Now we know why it’s called a stuffing box.

Since buying Little Bristol four years ago, we’ve heard boaters refer to a mysterious “stuffing box.”  Tom, who we bought Little Bristol from, told us when we were first looking at her that he had recently done the stuffing box, making a face that indicated it was a real pain so we should be glad that he had taken care of it.  We nodded sympathetically like we knew what he was talking about, all the while thinking “Stuffing box??” to ourselves.

When we bought Pegu Club we didn’t know when the stuffing box had last been taken care of, and frankly, we still didn’t know what it was.  We just knew that water dripped from it when the propeller shaft turned.  Apparently you want it to drip, but not too much.  This season there was plenty of evidence that it was dripping, so we tucked it away in the back of our minds as a possible off-season project.  Then Jeff noticed that the hose that clamps around the stern tube and keeps the ocean out of our boat had definitely seen better days, judging by the number of cracks in it.  Now replacing the hose was definitely on the to-do list for this off-season.  Since we needed to remove the stuffing box in order to access the hose, we figured we might as well take care of both of the stuffing boxes while we were at it.

Our various books told us that there is a stuffing box for the propeller shaft and another one for the rudder stock.  The stuffing box is a threaded sleeve and a hollow nut through which the propeller shaft (and rudder stock) passes through.  The sleeve (or sometimes the nut) is filled with a material that forms a watertight seal but still allows the propeller shaft to turn.  Water is required to lubricate the material, so the stuffing box needs to drip when the shaft it turning (unless you have a dripless system).  Great.  Now that we knew what it was (and what it looked like), it was time to have at it.

We drove down to Shenny on Saturday the 19th, stopping at Defender for the first of what we hoped would only be two trips that day.  We didn’t know exactly what size of packing we would need, but we knew that Defender had an inexpensive tool which supposedly aided in removing the old packing so we had to go there before we could start.

It was a beautiful, sunny day in the low 60’s with no wind.  Unfortunately, I was the only one who was going to really enjoy it because Jeff would be spending a good part of the sunny day stuffed into the starboard lazarette so he could access the stuffing box for the shaft.

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Believe it or not, this is actually pretty good access for a boat.

A bit of PB Blaster on the nuts made quick work of breaking things free, and soon Jeff was using our new tool from Defender to remove the old packing.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the miracle tool we had hoped for.  While it did remove some of the packing, the rest of it required a variety of picks and hooks.  Eventually, however, four rings of old flax packing had been removed.  They didn’t look too bad to our untrained eye, leading us to believe that the stuffing box had been taken care of within the last decade, but at least now we would know for certain when it had last been done.

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The stuffing box is in the center, and the locking nut is in the shadow on the left.  The scuzz on the shaft to the left of the stuffing box cleaned right off.

Unlike the hose on the stern tube, the hose on the shaft was in good shape without any cracks.  We decided not to replace it because we will be getting a new engine in two more years (assuming Thumper lasts that long) so the hose will be replaced then anyway.

Once we had the old packing out we could measure it.  Of course, some rings appeared to be 5/16″ and others appeared to be 1/4″.  Our Don Casey book, This Old Boat, said that 1″ shaft usually takes 1/4″ packing but not always, so we took the old packing with us on our second trip to Defender.  The guy we talked to suggested 5/16″, so that’s what we bought.

Back at the boat, Don Casey said to put the packing in the nut before cutting it to make sure it fit.  Damn.  We needed 1/4″.  Back to Defender for a third trip.  I hate driving between Shenny and Defender.  There’s no easy way to get there, and there are a ton of stop lights and stop signs.  Stop and go, stop and go.  Gah!  By now I was grumpy.

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Old packing on the top, new on the bottom (in case it wasn’t obvious!).

Back at the boat again with 1/4″ packing in hand, Jeff once again stuffed himself into the lazarette.  This packing was a bit thicker than the old style, so poor Jeff wasted a lot of time trying to cram four rings into the nut before realizing that it simply wasn’t going to happen and ultimately wasn’t necessary.  In the interim he cut the cuticle on his forefinger and bled everywhere, and smashed the top of his shoulder right on the bone hoisting himself out of the lazarette to unbend himself for a little while.  Now he was grumpy.  Now we understood Tom’s face when he spoke about taking care of the stuffing box on Little Bristol.

Eventually it was finished – for now anyway.  We won’t be able to completely finish the task  until we can make our final adjustments to the nut, and that can’t happen until Pegu Club is back on the water with the engine running.  As for the stuffing box for the rudder and the hose replacement?  That’s going to be the next project when we go back to the boat.  We’re not entirely sure how easy it’s going to be to get the hose off, so fingers crossed that all goes smoothly.

3 thoughts on “Now we know why it’s called a stuffing box.

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