A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Man Scout: Finger ropes, cowboy knots, scoutmaster advice, pride of a neophyte tenderfoot

By Chris Cole
Special to NKyTribune

This week, we’ve reached the skills portion of the Handbook. After some basic first aid and campfire instructions, we arrive at knots and rope work.

And I’ll be honest – I expected this to be a relatively simple way of easing into scoutcraft. After all, I’ve been tying my shoes as long as I can remember – how hard could this possibly be?

We start with basic terminology: a “bight” is a curved section between the working end of a rope and the “standing part,” which essentially means the part you don’t use in knot tying. OK: bight, working end, standing part. So far so good.

It may not look like much, but I’m proud of my Bowline knot.

We then learn about overhand and underhand loops – again, nothing too difficult here. On an overhand loop, the working end crosses over the standing part; and on an underhand loop, the working end crosses under the standing part.

My confidence is soaring, but then I remember that these are tenderfoot requirements, meaning this is stuff an 11-year-old Scout should know.

Next comes learning to tie specific knots. My stepfather Karl was nice enough to lend me several feet of quarter-inch rope, so I am ready to rock this challenge.

First up, the sheetbend knot, which is used to join two ropes together. I read the description and instructions, then find myself staring at an illustration that is, and I am being kind here, not very helpful.

The instructions say to, “Form a bight in heavier rope. Bring up other rope end through bight, twist it over and under bight, then bring it under itself.” Even retyping the instructions here does nothing to help me understand what any of that means.

The illustration is broken into three steps. The first shows two partial hands folding what I guess is a rope and a black arrow swirling around. The second sort of looks like crochet work, but the fingers are the same size, shape and color as the rope, so it could also be that a horrible accident has occurred. (Perhaps that’s why the chapter starts with first aid?) The third drawing shows the completed sheetbend knot. Tada!

After rereading the instructions and staring at the illustrations for 5 or 10 minutes, I’m ready to give up. What the heck? How is an 11-year-old supposed to figure this out?

Then I remember that if I were in fact 11 years old, I’d have a scoutmaster who could demonstrate these knots for me. And then it occurred to me that YouTube is my scoutmaster.

A quick search, after some awful political ads, uncovered dozens of videos demonstrating the sheetbend knot. Some were on par with the Handbook illustration, but eventually I found one that walks you through step-by-step and within a couple minutes, I’d mastered the sheetbend. The next time I find myself needing to join two ropes, I’m golden.

You can learn the sheetbend here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3reZ3NuGaQ.

Next up is the clove hitch knot. This one seems to be for tying to a tree or pole. It’s easy to tie and untie, but its use is somewhat limited because it can slip and bind up.

Again the Handbook was of limited assistance. Instructions: “Pass rope end around rail. Lay it over the rope itself. Bring end around rail once more. Carry the end under the rope itself.” In the three-step illustration, the swirling black arrow is back; looks like it’s time for more political ads.

The Boy Scouts of America Handbook illustration for tying a sheetbend knot. (Image courtesy of the Boy Scouts of America Handbook for Boys, 1952)

For whatever reason, this knot took longer to figure out. I kept watching videos, and they made it look easy enough. But when the video would say, “And now pull it tight,” my knot looked nothing like the knot in the video. In fact, my knot looked nothing like a knot at all. It looked like a jumble of rope. Eventually I got it, though.

You can learn the clove hitch here: https://www.google.com/search?q=how+to+tie+a+clove+hitch+knot&rlz=1C1GCEU_enUS821US821&oq=how+to+tie+a+clove+hitch+knot&aqs=chrome..69i57j0j0i22i30l5j69i60.5996j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#kpvalbx=_pqOZX43iBK7t5gKGjqJQ10.

The third knot covered by the Handbook is by far the easiest – the two half hitches. This one made perfect sense immediately and I was almost able to master it with just the Handbook illustrations.

The two half hitches knot is ideal for hanging a hammock and would have come in handy a month or so ago when my wife and I were teaching my nieces Cali and Lili about hammocks. After a little persuading, Cali climbed in and wouldn’t you know my “knot” slipped and she dropped to the ground. What can I say? I weren’t no Boy Scout.

Anyway, you can learn this easy knot here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q93YpbVEXAM.

Other knots covered in my introductory session included the Bowline (sort of like a lasso), the timber hitch (used for hauling logs) and the toutline hitch (perfect for tying a tent to pegs).

My favorite was probably the Bowline. I found a great YouTube video that teaches three variants – the scout method (which imagines the working end of the rope as a rabbit that comes out of its hole, rounds a tree and then gets scared and climbs back down its hole), the cowboy method and the sailor method.

Nothing makes you feel like more of a man than learning to tie cowboy and sailor knots. You can learn to tie all of these Bowline variants here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozskWrDM-F4&feature=youtu.be.

Well that’s it for this week. Might not seem like much, but I was tying knots for hours and my mind was so mushy by the time I was done that the handbook illustrations were even starting to make sense. I have a whole new respect for 11-year-olds.

And the next time someone tries to insult me by calling me a tenderfoot, I’ll just swell with pride and show them how to tie a Bowline. And I’ll consider that my good turn daily!

Chris Cole is Director of Enterprise Communications at Sanitation District No. 1 and a deacon at Plum Creek Christian Church in Butler. He lives in Highland Heights with his wife, Megan. The Man Scout chronicles Cole’s journey to acquiring some of the skills of the head, the heart and the hand he failed to learn as a child of the 1980s growing up in Newport. His field guide: a 1952 Boy Scouts Handbook he found on eBay.

Related Posts


  1. Olivia B says:

    You learn something new every day. I can honestly say the last time I thought about knots, it was more of the butter, garlic variety, however this skill is much more useful for survival- depending on who you ask. Shout out to scoutmaster YouTube and yourself. I imagine you (and your niece) will really appreciate this skill the next time you set up a hammock.

    • Chris Cole says:

      Hi Olivia!

      Yes – I certainly hope so. My wife asked me, “But do you think you’ll remember how to tie that knot the next time we’re hanging the hammock?” I told her as long as I can remember what it was called, I can consult Scoutmaster YouTube for a refresher! Haha.

Leave a Comment