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A hiker’s library: Knots

A small arsenal of learned knots is useful knowledge indeed. There are apps and online resources in abundance, but a book or two on useful knots on the bookshelf can help pass an evening or two, and arm you for the trail.

A hiker's library- Knots

You may wonder why bother with a book on knots when there are terrific online resources on knot tying. Even Wikipedia includes links to illustrated pages of a phenomenal number of knots. Given a length of cordage and a diagram, who can resist learning a new knot, a new skill, even if almost instantly forgotten. Tie it enough times though and muscle memory takes over. Online resources only ever compliment the printed work. A volume on knots, their history and application can be a valuable addition to the hiker’s bookshelf.

Most people who dip into knot tying as a hobby, or to increase their reportoire of useful knots for use ‘in the field’, will eventually purchase one, two, three, possiby more, books on knots. There are titles that cover fancy or decorative knots, lanyards, splices, buttons, basketry, the list goes on. There are volumes for all. Some are good, others less so. Perhaps you want to learn a few more knots for bushcrafting, scouting, boating. Or fancy knots for lanyards, keychains and knives. Maybe knots for decorative gifts, or to aid with neater storage in the tool shed, for use while sailing, rowing or paddling, work applications, to impress and astound… the list goes on. There are a LOT of books out there. While you cannot go far wrong with any shown below, do remember that as well as resources created specifically for the web, there is some older and still very good book content now available for free online.

The Ashley Book of Knots
The Ashley Book of Knots

Almost anyone buying one or more of the specialist books will at some point look to adding The Ashley Book of Knots to their shelves. If you only ever buy one book on knots, then The Ashley Book of Knots, or ABOK as it is frequently referred to by knot aficionados, is probably the volume to have. It is not a small or cheap option however and will take up a lot of room on your desk or book shelf.

This is a weighty book. Mine tips the scales at 1.8kg. Not surprising for a volume with 7000 drawings and reputed to contain over 3800 knots on it’s 620 pages. The author was Clifford Ashley, born 1881 in the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Having learnt how to tie a reef knot at the age of three, and only being permitted to own a pony if he could correctly halter it, his skill at knot tying continued to develop. As a young man he went to sea many times and continued to learn many of his knots in that environment. Ashley compiled his various knots over more than forty years and eventually became a world authority on knot-tying. It is this volume that is referenced by many modern authorative book on knot tying.

Even the simple task of hanking a length of cordage is a skill that has to be learned. 'ABOK 3085', in three simple drawings, shows how
Even the simple task of hanking a length of cordage is a skill that has to be learned. ‘ABOK 3085’, in three simple drawings, shows how
ABOK inside page
With this book, you too, will be able to correctly and safely lash an elephant for transfer from ship to quay…

This book was first published in 1944, three years after Ashley died and was reprinted in 1963, 1967, 1970, 1972, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988 and 1990. A few errors had crept into the print and The International Guild of Knot Tyers worked on creating an amended version. It is this corrected version that subsequently appeared in published form in 1993. Some keen knot tyers will own two volumes of this book, one in pristine form, the other hand-coloured to better show the knot. This would be a still more remarkable volume indeed if ever reproduced in modern form, with colour photographs and diagrams. There are just a handful of b&w photographs included in the book, but they add little, mainly showing a fascinating selection of knot tying tools and sailors’ knot work.

Encyclopedic in it’s scope, the Ashley Book of Knots will invariably contain a knot you are interested in, but it is not particularly user friendly. For more helpful guidance as to knot-tying process and stages, more recently published volumes go a long way.

Tough & Versatile Knots by Geoffrey Budworth
Tough & Versatile Knots by Geoffrey Budworth

Geoffrey Budworth had been tying knots for half a century prior to writing Tough & Versatile Knots. He served with the Thames River police, writing the forensic manual ‘Knots & Crime‘ on the back of extensive knowledge of knotted clues at the scenes of crime. He co-founded the International Guild of Knot Tyers (yes, there is such a thing) and became knotting consultant to both British Museum and National Maritime Museum (yes, there really is such a role). He also helped lead the way in the amendments to the Ashley Book of Knots.

