Teaching knots is something we all have to do in Scouts.  It’s hard to do.  Many people’s brains cannot track the movement of rope around other rope:  it’s all just so much spaghetti to them.  And for kids with specific learning disabilities or delayed maturation, it can be a nightmare.  The current Handbook says we should use the EDGE method when teaching skills, but that can only get you so far.  Herewith are some concepts I use for myself and teach my learners to master tying knots.

A rope has two ends, and only one end does the tying. The end that does the tying is called the running end. The rest of the rope the running end ties to is called the standing part. This also means that only one hand will be tying the knot at a time. Sometimes, you have to switch which part of the rope each hand is holding, but your dominant hand will still do all the tying.

Motion is important in knot-tying, especially circular motion. The tying hand in certain knots guides the running end around the standing part in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. (In fencing, this would be a circular parry.)

For instance: in tying an overhand knot, the tying hand guides the running end around the standing part’s end, and the two ends are pulled tight.

The square knot

Now:  a square knot is just two overhand knots tied in opposite directions from each other. The first overhand knot is tied by the dominant hand in, say, clockwise direction; then the ends are exchanged between the two hands, and the same tying hand now ties an overhand knot over the standing part’s end in a counter-clockwise direction.

A half hitch starts out like an overhand knot, but in going around the standing part, it comes in behind itself and forms a closed loop; furthermore, a half hitch is always tied in the same direction. You need to get your muscle memory working for you so that you always tie it the same way.

2 half hitches

Then: Two half hitches is tied exactly the same way, with one half hitch tied after the other with the same motion. This is why the knot always looks so odd, as if the running end in the finished knot was a thumb sticking out between fingers. If you reverse the direction of the second half hitch, it’ll hold pretty much the same, but it isn’t “book value,” and it will make it harder to teach the taut-line hitch.

taut-line knot

A taut-line hitch is two half hitches with an extra turn. All the motions are the same. Tie a half hitch. With the same circular motion, put an extra turn behind it; then come out in front and put another one around the standing part. If you teach hand motion, you fix the tying of the knot in muscle memory.  And as I always say, “You don’t know how to tie a knot until you can tie it upside-down, over your head, in the dark, with the rain blowing in your face.”  Those of us who do lots of camping have done exactly that with (especially) taut-lines, many times.

timber-hitch knot

Finally, the timber hitch is built on circular motion. It starts out like a half hitch with lots of extra  running end, then pigtails down itself (its own standing part, not the standing part the knot is tied around) about three times.

I would suggest learning the foregoing knots in just the order I’ve presented them.

The clove hitch can be taught as a double loop thrown over a post end, which is how cowboys use it; however, the most common use for a clove hitch among Scouts is to tie it around a spar as the first step in a square or shear lashing.  I always teach it as a crossing of the running end (with a generous supply of rope) over the standing part.  The running end goes around the spar and then crosses over the standing part, forming a clear X.  The running end then continues around the spar again and comes up in the crotch of the X formed by the running end and standing part.  It then follows the standing part under the running end to finish the knot.  Learning to form that X and remember to follow the standing part under the running end is the key.

The sheet bend joins the ends of two ropes. The smaller rope is held in the tying hand and does all the tying.  Make a bight in the larger rope. The running end of the smaller rope comes up through the bight (toward the knot-tyer) , goes down and around the back of both thicknesses of the bight (away from the “knot-tyer”), then tucks under its own standing part on top of the larger bight.

bowline knot

The bowline is the most right-handed of all knots. I once had a Scout so left-hand-dominant that his brain couldn’t process the knot at all.  I taught myself to tie it backwards (mirror image, using the left hand), so I could teach it to him.  After that, he had no problem with it. To tie the knot right-handed (book value), you shake a counter-clockwise loop over the fingers of your left hand.  Then, leaving a good portion of rope to form the loop, you take the running end in the familiar rabbit-hole-tree movement to tie the knot, making sure to snug it up carefully, so it doesn’t pull apart.  An extra trick I use in teaching the knot is to have the Scout imagine the standing part held in the left hand running up to something overhead.  The more one keeps in mind that the standing part is not involved in the knot, the less the Scout will be confused when he switches left-hand position to hold the first loop by his fingertips.  It’s at this point that the Scout’s brain makes him reverse which end is at work, and everything goes haywire.  In fact, if you tie off the standing part to a hook overhead and learn to tie the bowline in suspended form, it will be easier to master.

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Art Collins has been in Scouting, man and boy, for over fifty years. He has led many different units and many different programs. As an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, he has fostered Scouting as ministry in local congregations, as well as at the Conference and General Church level. His current Scouting position is as the International Representative for Hoosier Trails Council and as a member of the Council Executive Board. His current ministry position is Retired.