Mark Shiner delights the crowds at Shetland Boat Week with his DIY ropewalk device and explains how to make rope yourself.
Making your own rope is very satisfying. I’ve run the ropewalk as a public activity at a couple of maritime festivals where I do demonstrations.
On both occasions I missed a trick; if I’d put a festival donations bucket out, or charged a small fee for making rope items we would have made a tidy sum for festival funds.
Children and parents alike were queuing up to learn how to make rope for skipping, dog leads, dressing gown belts or just lengths to take away and work with.
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As well as natural twine I’d sourced skeins of coloured jute and allowed people to mix and match, sometimes putting more than one colour within each strand which can make tartan rope if you mix it right.
The ropewalk itself – or ‘rope maker’ is also a great project. It’s practical, fun and educational and would be a great project to teach in schools.
How to make rope with a ropewalk
If you have ever wound up a rubber band-powered model aeroplane you might have seen that as you twist the rubber band to the right it, obviously, twists in that direction.
Then a strange thing happens; once the initial twist is taken up, it then kinks like an old-style curly telephone cable but in the opposite direction.
You are winding Right but this secondary curliness is curling Left, around itself. If you had separately twisted three such rubber bands alongside one another they would now be winding around each other and looking a bit like, well, three-strand rope.
The principle of the ropewalk is the same. The one illustrated here is very short; I have made ropes of around 40ft long with this setup. Any longer and the weight would probably pull the pillars over, though I have seen rope in-the-making supported mid-way on little stands. Ropes of up to half an inch (12mm) can be made on a light setup like this. Between the ends you can see a large roll of jute twine for the yarns.
Jute makes fairly strong, soft rope. Similar rolls of manilla can also be sourced. This twine will act as the yarns (see diagram, top right) and is typically about 1mm to 2mm thick. Sisal can also be used but this often comes in thicker twine and makes for rather lumpy rope. Wool is good and bright colours are a lot of fun.
There are three parts to the ropewalk: The gear end, the traveller end and the top. Names vary and you will find that there are many different ways to use this equipment, all resulting in the same product.
The gear end
The gear end stands on its own pillar at waist height. The base is weighted down so that it won’t move. Turning the handle anti-clockwise rotates the smaller cogs, with their hooks, in a clockwise direction. That is, clockwise as you look down the rope walk.
The gear ratio is 1:4, so for every turn of the handle, the hooks turn four times.
The traveller end
This has a single hook, run through a similar pillar directly to a handle on the other side. Sticking out of the back is a removable peg that stops the handle spinning, which is useful if you are working the ropewalk short-handed. More on that later.
The traveller has two wheels and is also weighted so it drags along. This keeps things in tension which is important. I’ve got 10kg on there – an old organ bellows weight from Stromness Town Hall – but the exact weight is not critical, just enough to make it drag and stop it falling over. As tension increases and the rope winds itself up, it should be allowed to move towards the gear end. It can be tempting for helpers to stand on it for some reason.
My top is a flat, circular bat with three smooth, open-sided holes distributed around the edge and a handle. This is held in the hand, separating the three yarn runs (I’ll explain its use later). Traditional tops are shaped more like spinning tops, a grooved cone. Conical tops are better because they won’t twist side-on.
They can also be left to run on their own with just a friction rope, wound around the new rope forming behind it. A trawl of your favourite internet video platform will show a variety of ropewalks in use. Conical tops are easy to make if you have a wood turning lathe, which I don’t!
Setting up and operating a ropewalk
We set out three lines consisting of several yarns, each running from the single swivelling hook on the traveller to the other end, where they are attached to three separate rotating hooks driven by the gear end. Don’t worry, it gets clearer! Read on…
If, for example, if you wanted four yarns per strand, start at the traveller and tie a loop to its hook, walk up to the gear end, take the yarn over the first hook, back to the traveller, back to the first hook and back to the traveller again.
Then repeat the process for the other two hooks and finish at the traveller hook with a round turn and two half hitches. It’s a good knot for keeping the last yarn as taut as the others.
