How to Service Your Winches

Winch Service

Some winches are more difficult to service than others. If you do not know what to expect, certain parts, depending on manufacturer, can come sliding out at inopportune times and jump overboard! I happen to know this from personal experience and if you are really unlucky (like I was) then it may be a part from a vintage winch for which they no longer make parts… woops!

Like anything else, there are varying techniques when it comes to servicing winches. Let me try and see if I can explain a simple method that I personally like to use. First, I would try and get some sort of manual or diagram of the winch you are trying to service or disassemble. The internet can be a really useful tool for this.

New Lewmar Winch Drum Top

In removing the winch drum, depending on the winch you have, you are looking for either a single screw down inside the winch handle socket or a split ring which sits on top of the drum and encompasses the winch handle socket. Andersen winches like to use three Allen Head screws that also hold the lifter on. Newer Lewmar winches will have large threaded washer which sits on top of the self tailing unit (pictured above). Some older model Lewmar winches will need the self-tailer disassembled in order to remove the drum. These methods should release the drum on most winches made within the last 20 years or so. Again, your best bet is to always look online for a technical diagram for your winch.

Harken Winch Drum ScrewThe trick to servicing any winch is to do ONE AT A TIME! All of the parts within a winch are usually specific to their location. Which means most of the time the winch will not allow you to put it back together improperly. Although taking pictures as you are doing this can’t hurt.

So now that the drum is free, try and slide it up gently and carefully. Some winches have Delrin or bronze key-ways that are let into the winches spindle or body that will need to be removed to completely slide the drum up and off. These can be tedious and require patience. Before you lift the drum off completely slide your hand under the drum to catch any parts or pieces (like bearing sleeves) that may be stuck to the inside of the drum and like to come sliding out when you least expect it.

servicing the winch

Next, we should be looking at the internal workings of the winch. Slide off and remove any pins, gears, washers, and spacers that are removable. From here depending on what winch you own, you may need to remove the winch completely. I know, nobody wants to actually unbolt the winch, but if it hasn’t been serviced in the last five years or more, I would definitely recommend to go all the way and service the winch completely.

So how do we ‘de-gunk’ all of these parts? Well, this is the difference in my method vs. others. Generally you will see people use a tub or a parts washer and use either kerosene, mineral spirits, diesel fuel, or the like. This makes one heck of a mess, can be bad for you, and it stinks! I like to use good old WD-40 and a roll of paper towels, it de-greases, cleans, lubricates and dissipates moisture. Not only that, it also comes in a handy-dandy spray can so I can show up at the boat with just a fresh roll of paper towels, a can of WD-40, a cardboard box for my trash, spare pawls, springs and some gear grease. I will lay out a paper towel next to the winch I am working on and clean each and every part as I remove it and lay it on the paper towel.Winch parts on paper towels After all of the internal workings have been thoroughly cleaned and inspected including the inside of the drum and all non moving parts; I reassemble the winch completely and carefully, then grease all of the gears, bearings and the spindle, ONLY. NEVER GREASE THE PAWLS! For the pawls WD-40 is all you need, you can opt use 3 in 1 oil or pawl oil for them, but never grease.

I will Make sure all pawls and springs are in good working condition and that they have nice action. If not, I replace them with the spares that I have.

Lewmar 3 in 1 oil The key to winches is, I’ll say it again, DO ONE AT A TIME. Re-assemble the winch carefully and if it is not going together correctly right away, then take it back apart and try again! Remember you need to be patient, but do not put it back together if you think it is wrong. Instead ask your local rigger for help. Hope this helps and leave a comment if you have a question.

26 thoughts on “How to Service Your Winches

  1. I have Selden and Harken winches on my 40 footer. Both companies recommend using their grease to service them. Unfortunately there are no boat Chandleries in my country to buy them from and the cost of importing the greases will be more than the greases themselves. Can you suggest some generic alternative?

    1. Sshhhh don’t tell anyone but just use some gear grease of your choice. It is preferred to be marine grade of course, but you can only get what you can get. In this country, I like SuperLube, it is a good synthetic Teflon grease that won’t decay or break down. It works great.

      Hope that helps….remember don’t tell anyone…shhhh.


      1. Thanks for the prompt reply and a very simple solution for a problem that has been vexing me for a while. As to telling anyone, well there is no sailboat with any sort of winches within a couple hundred miles from me so no one to tell to!

  2. Thanks for pointing out that you should always service your winches to keep them running without issues for a long time. My wife and I want to mount a winch to our truck to pull heavy things. We’ll be sure to keep your tips in mind as we find a winch service near us!

  3. Excellent information. I’ve hit the point where I either need to buy a new winch but which is the best winch for a boat? In that link there are a few but will the electric winch be problematic?

