How to hand-crimp lifelines

I wrote this article that was originally published on page 32 in the January/February 2014 issue of Good Old Boat magazine. Re-posted here with some edits.

Skill level skill3

Life is on the line

Rust-colored stains in the cracked vinyl-coated lifelines on Galilean, our 1984 Islander 30, signaled corrosion was at work below the surface. The nice thing about vinyl-coated lifelines is that they are smooth to the touch and easy to lean against. The bad thing is that they trap moisture between the cable and the vinyl and corrode the cable out of sight. By the time the brown stains appear around the cracks, the cable is already compromised. Given that the lifelines were probably original, i.e. from 1984—over a quarter of a century ago, it was clearly time to replace them.

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Our boat had gates in the lifelines but the Bimini frame was in the way so we couldn’t use them. The pelican hooks, being of the “classic” design, were difficult to open because the strain was on the moving lever part rather than the fixed hook. I had read about other sailors who opted to dispense with the gate entirely and connect the pelican hook to the pushpit and run a continuous cable all the way to the pulpit. This way you can release the pelican hook and let the lifeline droop the length of the boat and make a temporary “gate” wherever you want it. Reconnect the pelican hook from the comfort of the cockpit and you are back in business. This design also eliminates much of the (expensive) hardware for making a traditional lifeline gate as well as the labor in installing it. Dispensing with the gates was an easy decision. While I was at it, I decided to replace the old pelican hooks with the newer “over the center” design that takes the stress off the lever.

Lifeline anatomy

Lifelines have three basic components: the cable, the connectors at the ends, and fittings. The connector is called a terminal because it terminates the cable and provides a way to attach it to the fittings.

Cable comes in a choice of diameters (1/8” and 3/16” are the most common) and wire patterns, which include 1 x 19 (one group of 19 wires), 7 x 7 (seven groups of seven wires), and 7 x 19 (seven groups of 19 wires). I also had a choice of vinyl coated or bare. The consensus for our 30’ sloop was to use 3/16” 1 x 19 uncoated 316 stainless steel cable.

The most common terminal is a stud, which is a threaded bolt with a hollow end just big enough for the cable. After the stud is attached to the cable it will still fit through the holes in the stanchions.

Fittings connect the stud to the boat and this is where both the variety and expense increase. Common types of fittings include turnbuckles, gate (a.k.a. pelican) hooks, toggle jaws, gate eyes, and deck toggles. These fittings screw onto the stud and then fasten to a stanchion, pulpit, pushpit, or the deck. Since a turnbuckle has screws on both ends that turn in opposite directions, I needed to make sure that the stud on the cable has a right-handed thread and the stud on the other side of the turnbuckle has a left-handed thread, or vice versa.

To crimp or not to crimp, that is the question

Friction keeps the cable from sliding out of the terminal and there are three choices for ensuring adequate friction: machine swaging, hand crimping, and mechanical terminals.

In machine swaging, the cable is inserted in the terminal (stud) and then a hydraulic press squeezes the living daylights out of it, which forms a nice tight bond between the terminal and the cable. The surface of the terminal is left smooth and shiny but smaller in diameter. This is not a do-it-yourself option. You have to buy the completed, swaged lifelines from a rigging dealer. A well-known boating supply retailer quoted a price of $700 for the four lifelines (without gates).

Several manufacturers, such as Sta-Lock, offer a line of “mechanical” fasteners that you assemble using wrenches after you unravel the end of the cable and insert a metal cone. You can reuse these fasteners if you replace the cone insert. This is the most expensive option.

Hand crimping uses a special hand tool to pinch the terminal against the cable in a series of indentations about 1/8” apart. This is the least expensive option.

Being a die-hard do-it-yourselfer I chose hand crimping.

Tools of the trade

To hand crimp lifelines I needed a few common tools and one that I didn’t have: a hand crimper for stainless steel.

The manufacturer made it abundantly clear that crimpers for other materials such as aluminum or copper simply won’t work. Stainless steel is very hard to crimp and requires a tool built specifically for that purpose. C. S. Johnson makes a lever-type model and a bolt-type model. I scoured the web and couldn’t find any viable alternatives. I chose the bolt-type hand crimper (part number 53-210), which runs about $50.

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I used a ½” socket wrench to tighten the bolts. The crimping tool has an opening for 1/8” terminals and one for 3/16” terminals. It comes with the bolts straddling the 3/16” side. If you are crimping 1/8” terminals you will need to move the outside bolt to the other side.

To cut the cable I could have bought a special tool built for that purpose. Instead, I used an ordinary hacksaw. A bolt cutter will not work. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

I used a normal handsaw and drill to make a stainless steel cable sawing jig.

A vise or clamp is essential for holding the crimping tool and the sawing jig.

Measure once and order

While the old lifelines were still in place on the boat, I measured each one from the tip of one terminal to the tip of the terminal on the other end by pinching a tape measure against the lifeline every foot or so as I shuffled my hands along the cable. This ensured that the tape measure followed the curve of the lifeline as it went from stanchion to stanchion. Since I was just looking for an estimate of how much new cable I needed, I didn’t bother to subtract the length of the threads of both terminals. I didn’t see any point in trying to cut it too close just to save a buck.

