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Maybe you want to remove an old, broken dashboard, or maybe your steering wheel has sustained damage in storage. Maybe you're installing an electronic tiller or just want a better looking steering wheel. All of these mean removing the steering wheel from your boat. You may end up with some grease on your hands, but removing the steering wheel from your boat needn't be a traumatic experience.
Uncover the Center
Before you can remove the wheel, you must take the cover off the center of the wheel. On your car, this cover hides the air bag and the horn mechanism. On your boat, it covers the nut that holds the steering wheel on the tapered steering shaft.
Like your car, the cover is held in place by screws on the back of the wheel. You need a Phillips screwdriver to remove the four--or perhaps five--Phillips screws that you'll find on the back side of the wheel. These screws hold the cover over the center hub. After you've removed the screws, lift the cover off the wheel hub.
With the cover off, you'll see a large bronze nut in the middle of the steering wheel. This nut holds the wheel to the shaft.
Crack the Nut
Unlike your car, your boat doesn't have a locking steering wheel; this means the steering wheel will turn when you try to turn the nut--unless you lock the steering wheel in place.
You may be tempted to turn the wheel to "hard left" until the wheel stops turning. Don't. On a boat, the wheel stops turning because the rudder hits the rudder stops; the wheel is held by the rudder cables. If you force the wheel to turn farther, you will damage the rudder cables. Instead, find a piece of metal pipe about 5 feet long and 1 inch in diameter and slip the pipe between the spokes of the wheel from the left side. Leave most of the pipe sticking out from the left side of the wheel. Turn the wheel to the left until the left end of the pipe butts against the deck and you can't turn the wheel to the left any farther. This "locks" the wheel in place so that you can use a pipe wrench or a large adjustable wrench to remove the nut.
After you remove the nut, you may be able to lift, yank or jerk the wheel off the shaft. More likely, you'll find the wheel immovable because of corrosion. You might think about beating on the back side of the wheel with a deadblow hammer until the wheel flies off of the tapered shaft, but this strategy has three serious drawbacks: you could damage the wheel, you could bend the tapered shaft or you could lose the spline--the little piece of precisely machined metal that fits into the precisely machined slot on the shaft--that locks the wheel to the steering shaft. Avoid these consequences by using a steering wheel puller.
Use the Right Tools
A steering wheel puller uses the power of the screw (one of the six "simple machines") to ease the steering wheel off its shaft.
Unscrew the jacking screw in the center of the steering wheel puller as far as you can without removing it from the puller. Center the arms of the puller over the hub of the steering wheel. Slide the bolts that come with the puller through the slots in the arms, then through the holes on the hub of the steering wheel. Every steering wheel has these holes in the hub, just for this purpose.
Put the washers and nuts (that also came with the puller) onto the bolts. Tighten the nuts until they are finger tight. Use your wrench to turn the jacking screw clockwise. At first, this tightens the jacking screw against the top of the tapered steering shaft. As you continue to tighten the jacking screw with your wrench, the puller begins to pull the steering wheel away from the shaft. Turn the jacking screw two or three turns to break the corrosion's grip on the wheel and expose three large (usually 1/2 or 5/8 inch) bolts.
Use a socket wrench to remove these bolts, but be prepared: the wheel and wheel puller will try to fall into your lap, along with the spline, which will probably pop out of the shaft. Hang onto that spline if you plan to put a new steering wheel in place.
After you've removed the wheel, grease the shaft and spline with shaft grease and press the spline into its groove on the shaft.
- "How to Restore Your Wooden Runabout"; Don Danenberg; 2003
Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.