Rope Making




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by Frank Stoll

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February is a particularly eventful time for all Woodcrafters. During this month were born Washington and Lincoln, whose influence has been so great in American life.

Both were trained in the outdoors and knew how to take care of themselves in it. They had the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and the thinking hand. To them a jackknife and an ax  were fundamental tools with which they could build a cabin and make a table, a spoon, or almost anything they required, from the woods around them.

Handicraft is fine training for young people and the finest  recreation for older people.

We have all heard of withes. Can you make one?

Hickory Withes. Select a green branch of Mockernut, Shagbark, or Pignut hickory, of diameter to give strength required. One-half inch is a practical size for hand work. The longer, straighter, and more uniform the branch, the better it will serve your purpose. Carefully trim off all lateral twigs if any exist. Holding the branch firmly in both hands, bend it from butt to tip and in every direction, gently at first to avoid kinks. Continue this "working up" process until the entire stick is supple, taking care not to leave stiff or unworked sections.

Now tie it into an overhand knot, large at first, then reduce the size of the bight by sliding along the end and standing (tip and butt). Continue to wrap the ends around the original loop until they are used up. A good withe when completed should have three strands in every part, be free from kinks and nearly circular. Such a withe will withstand an outward strain of from 100 to 1,000 pounds.

We know that withes (sometimes spelled wythes) have been in use by civilized peoples for the past four hundred years, and beyond a doubt they were used by the ancient tribes. Bacon relates the story of a condemned Irish rebel early in Queen Elizabeth's reign, or about 1560, who requested of the deputy that he "be hanged in a withe, not a halter." Withes in those days were made of willow or osier. The hickories are American trees and supply our best material where great strength is required. Ax and hammer handles, as well as wooden axles, whiffletrees, and ox yokes, are examples. This wood will not, however, withstand exposure to the weather.

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A Hickory Withe Made By Frank Stoll

The uses of withes are too many and varied to enumerate in detail, but in general they have served the purposes which ropes and iron bands now serve. A few suggestions follow: For hoops or bails on tubs, pails, or baskets; as a binder for the top of a tripod for open-fire kettle, poles for tepee, or for derrick; for holding banisters and railings in place or for shackles in the game of "Stung."

Woodcrafters might try substituting withes wherever ropes are needed as binders, and report the uses.

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How to Make a Rope

By Frank Stoll

Did you ever make a rope? It is an ambition worthy of every Woodcrafter. "But," you say, "how can we make ropes? The materials from which they are made are found in distant lands." Commercially and generally speaking, that is true, although cotton, of which the United States produces 60% of the world supply, is used extensively in the manufacture of cords and lines. Cotton is perhaps the most flexible of the commercial materials and is sufficiently strong for the smaller cordage. Common hemp is superior, possessing the combination of strength, flexibility, and durability.

Custom among sailors has decreed that the term "rope" indicates that the diameter is one inch or more. Other authorities agree that the diameter may be one-half inch or more. However, we hear cords of one-quarter inch diameter called "rope."

The principal rope materials are: common hemp, Manila hemp, sisal hemp, Phormium hemp, Sunn hemp, Jubbulpore hemp, jute, coir, flax, agave fiber, and cotton, all of which are vegetable.

A rope is composed of a certain number of strands, the strand itself being made up of a number of single threads of yarn. Three strands twisted together form a "hawserlaid" rope. The prepared fiber is twisted or spun to the right hand to form the yarn; the required number of yarns receive a left-hand twist to form a strand; three strands twisted to the right make a hawser; three hawsers twisted to the left form a cable. Thus the twist in each operation is in a different direction from that of the preceding one. The yield of rope from a given length of yarn is about three-fourths of the length of the yarn composing it.

The material from which you make your rope is, for the purpose of learning, of less importance than the method employed. Almost any available fibrous material will serve your purpose. The young, inner bark of most shrubs and trees is very adaptable. The accompanying illustration is made from such bark of the hickory, is about the color of Manila paper, is reasonably flexible and very strong. The length of the individual fibers is of little consequence, since in hand-made rope additional pieces are twisted into the "strand" as required to maintain a uniform size.

Having selected your material, make three little bundles of uniform size. Around each bundle, near one end, wrap a single thread of the material. Now place the three bundles parallel, with binding threads at the same point, and again wrap a thread around the three directly outside of the first three threads. These bundles are your strands. Holding this foundation firmly in the left hand, with thumb and finger tips at the band, take one strand in the right hand and twist it to the left; meanwhile wrap it outside of the other two strands to the right. Hold this one in place with the thumb of the left hand, while the same twisting and wrapping operation is practiced on strand number two. Now hold the two in place, retaining the twist, while the third strand is twisted and wrapped. All that now remains is to repeat the process, introducing additional threads to the strands as others are used up in your progress.

  The Birch Bark Roll 






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.