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HomeNL-2009-07 Frayed Ropes

Frayed Ropes
July 2009
by John Rich

I’m sure that everyone who has been around canoes for a while has been annoyed by the handling of frayed ropes.

  Frayed rope
All that loose fiber on the end of a rope makes it difficult to thread them through tie-down loops, and makes it hard to tie knots. And the fraying only gets worse with time. Besides, it just doesn’t look right for equipment that you want to be in ship-shape order. It looks sloppy, and someone could get the idea that you're negligent in your upkeep.

(Click once on the thumbnail images to display a larger version in a separate window.)

So what are you going to do about it? Are you just going to put up with the unsightly and inconvenient mess, or are you going to whip your gear into proper shape?

The quickest solution is to just put an overhand knot on the end of the rope. That  prevents the fraying from spreading beyond the knot. That's a good temporary field repair. However, the lump of that knot can make it difficult to thread the rope through loops and holes in normal usage, for tying down gear in the boat, or the boat on top of the truck.

So, I’ll offer three other techniques here as an alternative, all of which are cleaner in appearance and handling characteristics.

The first technique is one used by seafarers for thousands of years, called “whipping”. I first learned it as a Boy Scout decades ago. This method wraps cord around the end of the rope to bind it together, so that strands don’t come loose. This is fun to apply, and looks cool, but it’s time consuming, and it can sometimes be pulled off during handling of the rope, like when pulling your heavy boat out of the water by the end of the rope.

So from here, I’ll offer two other techniques as alternatives to whipping. Both are quicker, and more durable, in my opinion.

For ropes made of some man-made fibers such as nylon or polypropylene, there is a very quick and easy technique. Simply hold a flame to the end of the rope, and the fibers will melt into a solid blob, fusing the end together as a solid lump. No more unraveling! It only takes seconds, and it lasts forever. Just don’t touch the melted plastic while it’s hot, or it will stick to your skin like napalm, and burn. If you want to try and shape it while it’s in hot liquid form, roll it against a board or a rock, or wear heavy gloves and use your fingers.

The third technique is for natural fibers, which don’t melt like nylon. This method involves using something from the electrical trade, and applying it to a nautical item. The product is heat shrink tubing – it’s a black tube that is used to slip over electrical wires, and then shrinks with heat to cover up exposed wire at splices. It’s a fancy way to replace old-fashioned black electrical tape. The tubes come in various diameters, so you’ll want to pick some that are larger than the diameter of your rope. For example, for three-eighths inch diameter rope, get half-inch heat shrink tubes. The shrinkage ability is amazing - about half of the original diameter, so you don’t need to start with too tight of a fit, and besides, that could make it difficult to slip the tubing over the loose end of the rope. You can find this product in the electrical department of any hardware store, or at Radio Shack, and they’re cheap. The packages come in certain diameters, or with a mixture of different diameters.

To apply, first prepare the end of the rope by cutting off the frayed end, leaving a clean edge. Then cut about an inch of length of the heat shrink tubing with scissors, and slip it over the end of the rope.

Finally, apply heat to the tubing and watch as it shrinks like magic to mold itself around the weave of the rope. It only takes 125-degrees of heat, so an ordinary hair-dryer will do the trick. Or you can pass a flame close to it – just don’t apply the flame directly to the rubber or it will burn. Rotate the rope so that the entire circumference of the tubing is shrunk into the rope. The end result will be a neat, clean end, that won’t fray, won’t pull off, is waterproof, and is easy to handle for whatever you need to do with it. As an added bonus, the contrasting color will make it easy to detect where the end of the rope is, when it’s piled or coiled in a bundle. This stuff even works for frayed shoelaces!

Heat shrink tubing

Go ahead, make all your canoe friends envious of your ship-shape ropes.

The author, John Rich