Belaying Pins & Pinrails

Projects & Maintenance

When our DE 32 was first available for purchase back in 1978, several optional upgrades were made available by Down East Yachts. Depending on the buyers preferences…and budget, choices of custom interior layouts, pedestal steering, roller furling, lighting grounding, and just about everything under the sun could be had for a price. One of these original upgrade options were shroud mounted pinrails made to order. Although not terribly necessary for our little boat they do serve a function in keeping the mast tidy by securing all the running rigging while not in use and keeping loose halyards from banging against the mast on breezy nights. But really, they give a boat a bit of that old fashioned tall ship elegance rarely seen anymore.

Functional and Fashionable!

Functional and Fashionable!

With my standard preliminary research I formulated some plans. The pinrails themselves would be a cinch; just two 2 x 3 lengths possibly milled down and rounded off a bit. The main concern was in the belaying pins. I don’t have a lathe, or the patience to whittle such smoothly curved things…and I wasn’t about to bleed out $80/each for fancy bronze castings. As per usual, I had to get creative.

As dumb luck would have it, I came across an ebay listing for “American Made Replacement Handle – Wood File – 5 7/8″ Long” at a ridiculously low price. The dimensions were perfect and with a few modifications I could turn them into strong, good looking belaying pins – on the cheap! I ordered a bakers dozen.

A few cuts on the chop saw...some dowels...and We'll have belaying pins!

A few cuts on the chop saw…some dowels…and We’ll have belaying pins!

The handles came predrilled with a 9/16″ diameter holes down the center and nearly 4″ deep. It was nearly impossible finding 9/16″ hardwood dowel and SS round bar was a bit to pricey for the budget I allowed myself, not to mention somewhat overkill. Additionally, they came with a lathed groove with iron wire wrapped within as some attempt at ornamentation. As curious as I was to see how long that iron wire would last in the sea breeze, I opted to remove it from each handle to begin the project.



Next I lopped off an inch or so off the bases, which gave each handle a more ergonomic length and did away with the recessed grooves all together. That step alone made them look more like belaying pins and less like file handles. Next, I had to widen the holes to accept 3/4″ hardwood dowels. The decision to do so resulted from two factors. First, it was impossible to find 9/16″ hardwood dowels and second, 3/4″ dowels would be much more robust for the duty of belaying lines or halyards with load.

How do we turn this 9/16" hole into a 5/8" hole.

How do we turn this 9/16″ hole into a a larger 3/4″ hole and keep 10 fingers?

Now I needed a way to make a hole ever so much bigger, without complicating it entirely. I considered several options, all of which either required a new tool purchase or a safety risk. With no access to a drill press of any kind I gathered the next best way to bore out the 3/4″ holes was a router equipped with a straight 3/4″ bit. Of course, clamping a round object is inherently problematic, much less plunging into it relatively straight. After a few inspirational beers, I decided I would have to make a jig for the job.


The jig I fashioned was simple and effective. A few pieces from the scrap wood inventory in the back of the truck and a few screws were all the materials needed, well… those and a router which was on loan from my buddy Chip. Beg, borrow, or buy (and quickly return to Home Depot for a full refund) is my motto – but I digress.

One of a kind, prototype handle boring jig. Patent pending...

One of a kind, prototype handle boring jig. Patent pending…

I removed the base from the router and screwed a piece of 1/2″ ply in its place and let the 3/4″ bit carve through to the other side. Based on the location of that hole I scribed some measurements to center the base of wood handles around the 3/4″ hole. I took another piece of thicker ply and screwed in two rails to align and hold the handle firmly in place and screwed that down as a permanent fence. If my measurements were right, I could drop each handle into the jig, clamp it and plunge the 3/4″ bit to the desired depth – one after the other like an assembly line.

"Just a bit outside!" 1/16" off wasn't a big deal, but I took the time to fine tune things to get it as close as possible.

“Just a bit outside!” 1/16″ off wasn’t a big deal, but I took the time to fine tune things to get it as close as possible.

