Installing a Wooden Toerail

This page was last updated on 12 October 2008

The toerail on the Triton is molded as in integral part of the deck structure, and is where, from beneath, the hull and deck are fiberglassed together.  The molded portion is hollow, and fiberglass cloth forced into the hollow from beneath is used to secure the hull and deck together.   In most places, there is a void between the molded toerail and the tabbing that is secured beneath.  This can lead to breakage and damage should an impact occur, as was the case on Glissando.

hullaftersanding12.jpg (23660 bytes)Perhaps somewhat uniquely, the hull-deck joint on the Triton is flush--there is no overhanging external flange, and the deck is carefully molded to fit nearly perfectly along the entire hull.  Originally, the thin seam between the hull and deck was covered with a bronze or stainless steel half-oval molding that was screwed in place.

The entire length of the toerail on the starboard side was riddled with stress cracks of varying severity.  It was pretty obvious from looking at the cracks that repairing them was going to be a difficult task.  Stress cracks have an insidious way of reappearing despite all attempts to stabilize and hide them, and nothing could be worse after spending long hours on a nice paint job than finding cracks reappearing after a short while.  Proper and effective repair of stress cracks usually involves one of two methods:  either grinding away the cracked material until solid, sound material is revealed beneath (typically through the gelcoat and into a layer or two of the underlying laminate); or laminating new material over the top to stabilize the surface and cover the cracks.

Regardless of the type of repair, to be effective it would require a substantial investment in time and effort--much of it involving difficult sanding and fairing of a curved molded surface.  This seemed like a lot of effort that might produce results of questionable enduring quality.  The toerail is an important feature to the boat in that it defines the sheerline and is very noticeable from the water and from the deck.  Therefore, a smooth, fair appearance is critical.

Portions of the toerail were also damaged--reasons unknown.  At the bow, there was a sort of "bite" out of the molded top part of the toerail, which revealed the tabbing beneath.  Obviously, this would require repair and refairing.  It looked like I had a lot of work ahead to repair and refair the starboard side alone.

Triton121.jpg (64172 bytes)The port side was even worse.  The previous owner had begun structural work to the port side of the deck, and had removed the old core--replacing it with a new core and partial overlay of new fiberglass cloth.  In the process, he also ground all the cracked gelcoat off the full length of the toerail, the net result being that the rail was quite rough and unfair.  A substantial amount of careful fairing and sanding would be required to repair it.  In addition, there were several other areas of the port toerail that contained substantial damage--again, the reasons behind the damage were unknown.

Two small sections of the port toerail near amidships were cut away, and the beginnings of rudimentary freeing ports, or scuppers, were installed.  The photo at right shows the more complete of these scuppers, located aft of amidships on the port side.  The toerail was cut away, and the area shaped and glassed.  The reasoning behind this modification was that water collected on the deck in that area and didn't drain.  We feel that the lack of drainage was a result of the bow-down attitude of the boat in it's cradle in the boatyard (see a photo here for illustration) and that the deck will drain fine when the boat is sitting properly.  Therefore, repairing these cutouts was added to the ever-growing list of issues to deal with on the toerails.  They certainly did nothing to enhance the sheerline of the boat.

A second cutout was in the beginnings of formation  next to the chainplates.  This area had also suffered some damage, the result being that there were openings into the interior through the toerail in this area.  The photo to the right shows part of the most damaged area on the port side; that's the aft chainplate  seen in the center of the photo. 



This is another photo of the area.  In the center of the photo is the main chainplate for the upper shrouds; just aft of that is the partially formed deck scupper.  The after chainplate (as seen in the photo above) is just out of the frame on the left.  This area was a real mess, very chewed up, and would require substantial reconstruction.



In addition, the taffrail was fairly beat up and damaged as well, particularly around the slot where the backstay chainplate had been installed.  Again, in order to restore this part of the rail to an appropriate appearance, a significant amount of repair, sanding and fairing would be required.

1As I tallied up the work list, I realized that repairing and restoring the toerail was going to take a lot of time.  The problem was, the end result of all this effort would be to restore a molded fiberglass rail that, frankly, seemed a little antiseptic and stark.  Admittedly easy to maintain, the stark fiberglass rail, I felt, would use some sprucing up anyway--a little wood might enhance the overall appearance of the boat.  I love the warm look of varnished wood, and actually enjoy varnishing.  Therefore, the addition of more wood did not phase me.