  4. Thanks for this article. After reading this I have just serviced (back to perfect order with zero expense bar a tin of Three in One oil) a couple of Hutton Arco 2 speed 45 sheet winches on my Westerly which my rigger said needing replacing. I am now feeling very smug! I had a seized gear pin on one which meant taking the winch off the deck and driving the pin out from underneath, which was easily done and freed up fine.

    Also I would advise not to use an aggressive adhesive seal like Sikaflex to seat the winch back on deck as you will stack up a problem next time you want to take it off, so I suggest just put some sealant around the bolts for waterproofing when you replace the winch. I would say just be careful, methodical and patient and give yourself plenty of time on a nice warm day!.

    On the Westerly Storm the sheet winch retaining nuts on the stern cabin and heads roofs are underneath the headlining, (thankyou Westerly). Try first just unscrewing the bolts in the winch base from the top, you may be lucky and manage to unscrew the bolts that way, leaving the nuts in place without them rotating, as they are factory glued in place with mastic – and also manage to screw the bolts back in and tighten sufficiently. Otherwise you will need to drop the headlining to access the nuts which is a disaster, or better what I did was just cut small slits in the headlining to access the bolts, and then repair with a circular piece of plywood covered with matching headlining vinyl screwed in place and finished with matching vinyl buttons. That way you will have a permanent access to the winch bolts.

  5. Thank you so much for this really helpful guide.
    Do you have any advice about getting an Andersen drum off? Ive removed the ST arm and the allen screws, but then the drum, instead of lifting off, is completely stuck?
    Really appreciate any help,

    1. Penny,

      It actually sounds like you’re doing everything right. There are a couple of screws on the top and that’s it. I’ve found Andersen/Ronstan to be be very responsive when I need help. Here’s a link to their contact info Ronstan


  6. I just bought a 1985 sailboat and started servicing the two original equipment Lewmar 8 England winches. Everything went well except I couldn’t get the bottom pawls out–only one side of the spring end stuck out at all, the other was out of sight in its little slot (on all four pawls). I went ahead and oiled them but wish I could have pulled them. Any ideas? Also, the self-tailing 16s of the same vintage have no circlip nor removable top circle–are some forums’ idea of tapping the lift arm ccw with mallet & wood block correct? Thanks!

    1. Thanks for commenting. Try a razor knife or thin blade knife and pick the pawls out. They will come out. The 16 sounds like a selftailer, no? If yes, it is very likely the lifter arm is threaded on try and tap it counter clockwise as you suggested….should have mentioned this in the write up. I forgot!

      Send us a pic if you hit a wall.

      Hope this Helps!

  7. Thanks for the information on servicing winches. It doesn’t seem as difficult as I thought. I will follow your method and use WD_40 with some paper towels. How easy is it to put my winch back together after service?

    1. No worries and it should all work out fine. Just be sure to do only one winch at a time. Take some pictures when taking it apart and better yet see if there is online exploded diagram!

      Remember if the winch is so bad the gunk won’t break down and wibe off with WD and paper towels, soak the parts in something more aggressive like mineral spirits, then use a stainless steel or brass wire brush.

      TIP: use straight edge knife for picking out the old grease between gears.

      Good luck and let us know if have any hiccups.

      Thanks for Commenting!

  8. I have six lewmars on my trimaran. One of them must have a small nick in the brass threads that the cap screw goes onto. The cap has notches you can tap it loose with a screwdriver but there is no way to tap it tight. With the drum off, I can crew the cap all the way on with my hands but once assembled there is no way to grab the cab. Other than professional service to clean up the threads any suggestions. I can swap caps between winches and they go on fine on all but this one.

    1. It almost seems like there is an extra (or one missing) plastic washer/spacer inside the winch…..maybe that’s the problem. Also you can try to use a thread file that matches the thread profile to smooth out the burr if that is the problem. It is hard for me to say without looking at it. If you are close to us locally we will come and take a look for FREE!

      Thanks for commenting.

  9. Have you had success having new pawl seats drill pressed into aluminum drums on small boats with older Harken or Barient winches? even with careful care, the pawl seats eventually enlarge.

  10. I am actually glad to read this web site posts which contains plenty of helpful
    data, thanks for providing such information.

  11. winches — thinking a topic might be the installation of winches — on a mast — different kind of mast bases — the angle of the base – and why –
    to bolt through to the mast or just fasten to the base ? every try bolting on the new Harken radial winch – getting the right size bolts to fit the base – the line of of the stripper arm – note on loading the winch before going to the stripper arm and why – BPJ

    1. Good call Brooks. I will put this in my draft que. Come to think of it, no I have never personally bolted a Harken radial onto the mast. Good point though because they have those special slots for hex head bolts, right?


Leave a Reply