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Making a Fold-Down Step

Barb Peck & Bjarne Hansen

Hoku Pa'a
Niagara 35
July 13th, 2022

It seems that one modification often leads to the need for another. Recently, we upgraded our head by installing a composting toilet. So far, we are pleased with our Air Head. However, the commode is raised up quite high above the cabin sole because there is a container under the seat to collect waste and the whole things rests on an unavoidable pedestal. When seated, Bjarne’s toes can at least reach the floor but Barb’s feet dangle in mid-air. Aside from being less than comfortable, this did not seem a safe way to conduct business, especially in rough sea conditions. Since our legs are unlikely to grow longer at this stage of our lives, we needed some kind of platform to place our feet on.

Design Requirements

There were several things to consider when contemplating the design of our footstool.

Keep the Passageway Clear

Hoku Pa’a is a Niagara 35. We have the Classic model which has an unusual layout. Descending the companionway, you enter what one surveyor called the foyer (the rather grandiose description amuses us), and you are faced with a bulkhead. If you go to port you enter into the galley and then you can continue forward to the salon and forepeak. The starboard side brings you into the head, which you can also walk through to reach the salon. This feature of two passageways is very convenient – if someone is working in the galley, for example, another can still make their way into or out of the salon without disturbing the chef. It was important to us that we not significantly narrow that thoroughfare in the head.

Fig.1 The passageway through the head on Hoku Pa’a

No Tripping Hazards

Related to keeping the passageway free, we wanted the platform to be out of the way when not in use. We certainly do not need more things to stub our toes on.

Easy to Deploy and Securely Stowed

When you need to go, you don’t want a complicated process slowing you down. This is especially true when you are entangled in wet-weather gear and being tossed about by a ticked-off ocean. Thus, a key criterion was that our step be easily deployed and re-stowed. It also needed to be well-secured so that there were no parts swaying or clunking when stowed.

Strong Enough to Stand On and Robustly Built

Although the point of the project was to create something to be used while sitting, we could easily imagine needing to put our full weight on the footrest when the boat lurches, or if we need to cover our cabooses quickly when all heck breaks loose. Also, the footstool would be in a tough marine environment and used regularly (the more regular we are the more regular the use!), so we needed a sturdy item.

Avoid Sharp Edges and Corners

We would be passing by our platform regularly and did not want to create sharp edges to scrape ourselves on, nor for our clothes to catch on and impede movement.

Eye-pleasing

While function is more important than form, it is often possible to have both. We did not want an eyesore marring our lovely Hoku Pa’a. Consider it this way, we might appear a little rough around the edges after several days at sea but at least the boat will still look good!

Fig.2 Barb and Bjarne looking a little scruffy after 3 weeks at sea.

Steps for Making a Step Stool

Taking all these criteria into account, we came up with the following design: we would mount our step stool on the bulkhead that faces the toilet; it would pivot down from the wall when needed and then be secured against the bulkhead when not in use (see title photo).

Some Mockery

Before buying parts and sawing wood, we refined our design and determined its measurements using mock-ups made from cardboard, duct tape, and thick books (like Cornell’s World Cruising Routes, and Chapman’s Piloting & Seamanship). Some cutting, taping, and stacking helped us envision the final design and ensure it physically fit the location. Because there is a door at each opening into the head, we measured carefully to make sure our creation, when stowed, would fit between the doors and not get in the way of them opening or closing.

Parts Needed

To make our final product we needed two boards: one for the main platform upon which our feet would rest, and one to hold that platform off the floor – a support leg. These boards were cut from 11 mm thick (7/16 inch) marine-grade plywood. Two lengths of stainless-steel piano hinge (from Lee Valley Tools) was screwed to the main platform: one to attach the step to the bulkhead, and a second to secure the support leg to the main platform. Two holes were drilled in the main platform to accommodate the catches needed when the step is stowed.

