These pictures may look a bit confusing, but after a few moments spent with the text and the larger views of the pictures, it should become
"clear as mud"to "even the meanest" intelligence. Literally, everything you need to know about making chest beckets is contained in these
three pictures, which are only separate views of one large display Karl takes with him to shows.
PICTURE ONE shows, at the top, the method for making the core of the becket. Here, Karl has taken quite a bit of marline and laid it up into the
basic becket core, with flemished eyes at each end and the whole securely
stropped out so as to produce a strong unit of rope. You can also use a piece
of 3/8" hemp or nylon rope to do this and either do the flemished eye (which
produces a smoother "throat" (the portion directly below the "eye" and leading
into the body of the core) or use an eye-splice to make the two eyes of the becket.
I recommend using enough marline or rope to make a core 18" to 20" long,
including the eyes. Your specific need may be different that this, but the idea
is to have a becket which will sit secured to the chest by the cleats and not touch
the floor when flat to the side of the chest, but which will still provide you
sufficient room to carry the chest without getting your knuckles scraped by the
lid of the chest... experiment with sizes to find the correct becket length for your
application. A becket which "pinches" is useless. A becket which "drags" will
soon be destroyed.
Directly below that, we see the method Karl uses for "building out" the core to
produce the fatter-in-the-center profile of the becket. This provides a better grip
for the hand when picking up the chest and is more comfortable to grasp. We
also see the ringbolt hitching which is applied to both eyes (in process to the left
and completed to the right). Instructions for doing a ringbolt hitch may be found
HERE. The ringbolt hitching provides extra strength to the eye as well as
preventing chafing through of the marlines in the eye.
I'm sorry to be so damn chatty about this but on the web you have no publisher
weeping about how much paper it's going to take to print your book, so I can be
as egomaniacal as I wish... to your benefit, I hope.
Karl uses the "European" method of "fattening" or "pudding" the grip by wrapping
the core in line in several layers, starting for a short distance in the center and then
overlapping the next layer further out until he finishes with the smooth shape you
see here... fatter in the centre and thin at the "throats". The "Yankee" method involves
laying up short pieces of line (see the bellrope tutorial), stropping these into place
and then wrapping the whole in a light canvas to achieve the same result, then
"marling" the canvas (tying it tightly with a marling hitch). Either method will produce
a jim-dandy becket. Karl's work is a case-in-point: you couldn't want finer.
Once you've hitched the eyes and built your pudding layers, it's time to cover the gripe
of the becket. To do this, there are as many different methods as there are sailors.
Here, Karl has used a complex (over-two) crown hitch on the throats of the becket
(the part from turkshead below the eye to the turkshead 1/3 the way down), then has
used coachwhipping for the actual gripe portion.
As I said, the methods for doing the three sections of the becket are innumerable.
You can use needle hitching for the throats and coachwhip the gripe, do the whole
thing in a complex crown or a simple crown, do the gripe in a cross-point (a little
rougher on the hands, but sailors usually had hands you could strop a knife on,
anyway!) or do the whole thing in coachwhipping, or.... Take a look at the examples
on the BECKETS page in the Library section for inspiration. Finish off the sections
with turksheads as shown to hide the junction of the different coverings and for a
decorative touch. The length of the throats vs. the length of the grip covering is
purely a personal preference: some (like Karl) make them in thirds, some use the
same covering throughout and only put on turksheads to cover and secure the ends
of the coverings... You'll find your favourite method. (I like having reversed turksheads
to make it symmetrical. One place NOT to put a turkshead is in the centre of the gripe!
It is MOST uncomfortable when carrying a heavy chest. (Of course, if you are doing
these for decorative purposes only, then the sky's the limit on decorations!)
I'm going to assume you haven't gone screaming to :"the local" for several shots of
whisky and are still reading this, so let's forge ahead and also assume you've built the
becket itself. If so, you've a great long thing and must now bend it to the horse-shoe
shape you see in the pictures. DO THIS SLOWLY and massage all the little pieces
as you go so they don't "jump" over one another. You will NOT get it to hold this
shape unless you tie the eyes together and I recommend you do this in stages as
you build the axle.
The axle is more critical to the finished look and usability of your becket than
anything else. It runs inside the cleat and actually supports the becket when
carrying the chest and it is made up in a very specific manner. The axle should be
JUST large enough in diameter to fit in the cleat without binding up.
Take about three or three and a half feet of a good line of a diameter to fit inside the cleat
when leathered and to pass thru the eyes of the becket once it has been "leathered".