I began thinking of ways to add wood to enhance the boat's appearance and accentuate the sheerline--and in the process cover up and repair the existing fiberglass rail.  Maybe I could create a sort of box structure over the toerail using thin strips of wood.  I spent some time mulling this idea.  How much would it cost?  How practical an idea was it?  Would it look the way I hoped?  I figured I could use 1/4" thicknesses of wood, which would be thin enough to easily conform to the curves of the hull yet heavy enough to be structurally sound.  Measuring the rails, I determined a rough quantity of lumber that would be required for the job.  A call to my hardwood supplier confirmed my worst fears--teak, my initial choice, was ridiculously expensive.  Somewhat deterred, I reconsidered.  It seemed that my mindset had been distorted by the nearly ubiquitous choice of teak as the wood of choice for deck trim; but wasn't Honduras mahogany the choice of material for many older and more traditional crafts' trimwork?  The price for mahogany, while high, was at least within the realm of affordability for what I hoped to accomplish.  I decided to press ahead with my idea.

The plan as it came together in my mind involved attaching 1/4" mahogany boards to the inside and outside of the toerail, extending approximately 1/4" higher than the top of the existing molding.  To strengthen the entire structure, I planned to fill this resulting void with a thickened epoxy mixture.  Then, I would secure a final board over the top, creating a caprail that would finish off the boxed structure.  The wood would be cosmetic, but would effectively hide the entire rail from view--meaning that I could avoid attempting to repair the stress cracks and some of the other flaws in the rail.  I measured once again to confirm what I needed, and ordered the mahogany.  Because I didn't have the capability in my small shop to resaw and/or thickness plane lumber, I ordered the material pre-milled to 1/4" thickness and 4" width, in as long lengths as possible.

While waiting for my lumber to be milled and delivered,  I set about patching the worst holes in the toerail--the port side, near the chainplates.  First, I installed some new tabbing from inside the boat to seal up those areas where the old rail had somehow become ripped apart.  Then, I started filling some of the depressions and breakage from the top with thickened epoxy mixtures.  I often used up whatever I had left over from some of the other fairing jobs that I was tending to at the time, spreading the remains over the gaping wounds in the toerail.  These applications were of a non-structural nature, as the rail is held together with the fiberglass installed from the inside; the fill was intended only to build up the broken areas to give the soon-to-be installed wood veneer the proper support.  I used West System epoxy resin mixed to a thick consistency with colloidal silica and low-density structural filler.

toerail1-4600.jpg (35720 bytes)      toerail2-4600.jpg (34928 bytes)

I also patched the "scupper" cutouts roughly with thickened epoxy.  Again, these repairs did not have to be particularly structural or attractive; they are only intended to fill the voids so that the entire rail is fairly consistent.  This will be important when it comes time to clamp  and secure the wood rail veneers in place.  To fill the cutouts, I made crude molds of thin plywood covered with waxed paper, and clamped two pieces around each cutout--on the inside and outside.  Then, I filled the voids with thickened epoxy.  (aftermost cutout shown to the left) The molds held the thick mixture in the proper place and allowed it to cure without sagging or running.  Because the forward cutout and toerail (below) in the general area was such a mess, I didn't bother filling and shaping it to full height; instead, I concentrated on getting a smooth and fair line on the inside and outside of the toerail so that my wood veneer would be properly supported. With this patching complete, and the delivery of the milled mahogany, I could move forward with installing the wooden box over the toerail.

The plan of attack is to box the molded fiberglass original toerail with a piece of the 1/4" mahogany on each side, to be just high enough to be a little taller than the original.  With these in place, I plan to fill the resulting void with thickened epoxy, and attach a third 1/4" piece on top as a caprail.  The wood will be secured in place with 3M 5200 sealant and stainless steel screws.

The first step was to lay out the bottom extent of the outside rail--that is, how far down the hull should the outside piece be extended, both for appearance and to cover the visible seam between the hull and deck.  I determined this location arbitrarily by temporarily clamping one of the boards in place along the sheer and moving it up and down until I found the spot where I felt the appearance was most pleasing.  On my boat, this ended up  being about 1/2" below the seam where the hull meets the deck molding.  Because this seam was consistent around the perimeter of the boat, it was a simple matter to place a series of pencil marks 1/2" below the seam all the way around the hull.  Next, I held a piece of my milled stock up, keeping the bottom aligned with the marks on the hull,  to see how much excess there would be at the top; I ended up ripping about 1" off the 4" pieces, which left just over 1/4" extending above the top of the existing rail.  Later I'll trim this down to exactly 1/4".

I moved on to dry fit the outside rail veneer. Starting at the stern on the port side, I clamped one of the pieces in place.  After making sure it was properly aligned with the marks on the hull, I drilled holes and countersinks every 16" or so for  #10x1" flathead 316 stainless self tapping screws which will hold the board in place.  It took three sections  of wood to extend the length of the hull on the port side.  Where the boards met at their ends, I stuck with a simple butt joint.  This part of the process went relatively quickly, although the flare of the hull forward combined with the curvature of the deck made the last 10 feet or so at the bow more difficult.  

