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The twice-monthly Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those just slightly off to the side). Every other Wednesday, we look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of MAKE, Volume 17


One of the cool things about doing this column is discovering lost technologies myself, things I knew nothing about before bumping into them while poking about the virtual attics and basements of cyberspace, looking for things to write about. For instance, I knew nothing about stick chart navigation before covering it here. And I’d certainly seen timbrel vaulting before, but didn’t know that’s what it was called, or how it worked.

cableLacing1.jpg

We got such a great response to my last column on wire-wrapping (which was awhile ago, thanks to a most unwelcomed medical absence). There were site comments, emails, tweets, and Flickr photo pointers of people fondly, or not so fondly, remembering this disappearing art of circuit assembly. Several people mentioned cable lacing and that I should do a column on that next. I had no idea what cable lacing was, but one of the commenters pointed me to the Wikipedia page and another to Impulselabs’ amazing photos on Flickr. Impulselabs describes the practice very succinctly:

cableLacing3.jpg

The bundling is done with a technique called “cable lacing”. A series of knots and stitches from a continuous piece of wax impregnated cotton or twine are used to bundle cables together. It takes some practice, but it’ll outperform zipties in that it won’t crush the insulative jackets on wiring and that it’s not going to shift axially on you if it’s loose. Likewise, my bundles have a rectangular cross section. Zipties can’t conform and keep bundle shapes other than ellipses.

Cable lacing was cable management technique before zipties, used in the telecom industry, aerospace, marine applications, and elsewhere. The thin cord used is traditionally a waxed linen. Modern materials used today in flat “lacing tape” include nylon, polyester, and Nomex. There are different methods of lacing, such as the common marline hitch, seen here:

cableLacing4.jpg

Here’s an illustration from an old ARRL Amateur Radio Handbook, showing the marline hitch:

cableLacing6b.gif

This one is another common lacing method, the “NASA-style” spot tie. Not nearly as elegant as a marline, but I guess it gets the job done:

cableLacing5.jpg

Here’s a page from “Workmanship and Design Practices for Electronic Equipment,” showing different lacing and tying methods.

And here’s a how-to on the Historic Naval Ships Association website.

There’s not much more out there on the practice. If you do a search, you will find some images on various discussion boards of computer modders and others trying their hand at cable lacing the wiring inside of their computers and between the gear of their home media centers. It’s nice to see that at least some folks are keeping the art alive.

 

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Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. wayn3w says:

    I’m owkring on a project where I have lots of controls on a panel that need bundling. I’m going to try this approach — tonight.

    ‘Flat nylon lacing tape’ — is this any different from ‘Glide’ dental floss?

  2. John says:

    I started working for a CLEC in 1999 and learned how to lace cables. Zip ties were outlawed in the CO. It works so well, I found a personal source of wax string and use it in my home for everything from cable management to any ad hoc job that needs malleable but extremely “grippy” fasteners. The one that springs to mind most recently was tying a ziplock bag full of vinegar to the shower head for 24 hours to de-calcify it.

    1. Damien says:

      Like you, I was taught by an old-timer that cable-lacing is superior to plastic cable-ties. My line-manager was meticulous about running the electronics workshop, and cable-ties were absolutely forbidden.
      It appears that he taught me the Telephone Hitch (adopted in the USA as “NASA-style”? He’s British, I’m Australian.)

      I think it works because the laces are flat and don’t have the hard 90-degree corners of cable-ties. They grip without cutting-into wires/insulation — such crimps apply a lot of pressure on a point and, with time/vibration, can snap the conductor.

      With a bit of practise, I found you can get quite fast at it. And it’s such an elegant way to de-clutter things! :)

  3. dZed says:

    Lost Knowledge is probably my favorite thing about Make. Keep up the great work!

    I did have a question about the knots shown in the ARRL Radio Handbook, but this document listed at the end of the Wikipedia page answered it: http://www.dairiki.org/hammond/cable-lacing-howto/

    I was wondering why (A) was inferior to (B) but I guess it’s because the knot is only self-locking if the cord goes under the loop and not over. Good to know!

    Also, the Wikipedia page for cable lacing, linked to in the article, says that “a series of overhand knots” isn’t recommended, and I’m pretty sure that the ARRL image says that overhand knots, (C), is the preferred method. A cursory examination of the the Navy book linked to above didn’t reveal why, though they did give a ‘square knot + two lock stiches’ a shout out. Anyone care to comment?

