Frozen or Stiff Steering? How to clean an outboard steering tube

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thill

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Your boat has been sitting, and when you go to turn the wheel, it's locked, or very difficult to turn. Or you take a chance on a good deal of a boat, but the steering is locked or tight. What to do? There is a process that is pretty easy.

Step 1- Unbolt the steering Z-bar of the motor from the end of the steering rod. (9/16" nut) If the motor now turns freely, it's the steering system. If not, then it's the engine swivel, and that's a different situation.

Step 2- Go back and check the wheel. If it's still tight, loosen the big cable nut and pull the steering cable out of the steering tube of the motor. (1-1/8"-1-3/8" nut. THAT is usually where steering gets tight. Now turn the wheel. If it moves easier in one direction or another, then you will need to clean out the steering tube and rod. Here is the process:

First, you must get the old grease out. Spray a bunch of WD40 or SuperTech spray lubricant (much cheaper!) into the tube. You will need an old T-shirt or rag, and a piece of rebar or anything long. Make a plug of T-shirt tight for the tube and use the rebar with a hammer to drive the plug and all the hardened grease through and out of the tube. Repeat several times. Then spray it out and use a fresh wad of T-shirt to get it shiny-clean inside. HOPEFULLY, you are done with the tube.

Then, you need to re-grease the steering tube. Use a loose wad of T-shirt, slather it in grease and run it through the tube, making sure to generously coat the inside of the tube. Clean the rod until it shines, grease and slide your cleaned steering rod back in and reconnect. DONE.


But sometimes... the grease is really hardened, like plastic. A 1/2" copper pipe fitting brush (Amazon: 1/2" Copper fitting brush) on a drill extension (Amazon: 1/4" Bit Extension) works well for breaking it up. Spray WD40 in there, and start drilling the wire brush in there. Have an old towel on the other end to catch the nasty stuff coming out the other end. Please note:
  • DO NOT STOP until you get the brush all the way out the other end, or you will damage the brush.
  • DO NOT switch the drill from forward to backwards while in the tube.
But if it's really rusty inside... the brush is often not enough to get heavy rust scale out. This is where marinas will try to sell you a very expensive tube replacement. Don't fall for it! If you can get the steering rod out, you can save the tube.

The tube diameter is 5/8". You may want to buy a 16' long, 5/8" metal drill bit for just that purpose. Here is a link to the one I use: AMAZON: Irwin 18" Drill Bit, 5/8" Diameter

Spray WD40 in there, and run the bit through gently, not forcing it too hard. Don't be surprised if you hear crunching and cracking sounds. That's the rust breaking up. There is nothing else you can hurt in there. Some tubes have O-rings, but if it's rusty inside, they are gone anyway. Not an issue. With the twist bit, you can push it in and out to clear the flutes anytime. It only takes a minute or two, and she will be clear.

If you don't have or want to buy a spiral bit, you may already have a 5/8" paddle bit (Amazon: Speedbor 5/8" Bit) and an extension. (Amazon: 1/4" Bit Extension) This works fine, but YOU MUST PULL the bit through the tube, not push it. Push the shaft through the tube, connect your drill, spray some WD40 in there, and with the drill spinning at full speed in the forward direction, PULL it slowly it through the tube. Make sure to pull slowly, as it may buck a little when you hit a chunk of rust. Once or twice through, and it will be clear.

After using a drill bit, I usually follow with the wire brush, then use T-shirt wad to wash out the debris and grease the tube before putting the rod back in.

I have saved a lot of people a lot of money using these methods, and it will work for you if your problem is in the steering tube and rod.

IF you have a sticky steering cable, look for any really sharp bends in the cable. That is sometimes the problem. If it's still sticky, there is a completely different process to lubricate/fix that, and it only works about 50% of the time.
 
Probably not a popular enough topic, especially since so many run tillers, but maybe it will help some.
 
A 12 gauge shotgun cleaning kit can also be used and is probably more readily available......
Not a bad thought that I've heard before.

Unfortunately, it won't work for a gunked-up, rusty steering system. A gun brush is typically brass, to protect your bore. You will need a very stiff steel brush to remove heavy, hardened grease and rust from a steering tube. And often, you need more than that, as described above.

Fortunately these are very easy to get. 1/2" fitting brushes can be had almost anywhere that sells plumbing stuff. More common, stronger and cheaper than a gun brush.

