamps, duct tape and filler strips. A short piece of 2” x 2” was taped in the center of the temporary handhold to give me something to grab on to. I left these temporary handholds in place as I worked around the boat. Going up and down the companionway and back and forth in the cabin allowed me to evaluate the locations.
I soon found out just how useful these were. It immediately felt natural to grab on to them as if they had been there all along. Now that I had found the perfect location for the handhold, it was time to select the right size.
This took me longer than I first thought it would. I first made a set of handholds from standard lumberyard 2x2s. These actually measure 1-1/2” x 1-1/2”. After clamping them in place, I again tried them out for a week or so. The 2x2s turned out to be too small to be comfortable for our hands and seemed flimsy. Remember, these handholds may well have to survive an impact from a person falling against it. Both the handhold and the fastenings need to be up to the task.
Our next step was to go to our local wood shop/lumber yard and have them cut two lengths of poplar – 1-3/4” x 1-3/4”. Poplar is an inexpensive wood readily available in thicker sizes. I did a much more careful job of cutting and fitting these temporary handholds. The handholds had to fit around the round teak trim on the edge of the partial bulkhead and the edge of the nav station desktop, for example. I clamped them in place and used them for a week or two. This confirmed our location once again.
Size and Style
With the location tested and verified, I could then move on to the actual design. In our research and visits, I had found many different styles of handholds. Some used brass or stainless steel pipe; others had fancy turned wood columns, while still others had variations of straight columns. The metal handholds were cold, clammy and sometimes slippery. I couldn’t find any reasonably priced turned columns and most common wood lathes couldn’t turn more than a length of 36”, effectively ruling out a turned column.
That left me the straight column designs. The more I looked at them, the more it seemed to fit the interior style of our boat. I went back to our already in place poplar handholds and rounded off the edges with a 1/2” radius “round over” bit in our router. It immediately became clear that the 1-3/4” square poplar was not comfortable. It was too large for me to get our hands around.
Given that the 2x2s (net size 1-1/2” x 1-1/2”) was too small and the 1-3/4” square stock was too large, 1-5/8” stock seemed the right answer. Now you may think me too anal about the sizes but it really does make a difference! I don’t have any stationary power tools, so I ordered our stock cut to size and had it shipped to me. There are many choices for the handhold stock. Teak is probably at the top of the list if you want to float the bank loan. Cherry, ash and walnut are also good candidates. In the end, I chose mahogany.
While I was waiting for our stock to arrive, I experimented with the poplar handholds. While the flat sides with rounded corners looked okay, I wanted to dress them up a little. After some experimentation with various router bits, I ended up with two flutes on each face. This made an interesting design as well as providing a more secure grip. The flutes were cut using a hand-held router with an edge guide and a “core box” bit. This cut a shallow groove about 1/4” wide and 3/16” of an inch deep. The practice time on the expendable poplar came in handy when it was time to work on the more expensive mahogany.
Once the mahogany stock arrived, it was time to make the real handholds. Again, the corners would be rounded with a 1/2” “round over” bit and the flutes cut with a 1/4” “core box” bit. I stopped the rounding and flutes several inches blow the cabin overhead and above the nav station and galley top. The actual dimensions aren’t critical as long as you stop all the cuts at the same level. A simple stop C-clamped to the square stock worked for me.
The installation of the handholds was further complicated because they had to fit around the rounded edge molding on the partial bulkheads. Here again the temporary poplar handholds proved valuable. Using a 3/4” “core box” bit and some simple guides, I was able to route a groove to fit around the trim.
Final finishing, after trial fitting, was to lightly sand the flutes to relieve the sharp edges and give them an overall sanding. Much of the wood inside our boat is teak or at least teak colored. I’ve found that a single application of a dark walnut stain on reddish mahogany results in an almost perfect match with the rest of the wood below. Finally, six coats of rubbed-effect varnish would complete the job.
Before I finished the handholds, though, I trial fitted them. The lower ends of the handholds fit in the corners between the nav station and settee bulkhead on one side and the galley cabinet and settee bulkhead on the other side. Both the nav station and the galley cupboard were built using 1/2” plywood and 3/4” square corner cleats. I replaced the cleats with 1-1/2” square oak stock for additional strength.
The upper ends of the handholds were located by using square plywood “donuts” cut from three-quarter inch marine plywood. These were epoxied and screwed to the overhead. The top ends of the handholds fit into the square “donut hole”. The handholds are not permanently fastened at the top so they could be removed if necessary.
The bottom ends of the handholds were through-bolted to the galley and nav station sides with oval-headed stainless steel screws and finishing washers. Be sure to use a backing plate or large washers along with locking nuts on the backside. Once the fitting was done, I removed the handholds and completed final finishing.
I couldn’t wait to have the handholds back aboard and installed. In the time they were up, I had become used to grabbing them whenever necessary and it felt uncomfortable not having them up.
After the handholds were installed and being used, I identified some other areas in need of handholds. Teak handrails, available at most marine stores, where used for these locations. I added one on the side of the companionway to help swing myself out of the nav station. Another was located on the galley cabinet close to the handhold. Yet another was added to the side of the galley counter (doubles as a towel rack) and on the side of the nav station. Be sure and properly through-bolt these, as they too, can be under a great deal of stress.
Well, there you have it. I have come to appreciate and use the handholds. In fact, they feel like they’ve always been there. For a minimal expenditure of money and time, you too can add good looking and useful safety items to your boat’s interior.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of suppliers, just ones I’m familiar with. Check the Internet or your local Yellow Pages for local suppliers.
Edensaw Woods, Ltd
211 Seton Road
Port Townsend, WA 98368
Raven Wood Services
5510 Brooks Rd.
Halfmoon Bay, BC
Canada V0N 1Y2
Toll Free 1-877-9433
M.L Condon Company, Inc.
Anchor Hardwoods, Inc.
The Wood & Shop, Inc.
I ordered the stock cut to size (but not length), as I didn’t have the stationary power tools to rip the stock. These are the tools I used to complete this project.
18-volt circular saw
Various router bits
MinWax Special Walnut stain
The galley-side vertical handhold fastened in place. Note the far side cabinet support.
The upper end of the galley-side vertical handhold and the new cabinet.
The nav station side vertical handhold with the top located in the plywood “donut”.