  4. tom_k says:

    Here are some more examples of lacing (and generally fine workmanship) from old equipment :

    http://picasaweb.google.com/tkarches/TimeLapseCounter
    http://picasaweb.google.com/tkarches/WoodenSwitchBox

  5. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    Gareth, I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to tell you how much I enjoy this column. Keep it up!

  6. Anonymous says:

    They taught me this in my high school electronics class. 7 segment LED displays were bleeding-edge back then.

  7. Dan says:

    I recently finished up building a kit airplane ( http://www.vansaircraft.com/public/rv-8int.htm ) with my dad, he did the hard work and built the airplane, and I was responsible for figuring out how all the radios and avionics needed to be wired together. We used cable lacing extensively along with a few helpful zip-ties here and there to make a clean-looking job.

  8. XavierBlak says:

    Cool article. This isn’t too related to the article… But I’m curious about the insulation on the wiring on the first and second image. What is that style called? And does anyone have a source for that? It looks great and the times I’ve played with it seems pretty tangle resistant.

    1. dZed says:

      I believe the book “Instruments of Amplification” by Pete Friedrichs covers how to “make” fabric insulated wire for that old timey look, which I think is what you’re asking about. I own his other book, “The Voice of the Crystal,” and it MAY be in there instead, but all my books are packed up at the moment. If memory serves when I check “Instruments…” out of the library, he used regular wire and the outside of boot laces? My memory is failing me. Anyone else?

      Here’s a link to the book from the always great Lindsay Books:

      http://www.lindsaybks.com/bks7/finstr/index.html

    2. dZed says:

      Turns out my copy of “The Voice of the Crystal” was easily accessible after all, and the instructions were in it, not “Instruments of Amplification.” Here’s the appropriate excerpt from p. 30:

      “To finish up, allow me to share a couple of tips with regard to aesthetics: I wanted a vintage look for the hookup wire on the headphone, but cotton covered wire is not readily available. Solution? I made my own.

      “I started with a package of shoe laces, selected for their round cross section (These are typically used on hiking or work boots.) I clipped the tips off the laces, and using a pair of needle nose pliers I pulled the core string out of the center of the laces. This leaves a hollow woven tube. It’s a simple matter to thread some wire through short lengths of lace.”

      Maybe not worth the effort if you don’t want “a vintage look,” eh? Still, it’s a great book. The subtitle is “How to Build Working Radio Receiver Components Entirely From Scratch,” and p. 30 finds you in the middle of building your own headphones.

    3. cairn says:

      It’s pricey, but you can get cotton-covered wire from Antique Electronic Supply http://www.tubesandmore.com/

      I’ve also bought cotton-covered instrument or mic cables and cut them up – they are available in many colors and can sometimes be cheaper per-foot.

  9. widgetNinja says:

    Another valuable benefit in the telco realm was there are no sharp edges in lacing on which to cut yourself. When you cut off a zip tie there is that nasty bit sticking out of the clasp that is easy to cut yourself on. If zip ties were used int he cable trays at a CO there would be thousands of edges to get slashed upon when pulling cable. Lacing, not so much!

    1. Sean says:

      Amen to that, our avionics tech hates it when he gets ahold of a homebuilt where they used cable ties.

  10. mightyohm says:

    I’d love to learn how this is actually done by someone who knows the proper technique. A video would be far more effective than any printed description!

    1. Wayne D. says:

      I used to do these all the time just a couple years ago while making aerospace wiring harnesses. I’d show you, but my camera is toast right now.

  11. Neil H. says:

    Wow this takes me back in time a bit, awesome.

    I used to do this lacing with style C mostly, since it’s more secure if the string gets cut while in use, but style B in a pinch or where the cable is in a tight spot that is hard to reach. This was at the wiring panels for a college radio station about 15 or more years ago.

    It’s also lower profile than cable ties (no tie end to take up space) and once you get the hang of it’s not too time consuming, especially if you have the wax impregnated string / twine as it doesn’t come un-done as easily.

    Thanks for this post!

  12. Eiki says:

    As part of my work I spend quite a bit of time in telco Central Offices and can confirm this is still the practice for anything going into a CO. Our installer technicians are all taught cable-lacing to this day.

    1. Andrew says:

      This is still definitely done in the telco world. For DC power distribution they also use “fish paper” to wrap around the cables (this is also done for larger fiber bundles to protect it from macro bends) then secure the fish paper with lacing cord. Jonard still makes the sewing tools (and the best snips).

      Lacing cord is also great for home projects like securing tarps and stuff, it hardly ever moves.

      I use lacing cord at home for all my electronics that aren’t going to move much. Zip ties are evil. Velcro (a big roll from panduit) or lacing cord are the only ways to go.

