Knot Tying Introduction

knot_board_1My love of knot tying began some 25yrs ago while I was in the Navy.  Contrary to what you might think, the Navy doesn’t teach knot tying then or now.  Maybe if you become a bosun’s mate, but generally it’s a skill that is no longer needed.  What the Navy does have is a long tradition of decorating ships and shore facilities with decorative knots.  Hand rails receive coxcombing, ceremonial bells have a fancy bell rope and retirement ceremonies were always laden with decorative touches fashioned from rope and cordage.  Seeing all these things peaked my interest and I went in search of information.  What I found has become one of my most treasured possessions.

ABOK-CoverThe ABOK or Ashley’s Book of Knots.  Clifford Ashley was an interesting man and accomplished a lot of things, but his book on knots is one his most enduring legacies.  His book contains instructions and illustrations for thousands of knots and has become the ‘bible’ for knot tying enthusiasts the world over.  It was with this book that I started my journey.

Fast forward to now and I still reference my copy of the ABOK on a regular basis.  I’m now a member of IGKT (International Guild of Knot Tyers) and I’ve learned several practical and decorative knots along the way.  There is something very satisfying about creating something useful and/or beautiful from a few bits of string.

As with just about every craft, there is a select set of tools and materials that are needed in order to effectively execute the projects.  The materials required are fairly inexpensive as are the few tools that you may need to purchased.  Most of the knots that I will discuss will lean towards the decorative elements of the craft, also referred to as decorative marlinspike seamanship.  So the materials and tools that I discuss will pertain primarily to this aspect of knot tying.

belfast_cordThe traditional material used for decorative knot tying was tightly twisted (hard lay) three strand cotton twine.  In the days of the sailing ship, sailors would make their own cotton cordage by pulling the yarns from cotton sails and twisting the yarns together to make the twine they needed.  In the WWII era the US military PX stores carried Belfast cord and it became the material of choice for decorating Navy ships.  Sadly it is no longer manufactured.  I have read about, but never used, the cordage supplied by Martin Combs and it is said to be a very close approximation of the Belfast cordage.  Personally I like to use materials that are easily sourced and have settled into using tarred nylon twine.  tarred_nylon_twineThis type of twine is available in several sizes and most marine supply stores carry it.  My favorite supplier for tarred nylon is R&W Rope in New Bedford, MA.  They have just about anything you may want when it comes to rope and cordage and I have always enjoyed excellent service with every order.

A spool of #18 and a spool of #36 #72 tarred nylon twine will last you a quite a long time and are good sizes for decorative work.  Other sizes are nice to have but you can easily get by with just these two.  A spool of waxed sail twine is handy as well but you can substitute unflavored dental floss for most of what I will be showing here.  A roll of masking tape and a bottle of CA glue will round out the materials list.  Of course, just about any firm twine will work for these techniques and you should find what is readily available in your area.

As to tools.  You will need a fid or marlinspike.  Either of which is really only a long pointed object that can be worked under lines and into knots.  With this tool you can open up a space to pass a line through or it can be used to tighten up a completed knot.  This tool is indispensable when tying knots.  You can buy it or make it and I will be showing you both.

knot_pull_3_drawer_chestWith just a few decorative knots in your tool kit you will have the ability to add beauty and uniqueness to your projects.  I’m working on a series of knotted pulls that I think you will find useful.  The techniques are not that difficult and the materials and tools are relatively inexpensive.  I hope that you will follow along and add knot tying to your list of skills.wrap_hammer_handlesturks_head_keeper_tote

Greg Merritt

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3 Responses to Knot Tying Introduction

  1. bloksav says:

    I like your diamond knots (knobs) for the drawers.
    I made a set of beckets for a small chest I made on board the ship I am working on, and it does give a nice look. You can see the beckets here: and here:

    When I attended the basic seaman training in 1993 (Kogtved Søfartsskole), we were taught ropework. Including how to splice a steel wire etc. We weren’t taught the fancy stuff, but like you, I tried to learn a little more by reading about it.
    The Danish equivalent of ABOK has got to be “Håndbog i praktisk sømandsskab” by Jens Kusk Jensen. That book is an absolute treasure trove of information regarding ships work around in the beginning of the 20th century.

    • gman3555 says:

      Thank you for commenting Jonas.

      Your sea chest turned out great and you did a very nice job on the beckets. I know how much work went into them. They are a labor of love for sure.

      I’ll hunt around online and see if I can find some pages from the book you referenced. It sounds very interesting.

      Your current sea chest looks interesting as well. I’ll be following your build.


  2. I learned 2 knots in boot camp that I never forgot (spent one day on the USS Ricky Recruit learning about knots/ropes/tying up a ship). The first was a bowline which I still use today and the second was a rolling half hitch. In the 80’s I spent two days in the bosun locker learning how to make a monkey fist. Still haven’t found a use for that yet.
    I haven’t tried decorative knot making but I have the same book you have in my library.

If you don't comment this is just a fancy way for me to talk to myself.

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