Knotwork

Full disclosure:  most of the information on this post is from a lecture I gave at Houston Maritime Museum in June 2014.  This post is rather long.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that it’s got lots of pictures.

I’m a member of the United States Power Squadron, and also an instructor in the Power Squadron’s Seamanship class.  As part of the class, we learn some basic marlinspike skills, including how to tie five knots:

  • cleat hitch
  • sheet bend
  • bowline
  • figure 8 stopper
  • clove hitch

All of these knots are very useful; I use each of them almost every time I take Wee Lass on the water.  I tell students they should know these knots, and by knowing, I mean be able to tie from memory, and ideally, tie the knot with one’s eyes closed.  Knowing the knot from memory is important.  Let’s face it, if you’re coming in to dock and you’ve forgotten how to hitch a line to a cleat, you’re not going to stop and look up the directions in a book.  You’re much more likely to tie something you’ve concocted on the spot that looks like it will serve the purpose.  (Some folks have told me that there’s an app for knot tying you can download on your smart phone, but I’m too much of a Luddite to carry around one of those modern nuisances.)

Knotwork is defined by the World English Dictionary as “ornamentation consisting of a mass of intertwined and knotted cords.”  I don’t like that definition.  My knotwork is ornamental to some extent, but also tends to be functional.  So for the purpose of this post, let’s define knotwork as something other than the five knots mentioned above, and is generally done in a controlled setting, such as in the shop or the living room.  Put another way, it’s okay to look at the instructions while tying knotwork, because you’re not – or shouldn’t be – in a hurry.

Let’s dispel the myth that quality knotwork similar to what was done in the old days is a “lost art.”  Browse a few web sites such as http://frayedknotarts.com and you’ll see some contemporary work that is absolutely beautiful.  Most (all) of my work is much simpler, but still looks nice and does the job I want it to.  Finally, knotwork is not limited to the expert knot-tyer – I certainly don’t fit in that category.  Knotwork, in my opinion, has a very simple recipe:  mix one part good instruction with three parts patience, and you’re there.

References:

So what is “good instruction?”  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books on knot tying.  Some are good, some are mediocre, and some are useless.  You make your own decision on which is which, but here are several of my favorites:

hgsmith_arts

Arts of the Sailor was written in the 1950s and is a delight to read in itself.  It’s still in print, and it’s cheap, about $10.  I’ve read this book countless times, and a lot of the knotwork I’ve done on Wee Lass comes from this book.  Highly recommended.

knots_for_boaters

Another inexpensive book (about $15) that’s also highly recommended.  Knots for Boaters is more contemporary than Arts of the Sailor, and was written with the contemporary boater in mind.  The instructions on tying the various knots in this book as well as Arts are very good.  There is some overlap between Knots and Arts, but also some knots shown in Arts that are not included in Knots and vice versa.

splicing

The Splicing Handbook is another inexpensive book; I bought it solely for the reason that it has directions on how to make rope fenders and bow pudding.  As it’s name would suggest, it also has directions on how to work an eyesplice in braided line and wire rope.  After reading the directions, I’ve decided that I really, really like three-strand rope.

ashleys

Ashley’s Book of Knots was written in the 1940s and is considered by most to be the bible of knot tying.  It’s not cheap, so it’s a good idea to drop subtle hints to your loved ones that it would make a great Christmas present (it worked for me!).  I find myself relying on Arts of the Sailor more often, but Ashley’s is the source to turn to when I can’t find something anywhere else.  How many knots are in Ashley’s?  Only about 3,854.

Tools and Supplies: 

The tools I use are pretty simple, and none really expensive.  The same goes for supplies.

tools

From left to right, a hank of 1/8″ lacing twine, sold at the local boating store, is used for most of my hitching such as on my tiller or boathook.  A small pair of sharp scissors is great for cutting small stuff.  I use a utility knife for cutting larger-sized line; I still prefer it to a rigger’s knife.  The blue-handled tool in the middle is called a Swedish fid or hollow fid; you can’t make bow pudding without it and I’ve found many more uses for it.  I bought this one at the local boating store and it was not expensive.  I have a rigger’s knife with a folding marlinspike; real sailors would sneer at this tool but the folding ‘spike works well for any knotwork within my skill set.  At the bottom of the photo is a roll of #18 black nylon seine twine.  This is available at the sporting goods store in the fishing department, and is the modern equivalent of tarred marline.

