Companionway Entry Steps

Project date: 2005

In the general method of grading things, there is "mint" condition, which we all know means factory-new, and "Bristol", which is not all that well known. The term Bristol describes something better than mint - that is, something better than factory perfect. Bristol is probably over-used to describe a boat, and I have seen more than one ad for a used boat using this term. Without something to show for it, how can something be classified as Bristol? This is one of the projects that may help to bring a boat into Bristol condition.

The problem: After time, as the boat is used, the carpeted steps become harder and harder to clean. Seems that we clean the carpeted steps with a steam cleaner, then next weekend - they are dirty again. There has to be an improvement.

My solution: replace the carpeted steps with wood ones. Selecting the wood for this project was not as simple as first seems. The wood needs to match the Cherry trim in the rest of the cabin, and the wood must be durable. This suggests using Oak - a traditional wood used for interior steps in homes. However Cherry won out, since I wanted everything to match.

While Cherry is a nice wood for cabinet making, it is rather expensive. I was surprised to find that good woodworking Cherry is rather rare, hence the expense. I did find some nice Cherry seconds at the lumber yard, but it still cost $100.



I am a purist when it comes to woodworking, so I really have a problem with staining fine wood - however, to get the wood to match the existing trim, I need to slightly stain the wood with a Cherry stain.

For this project, I had to purchase a Jointer/Planer, since the cost of the wood was too prohibitive to purchase pre-planed boards. The lumber yard would plane the boards if I wished for a nominal shop fee, but due to the construction techniques I employed, I had to plane the wood during construction. At least that was the excuse I used to purchase a new shop tool.

Step 1 of the project was to make a set of templates from the existing steps. I started with construction foam board, and made templates at the boat. After this set of templates were made, I made a second set from 1/8in Masonite that would withstand the abuse of the project. I found some errors in my foam board templates that I corrected on the Masonite set.

Using construction techniques similar to other projects I have done, I biscuit-cut and edge-glued each board together using Pro-Bond/Gorilla Glue - a high strength waterproof polyeurethane glue.

As I did with previous projects, I made an inlay by micro-routing an image of an anchor with a rode around it. After doing this, and cleaning up the cut, I used casting epoxy, mixed with green dye, and allowed 24 hours to cure before continuing.

Shortly into the curing cycle, you can remove any remaining bubbles with a micro-torch. After the image is completely dry, you can sand it off smooth with the surface of the wood. You have to make sure and get every bit of the epoxy out of the surrounding area, since any remaining will interfere with the staining process.

With this project, I decided to use a wood border around each step. Since the steps were odd-shaped, this was a bit time consuming. I cut down the assembled step to the required size, then ran all four surfaces through the jointer/planer again. This is the reason I could not have the lumber yard plane the boards - they need a finish jointing after the initial assembly. This was a somewhat difficult process, since part of the jointing was on the grain edge. Joint the grain first, with very small cut depths, and tear out will be a minimum, and will be removed when jointing the non edge-grain sides.

The top piece is now finished. Now all that remains is to finish-cut the piece, then apply the finish polyeruathane. I decided to finish the piece with a mat finish to keep the step from being slippery.

The bottom piece gets the same inlay treatment as the top piece - but this time, we decided to make a rope motif around the border of the step. This was the wife's idea really, and I think overall it makes the piece look really great! One idea they teach you in Art classes is to tie-in multiple areas. The rope ties-in both pieces, I think.

Well the first test fit wasn't too successful. I did not account for brackets under the steps. This is one of the difficulties when the boat is not located near by. The solution was to raise the entire step 3/8in. I plan to do this with shims, which is OK, because it will make the step look thicker. Well, back to the wood shop.

You can also see that the step is too light. At this point, the step has 2 coats of matte polyeurthane on it, and it is really too light. This required me to completely sand off the finish, stain the top, then apply finish again. One characteristic of Cherry is that it does darken over time with exposure to sunlight, so the wood should be a slight bit too light after machining - but this was way too light. An alternative to staining immediately is to let the wood set out in the sun a day or two, then compare them again.

Compare the thickness of this step with the thickness of the step in subsequent photos. The thicker step is a result of adding the shims to the step to bring it above the brackets.

OK - here it is, finally the finished product. Man, isn't that just cool. Each step has 3 coats of matte polyeurethane applied to it, but it really looks pretty glossy even so. The steps don't seem to be too slippery either.

The one item that I had to think about was how to fasten the steps. Both steps have to remain removeable, since I have to get into the wiring underneath. This requirement meant I could not make any kind of blind fastener. Therefore, I simply decided to use nice brass screws. Rather than hide the screws, I decided to show them off. I found these neat machined brass screw rings that helps set the screws off a bit.

The last item in this project was to carry over the step idea to the starboard side. This area was carpeted as well, so I replaced it with a Cherry piece to match the rest of the step. Besides, the anchor on the top step could get lost without a cleat to secure the bitter end! This piece did not have to be removed, so I secured it with a couple of pieces of 3M's VHB (Very High Bond) double-sided tape.

Well, we came full-circle on this project. We were worried about the long term scuffing of the floor, so we found a custom carpet shop (Custom Marine Carpet) that made some nice carpets from copies of the templates I sent them. These carpets are some of the same stuff that is OEM from boat manufacturers, and they have a variety of colors and textures.


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