The first handle came out cleanly and straightly cut but the center was of by 1/16″ so I took a few measurements and fine tuned the jig accordingly. I wasn’t all together unhappy with the initial alignment, but it wasn’t a big deal to make the adjustments so the rest of the pins were within 1/32″ or less. After all, what’s the point of making a jig if it’s not reasonably accurate. The anal-retention paid off, as every subsequent handle emerged from the jig within a reasonable standard. The jig took all the guess work out as intended and certainly sped the process along favorably.

Now we're gettin' somewhere!

Now we’re gettin’ somewhere!

Moving right along, I picked up some red oak dowels and test fitted them into the new 3/4″ diameter holes – perfect fit! But before I could cut them to size and glue them in place I needed to determine their individual length based on the thickness of the rail itself. In other words, I wanted the same amount of pin above as below the rail.

Scrap 2" x 3" Pinrail layout.

Scrap 2″ x 3″ Pinrail layout.

Instead of experimenting with a prettier and more expensive wood I procured a few 2 x 3 pieces from the scrap lumber at work and began laying things out. Dimensionally, the 2 x 3 looked just right for a stout pinrail – not too wide but not too skinny either. The lower, inner shrouds where the rails will be secured measure approx. 40″ apart at waist height on deck and angle closer together on their way up to the spreaders. I would have to find the sweet spot in terms of placement, so a 44″ long pinrail was a good starting point. Additionally, I played with the spacing of the individual pins along the rail and found the height of the handle (approx. 5″) spaced between each pin acheived the golden ratio most pleasing to the eye. I marked all the necessary lines and went to cutting, drilling and glueing.

Pieces cut and ready for glue - Assembled belaying pins!

Pieces cut and ready for glue – Assembled belaying pins!

Finishing of the belaying pin assembly was a breeze. I cut the dowel pins to the desired length with the miter saw and beveled each end with the belt sander. While I had the sander plugged in I did my best to roughly plane the handle bases and deburr any splintering from the trim cuts. Add to that some trusty Gorilla Glue and the pins were ready for finish sanding and sealer. Although, I may still round off the handle tops for a more traditional look.

The pinrail prototypes - making slot holes for belaying pins and the grooves for the shrouds.

The pinrail prototypes – making slot holes for belaying pins and the grooves for the shrouds.

On to the rail or rather the rail prototypes, I cut 4 holes in each rail to half depth with the plunge router and a 3/4″ bit (same bit used for the handles) and finished of the holes with a 3/4″ spade blade bit. I had to do it that way due to the bit depth bottoming just shy of the other face and had I only used the 3/4″ spade cutter my holes most likely would have wandered a bit off center. I did however use the first rail with holes drilled and clamped atop the other as a jig of sorts with just the spade bit. Next I had to cut grooves in the ends of the rails which the shrouds run through. Due to the angle an incomplete table saw cut makes I opted to use the ban saw with a terminal point made with a 7/32″ drill bit (one size under the shroud wire gauge. With the terminal points made 5″ inward at each end of the rail I made some ban saw cuts down the center of each rail end to make the grooves. The final task was to drill counter bored bolt holes at each end to insert bolts to tighten and secure the rails in place along the shrouds. With that we were ready for a test fit!

Need to make some minor adjustments...

Need to make some minor adjustments…

Upon placing the pinrails on the portside shrouds it became immediately obvious some minor adjustments had to be made. I think my initial measurement may have been too high on the shrouds and thus yielded a shorter length for the pinrail overall. The rails will need to be extended 4″ overall and the grooves accepting the shrouds will need to be wider. It was key to have something resembling the final pinrails to play with and fine tune before making cuts in expensive wood. I’ll hold off on purchasing some nicer mahogany or teak for the final rails until the next prototype is 100% dialed in. In the meantime, I’m going to drink a cold beer and stare at the fruits of my labor.

A few days later, I grabbed another 8ft 2 x 3 and cut it in half, yielding two 48″ pieces. With the order of operations well established, I bored the holes for the belaying pins, drilled and counter bored the side bolt holes and cut larger grooves for the shrouds.



Although the length was perfect, the larger grooves I had cut where now too big – making the rails impossible to tighten along the shrouds. The final rails will have to have a groove just barely wide enough to except the shroud wires. It may also help to wrap the shrouds where the rails attach with some rigger’s tape or rubber sleeve of sorts to help the rails grip.

To be continued…