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Learning how to Splice

June 21, 2011

Here’s a piece of an email I got yesterday...

Hey Nick, I’m just starting to splice. I ordered the vid, book and starter splice kit along with some rope to start with.  If you don't mind, could you share with me any other starting point things I might need.  I have the supplies I need, but any help you could give would be appreciated.

    Man, I get this question a LOT.  It is the most popular splicing email question I get. I typically respond with something along the lines of, “Well, I can’t just sit here and write a whole book to save you at every speed bump you might come across, but let me know when you get stuck somewhere specifically and I’ll be glad to help.”  Recognizing that to be completely unhelpful, I mentioned it to my wife and she said,”Why not come up with a list of the most common things people need to keep in mind when they are getting started?  Nick’s Nine things to Know.  I like the alliteration.”  She was an English major.

So I decided to go for it!  Right off the bat I thought of 6 things things you should keep in mind when you start learning how to splice, but I needed 3 more so I could keep that alliteration.  Keep in mind: these are not the technical specifics that tell you HOW to splice.  These are the things that will help prevent you from making the most common mistakes.  Enjoy, and if you have any questions you know where to find me!

Nick’s Nine things you Need to Know

1. Get the Right Tools
    This doesn’t mean you have to go out and spend a lot of money right off the bat on Ginghers, push fids, and a Splicing Wand.  Don’t get me wrong: I have several of practically all of the best splicing tools available.  But, when I teach my splicing classes, I make it very clear that all you need to start is a wire fid (usually made from a coat hanger or some piano wire), a sharpie, a measuring tape, some masking tape and a good pair of scissors and a stout needle.  As you get into things more, you’ll find that the fancy tools make things more smooth and even more fun.  However, I’ve seen a lot of people go out and spend $150 on tools and when things get difficult, they give up.  They don’t get an adequate return on their investment. (If that happens, let me know.  I’ll trade you spliced rope for your abandoned splicing tools!)  This brings us to item number two.

2. Learn, Learn, Learn 
    These days, there are a LOT of places where you can learn the technical tips, tricks, and down right secrets on how to splice.  You can and probably will learn how to do a splice on the first day.  But to learn how to splice (more than just that one rope) is like learning how to climb.  Once you start, you realize there is no end to what there is to learn.  Here’s a list of the few places I can think of where you can learn, ranked from what I consider to be the worst to best: Books, Manufacturer’s Published Directions, Online Discussion Forums, How-To Videos, and In Person.  Once you’ve read and studied, then what?

3. Practice, Practice, Practice
    Don’t buy a 120’ climbing line and plan to put an eye on the end so you can save the $25 if you’ve never spliced before.  There is a good chance (because I see it all the time) that your first, second, or third splice might not be usable.  You may find that you have to chop off your first few attempts and retry.  Your 120’ rope might end up 105’ by the time you’re done with it!  Many arborist supply stores sell rope either by the foot or even better, they’ll sell discounted short hanks off the ends of the spool.  Buy those and plan for it to be scrap.  Do a splice then chop it off and do it again.  You’ll come to learn little tricks, often by accident, that help you through the hard parts.  Sometimes quickly you’ll see what a GOOD splice is supposed to look like, especially when compared to your first attempts.  If you’re lucky, after a few attempts you’ll have a piece left long enough that you can turn it into your new lanyard or split tail.

4. Take Notes 
    It’s time to tap into your inner teenage girl and get yourself a diary.  Write about every splice you do and write about the mistakes you make and the lessons you learn.  Write about how it made you feel and if you think Johnny might ask you to the Winter Carnival dance and what you might wear if he DOES ask.  There is a slighty possibility that early frustration will encourage you to take a break from splicing.  Sometimes that break can last weeks (or more).  Skimming your notes before returning is a great way to help you see where the problems were happening.  The journa is a way to make sure you pick up where you left off, rather than starting from scratch.  Your splicing journal will greatly speed up your learning curve.  Years later you’ll look back and laugh at where you had trouble.  Then you can use that information to help someone else.  And forget about Johnny.  You’re too good for him anyways.

5. Don’t Fight the Rope
    This is one of the most common mistakes I see in new splicers...especially men...and especially big, strong, burly men. In 99% of all splicing, it should be smooth and not induce the creation of blisters.  You will have to be firm.  But if you are hooking something up to a truck, pulley system, come along, GRCS or crane to help get through one of the steps of a splice, there is a good chance you are doing something wrong.  Sometimes while passing fids and wires in and out of cores and covers you hit a snag- literally.  Eventually you'll come to learn what they feel like BEFORE they happen and you'll know when to back the tool out a little and retry.  The average new splicer will just muscle through and in this scenario they usually end up damaging the rope in the process.  If you feel like something isn't going where Stop what you’re doing and get some help.  Better yet, spend a little more time at item #2 before you get back to the splicing.