Projects –

Now that we’ve got the knowledge and the materials, it’s time to make some stuff.  So here goes:

Sheet Attachment:

Sheet attachment
Sheet attachment

This is a very simple project; knotwork doesn’t have to be fancy to be useful.  The sheet for my sail travels on a rope bridle or traveler; it’s simple and effective.  A lot of Sunfish sailors I’ve met use a bridle made of plastic coated wire; the end of the sheet is simply tied in a bowline.  Since I’m using three strand line instead of plastic-coated line for the bridle, the end of my sheet needed something other than a bowline to reduce friction.  The wood “bulls-eye” was simple to carve; the outside of the bulls-eye is grooved to accept the end of the sheet.  An eyesplice is simple to make in three strand line (good instructions are in Arts of the Sailor) and a round seizing near the bulls-eye ensures that it will not slip out of the eyesplice.  Arts also has instructions for the round seizing.  A common whipping at the end of the eyesplice covers the ends of the splice, though isn’t really necessary.

Rope-stropped blocks:

Rope-stropped block
Rope-stropped block hung on the boom for controlling the sheet.
Tack downhaul with bronze snap
Tack downhaul with bronze snap

Okay, so the background in these photos is a little busy.  What can I say, I’m a boat builder, not a photographer!

Hervey Garrett Smith has high praise for rope stropped blocks, devoting an entire chapter to the subject in Arts of the Sailor.  Brion Toss also has kind words for these blocks in his Rigger’s Apprentice.  Today’s blocks (“pulleys” if you’re a landlubber) are marvels of modern engineering and materials science.  They’re also not cheap and just don’t look right on a classic-styled boat.  Making the rope “strop” is the only difficult part; you’re taking one strand of three strand rope and wrapping it around itself to form an endless three-strand ring.  Instructions are given in Arts of the Sailor for making a strop or grommet, but bear in mind that Arts was written when the majority of the rope being used was natural fiber, not synthetic.  Rigger’s Apprentice gives good instructions for making a strop or grommet from synthetic line.  Grooves are cut into the ends of the wooden shell for the block to accept the strop.  Once the strop is made, a round seizing secures it to the shell.

Toggle Used for Yard Parrel: 

A yard what?  Sailors, like boat builders, have their own vocabulary.  I suspect sailors created their own lingo so they could confuse the heck out of farmers.  Why else would they have invented such terms as snotter and baggywrinkle?

Wee Lass is unlike most contemporary sailboats in that it’s sail is four-sided, not three.  The sail has a yard (upper spar) to hold the top edge of the sail – see the photo below.  The halyard, then attaches to the yard and raises it.  On contemporary triangular-shaped sails, there is no yard; the halyard attaches to the upper corner of the sail.  If you think of the halyard as being the line that “hauls the yard”, you’ll remember both the name and the purpose of this line.

That all being said, we need some way to keep the yard against the mast so it doesn’t flop around in the breeze.  This device, whether fancy or plain, is called a parrel.  Some boats have a bronze ring, wrapped in leather, that is attached to the yard and slides up and down the mast.  Way too fancy to suit me.  I started off with a simple short piece of line attached to the yard.  When raising the sail, I would lead the line around the mast, and tie it off to the yard on the other side of the mast.  Very low tech, and it worked, but got to be a nuisance when trying to raise or lower the sail in a breeze.  Trying to thread the line between the yard and the sail and then tying a couple of half hitches with the breeze blowing everything around was just not fun.  I needed something just as simple, but quicker.

The Parrel wraps around the mast, to keep the yard from flailing around.
The Parrel wraps around the mast, to keep the yard from flailing around.

Several years ago I had visited a replica of the Columbus ship Nina, and noted that her rigging made extensive use of toggles and eyesplices.  I quickly adapted this system to my yard parrel.  The toggle is simple to use, quick, and works flawlessly.  Making the parrel is also simple; like the sheet attachment, all you need to know is how to make an eyesplice and a round seizing.

Yard Parrel uses a toggle and eye splice to hold the yard against the mast.
Yard Parrel uses a toggle and eye splice to hold the yard against the mast.

 

Tack Downhaul and Mast Partner:

Toggle on tack downhaul
Toggle on tack downhaul

Did you ever have one of those moments when you said “why in the world did I do that?”  I had one of those moments after I spliced on a nice shiny bronze snap to the line to apply tension on my downhaul (shown above, in the photos on rope-stopped blocks).  I have a boathook with a polished bronze tip, and know from experience that polished bronze gets grungy if it even smells salt water!  Polishing the boathook is part of putting up the boat.  The bronze snap never saw the water, in fact it never got out of the driveway; I replaced it with a simple toggle and never looked back.

Mast Partner
Mast Partner

Belaying pins are seldom used on contemporary sailboats, which is a shame.  I saw belaying pins being used in pictures of Don Maurer’s beautiful Tammie Norrie and shamelessly copied the idea.  Pins are as simple to use as cleats and do a better job in my opinion of holding a coiled line.  Use of the pins is discussed in both Arts of the Sailor and Knots for Boaters.  The pins work great for keeping the various lines organized and off the floor of the boat.  I use the two aft pins for dock lines; each line is hitched to it’s respective pin and then neatly coiled.  The starboard side forward pin holds my coiled anchor line.  When traveling, the sail, yard, boom and mast are all neatly bundled and secured with Swedish furling, which is shown in Knots for Boaters.  When on the water, the line used for Swedish furling is coiled and kept on the port side forward pin as a spare.