      1. Marc says:

        I agree I have worked in many CO’s and seen awsome lacing jobs and then you goto a different CO and see zip ties, yeah it makes the job easier and a little tacky, Lacing is the way to go, nice n clean.

  13. SolidSilver says:

    When I was a youngster, my mother worked for Boeing doing cable assemblies for 727 cockpits. The style was close to the ‘NASA style’, from its appearance. Ties were made with a flat nylon braid they called “lockstitch”. The specific technique was a clove hitch around the bundle, topped with a square knot. I remember touring the shop and seeing the elaborate 3-D forms the bundles were built on, forming the exact shapes to fit into the actual cockpit panels. I’d imagine the same techniques are still used today.

  14. Bradley G. says:

    Cable lacing of this kind is still a fairly standard practice in pipe organ building. (no surprises there, most organ builders use telco 50/pr cable as well) in that application, I’ve spent many hours lacing cables in this fashion. My only complaint with this system is that adding to or removing from the bundles is not surprisingly a real pain in the neck.

  15. Sean says:

    We use this process daily. It provides chafe free cable management, with the NASA method being the only method used. It is preferred because a cut lace only affects that specific station, not the whole length of the wire run. Changing loom configuration just requires a pair of scissors. Wires can also be slipped in using a wiring spoon.

    Look for Lacing Tape or Lacing Cord at any avionics supply company like Edmo Distributors.

  16. Adair says:

    In older hydro electric plants in Ontario I’ve seen brass brackets that predate the cable lacing. One of the older electricians (40+ yrs on the job) started making them by hand. Each conductor has it’s own bump. It’s all very impressive and neat when finished. Quite the pain if you to change anything, but nice for the first 50 yrs of use.

  17. Steve P. says:

    Like many of the other folks posting here, I came up through the telco system. I started in the early 80s, just as step-by-step was finally be phased out and stored program control analog switches and the first digital switches were being installed. So, I got to see a wide variety of technologies from the late 1920s through the 1980s.

    In our “boot camp” training we learned how to sew and terminate cables. For those who have not seen it, the classic cabling method for Central Offices consists of rows of equipment bays with overhead cable racks that look like iron ladders laid flat. We learned first how to sew cable down to these racks in nice neat layers, with no crosses of either the cables or the waxed linen twine. Then, of course, how to add layer upon layer of cables. We used the same techniques with telco multipair cables and power cables of up to 750 MCM size.

    I recall that there was a “Chicago” stitch, a “Kansas City” stitch, and a couple of others. We had special needles and hooks for each (I still have a couple of them, as well as a spool of lacing cord). We wore white fingerless doeskin gloves so we could pull the knots tight over the leather part but still keep our fingers free for the fine work.

    In the mid-eighties, someone did a time-motion study and determined that it would be cheaper to just pile the telco cable up randomly and not stitch it at all overhead. The only places still stitched were power cable runs and vertical runs between floors (“waterfalls”). Vertical drops to equipment were done with tie-wraps. All the overhead stuff ended up looking like crap. I think they have gone back to lacing, at least in the cell sites I’ve visited in the last couple of years.

  18. James says:

    I’ve been using this for years. I learned it from my former boss to use while running cables. We used the marline with jetline and electrical tape to secure cables while doing long runs. He probably learned it when he was working with radio equipment in the 80′s though.

  19. Dave says:

    This article is based on a faulty premise. There’s nothing “lost” about cable lacing (which is actually known as ‘sewing’ to those familiar with the skill).

    I am a communications equipment installer in the employ of Alcatel-Lucent, which is a direct descendant of the Western Electric Company (a part of the old Bell System). I sew cable almost every day on the job, and in many environments where I do it, zip-ties aren’t even allowed.

    Cable sewing (and sewing of forms, which is what is actually depicted in the photos) is alive and well, thank you very much.

  20. Gareth Branwyn says:

    We use the term “lost” here with artistic license. Most of what we’ve covered in this column (pneumatic tube systems, timbrel vaulting, stick chart navigation) is not completely lost. “Fading tech,””Fallen out of favor,” “No longer a core skill,” “Superseded by a new technology,””No longer the reigning method” might fit more accurately with most of this stuff — but wouldn’t make a very sexy title.

  21. jj says:

    Interesting method but it looks quite tedious for most applications. Even better than zipties is the velcro tape that they make for gardening. You can get it in rolls of 30 or 75 feet.

    It can easily be tightened or loosened, removed and reused and it also layers very well because its hooks on one side and the fuzz on the other, so it doesnt need to line up with any specific end piece like normal velcro cable ties. You also don’t risk damaging the wire with scissors or sidecutters when removing it.

