Boat Cleats Explained
August 29, 2022 7 min read
When trying to choose the hardware for docking your boat, you need to be aware that there are a variety of cleats made from different materials available on the market. Each with its own distinct advantages and disadvantages.
History of Boat Cleats
Horn cleats — the basic cleats you see on docks and decks everywhere — have been around almost as long as boats. Over the centuries, they’ve been made in a huge range of sizes, from a few inches in length to five feet and even larger, and in all kinds of materials — wood, iron, brass, bronze, galvanized steel, stainless steel, aluminum, nylon, zinc and various alloys.
But until the 20th century, horn cleats all shared the same general form factor — two “horns” extending out from one or two fixed “legs” that were fastened to the deck or dock. The main difference, aside from the shape of the horns, was whether a cleat had an “open base” through which a line could be passed, or a closed base.
Then, somebody bloodied his or her big toe one too many times by accidentally kicking a cleat barefoot. Or maybe that somebody lost a big fish when the line got wrapped around a cleat and broke or the landing net got snagged on a cleat. Or maybe they slid off a boat into the water but caught their shorts and ended up dangling painfully from the bow cleat.
At any rate, at that moment, a lightbulb went off, and the first ancestors of today’s retractable cleats appeared soon after. We use the term “retractable” here to cover all the various types of cleats that can be made relatively flat and smooth when not in use — pull-up cleats, pop-up cleats, folding cleats and flush-mount cleats.
So what’s the difference between them? Well, more than you’d think at first glance. Let’s take a look at the characteristics of the various styles of horn cleats available today and what applications each is best suited for.
Boat Cleat Dimensions & Features
|Profile on deck
|Mountable w/o back access
|None; 4 fastener holes
|Only with screws
|Moderate - 1/2" - 1"
|Two holes approx. 1" diameter
|Lowest - less than 1/4"
|Lowest - less than 1/4"
|Moderate - 1/2" - 1"
|None; 2 fastener holes
Standard cleats are the good old fixed, surface-mount cleats that were found on most powerboats until a few decades ago. And they still have a number of advantages. They’re inexpensive, require no cutouts or large holes for mounting, are completely waterproof, and have zero moving parts to potentially fail.
Also, although through-bolting is stronger, standard cleats can be mounted for light-duty applications without access to the back of the mounting surface using self-tapping screws and adhesive sealant. Most (although not all) other styles require access to the back.
The disadvantages? They eat toes for breakfast and love to snag fishing lines, nets and swimsuits. They’re also not nearly as sleek looking as most of the alternatives.
Pull-up cleats can be manually pushed down into their bases when not needed or pulled up for use. Most pull-up cleats are surface-mounted, meaning that the body of the cleat sits above the mounting surface, rather than recessed into it. When not in use, these cleats are rounded and smooth to prevent snagging and minimize stubbed toes, but they still rise higher above the deck than flush-mounted cleats — generally 1/2” to 3/4” for a 6” cleat.
Surface-mounted pull-up cleats are mounted using studs that are fixed to the underside of the cleat.
Surface-mounted pull-up cleats are mounted using studs that are fixed to the underside of the cleat. That means access to the back of the mounting surface is required in order to fit fender washers and nuts onto the studs.
With few exceptions, surface mount pull-up cleats require four holes through the mounting surface — two for the studs that fasten the cleat to the mounting surface and two more to accommodate the legs of the cleat when it’s pushed down. These latter are relatively large holes, an inch or so in diameter depending on the size and model of the cleat. Although some pull-up cleats claim to be fully waterproof, they depend on seals to keep water from draining down along the legs to the underside of the mounting surface.
Pop-up cleats are essentially pull-up cleats with the addition of a spring that “pops” the cleat up at the push of a button. Virtually all pop-up cleats are flush-mounted, meaning most of the body of the cleat sits recessed into the mounting surface when retracted for the lowest profile of all cleat designs. Pop-up cleats are available in both top-mount and hidden stud configurations.
The top-mount versions can be installed without access to the back of the mounting surface. Specially designed backing plates provide all the strength of through-bolting even with no access to the back. The hidden stud versions require access to fit the backing plate and nuts onto the studs.
Pop-up cleats have more moving parts than pull-up cleats and do occasionally stick, especially when they get sandy. They are also generally more expensive than pull-ups, all else being equal, and can be noisy when popping up. Like pull-up cleats, pop-up cleats can allow water to drain through the cleat assembly to the underside of the mounting surface.
Both pull-up and pop-up cleats are available in flush-mount configurations. Flush-mount cleats are even lower profile than surface-mount pull-up cleats, rising less than 1/4” above the deck when retracted. That makes them ideal for areas where people stand or walk, especially the casting decks of flats and bay boats. The other side of that coin is that flush-mounted cleats require a relatively large cutout in roughly the shape of the cleat for mounting.
As advertised, folding cleats hinge down flat when not in use, rather than retracting. When folded, they generally rise about the same distance above the mounting surface as a pull-up cleat of equivalent size. Their footprints tend to be somewhat larger than those of pull-up or pop-up cleats. Some are lifted manually, but most are spring-loaded and flip up when a button is pushed.
Unlike pull-up and pop-up cleats, folding cleats are fully waterproof. The only holes required are for the fasteners that hold the cleat to the mounting surface. They are available with either hidden studs or with holes for through-bolting. Either mounting method requires access to the back of the mounting surface.
As noted above, only standard fixed cleats and folding cleats are truly waterproof. The only penetrations of the mounting surface required are holes for the fasteners. Pull-up and pop-up cleats — both surface-mount and flush-mount — require cutouts that can allow water to drain through the cleat and out the bottom. Some pull-up cleats use seals to keep water out, but if the seals fail, water gets in.
This isn’t a problem as long as the cleat is mounted above an area where water isn’t a problem — anchor lockers, decks, etc. But if a pull-up or pop-up cleat is mounted above anything that can’t or shouldn’t get wet — batteries, flotation foam, a cabin ceiling, etc. — it needs to be drained appropriately with a waterproofing cup and tubing. Note that most waterproofing cups are designed for specific cleat models; make sure you get one that will fit.
Different sizes of cleats are designed to work with different diameters of rope. A 4-1/2” cleat just isn’t big enough to tie a cleat hitch with a 1/2” dock line. The popular rule of thumb says that for every 1/16” of rope diameter, you need 1” of cleat length. For example, 1/2” rope is the same as 8/16”, so you’ll need an 8” cleat.
Another popular rule of thumb says that dock and mooring lines should be 1/8” thick for every 9’ of boat length. So a 36’ boat should be rigged with 1/2” dock lines (36 ÷ 9 = 4 and 4 x 1/8” = 1/2”).
To make it simple, 6” cleats are sufficient for most boats up to around 25’’. Lightweight flats boats, jon boats and other small fishing boats under 20’ or so can use 4-1/2” cleats. Boats over 25’ will need 8” cleats or larger.