Hitching on Tiller:

tiller hitching
Half-moku hitching on the tiller.

The original tiller to Wee Lass would rub against the rail (side) when I swung the tiller hard over.  I didn’t like having an ash tiller rubbing on an ash rail, so I added the hitching on the tiller to keep wood from rubbing on wood.  No reason it can’t be attractive as well as functional.  This type of hitching is called Half-Moku Hitching; it’s simple to do and instructions are on a tutorial from Vince Brennan’s web site (http://frayedknotarts.com).  A turks head on either side of the hitching hides the ends of the lines.

Fair warning:  Vince’s web site is seductive – you can spend hours on the site, admiring some very fine knotwork.

Coachwhipping on Boathook:

100_0505

As I mentioned earlier, the end of my boathook is polished bronze.  The shaft to the boathook is well sanded and well varnished, i.e., very smooth.  Now imagine you’re in a panic situation when you need the boathook, and you’ve got a sweaty palm trying to hold on to a very slick boathook.  Not good.  To give my hand a better hold on the ‘hook, I added some coachwhipping on the upper end of the staff.  Instructions for coachwhipping are given in Arts of the Sailor.  The instructions are well written and easy enough to understand, but once you’ve started with the coachwhipping, DON’T STOP FOR ANY REASON until you’ve finished the project.  For this whipping, I’ve got eighteen individual strands of line criss-crossing each other in a certain pattern, and it’s real easy to get messed up and lose your place.  Once finished, the ends are covered with a pair of turks heads.

TSCA Burgee on Pigstick:

TSCA burgee
TSCA burgee

I’m a member of the Traditional Small Craft Association (TSCA) and decided to fly their burgee from atop the mast.  (I told my racing friends that my boat was going faster than I wanted so I decided to add some extra windage.)  Making the “pigstick”, the shaft that holds the burgee, was simple, thanks to a scrap piece of ash I had.  It was also simple to install a “dumb sheave” at the top of the mast, and another cleat down below.  The puzzle was how to secure the halyard onto the new pigstick.  From Ashley’s Book of Knots, a Topsail Halyard Bend (#1679) seemed the perfect choice for this application, but I was still worried about the knot sliding up and down on the pigstick now made very slick with six coats of varnish.

The answer was to tie a turks head on either side of the halyard bend.  I mentioned at the beginning of this post that one of the knots we teach students in our Seamanship class is the clove hitch.  There’s a variation of this knot, called a constrictor, that does a better job of holding than a clove hitch when it’s pulled tight.  Now think of a turks head as a constrictor on steroids.  Turks heads are normally viewed as decorative knots, and they certainly are, but in this case they served a functional purpose.  Tied on either side of the halyard bend and pulled tight, the halyard bend is going to stay put.  Ashley’s devotes an entire chapter to turks head knots, showing over 100 varieties of the knot.  I’m content to know just one, as it suits my needs just fine.  Instructions are given in Arts of the Sailor.

Feeling rather proud of myself, I raised the mast with the new burgee and pigstick, and the system worked as well as I had hoped.  But I was also rewarded with an annoying “tap, tap, tap” every time the breeze picked up.  The bottom of the pigstick was banging the mast.  Two more turks heads tied at the lower end of the pigstick served as a bumper and solved that problem.

Rope Fenders and Bow Pudding:

fenders

Bow pudding
Bow pudding

I saw a picture of rope fenders (bumpers) on the Interweb while I was building Wee Lass and decided that these would be used on my boat.  Plastic fenders certainly work well, but don’t look right on this boat.  The bow pudding serves as a fender for the pointy end of the boat, and thankfully is more decorative than functional (if the pudding is serving it’s intended purpose, that probably means that I really botched it coming in to the dock!)  That being said, when I saw the directions in Barbara Merry’s Splicing Handbook, I had one of those “I gotta make one of these!” moments.  Directions for both fenders and bow pudding are in this book.  Fenders are simple and relatively quick to make, bow pudding is also not difficult but takes considerably more time.  For both projects, only a few types of knots are used and none are difficult. The core of the pudding is covered with a type of knot called needle hitching; Ms. Merry states that it takes a million hitches to cover a pudding.  That’s only a small exaggeration.  I use about 80 feet of line to cover a pudding.  How many knots can you make in 80 feet of line?  Yep, that’s a bunch.

 

So there’s a few projects.  None of them are really that complicated, just take a little time.  The end result, I think, is well worth the effort.  These all work well on Wee Lass, and will likely be seen on Tammie Norrie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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