Measure the width of the cleat, the width of the eyes and allow some room for four leather
washers, then take a piece of leather and cut it so that it is long enough to clear the
outboard washers but just a little bit too small the other way to wrap the axle rope and
touch the edges of the leather together. Now take a small awl or an older sail needle
(NOT a "Glover's" needle!) and prick the long edges of the leather rectangle about 3/16
back from the edge. Use a strong waxed twine (sailtwine is good, but any strong twine
will do) and use a "baseball stitch" (look it up!) to sew the axle cover together.... When you
do so, the tension of the stitching should (a) bury the stitches sufficiently to prevent wear
in the cleat, and (b) bring the edges of the axle cover together. Gloves are a good idea
here as sailtwine, especially waxed linen twine, will cut thru your fingers like a scalpel
if you're not careful.
( Don't Ask Me How I Know That ! )
For the best result, do the stitching LOOSELY and then go back and tighten and fair the
whole thing. You want a fairly smooth cylinder of leather to prevent chafing of the axle
rope in the cleat and also prevent the becket's eyes from wearing thru the axle.
Now, take a piece of heavy leather and cut four disks of the approximate proportions
shown in PICTURE THREE, core them so that the leathered axle will fit into the core
holes with a bit of persuasion and pink the edges for a decorative appearance.
Neatness counts when doing the "pinking" on the washers.
Now for the "fiddley bit": The knots that hold the whole thing together. Take a good, long look at the three strands of rope that will form the
knots. For a true becket knot, the individual strands are covered in a light canvas or a heavy linen cloth. You don't HAVE to do this. Most
people making beckets today will omit this step and rely on their skill at making a tight manrope knot instead of taking the extra time to do
the traditional finishing work, but in case you want to go "the extra mile", the trick here is to iron out the canvas/linen before you attempt to sew
it onto the strands. Karl stitches this neatly in a straight line to the end, then strops the end with a constrictor knot. If you have a steady hand
and good eyesight, it is not a bad idea to strop every inch or so to keep the canvas laying straight as you do the knots. "Fiddley" don't half
describe this work. By far, it is the single longest operation in time of the whole exercise and doing this right is essential to the finished look
of the job.
Once you've finished the canvassing of the strands, you want to do a nice terminal knot like the "manrope" knot as shown (also called a "tack"
knot). The advantage to this one is that, when doubled, it will almost never pull out. When doing the knot, make it up loosely and then fair it
up, taking great care to ensure that the seams in the canvas/linen are hidden at all times. TAKE YOUR TIME ON THIS.
Once you've got the first knot completed, put it thru a washer, the eye of the becket, another washer, then go to the other side and put on a
washer, thru the eye and the other washer, then make and fair the second knot so that both inner washers contact the leathering on the axle.
If you have a little space between knot and axle leather, the outboard washer should take this up, but it's better to get the knot fair to the axle
Ends trimmed on the manrope knot, you've essentially finished your becket... Now it's time to do the other one. (Sheesh!) Actually, it's better
to make these up in steps... do both cores, then ringbolt all the eyes, then cover both in staggered steps (do all the throats, do the gripes, etc.)
That way you can keep control over the size of the work and the detailing of it, comparing one to the other as you go along. Some prefer to do
an entire operation and then replicate it, some like the "assembly-line" method, but NEITHER is "wrong". Again, it's your personal preference
that controls what you do.
OK. The above is just great if you're either making beckets for a new chest or have the cleat of the chest removed. Once finished, persuade
the becket axle into the slot on the cleat which will hold it and attach the cleat to the side of the chest by your preferred method. The becket will
be reluctant to move at first but will loosen up in time. Better that it is reluctant than too loose in the cleat and bend inordinately... this leads to
early failure of the axle.
IF you are putting a becket on a chest where the cleat is in place (an antique, say, whose cleat fasteners you do not want to disturb for fear of
marring them or the chest interior) then you have the additional problem of getting the axle thru the cleat, putting on the washers and the other
eye of the becket and making the knot "in place". It can be done, but it is a bitch to do and (unless you're Karl or Andre) very, very difficult to do
correctly. Patience and perseverance will win the day here.
Finishing the Becket
If you look at the beckets page, you will see that many of the beckets there appear to be painted in black paint: They are not. They were
slushed with the same tar mixture used for waterproofing the standing rigging aboard a ship. Unless you have a strong affinity for black
hands and the smell of pine resin, I don't recommend this method today. I have a Nantucket bracelet that a friend made me from tarred
marline. I stopped wearing it around town after I walked into a bank and the teller asked me if I'd recently been in a fire. Stockholm tar is
VERY pungent stuff.