Plus, you would ruin your nice Hoppe's cleaning kit the first 30 seconds!
 
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And as a preventive step, when your boat is sitting, turn the wheel so the rod is pulled all the way into the tube on the engine bracket. That way, no grease will sit exposed to the elements and dry out faster.
 
There's quite a few aluminum boats that use remote steering and through the tube steering cables.
Nearly all with a side console or center console, plus many of the older runabouts by Starcraft over the years.
Starcraft built tens of thousands of Holiday, Super Sport, Mariner, and similar models over the years with a good many still being in service 40+ years later.

Dried out grease is not the biggest issue on most stuck cables. Every one I've dealt with have been rusted in place, no amount of soaking, hammering, or heat will budge them. I've had some luck using a 5/8" hole saw or drill bit on an extension but more often than not the end of the cable that's stuck is hardened and nearly impossible to drill through. I've replaced as many tilt tubes then I've been able to save.
I've got a 115 Mercury right now that the former owner butchered trying to remove the motor to replace the transom wood. After he pounded the end of the steering cable to the point he mushroomed it to over 3/4" on the end he then cut the cable off and unbolted the motor.
He then proceeded to pound that mushroomed end of the cable half way through the tube until it wouldn't go any further. It was jammed into the tube so hard it expanded the tube making it nearly impossible to get it out of the steering bracket. I ended up cutting the tube in pieces to be able to replace the tube. I had an older Force 125 where someone pounded the cable in so bad they broke the mounting bracket.
 
Amen. You understand!

Typically, the only way to get those frozen ones out is to really heat the tube with a torch, spray the ends with WD40, heat some more, spray, and hope it budges. I always put a bolt through the hole in the end for strength and use a brass hammer to start with.

As you say, it's about 50/50 whether you can save it, depending on how long it's been sitting. Near saltwater, it's less.

If you can get one of those nasty ones out, it's a victory! After that, the only reliable option is to drill the rust out of the tube.

I've never tried a hole saw, but I guess that would work. I use a 5/8" x 16" Irwin twist bit with 100% success, if I can get the rod out of the tube. Once the rust is gone, and the inside of the tube is clean and shiny, the big thing is to really grease the inside of the tube heavily, not leaving any dry spots that will rust again. Clean/grease the rod and put it back together.

Those grease nuts seem to help once it's done, especially the metal ones with the grease fitting, IF they get greased regularly. The plastic ones are false confidence boosters, in my opinion.

Cleaning/greasing them once a year in the spring is a good idea. At least keep an eye on it.

If your steering starts to get tight, remove, clean and re-grease as soon as you notice, because once the rust starts, its only a matter of time before it locks up, and that gets expensive.
 
Amen. You understand!

Typically, the only way to get those frozen ones out is to really heat the tube with a torch, spray the ends with WD40, heat some more, spray, and hope it budges. I always put a bolt through the hole in the end for strength and use a brass hammer to start with.

As you say, it's about 50/50 whether you can save it, depending on how long it's been sitting. Near saltwater, it's less.

If you can get one of those nasty ones out, it's a victory! After that, the only reliable option is to drill the rust out of the tube.

I've never tried a hole saw, but I guess that would work. I use a 5/8" x 16" Irwin twist bit with 100% success, if I can get the rod out of the tube. Once the rust is gone, and the inside of the tube is clean and shiny, the big thing is to really grease the inside of the tube heavily, not leaving any dry spots that will rust again. Clean/grease the rod and put it back together.

Those grease nuts seem to help once it's done, especially the metal ones with the grease fitting, IF they get greased regularly. The plastic ones are false confidence boosters, in my opinion.

Cleaning/greasing them once a year in the spring is a good idea. At least keep an eye on it.

If your steering starts to get tight, remove, clean and re-grease as soon as you notice, because once the rust starts, its only a matter of time before it locks up, and that gets expensive.
"If your steering starts to get tight, remove, clean and re-grease as soon as you notice, because once the rust starts, its only a matter of time before it locks up, and that gets expensive."
yea.. no substitute for paying attention... when I walk by my boat on the trailer over the winter I give the steering wheel a little twist... just to let it know I still love it...
 
What I have done and you might try, is to hang the tube vertically and use a heat gun or hair dryer to loosen up the old gunk. It should run out.
 

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