Know How: Nav Station Makeover

Sprucing up an older cruiser with new switch panels

Having had so much fun upgrading the systems on our project Norlin 34, it came as something of a shock to realize that after installing a windlass, propane system, new winches, new portlights and new genoa sheet tracks in the space of three years, I had run out of things to do. Well, not really. The old girl turned 40 in May, and it was time to address some of the cosmetic issues I’ve been steadfastly ignoring over the years.

The makeover involves refacing instrument panels and replacing the old DC and AC switch panels

The list of wanna-do’s is long indeed—rip out the nasty vinyl covering the hull sides and replace them with wooden ceilings, find a way to improve the ugly, scarred cabin overhead, refinish the heads compartment, and give the nav station a makeover. But which project to tackle first?


West Marine plastic 6-breaker DC panels made by Blue Sea Systems

With the boat in the grip of a savage and seemingly never-ending New England winter, not to mention a seriously tight budget, my options were limited. I settled on the nav-station makeover, which would involve refacing a couple of beat-up instrument panels, and replacing the ugly old DC and AC switch panels that had been annoying me for years.

The existing DC panel consisted of three ancient aluminum Marinetics circuit breaker panels loosely joined together and mounted on a piano hinge. Because of its location I would have to replace it with a panel of the same height, though it could be wider. A quick look online for made-to-measure DC panels revealed prices that made my head swim. A plunge into depression was averted when I found that West Marine was selling plastic 6-breaker DC panels made by Blue Sea Systems for $50 each, complete with LED indicator lights.

A 360 Main + 2 Position from Blue Sea Systems

Three of these, side by side, would fit very nicely. I would have to make a hinged framework on which to mount them and also the new AC distribution panel. The latter was a 360 Main + 2 Position from Blue Sea Systems;  the boat’s shore power demands are modest, with only a battery charger and a single AC outlet to be served.

I ordered a piece of 3/16in G10 fiberglass sheet from McMaster Carr, trimmed it to the correct dimensions with a jigsaw, and cut out the holes for the 3 DC and single AC circuit breaker panels. I drilled the holes for the panels and screwed them in place to check everything fit properly. Then I glued on some white Formica sheet with contact cement and cut the edges smooth with a laminate trimmer.

Removing the old DC panels, cleaning up the wiring and replacing the terminations with spade terminals

Meanwhile, I spent a happy morning removing the old DC panels and cleaning up the wiring (which I had labeled) and replacing the terminations with spade terminals as required by the new panels. I bought a new brass piano hinge, cut it to size and bolted it to the new panel, and used my trusty Dremel to remove some fiberglass so the new panel would fit properly. The switch panels are more than adequate for my needs and incorporate two accessory outlets.


The switch panels incorporate two accessory outlets

The rest was easy as pie. I removed one of the black instrument panels that housed only the flush-mounted VHF radio and stereo units, along with a battery monitor, but bore the holes and scars of assorted other long-gone instruments, and took it home to reface it with some more of the Formica I had stashed in the basement. The other panel was too difficult to remove, so I made a cardboard pattern and cut out the Formica to match. Luckily, it was a near-perfect fit on the first attempt. I’m happy with the new-look nav station; now for the cabin overhead…

The finished upgrade

Once I’d sold the old DC and AC panels for $100 or so on eBay, this upgrade set me back less than $300 and a day’s work. Bargain!

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