Now you see why it is called a rope-‘walk’. At the Naval dockyard at Chatham they go up and down between gear end and traveller on bicycles!
For thicker rope just lay in more yarns at the start; the same number on each hook. Four yarns of jute twine per hook gives me a rope of around 8mm thickness.
For obvious reasons you can’t take a yarn from one gear hook across to another; that just locks the whole thing. If putting on odd numbers of yarns per strand you may need to occasionally tie off at one end and go and restart at the other. That will make more sense if you try to do it.
With my DIY ropewalk you need up to three people to operate it. This is intentional because I use it as a teaching activity but there are ways to operate with two or even single-handed. The more the merrier I say! The three jobs are as follows:
I usually hold the top, starting at the traveller end, with it inserted between the three strands. This is the part that requires a little bit of judgement as you will see later, though to be fair it doesn’t take long to pick it up. Using the top stops it all twisting up in a long, disorganised, and rather slack, wind-up along the whole length of the ropewalk. This is the twist we need to control. More on that later.
The second person stands at the handle on the back of the traveller swivel hook. Shortly, they will rotate the handle anticlockwise, encouraging the natural twist that the strands want to make… but not yet! Just hold fire for a moment…
At the gear end we have another person ready to turn their handle and this is the start of the process.
Wind the gear handle anticlockwise, twisting the yarns into strands. Gradually tension builds in the twisting yarns, and the traveller – with its single swivel hook – creeps forward as the twisting yarns shorten. That peg mentioned earlier stops the traveller handle from spinning and releasing the tension being put in at the other end.
The twisting yarns are now forming strands and thinking about kinking up like that old fashioned telephone cable.
Now it is time for the person at the traveller end to turn their handle anticlockwise. From this point onwards, for every FOUR turns of the traveller hook the person at the gear end makes ONE anticlockwise turn. This is to top-up the tension that is being released by the turning at the traveller end. The gears are a 1:4 ratio so it is really the same number of twists at each end in real terms.
The rope begins to form. The first few inches are usually a bit dodgy but as the completed rope tightens against the top I slowly walk away from the traveller – which continues to creep forward a little on its wheels – and I allow the rope to form up with a consistent tightness along its length. The best way to judge this is by feel, trial and error and by looking at the angle of the three strands, or the ‘lay’ of the rope.
Once I reach the gear end and the rope is finished, I ask the turners to stop and I put on tape or a whipping at each end before cutting the finished rope free.
The new rope will be stiff in places so to even it all out you can wrap a turn around a bollard and pull its length through a couple of times. Coil and uncoil it and generally shake it around a bit.
Arthur Ransome readers will remember how the bargemen of the Yare would tow a new rope straight out behind them for some time to shake it supple.
How two people can operate the ropewalk
Twist up the yarns from the gear end as described. Stand with the top in position at the traveller end while the second person continues to wind the gear handle anticlockwise.
The weight of the traveller handle can add enough resistance that the handle eventually starts to turn on its own.
Keep turning the gear handle anticlockwise while the person with the top walks along, regulating the lay and watching the rope mysteriously forming in its wake.
With either method, the slower you walk with the top, the tighter and more ‘hard-laid’ the rope will be. Correspondingly, if you allow the rope to form with less tension, it will be softer and more flexible.
What to do with all that rope?
As with many crafts the best bit is the doing of it, and making lengths of hand-laid rope is very satisfying. If you have used the best manilla yarn from a reputable supplier then manilla does have a recognised strength factor. However, there is enough well-made rope out there, cheaply available, that I would only trust my life, or heavy lifting, to something shop-bought.
For light loads, tying down, fancy rope work, craftwork, decoration and general use this is real rope and you can use it. I teach sailmaking, which includes traditional hand skills, and I would like to use this as a bolt rope in a small inshore craft with natural fibre sails.
I can make exactly the thickness I want but would use manilla rather than jute.
So how about it? Why not make your own rope walk? It’s a great activity for groups or clubs; we often get ours up and running in the garden for visitors on a nice day and everyone gets a prize.
This extract is taken from the September 2021 issue of PBO, which includes full instructions for building your own ropewalk.
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