    It doesn’t leave any razor sharp corners when you cut the extra bits off like zipties do and it wont crush the wire insulation unless you’re the Hulkster.

    Now they just need to make it with a little spandex in it so it stretches a wee bit. Seriously cable monkies try this stuff it’s fantastic, I highly recommend it.

  22. Gareth Branwyn says:

    @Mightyohm

    We at MAKE second that! Somebody PLEASE do a video demo, post it to YouTube, and send us the link!

    I was amazed at how little info there is online about cable lacing. Most references point to one or two how-tos (linked to in my piece).

    (BTW: There is a video on YouTube of a Verizon tech showing how to do a box stitch (and there are other box stitch demos):

    I’d like to see one on all the faves: Marline hitch, spot tie, Chicago stitch, Kansas City stitch, etc.)

  23. M Kelley says:

    every aircraft manufacturer includes these practices in their standard practices manual. Including step by step instructions for various knots according to application, i.e., one knot inside the pressure hull, one knot for high vibration areas, particular material of lacing tape for areas of high heat, fuel exposure, exposure to weather, etc.

    1. M Kelley says:

      I meant to write, ” every manufacturer of heavy commercial aircraft”. Sorry.

  24. david says:

    See FAA Advisory Circular 43.13B, chapter 11, paragraph 158, starting on page 11-61

    Hopefully this link will work.

    http://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library%5CrgAdvisoryCircular.nsf/list/AC%2043.13-1B/$FILE/Chapter%2011.pdf

  25. alan clifton says:

    this was one of the first things i learn’t when i started my apprenticeship in 1979 building electrical control panels built on bakelite base boards

  26. jackd.myopenid.com says:

    I consider myself somewhat of a cable management enthusiast, and the best reference material I’ve found is NASA’s “Crimping, Interconnecting Cables, Harnesses, and Wiring” which covers cable lacing (with examples of different knot types and recommendations) in Chapter 9. It also covers just about every other method of connecting and bundling wires with plenty of diagrams and excellent attention to detail, reliability, and longevity. AND IT’S FREE! You can find a copy here:
    http://www.goes-r.gov/procurement/flight_documents/NASA-STD-8739-4%20with%20chg%203.pdf

    Cable lacing is awesome, I’m really glad to see it get some coverage. I find it’s especially nice for long runs of cable – I made a harness/tether with power, video, and USB that’s about 20ft for a monitor that I move around the room. It’s kept it nice and tidy for around 6 months now, and considering how often it moves, that’s saying something.

  27. Anonymous says:

    If you can’t find lacing tape, use waxed dental floss.

  28. Nice to see such an article. It’s almost impossible to find someone to talk to that has even heard of cable lacing. Even the folks who use zip-ties don’t realize where the practice came from. I learned it when I worked at Boeing in 1960. Oops! Just gave away my age… At that time we were taught the single lace because we were told that it had been discovered that if the continuous line got broken the whole bundle could come loose. This of course was airplanes and missiles we’re talking about where you have a lot of vibration. You can still buy lacing tape, but it is hard to find. My supply was the Boeing Surplus Stores where you could buy partially used spools. Dacron was used alot. I use the stuff for a lot of things. It works good for keeping some kinds of rope from unraveling. I also used it alot when I was wiring up police cars. There’s nothing worse than getting cut from a zip-tie you cut off and left a very sharp point on. I still prefer it over those plastic zip-ties.

  29. Daz Coote says:

    We were still being taught how to do cable lacing in the RAF in the mid 1980′s. I still think it is the neatest form of cable management.

  30. Evan Plaice says:

    Back when I was working in the Flight Simulation industry, I learned the technique while working with some old school wiremen (btw I’m only 28). We used to use the technique shown in the ‘spot tie’ for everything from small wiring harnesses all the way up to 3′ diameter umbilicals.

    There are a lot of benefits to using lacing cord over tie wraps. The obvious ones being that it doesn’t deteriorate over time (plastic dries and becomes brittle as it gets old) and it moves more naturally with cables that aren’t static.

    I’d even argue that it’s superior to tie wraps in every way but one. It requires knowing how to tie a couple of simple knots.

    The main knot used is called a clove-hitch. Depending on the scenario, sometimes it’s useful to double up the clove hitch. In most cases it’s locked with an overhand, and/or a double overhand knot.

    If the people at MAKE would like I could write a more extensive follow-up piece. Feel free to contact me by email. It’s my handle at GMail.

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