Tough & Versatile Knots is a ‘best of’ extract from the larger Ultimate Encyclopedia of Knots and Ropecraft published in 1999. This slimmer volume has more than 300 colour step-by-step photographs following knots tying procedure. Each selected knot has its history and usage included which makes for interesting reading if largely irrelevant to actual field usage. The 78 knots, bends, hitches, bindings, loops, mats, plaits, rings and slings included are a personal selection that the author has deemed most suited for use in angling, boating and sailing, caving and climbing, and general purpose.

page from Tough and Versatile Knots
Page from Tough and Versatile Knots

Some may feel there are too many decorative knots included in a ‘versatile‘ title. The majority of knots included are considered more difficult to master and the photographs and explanatory text go a long way to successfully breaking down the process. Also included is a little information on rope material, breaking strengths, care of cordage, tools, knot terms and tying techniques.

The Complete Book of Knots by Geoffrey Budworth
The Complete Book of Knots by Geoffrey Budworth

Another volume from prolific author Geoffrey Budworth. Entitled The Complete Book of Knots, it is, of course, nothing of the sort. What it is, is an excellent selection that also includes a helpful list of knots indexed by primary use- Boating and Sailing, Outdoor Pursuits, Caving and Climbing, Angling and Fishing, Home and House. Each knot includes a brief history and the diagrams are extremely clear and usually easy to follow. The most obvious failing in this book is a lack of clear images showing the completed tied knots.

This is an unfussy volume that mostly has ample procedural diagrams to permit the most ignorant, hesitant or youthful of beginners to successfully follow the process. The applications content included with each knot is helpful in pointing you toward suitable usage but more helpful than this is the two page spread found at the front of the book indexing all the knots included along with a very short description (sometimes only one or two words) and its most suited application.

Page from The Complete Book of Knots
Page from The Complete Book of Knots
The Art of Knotting & Splicing by Cyrus Lawrence Day

The Art of Knotting and Splicing by Cyrus Lawrence Day is both a remarkable achievement and compilation. Mostly acting as a reference work, it contains over 800 black and white photographs of knots and marlinspike seamanship.

The term “marlinspike seamanship” is derived from the noun “marlinspike”, a metal cone-shaped tool tapered to a rounded or flattened point, used for marine ropework. Sailors who become proficient in ropework such as knot tying, splicing and sewing using a marlinspike earn the right to be called “marlinspike seamen”


With seamanship roots and aims, it is unsurprising that the very great majority of the content is practical with little purely decorative knot content. A probably overlooked quality of this book is a purely practical element. While some knot books can be tightly bound, or with glued signatures and struggle to stay open unless weighted down, this book has been specifically published in order to lie flat when opened, all the better for when both hands of the reader are occupied with a length of cordage while attempting to replicate an image.

Pages from The Art of Knotting & Splicing

This old volume has been updated and reprinted a few times over the years. First published in 1947, my fourth edition is a 1986 update that includes detail on synthetic ropes missing from the volume first published. Quick reference line and knot usage tables are included with a discussion of knot ‘hardware’. A valuable addition is the hard-gained information comparing the degree to which bends, hitches etc. affect the security and strength of knot and rope. We are informed that bends seem to be weaker, on average, than loops and nooses, and loops and nooses seem to be weaker than hitches. Knots were tested to destruction by machine.

Creative ropecraft
Stuart Grainger’s Creative Ropecraft

Creative Knotcraft by Stuart Grainger is quite an old book now, first published in 1975 and now on its fourth edition. Don’t let that put you off. The content is so concise, precise, accessible, and the drawings so well executed, that this little volume easly holds its head up today. It is not just decorative knots that are found in this slim 124 page paperback, but also reference drawings of different strand plaits and sennits for practical use.The plaits and sennits chapter alone is one of the clearest explanations of technique available.

The chapter on splices takes me right back to army days, the last time I actually had to do any splicing work. The clear drawings make you want to search out a frayed piece of rope and have a go at a Back Splice or Eye Splice. Needless to say, Turk’s Heads are included as Grainger is a renowned expert on these. The book ends with just a few practical projects. Lanyards- why not? A Hammock? possibly. Things get ambitious with a couple of designs of rope edged trays. A table lamp is probably not going to be attempted by many but a rope Door Knocker or twine Cuff Links. Why knot…

page from plaits and sennits chapter
page from plaits and sennits chapter in Creative Ropecraft
pages from Creative Knotcraft
pages from Creative Ropecraft

Des Pawson was awarded an MBE in 2007 for his services to the knot and rope industry. Having met Geoffrey Budworth in 1978, the two were amongst the founding members of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, established in 1982. Elements of knot tying that he is keen to share include knowledge of what is required for the successful completion of a knot project (anything worse than running out of rope part way in?) and an appreciation that knots are not finite, that they can be adapted and included with others to produce something rather wonderful and bespoke. What dog owner can turn down the opportunity to fashion their own fancy lead? (Page 95).