Since studs are not reusable, I needed to get two for each of the four new lines. My new pelican hooks came with their own studs so I ordered only four new studs along with the cable and crimping tool. The studs for hand crimping differ from those used for machine swaging so I had to be sure to order the right ones. When the parts arrived, I removed the old lifelines and labeled each one, e.g. “port upper,” so that I would be able to match them up with their new counterparts when measuring the new cable for length. This would also be helpful if I had different fittings for different lifelines but in my case everything was symmetrical.

A cut above

Rather than cutting all of the lengths of cable at once, I found it easier to work on each lifeline one at time. That way I didn’t have unruly pieces of cable getting in my way while I was crimping on the terminals. As a little insurance against a measurement error, I started with one of the longer lifelines so that if I cut the cable too short I could turn it into one of the shorter lifelines.

Crimping my style

The basic procedure is crimp on a terminal, mark the new cable for length, saw it, and crimp on the other terminal.

A friend told me to lubricate the bolt threads of the hand crimper to make it easier to tighten and loosen the bolts, which was helpful advice since I had a lot of cranking to do on those bolts.

First, I passed a couple of feet of cable through the jig and set the jig aside. Then I put the lower (smaller) jaw of the hand crimper in the vise with the upper jaw (with the handle) free to move up and down and the bolt heads on top.

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I loosened the bolts enough to accommodate the stud terminal and inserted it from the back until it was flush with the front side of the tool and gently tightened the bolts with my fingers until it held the terminal in place. Then I inserted the cable into the terminal as far as it would go and held it in place with one hand while tightening the bolts using the socket wrench. Switching back and forth between the bolts, I tightened each one about ½ turn. How tight is tight enough? I read about one guy who wanted to make sure the crimps would really hold so he just kept tightening the bolts, ended up stripping the threads, and the manufacturer had to send him a new tool. The rule is to stop tightening the bolts when you can’t see a gap between the jaws of the tool. The crimp can’t get any tighter than when the jaws touch.

Then I loosened both bolts, again alternating between them, enough to slip the terminal out a little more so that the back edge of the crimp I had just made was even with the front side of the tool and finger-tightened the bolts to hold it. As I started tightening the bolts on the second crimp I tried to hold the cable perpendicular to the crimp tool so that the crimps would be straight and parallel.

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After crimping the terminal the recommended five times, I removed the completed terminal from the crimper tool and removed the crimper tool from the vise. With the cable still through the hole, I put the sawing jig back in the vise.

Measure again and cut

To determine where to cut the new cable I pulled it through the jig for the approximate length of the lifeline I was replacing. With the end of the new terminal matched up with the end of the terminal on the old lifeline I taped the ends together. I used the pinch-and-shuffle method to keep the cables parallel until I reached the end of the old lifeline. Normally, the carpenter’s adage to “measure twice and cut once” is good advice but in this case, due to a minor bout of paranoia and what the politicians call “an abundance of caution,” I measured four times. Holding the end of the new terminal even with the end of the old terminal—the old and new terminals were different lengths—I used a Sharpie pen to mark where the cable would end inside the new terminal.

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Since I was finished with the old lifeline I took off the tape at the other end and set the old corroded lifeline aside for posterity.

Since the cutting mark would be hidden inside the jig, I put another mark next to it that was the same distance as the kerf from the side of the jig. The cutting slot in my jig was ¾” from the edge so I made a large mark on the cable ¾” from where I actually wanted to cut it. Aligning this mark with the edge of the jig put the cutting mark directly in the kerf for the hacksaw.

sawing cable

Several light strokes of the hacksaw made a clean cut through the cable. After pulling the cut piece out of the jig I shoved another couple of feet of new cable through the jig before removing the jig from the vise so that I was ready for the next lifeline.

The crimping tool went back in the vise and I crimped the terminal for the pelican hook on the end of the cable I had just cut to length. I loosely coiled the completed lifeline and put some tape on it to indicate it was an upper lifeline.

I followed the same procedure for the other lifelines. Each lifeline took me about an hour to complete. My concentration and vision tended to falter after a couple of hours so I took a break each time I finished two lifelines. I didn’t want to zone out and start crimping with the cable only halfway in the terminal or make shallow crimps because I didn’t feel like bending over to see if the jaws were touching.

I threaded the completed lifelines through the stanchions and screwed on the fittings. The old turnbuckles had been installed such that the studs were different lengths inside the turnbuckle, which meant they couldn’t be tightened all the way because the stud with more thread showing would hit the center post of the turnbuckle before the other. To prevent this, I detached the turnbuckles from the boat before screwing them on the cable studs so that I could get the same amount of thread showing on both studs before attaching the turnbuckle to the boat. Holding the cable terminal while tightening the turnbuckle avoids twisting the cable.

The bottom (life)line

The new lifelines look great and function better with the new pelican hooks and without the gates. The uncoated cables permit easy inspection and promote worry-free sailing.

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Hand crimping the lifelines was half the cost ($380) of sending them out to be machine swaged and twice as rewarding. I might even recover some of the cost of the crimping tool by posting it for sale on a certain well-known auction site.

Part of the joy in owning a “good old boat” is fixing it yourself and making it a “better old boat.” Whether repairing something broken or improving the boat’s seaworthiness or enhancing safety, doing it yourself brings a great sense of accomplishment and achieving all three in one project is a good old boat grand slam.

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