With the outside boards screwed in place, I prepared to remove them and resecure them permanently with 5200 and screws.  I planned to rely upon the strong adhesive qualities of the 5200 to hold the rails in place more than the screws over the long-term; the screws, while providing a secondary, mechanical fastening, are intended more to help secure the boards while the adhesive cured.  Removing one section at a time, I gooped on heavy beads of 5200, and then reattached each section in turn, carefully tightening the screws.  I erred in one or two sections near the ends of the planks and overtightened the screws, which caused the thin wood to split.  I hope that I'll be able to hid these areas successfully with a carefully applied epoxy patch.  Towards the bow, where the curvature and flare of the hull became more distinct, I used some clamps to help hold the boards in place. I let the boards run wild at the bow and stern for now; later I'll trim them to the proper length.  The next day, I repeated the procedure on the starboard side.  This left me with the outer boards in place on both sides, and I was almost ready to move on to the inside.

toerailportstern.jpg (39296 bytes)     toerailportbow.jpg (32608 bytes)    

First, though,  I trimmed the outer pieces down to their finished height.  To do this, I fastened a 1/4" thick batten to the top of the fiberglass toerail (the screw holes will be covered in the final product); the batten acts as a guide for the bottom guide bearing of a flush trim router bit that I installed in my router.  Carefully holding the router flat on the outside of the trim board, and adjusting the depth of the bit so the bearing rested on the batten, I trimmed the outer board down to exactly 1/4" above the fiberglass toerail.

With this done on both sides, I measured for the height of the inside rail (1 1/2") and trimmed enough of the mahogany stock for the job to the proper width.  Then, following generally the same steps as for the outside, I clamped each piece temporarily in place,  drilling for and installing screws.  When all the pieces were dry fit, I removed them one at a time, ran a heavy bead of 5200, and reinstalled the strips the final time with the stainless steel screws.



Now that both the inner and outer boards were secured in place, the final shape of the boxed toerail was beginning to emerge.  Before proceeding,  I spent some time working on the bow and stern ends, where some additional details were required.

At the stern, I attached a small piece of the 1/4" mahogany over the exposed end, between the inner and outer trim pieces.  This piece will be cut off flush once the void is filled with epoxy.  At the bow, I intend to install a mahogany anchor roller platform, so I measured a 12" wide space and trimmed the inner and outer rails flush with the fiberglass bow area; the platform, when installed, will fit in this area, and the trim will but up cleanly against it.  All the fiberglass will be hidden.

Next, I filled the void between the two trim pieces (inner and outer) with thickened epoxy.  This will solidify the entire rail, and will provide a strong, flat place for the caprail to be attached.  This took a lot more epoxy than I thought it would, but the end result is a very strong-feeling rail, and the caprail should sit nicely on top.  When the epoxy kicked, I sanded any protruding areas flush with the surrounding wood.  An area near the chainplates on the port side--where the original toerail had been broken and patched--got very hot when the epoxy was applied, since there was a fairly large void there.  Although I was not particularly worried about compromising the structural integrity of the epoxy--it really doesn't serve an important structural purpose to the boat--I was concerned about possibly burning the wood, so I dribbled a little water over the hot, smoking areas until they cooled.  The heat expanded the epoxy above the level I intended, so I had to grind it down the next day.


With the side boards and epoxy in place, it was time to install the caprail--the finishing touch.  I installed the caprail over the course of two days, one side per day.  Each side took about two hours.

Using more of my 1/4" stock, I began at the transom and laid out the boards, cutting them as necessary and angling the next board to match the curvature of the hull.  The boards overhung the side boards by a considerable amount in most places; this will be trimmed off later.  As I went, I drilled for screws and countersinks, and installed temporary screws to hold each piece in place as I worked on the next one.

Once all the pieces were fit (it took six relatively short lengths to conform to the curve and reach the full length of the toerail) I removed the screws and boards, cleaned the area and applied beads of 5200, one near each edge.  Then, I reinstalled the boards with stainless steel screws into the bed of 5200, sealing and adhering them permanently in place.  I left this to kick for a couple days before continuing.

Next, I prepared to trim the caprail flush with the side rails.  To do this, I used a router with a flush-trim bit equipped with a bottom bearing, which rides along the sideboards and prevents the cutter from removing too much material. This created a huge amount of shavings and wood chips but left me with a flush edge on both sides of the caprail.  To complete the milling and give the edges a more finished appearance, I rounded each edge with a 1/4" roundover bit in my router.  Then, I sanded the entire rail smooth with a palm sander.





To plug the countersunk screwholes, I cut hundreds of mahogany plugs with a plug cutter chucked into my drill press, and glued them in place in the screw holes with resorcinol glue.  This was a boring task.  A couple days later, I sanded all the plugs flush, and gave the entire rail a final sanding with 220 grit paper to ready it for varnish.