Des Pawson's Knot Craft
Des Pawson’s Knot Craft

Des Pawson’s credentials as a much sought after demonstrator and teacher are apparent in the clear layout to this small volume. It is almost like a chatty friend leading you through the baking of a cake. First a bit of chat, reassuring you that you can do this, then a listing of materials (menu) and a gathering together of techniques (with references to required knot skills) followed by the method, with good diagrams by Ann Norman.

An earlier edition contained 28 projects, this edition increases that though I am unsure that many will actually be putting all of the contained ropecraft projects to actual practical use. A Cat-o-Nine Tails anyone! But the 35 projects found in this expanded volume will help build knowledge, increase an understanding of knot potential and muster confidence. Much that is contained within this book is not for beginners. Projects may appear a little intimidating but dipping in and having a go usually produces something similar to what is desired. Start with the Simple Key Ring (page 14).

pages from Knot Craft
pages from Knot Craft

Many knot books rely on clear diagrams to show knot tying technique. Some volumes use photographs to do the same, not all succeed as it is actually quite difficult to show the required detail well in a photograph. Along with Tough & Versatile Knots (above) Knots- A Complete Guide by Lindsey Philpott manages to do this well. I like that hands and fingers are also shown as the orientation of these goes a long way to indicate procedure. This is yet another ‘complete guide’ that isn’t. What it does include in its 100 plus knots are just about all of the most useful knots for those venturing in to the outdoors- a large number of helpful loops, bends and hitches are to be found, along with some ‘special’ knots, bindings, braids and splices.

Knots- A Complete Guide
Knots- A Complete Guide

Helpful inclusions are symbols indicating likely uses for each knot, tips that may aid in the tying or alternative methods of tying, or further uses to which a knot can be put. Though not strictly necessary, I like the paragraph of history that appears with each knot.

Some content is not easily found elsewhere. The Clove Hitch is a relatively simple knot. Here we are shown how to tie it two-handed with a working end on the middle of a spar or line, two-handed tying on the bight on the end of a spar or bollard, one-handed tying with a bight on a pole or spar, and one-handed tying with a bight on a carabiner.

The author’s credentials are excellent- An engineer by trade, he has been called as expert witness on knots at murder trials, also teaching knotwork to civilian students and seagoing captains alike. He was one of the founders of Pacific Americas Branch of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, becoming President of that organisation.

Page from Knots- A complete guide
Page from Knots- A Complete Guide

Books from my shelves:

The Ashley Book of Knots. Clifford Warren Ashley. Faber and Faber. 1993 amended reprint. 620pp. ISBN 0 571 09659-X

Tough & Versatile Knots. Geoffrey Budworth. Southwater, an imprint of Anness Publishing Ltd. 2000. 128pp. ISBN 9 7818 4215 108 2

The Complete Book of Knots. Geoffrey Budworth. This edition published by Chancellor Press, an imprint of Bounty Books (Octopus). 2nd edition 2000. 160pp. ISBN 0 75370 290 8

The Art of Knotting & Splicing. Cyrus Lawrence Day. Naval Institute Press. 4th edition. 1986. 235pp. ISBN 0-87021-062-9

Creative Ropecraft. Stuart Grainger. Adlard Coles Nautical, an imprint of A&C Black Publishers Ltd. 4th edition 2000, 2005 reissue. 124pp. ISBN 0-7136-7401-6

Knot Craft. Des Pawson. Adlard Coles Nautical, an imprint of A&C Black Publishers Ltd. 2nd edition 2010. 112pp. ISBN 978-1-4081-1949-5

Knots- A Complete Guide. Lindsey Philpott. New Holland Publishers Ltd. 2004. 160pp. ISBN 1-84330-455-4

The Art of Knotting & Splicing by Cyrus Lawrence Day

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