The first time I stepped down a sailboat’s companionway I was overwhelmed by the beauty and abundance of the wood I found below. As a result, I knew one thing I wanted for sure when searching for my first sailboat was a teak-and-holly cabin sole. In the end, I found what I wanted, but the teak and holly was veneer over plywood. It was in less than perfect condition, but having only spent $17,000 on the boat, I could hardly complain.
Over eight years I have improved many things on Orion, my 1978 Hunter 30, but my upgrades only highlighted how worn the cabin sole had become. Many pieces of holly were missing or delaminated. There was a large stain by the galley and engine compartment. Several sections of sole were no longer attached to the floor pan beneath. It was time for a change.
Materials and Measurements
DIY sailors looking to install a new cabin sole have several options when it comes to flooring material. At the top of the list, both in price and quality, are solid tongue-and-groove teak-and-holly planks. Properly installed and finished, these should outlast both the boat and its owner. Marine-grade plywood panels with teak-and-holly veneer are also readily available and cost much less. Some suppliers offer these with a durable impregnated finish. There are also composite flooring products that simulate teak and holly, yet never need varnishing. Another option is vinyl sheet flooring in a striped teak-and-holly pattern.
As a residential building contractor, I became interested in vertical-grain bamboo. While not specifically made for marine use, bamboo flooring has many attractions. It is a sustainable resource and can be purchased prefinished. You can glue, nail or screw it to a substrate. Compared to solid teak-and-holly or composite flooring, it costs very little, and it looks great.
But would it hold up in a marine environment? I put a small sample in a bucket of water for a week. It looked largely unchanged when I removed it, though there was a slight but noticeable “cupping.” Would the cabin sole on my boat ever be submerged for a week? This wasn’t likely to happen, and if it did, the cabin sole would be least of my worries. So bamboo it was.
Whatever material you use, you need to calculate how much you need to do the job. Most sailboat cabin soles are a combination of flat rectangles and triangles or trapezoids. When cutting new material to fit these odd-shaped areas, it is hard to use the stock efficiently, so treat the triangles and trapezoids as rectangles. Add up your total square footage and multiply by 1.1. This should give you enough to finish, with spare pieces for miscuts and the like. Don’t forget to order trim pieces, such as quarter-round or shoe molding. Simply add up the total linear footage along all vertical surfaces that your flooring will abut, then add 10 percent for good measure.