More common is painting the fancywork in contrasting colours. Of course, you must be very careful when doing this on an existing chest/cleat
installation, but for new work, you can paint away, let dry and then install. One painted these not only for appearance but also to preserve the
work from water, damp and rot. Use a good oil-based paint, thinned a bit so it will penetrate and be very careful when working at a spot
where one type of work goes into another (the gripe/throat join is a biggie). Some paint the throats/eyes blue, the gripe red and the
turksheads and manrope knots white for a patriotic theme, but you can do whatever you please on this. Paint 'em all one colour if you prefer,
or varnish it as it sits. (NOTE: DO NOT USE SHELLAC as a top or finish coat! In a warm, humid atmosphere, shellac gets soft and gummy
and comes off on everything. It is really only suitable as a sealer coat on porous woods where you intend a finish coat of paint, NEVER as a
finish coat on anything by itself.)
Varnish, depending on the colour, will darken almost all natural lines by a considerable amount, so experiment on something first to see how
dark it will get and how absorbent your material may be. The newer polyurethane water-based finishes are just fine for protection, but they
have a tendency to "fill-in" the fancywork and make it look like something pressed from a mould in China. Again, experiment, experiment,
ahhh, t'hell with it....do as yez damn well please. Yez will, anyways, innit?
As always, if you have criticisms, complaints or brickbats, send 'em to firstname.lastname@example.org. However, if you have
comments, suggestions, praise or money, then send THOSE HERE! (Also spellink and grimmar corrections!)
I am always looking for more tutorials of this sort (well, perhaps not QUITE so cheeky, but that's me style then, innit?) and if you'd care to do
one on your particular obssesive-compulsive pre-occupation, feel free to contact me and I'll put it up here for you.
They say you should be careful of what you wish for!
Here I include not one, but TWO methods of making a framework to aid in building the body of a becket!
Last December (2008) I got an email from JACK DILLON of Connecticut, long-time master mariner and all-around handy-type fella, artist,
writer, raconteur and Gentleman of the First Water. He'd been looking for instructions to make some beckets for his own seachest and
asked for same on THE WOODEN BOAT FORUM, to which we both belong. In short order I'd sent him to this page and I then got the email in
which he showed me the item to the RIGHT. It's a jig he made up to hold the core of the becket while he worked on the coverings for the
grip. It had never occurred to me to work other than horizontally doing one of these. I can't tell you why, I was just stuck thinking "inside the
box", I guess, but as soon as I opened the pictures up I was in love. This is a great idea for keeping the tension on the becket core and thus
facilitating doing a grafted cover, cross-pointing or coachwhipping... It's truly a stroke of genius and Yankee ingenuity.
He made this one up out of scrap lumber he had, and the bottom of the becket is secured to an eyebolt which is just tight enough to the frame
to allow manual turning while not permitting the work to move on it's own. The top is also an eyebolt and by rotating the two you can turn the
work as needed for the grafting portion of the work. It's an elegant solution.
Sea Chest Beckets
|Click on any
picture to bring
up a larger
This is going to be a work-in-progress for some time to come, but we can all benefit from even the little I have up here as yet. YOUR contributions will be
gratefully appreciated, especially if you have a specific trick to add or a variation you've discovered.
At just about every show I attend or display at, I am constantly barraged by comments to the effect of, "They just don't make
'em like they used to", or words to that effect, lamenting the perceived passing of the art of Marlinespike Seamanship and the concomitant
skills of fancy knotwork associated with sailors in "The Age OF Sail.
Well, let me tell you something. Even in "The Good Old Days", the sailor who could do this sort of work was extremely rare. Sailors as a rule
had damn little free time in which to do fancy ropework at all. Merchant ships put to sea with the minimum
crew needed to sail to their destination and back again with reasonable safety. That so few ships were lost at sea annually reflects on the
iron will and ingenuity of the merchant sailor and his officers, for, were it up to the owners, there'd have been one sailor for each watch and
the Captain. More sailors meant more wages and less profit and, if there is any one thing that drives the sea trades, it is the Great God
Sailors worked port and starboard watches (4 hours on and 4 hours off, usually) and as a rule, both watches would be on deck in foul
weather or when loading/unloading cargo. They had precious little time to themselves and what time they did have was usually spent in
Naval ships were somewhat more generously staffed, as profit was not involved, and they had to have enough men to "fight" the ship and a
few extras in case of losses. These sailors lived a life circumscribed by watches, cleaning, painting and enough other make-work to keep
all hands constantly occupied for the entire voyage. When not involved in "ship's work", their time was taken up by making and mending
uniforms and (again) sleeping.
The only sailors with any real "free time" aboard were those on whaling ships. Whalers were always "top-heavy" with crew since it took so
many more to hunt and process the whales than were absolutely needed to just sail the ship. Also, being civilians, they did not fall easily
into the disciplines of military naval life. Consequently, almost all the "fancy-work" you see is the product of whalers, which (along with the
fairly ephemeral nature of rope and ropework) explains why the vast majority of the fancy rope work we see today dates from the very late
eighteenth, the nineteenth and the earliest part of the twentieth centuries. There are significant examples of earlier works extant but
nowhere near the amount generated by that one-hundred and sixty (or so) year stretch of time.
