Binnacles 101: Get Your Bearings with Nautical Collectibles

Fancy yacht binnacle with compensating balls and lanterns and decorative lion feet.

Fancy yacht binnacle with compensating balls and lanterns and decorative lion feet.

Many people who come into my shop are confused by the nature of the nautical instruments called binnacles that I have artistically scattered about. Without looking in the large glass port to see the compass inside, many assume they are diving helmets! Binnacles are not diving helmets. And they come in many sizes and make for an attractive addition to your home.

Just what is a binnacle? In the early days of sail, boats and ships hugged the coastline because they had no safe means of navigation out of sight of land. When compasses were developed they—plus celestial navigation—allowed great freedom in nautical travel and opened up many faraway ports to trade. Originally, compasses were little more than a magnetized needle floating on a straw in a bowl of water. The needle was stroked with a lodestone to magnetize it. Then some anonymous, yet ingenious, person suggested mounting the needle on a pin. Soon after, a thin card was mounted to the now-steel needle with directional indicators on it. Thus, around the year 1200 A.D., the sea-compass was born. The compass was eventually mounted in a box by the 14th century. Compasses were (and still are) the essential part of the shipboard equipment, even though many improvements have been made.

The compass was placed in front of the crewmember steering the ship—the helmsman—and this was invariably out in the elements during the early days. Binnacles were developed to protect the compass and provide light at night. On all-wood ships the earliest binnacles were low and cabinet-like, and held two compasses and a lantern. From there, they developed into many forms, fanciful and functional. In the early 18th century, when ships began to be made with more and more iron and steel, the binnacle provided the means to compensate for the interference these metals would create.

Binnacles are made of brass, bronze and/or copper—and sometimes wood—with a glass port or window to view the compass inside. Most have at least one lantern or light, and on a ship with lots of iron, compensating balls off to port and starboard. The compass sits on gimbals (gimbals are an arrangement of two brass or bronze concentric rings, one attached to the compass the other attached to the binnacle that allows the compass to stay level regardless of the pitching of the ship). Gimbals were developed in the 16th century. Other items on a ship are also gimbaled such as interior lanterns, barometers, even inkwells, using slightly different methods for the same results.) The lanterns on early binnacles used whale oil and later kerosene; modern binnacles are electric. The compensating balls were used to allow the compass to work properly without interference from all the ferrous metals on the ship as well as compensating for local differences in the magnetic field.

Gimbals on a compass to allow the compass to remain readable regardless of the pitching of the ship.

A small binnacle with lantern. Prices range from $150 to $350 depending on condition and size.

Small binnacle with lantern. Prices range from $150.00 to $350.00 depending on condition and size.

Gimbals on a compass to allow the compass to remain readable regardless of the pitching of the ship.

Binnacles range from small sizes (8 by 12 inches) used on small fishing vessels and lifeboats, to midsize yacht binnacles to large ship models (30” x 54”). These large ones are often seen in lobbies of seafood restaurants, but I have sold many to private collectors. One collector told me he uses his as a liquor cabinet and others use them as a night-light, not to mention as a handsome part of the décor. In caring for binnacles, it is all right to polish the brass; just be sure to remove all polish once you are finished because metal polish is corrosive. Also, take care not to get metal polish on any wood. Wood can be waxed and polished as you would any piece of furniture. Binnacles are a fascinating piece of nautical history you can enjoy in your home. Don’t you wish they could talk!

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A large binnacle with red and green compensating balls and a range of magnets and iron bars inside the wooden base to help regulate the compass. Prices for a piece like this range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on type and condition.

Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.

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