6. Start on Easy Rope  
    You need early success to keep you going.  A hollow braid rope like Yalex or a soft double braid won’t put up a fuss.  Many arborist rigging lines are great for practice.  Something like Double Esterlon is a good place to start learning how to splice double braid ropes.  Though Poison Ivy is technically the same construction and made of the same fiber (polyester) as Double Esterlon, it’s woven so much tighter than Double Esterlon that you will find yourself fighting the tightness while at the same time trying to learn the maneuvers.  Karate Kid had to paint a fence and wax a car before his skills were ready for the Karate Tournament.  Many people have nearby sail supply stores where you can by some sail lines like New England Ropes Sta-Set (not Sta-Set X).  In the 3/8” size, this is a great practice double braid rope.  Half-inch diameter is even better if you don’t mind spending just a few more dollars for the practice.

7. DON’T (I repeat) DON’T start on Used Rope
    It’s tempting.  You have those old climbing lines that you’ve downgraded to pull ropes and tie-down ropes.  They cost $0.00/ft, so why not!  As we use ropes in the trees, rain, sun, and dirt the weave of the rope actually tightens up, the fibers get dirty, and they get that fuzz that makes them great.  But all those things also make us have to fight them when we’re trying to splice.  When splicing, we want the ropes to be smooth, soft, supple and even loose.  Save yourself the frustration and practice only on new rope.  

8. Take Some Time to Learn about Rope Constructions and Fibers
    Yes, I know I already talked about learning in step #2...but this is different.  This should perhaps be #1 on the list, but I didn’t want to get too technical too soon.  Now that we’re getting to know one another, I feel it’s a good time to bring this up.  The most important aspect of splicing is knowing what the rope is made of and how it is put together and how you use that information to figure out what splicing directions to use.  I once got an email from a person who couldn’t figure out how to get the cover-tail of the rope INTO the core.  Just reading that, a slightly seasoned splicer will know that they are obviously trying to do a double braid rope and need some tips on how to work the wire fid or something of the sort.  After a bit of detective work, I learned the problem was that the core was just a bunch of strings all laying next to eachother and not woven together like the directions said they would be. WHA-WHA-WHAT!?!!?!?!?  As it turned out that guy was trying to splice 16 strand rope with double-braid rope directions!!!!!  This could be a downright deadly mistake!!!  As a rope splicer it is your responsibility to make sure you are doing things right.  You will get better at this and eventually you will start sharing your splices with your friends and coworkers.  And you should!  You earned it.  Splices are smooth, sexy, fast, strong, clean, and fun.  They are also, in many ways, rare.  It would be a shame NOT to share them.  Just make sure what you’re sharing is good.  ANSI helps us by saying something to the affect of, “splicing shall be done in accordance with manufacturers specifications.”  (That’s a paraphrase).  The Big 3 rope makers (Yale Cordage, Samson, and New England Ropes) help us by publishing reasonable splicing directions for almost all of their ropes.  Do your part by making sure that what you do coincides what the rope makers think you should be doing.  In the same vein, it is worth learning the language.  I hate when people email me, “Can you help?  I can’t get the end of rope past the middle of the rope.”  Now I have to spend a few more emails trying to figure out what they heck they are talking about.  Now if they would’ve said, “I am attempting to splice 16-strand XTC and I’m using Samson’s splicing directions.  I’ve made the cover tail and I’m stuck at the crossover.  I can’t get the cover tail past the core between Mark C and Mark D.  Can you help?”  Now I know EXACTLY what he needs to know and I can refer him to this great thread on Treebuzz that covers just that very topic.  Learning the language expedites communication.  Imagine that!

9. Have fun!
    Splicing can be a very zen sort of activity.  But it is a learning process.  Knowing how to splice can change how you climb.  Seriously!  When you can splice, you start thinking of different configurations of slings that you could make while climbing and rigging in a tree.  Maybe you wish your friction saver had a third ring floating on a prusik, or maybe you want a footlock prusik that was just 4” longer than the one you currently have.  When you know how to do it, you don’t have to worry about the cost, the trial and error process, and trying to find a splicer that can make what you’re envisioning.  You just climb, imagine, and create! 
That’s it.  Nine things to get you on your way to learning how to splice.  Get a few rope splicers together and you’ll see that they could talk for hours on any one of those nine topics.  It could be overwhelming if you let it.  But like climbing a tree, start low and slow, take your time, don’t be afraid to ask for you and before you know it, you’ll be a splicer!   And if all this doesn’t work, you can always just pay me to do it for you!