The 3 Most Common Shaft Seals Explained

Stern gland, stern seal, gland package, gland seal, shaft seal, stuffing box, log seal, PSS, tides. You may have heard all of these terms and wonder what do they all mean? In this article we will go over these common shaft seals. We will discuss the pros and cons to each type, their serviceability and life expectancy.

Stuffing Box / Gland Packing Shaft Seal

They’re leaking, you say! Well, they are supposed to… a little bit. These seals are the old and reliable option for a shaft seal. Imagine inside the gland a few strips of a waxy rope around the shaft. As they are compressed longitudinally, they seal onto the shaft and into the body of the gland. This stops most of the water from getting past.

Stuffing box seals are supposed to drip every 30 seconds or so and correct tension is extremely important.  If they’re too loose they will stream water in. Too tight they wont drip and the internal packing will overheat when underway and burn out. This in turn will cause the packing to lose its sealing ability and drip and leak more frequently than it should.

You can do a quick test on these style shaft seals.  You touch the body of the gland when underway. If it is warm to touch it’s okay, and if they are too hot to touch then they are too tight. This risks burning them out. An even better option is to use an infrared temperature gun to check their temperature – less than 40°C is ideal.

Some may have an option to grease and others may have a cooling water feed from the engine. These are generally not required for cruisers and semi-planing boats.

Adjusting and Servicing

There are two common styles. One tensions up on studs and the other tensions by the follower being a large nut with locking nut. These are standard threads so extra care must be taken when adjusting on a clockwise rotating shaft. I’ve seen these nuts completely spin off. The option you choose may come down to accessibility and the amount of space you have between the stern tube and gearbox flange to accommodate gland and coupling.

Packing type shaft seal
“Stuffing” type packing shaft seal incorrectly adjusted this one was leaking excessively

These shaft seals are serviceable. It is possible (although not preferred) to repack the seal without hauling the boat out of the water. Don’t forget about the rubber bellows, as they can crack and wear out too. However servicing this requires the vessel out of water. Expect to have these glands removed and overhauled every 7-10 years. Although adjustment and repacking will be required over the years depending on how much use they are subject to.

Packingless Shaft Seals (PSS)

Packingless Shaft Seals (PSS) are the successor to the stuffing box. These shaft seals are dripless, and rely on the principles of a mechanical face seal. A thin film of water sits between the stationary carbon or ceramic flange and the stainless-steel rotor. This rotor is attached to the shaft. The seal attaches to the stern tube by a compressible bellow which houses the carbon or ceramic flange.

When fitting or adjusting these glands, the correct compression of the bellow is crucial and only soapy water should be used. Getting grease or oil on these sealing faces is a big “no no” as it contaminates the sealing surface, which will compromise its sealing ability. Remember that the rotor has a total of 4 grub-screws to secure to the shaft. You’ll find 2 per hole, one bites the shaft, the other acts as a locking screw behind it. Bellow alignment is key to a smooth running seal, if misaligned the stationary flange can bounce on the rotor preventing sealing and risking damage to the carbon or ceramic face causing the seal to leak.

After slipping your boat for annual maintenance or repairs, on return to water remember to ‘burp’ your PSS before engine startup to vent any trapped air from the stern tube and bellow. This helps initial sealing and to prevent running the seal dry and burning the carbon flange. When burping, be gentle around the water supply fittings as they can break easily.

Water Feeding

These seals require an engine water feed. On twin engine installations you should also have a bridging hose between seals, this ensures either seal will still receive the required water for sealing if you happen to be motoring on just one engine due to breakdown (the second shaft will still rotate due to the prop walking) or have a restricted water supply from one engine to the seal.

PSS shaft seal
A heavily worn PSS shaft seal

If you notice your bellow swelling, check where the cooling water supply has been plumbed into the engine – ideally it should be near the end of the cooling system. If plumbed close to the raw water pump, any restriction or blockage of a cooler can cause water to divert direct to the gland and your bellows will swell, which will affect the integrity of the bellow and shorten its serviceable lifespan.

Replacing PSS Seals

To replace any components of the seal, it is a requirement for the boat to be out of the water and to split the coupling from the shaft. In some cases, you may even need to remove rudders and/or props to achieve the access required.

PSS shaft seals are best suited to vessels that get used a lot. You can expect to achieve around 5 years before a bellow replacement is required. The biggest demise of these seals is sitting without being used, so get out there and enjoy your boat.

Manecraft is another brand/style of dripless seal that functions on the same principle as a “PSS” seal, a moulded bellow with bronze and fibre component used to mechanically seal and keep your bilge dry.

Lip Style Shaft Seals

Tides seals and the genuine Volvo stuffing box, all seal to the shaft by means of a lip seal. Being a lip seal they can wear a groove into the shaft and at some point you may find you’ll need to vary the length of the stern tube hose or fit a sleeve over the shaft to allow a new sealing surface for the lip style seal to be effective.

Lip Style Shaft Seal
Lip seal with spare seal forward of shaft

Tides also have the benefit of being able to fit a spare seal to the shaft in case of a leaking or damaged original seal. The replacement seal can be fitted in the water, with no need to split the coupling from the shaft and also saving money on hauling the boat from the water.

The same as with the PSS seals, a bridging hose should be fitted between shaft seals in a twin engine installation to maintain cooling water and lubrication to the second seal during single motor operation in a breakdown situation.

The Volvo rubber stuffing box is a small and compact simple design with minimal maintenance required – just apply some grease to the seal annually. These also rely on water to lubricate and cool, so when relaunching it is necessary to vent the trapped air from the seal.

These lip seal type shaft seals are more of a set and forget, in terms of leaking, however retaining clamps and hoses should all be periodically inspected as with all styles of shaft seals.

If in doubt…check it out!

In conclusion, whichever shaft seal you have or opt for in the future, be sure to maintain periodic inspections of all components. Regular inspection and maintenance to hose clamps, hoses, bellows, fittings and shafts will ensure trouble free boating. If in doubt, have it professionally inspected and/or replaced. It doesn’t take much to sink a boat, and the last thing you want to worry about is water coming in.

About the Author – Brendan Sutton

Brendan is a dual certified Marine Surveyor & Engineer, who completed his trade at well respected marine engineering company based on the Hawkesbury River. After relocating his family to the Gold Coast, he joined the BoatBuy team in QLD. Liked this article? We would love to hear from you. Feel free to email Brendan with any boating related questions you might have here. You can also contact the team at BoatBuy here.

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