How to Service a Winch

DO your winches feel mushy? Does it feel like grinding out sausage meat every time you trim your sheets? Do they sometimes slip, and spin the wrong way? Hm? Then maybe it’s time you serviced your winches.

Winches are pretty simple and rugged machines. Year after year they unfailingly make us twenty times stronger than normal humans, all the while looking shiny and beautiful, but they aren’t completely maintenance free. Inside these little workhorses are clinky little pieces that over time gunk up and stop working properly.

Servicing them, and for some reason it’s always ‘servicing’ and not ‘cleaning’, which is what you are doing, is a pretty nice little job. Each winch will take you only about half an hour, and shouldn’t require too much cursing.

This is the procedure for a standard one-speed winch; self-tailers, two-speeds and other variations may differ a bit, but the basics are similar.

If you are servicing the winch in situ, you are going to have to take precautions not to lose anything overboard. Before you start dismantling anything, cut a hole in a cardboard box so it will fit over the winch and catch anything that you don’t, and tape it in place.

Tools and Supplies

  • Toothbrush (not your current one)
  • Q-tips
  • Paper towels
  • WD-40
  • Turbine oil
  • Lithium grease


  1. Remove the circular clip holding the top cap in place and the top cap itself.
  2. Carefully lift the drum off the spindle – on most winches there are two or three cylindrical bearings that may either stay on the spindle or stick to the inside of the drum. If they stay in the drum, they can fall out at any point. You’ve been warned.
  3. Remove the bearings.
  4. Note the orientation of the pawls (the little comma-shaped parts), then carefully remove them from their sockets – make sure not to lose the springs.
  5. If you are dismounting the winch from the boat, for any reason, do that now – typically by unscrewing six large screws in the winch base.
  6. If you have dismounted the winch, you can remove the shaft from inside the spindle – it’s held in place by a circular clip on the underside.


There is no one way to clean the parts. It’s not rocket surgery: you are just trying to get the green goo that comes from combining dirt, verdigris and grease off the moving parts. I usually hose it all down liberally with WD40 and brush the build-up off with a toothbrush. A WD-40-soaked Q-tip is useful for cleaning out the pawl sockets.

The most important parts to get clean are the bearings and the pawl mechanisms, but since you have the thing in bits, you may as well do a proper job.

If you are doing this on your boat, make sure you aren’t getting WD-40 all over your non-skid. WD-40 completely removes the non, leaving you with the skid. I recommend doing the cleaning in a bucket or something to contain the mess.


OK. Now that you’ve taken the old crud off, you need to put some nice clean crud back on.

Use lithium grease on the bearings – be frugal, you want to coat the bearings but not slop it on. Remember that this grease will be a major component of the stuff you will be cleaning off next time.

For the pawls, grease is too thick and will tend to stick them open, so you want a lighter oil. I use turbine oil. Drop a couple of drops of oil into the sockets when you replace the pawls.

If you removed the shaft, you can also oil that.

Mantling (perfectly legit word)

  1. If you dismantled it, replace the shaft inside the spindle and replace the circular clip.
  2. If you dismounted it, now is the time to remount the winch to the boat – don’t forget to bed the screws in properly.
  3. Replace the pawls with their springs (and oil them).
  4. Slide the bearings onto the spindle.
  5. Slide the drum onto the spindle – you’ll have to close the top pawls with your fingers to settle it in place. Rotate the drum clockwise if it gets hung up on the bottom pawls, until it clicks into place.
  6. Replace the top cap and fit the circular clip.

Give it a spin: it should sound bright and crisp.