I installed a new wooden box over the existing taffrail in much the same way.  The only difference was that, after cutting and fitting all the pieces--inside, outside and caprail--I installed them all at once in a bed of thick epoxy,  This saved time and eliminated the need for the sealant I used on the other rails.  Once the epoxy was kicked, I sanded everything smooth and plugged the screwholes, then sanded the plugs flush the next day.

I wanted to get a few coats of varnish on the rails right away, to protect them from water (every time it rains, portions of the rail get dripped on and stained) and sunlight--the mahogany darkens after only a day or so exposed to sun.  Plus, when the rails are at least partially varnished the wood will be protected from spills, traffic, etc, and I will be able to fill the gap at the bottom of the inner toerail with caulk.  I also want to get a total of 10 or more coats of varnish on these rails before launching day next year, so it was time to start.

I sanded everything with 220 grit, and then vacuumed the whole boat and rail off; then I cleaned the rails with paint thinner to remove any remaining dust.  I then taped off the hull and deck at the edges of the rails, and tacked everything off.  The first coat of varnish is a 50-50 mix of Epifanes gloss and Epifanes white thinner, to allow the varnish to penetrate the wood as much as possible.  It went on easily.  The first several coats will not require too much finesse; they are foundation only.  Each successive coat will be a higher varnish to thinner ratio--the second coat will be approximately 25% thinner, the third coat approximately 15%, then subsequent coats will be thinned only as necessary for proper flowing.  After 5 or 6 coats, thoroughly sanded the rails to flatten the varnish, so that the final number of coats will go on flat and smooth, giving that mirror-like finish desired.  I applied a total of 10 coats of varnish to all surfaces.



The completed toerail has accomplished everything I had hoped.  It accentuates the sheerline and really adds warmth and character to the profile of the boat.  The end result is very pleasing, whether viewed from deck level or from the water.  The new rail gives an impression of heft and substance, as only close inspection reveals that it is made from several pieces of wood rather than being a solid piece.  Additionally, it provides a slight edge in security on deck, as it creates a sort of short bulwark on the edge of the deck.  And there has been no problem with water collecting in the area of the ill-fated deck scuppers on the port side.  As a final step, when the varnish was complete I ran a bead of sealant along the bottom edge of the inner rail, to seal the slight gap left there during installation.         

Update:  2008

As faithful readers know, in 2003 I added a rubrail and brass rubstrip to the base of the toerail that made an impressive difference in the overall appearance of the toerail, and of the boat as a whole.  This addition really finished things off.  When properly maintained, the toerail and rubrail combination makes an important statement on the boat, and sets her apart. 

While I like this wooden toerail a lot, and continue to feel that the approach I took made sense given the conditions at hand when I built it in 2000, I would not do the same thing again.  The real problem with the toerail, which is made of many separate pieces of wood, as you can see in the discussion above, is that there are too many seams; these seams, however well they seem to be sealed, tend to allow water beneath the varnish, which can cause it to lift.

For several winters, I fought lifting and flaking varnish annually, as the cold weather seemed to essentially freeze the varnish right off the wood, in those areas where water had gotten behind (and which had been unnoticeable in the fall).  Maintaining the varnish on the toerails continues to be a constant battle, as it is with all varnished toerails to some extent--but in this case, the myriad seams, coupled with overall construction techniques that could have been better than they were (never stop learning), simply make it harder than it needs to be to maintain the finish.

The initial appearance of the flaked-off varnish during the winters was a surprise to me, and caught me unawares.  This problem was exacerbated by a year (2006) in which I performed no maintenance on the varnish, and I was still catching up as of this writing.  The condition of the toerails in early 2007 was simply embarrassing.

In the end, I am prepared to deal with the continuing maintenance problem, though it generally means that some areas of the toerail get stripped to bare wood each year.   The rails still look good, though my reluctance to completely strip 100% of the varnish off the rails each year has led to some color variations in the rails, most noticeably between the top, horizontal surface and the outer portion of the rail; the varnish on these two sections wears in completely different ways, with the top receiving the worst UV from the sun and therefore surviving the least well.  The tops end up getting sanded quite thoroughly each year, and I've stripped all the varnish off the tops a couple times too.  Till the sun lightens the varnish after a couple weeks' exposure, the darker tops are rather noticeable in comparison to the lighter color of the sides.  So be it.

My point in preparing this update is to inform those who may be interested that by no means do I feel this toerail solution is the best one, and that a similar approach would not be recommended.  There need to be fewer seams, and what seams do exist need to be very well sealed.  I'd probably take a completely different approach were I to do an identical project all over again, given the lessons from this experience and others.

Glissando, Pearson  Triton #381

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