One of the most iconic of all the ropework items is the "becket" (or handle) of a sea-chest. These were not commonly done by the sailor
himself, but were usually purchased already installed on the chest. Those with the skill to make them would get the chest with grommet
beckets and then replace them at their leisure.
It could take a sailor several months to produce a pair of beckets to his liking, for many reasons: Materials were almost always "found"
(read: swiped) rather than new. There were, to my knowledge, no manufacturers of fine laid lines specifically for fancywork, so fine codlne
was used for the small stuff and old rope was disassembled, re-tarred and remade into the sizes required. With hemp rope, this is quite
easily done as the hemp will re-make into smaller line quite nicely with a bit of skill and experience. Old sails also contributed their warps
and wefts to the making of marling line and whipping lines... On board a sailing ship, NOTHING is wasted. Sailors would put an Amish
farmer to shame with their thrift.
Here we are going to explore the art of making a pair of chest beckets the old style method. I warn you in advance that this is a LOT of work
and your first few efforts are going to look a bit "odd" to say the least, but after two pair you should be able to turn out a reasonably
seaman-like set. If you keep after it, by the fourth or fifth pair you should have a product that any whalerman would have been proud to have
on his chest.
Paragraph one was instigated by the fact that there are several men (and one lady) that I personally know of who are turning out work which
would grace any seaman's chest at any time in history. Since I know <1% of the knot tyers in the world, you can be sure that there are quite
a few more out there, but you'll go a long way before you find better work than that produced by these two gentlemen:
Karl Bareuther of Germany is an absolute master of this craft and his pictures (which he kindly sent me by email) will form the basis of this
tutorial. Andre van der Salm of the Netherlands also has a superb set of instructional pictures that can easily be used along with my drivel.
Here is a link for Andres' pictures. (If that link does not work, please let me know!)
These pictures are available in a larger format by simply clicking on the pictures to the right of the text. I also recommend the pictures of
making a chest becket to be found in Hervey Gerret Smith's "Marlinespike Sailor", which you can easily find at either half.com or on ebay.
CONSTANTLY CHECK YOUR
MEASUREMENTS as you work. Always!!!
"Measure twice, cut once", as the carpenters
say? Screw that... I measure constantly and
have no compunctions about throwing a piece "a
little too small" directly overboard and starting it
again. If you don't get it right, it will be like a sore
tooth... others may not know it's there, but you
ALWAYS use the best material you can
obtain for this job. The becket was used to
ship and it needed to be as strong as
possible to withstand the rigours of such
treatment. You're going to put many hours in
to making of these... using the best you can
afford will help ensure that someone will pick
it up a hundred years from now and say.
"Gee! This guy really knew what he was
To start off, a
view of the
came up with.
He used scrap
wood he had
eyebolts with a
washers at each
end and tied up
his becket body
ends and made
up the puddings
to his liking.
Next, the item moved
set of six line wrapped
spirally down the body
of the becket. Jack
triced them top and
bottom to keep their
strands in a tight helix
as shown will result in
a great finished
Here Jack has taken six
more lines and has led
them to the opposite
direction and has ALSO
gone OVER AND UNDER
with a threading needle to
"checkerboard" pattern of a
coach- whipping. This is
by far the easiest way of
doing this for those who
are just starting out or who
are only making aone pair
of beckets: the traditional
way (and one sure to
produce psychosis) is to
pass ALL the strands at
one time, three strands at a
A detail view of the
threading needle and
method in progress.
Here, Jack is
beginning to add the
second line to his
While I'm sure Jack
turned his own,
threading needles my
be purchased from
Marty Combs at his
"Knot- stuff" website
in varying sizes.
Here you can see the
completed second passes of
the coach- whipping. When
surface will be a solid
The coachwhip is so
named because it was
used to cover the
malacca shafts of horse
whips used by coach
drivers the world over.
Here the third pass has
been completed, the
ends have been triced
and are prepared for
trimming. Jack uses
this hose clamp over a
piece of wither white
paper or a bit of canvas
to ensure the ends do
not accidentally pull out
prior to final trimming
He removes it once the
turks heads have been
installed to cover the
ends of the
On the LEFT, the becket with the
coachwhipping done, the ends properly
triced off and ready for turksheads to be
On the right, the finished chest becket, less
axles and washers, bent to shape, turks
heads applied and ready for varnishing or
painting as the owner prefers.
A very nice piece of work, Jack!