Recent Shallow Draft columns have included reader comments on wishbone tillers—not all favorable—giving me the opening I’ve been waiting for. Like it or not, we want to show you how to make one of those weird tillers that wrap around mizzen masts on small sailboats.
I know, you may not give a whit about mizzen masts, either, but bear with us as we talk about small things of marginal value. The good news: There won’t be a test at the end…if you make it that far.
Our introduction to wishbone tillers began years ago, with a fetching 13’ canoe yawl designed in the late 1800’s by George Holmes of England’s Humber Yawl Club. This example, NORD VINDEN, was built in the 1980’s, and while we loved sailing the boat we were especially infatuated with her wishbone tiller—an elegant, artistic example of steambent oak, copper-riveted and wonderfully functional.
Over the past year we’ve been working part-time on MOUSE, a glued-lapstrake gunter yawl. While MOUSE is only 14’ on deck, she is 20’ overall including bowsprit and boomkin, and with a beam of 6’ 6” she feels like a little ship. (As mentioned a few times, we’ll offer a series of SCA articles on MOUSE in the not-distant future, but today we’re sticking with wishbone tillers.)
With a mizzen mast planted 9” forward of the transom on a 21”-deep aft deck, we had the right amount of room to fashion a steambent wishbone around the mizzen. The first task was to buy a pricy eight-quarter slab of green (bending) oak—enough for half a dozen wishbones, but the smallest hunk available. We then milled a 44”-long piece into 1/8”-3/16” x 3/4” strips that, once steam-bent, could survive the incredibly tight bends planned for our wishbone. (Side note: If you ever do this, make sure to orient your tablesaw cuts so that you’re bending flat grain, not vertical.)
After finishing the millwork, and taking measurements to be sure our wishbone design would allow enough port-to-starboard swing, we designed a bending form consisting of two layers of 3/4” exterior fir plywood, with holes drilled around the inside perimeter to host lots of clamps. (When bending thin layers of wood around such a form—especially if bends are small in radius—you need to avoid gaps between the laminations…so it’s one of those more-clamps-the-merrier situations.
So, even though a wishbone tiller might not be in your future, hearty congrats for making it through this narrow-focused installment. If you have questions, comments, or better things you’d like to read in the future, please post them below. Back to work! - Marty •SCA•