Making Chest Beckets 


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 Marlinspike 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 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 Profit. 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 to themselves and what time they did have was usually spent in sleeping. 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 "ships-work", their time was taken up by making and mending uniforms and (again) sleeping. The only sailor with any real "free time" aboard were those on whaling ships. Whalers were alalways "top heavy" with crews since it took so many more to hunt and process the whales than wer absolutely needed to just sail the ship.Also, beeing civilians, they did not fall easilyinto 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 fast majority of the fancy rope work we see today dates from the very late eightenth, the ninete and the earliest part of the twentieth centuries. There are significant examples of erlier 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 usally 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 ailor several month 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 codline was used for the small stuff and old rope was disassembled, re-tarred and remade into the sizes required. With hemp rope, this is qute 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 theit thrift.

Here we are going to explore the art of making a pair of 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 those persons I know off. Everything you need to know about making chest beckets is contained in the following three pictures. 


PICTURE ONE shows at the top the method for making the core of the becket. Just take quite a bit of  small , 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 eyesplice 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 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 the 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, you see the method used 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 the grasp. We also see the ringbolt hitching which is applied to both eyes (in process to the right and completed to the left). The ringbolt hitching provides extra strength to the eye as well as preventing chafing through of the marlines in the eye. The method of "fattening" or "pudding" the grip is carried out by wrapping the core in line in several layers, starting for a short distance in the centre and then overlapping the next layer further out until the fattening 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, stropping these into place and then wrapping the whole in a light canvas to achieve the same result, then "marling" the canvas (tying it tghtly with a marling hitch). Either method will produce a jim-dandy becket.

 Once you`vehitched the eyes and built your pudding layers, it`s time to cover the grip of the becket. To do this, there are as many different methods as there are sailors. Here has been 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  a coachwhipping for 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 ia 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 coachwhipping, or.... Take a look at the examples on the beckets just below this site 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 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. One place NOT to put a turkshead is in the centre of the gripe! It is most uncomfortable when carrying a heavy chest.
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.

PICTURE THREE 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 very specific manner. The axle should be JUST large enough in diameter to fit in the cleat witout 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 your leather washers, then take a oiece of leather and cut it so that it is long enough to clear the outboard washers but a little bit too small to 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 pick the long edges of the leather rectangle about 3/16 bach from the edge. Use a strong waxed twine (sailtwine is good, but any strong twine will do) and do a "baseball stich" to sew the axle cover together.... when you do so, the tension of the stiching should (a) bury the stiches 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.

Scipt by kind permission of Vince Brennan, U.S.A. Pictures: Karl Bareuther

To be continued asap

Sea Chest Beckets (by Karl Bareuther, Germany)