Making it Look Nice

We did a dry run assembly of these parts and tested it on the boat before getting into any cosmetics. Once satisfied with the design, we took the whole thing apart again, rounded the corners, and sanded the boards gently to avoid wearing through the finish. Plywood edges are not very attractive so we covered them with a teak veneer (from Windsor Plywood) that comes pre-glued (see Fig.3). We cut the strips to the correct size and ironed them on – pretty easy and it improved the look significantly. After a final smoothing of edges with sandpaper, the two boards were given several coats of Epifanes varnish.

Mounting

Once the varnish was dry we assembled the various parts, making a single unit to be mounted. The mounting piano hinge was screwed onto the bulkhead at the correct height. At this point, we became concerned that the screws attaching the hinge to the platform were too short to support our weight. Well, that’s why you test things out. An extra strip of varnished teak (see Fig.4) was added as a backing to allow us to substitute longer screws.

Fig.3 Iron-on strip of veneer with glue backing.  Fig.4 Solid teak reinforcement in piano hinge area.

Securing It All

We secured the whole structure with two catches, or hold-back clips (see Fig.5), which came in a package of 10 from Lee Valley Tools (https://www.leevalley.com/en-ca/shop/hardware/catches/spring/40116-hold-back-clips?item=00W1501). Unfortunately, they are not stainless steel so we will see how well they last in a marine environment. It may be that we will be happy that we have 8 spares. These do-dads do double duty – they hold the entire step stool against the bulkhead and they also clasp onto the support leg so that it lays flat against the platform and does not bang around in rolling seas. The receiving end of the catches was screwed into the support leg ahead of time, centred in the two holes of the platform when the leg is stowed (see Fig. 6). Now that the whole step stool was mounted, we could determine where to put the other end of the catches on the bulkhead. These pins protrude from the bulkhead (see Fig. 7) – when the step stool is raised the pins line up with the holes and are latched onto by the other half of the catches when we push on the support leg.

Fig.5 Shows the hold-back clips.  Fig.6 Shows: the receiving end of the catches on the support leg; how the support leg attaches to the platform by piano hinge, and; the finger pull area.  Fig.7 Here you can see the pins projecting from the bulkhead and the holes that will land over the pins when the board is stowed.

This arrangement allowed us to mount the step flush (no pun intended as there is no flushing with a composting toilet) against the bulkhead, thus reducing encroachment into the passageway. (See Fig. 8)

Fig.8 Step stool with streamlined stowing.

Deploying

We filed out a little space at the bottom of the support leg to act as a finger pull area (see Fig. 6, above), which allows us to pull the support leg outward to deploy everything (see Fig. 9). The leg folds out and is placed on the sole. Currently, we rely on friction and a slight outward cant to keep the leg from collapsing inward; if this proves to be unreliable, we have discussed gluing two short dowels into the edge of the leg that would rest in two matching holes inset in the floor.

Fig.9 Deploying the fold-down step by pulling the support leg away from the bulkhead.

So there you have it – a lovely footrest. Obviously, there could be other uses and locations for a folding down step, especially on larger boats that may have vertically challenged crew. While “fold-down step” is a perfectly reasonable name for it, in our case, given the location and purpose of it, we have taken to calling it our “stool stool”.

Fig.10 Our final product: the stool stool.

Comments


  1. Shawn & Janis, SV Callisto says:

    Excellent simple design and execution! I have delayed installing our Airhead due to vertically challenged crew, but this looks like a great solution. Sorry that we just missed you in the Broken Group…

    1. Barb Peck says:

      Thanks Shawn. Yes, it is too bad we missed each other – hope you had a good passage back.

  2. Rita Ballam says:

    Hi you two! Love the humour in the description of your project! Lol
    Your project was well done as always.
    Greetings. Xo

    1. Barb Peck says:

      Thanks Rita!

  3. Barrie says:

    Thx for this! Our Airhead toilet is waiting at home for me to install when we get back from our Scottish “malt” cruise next week. I feel we will need a step as well. I will likely be on touch with questions. Barrie

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