The Lost Art of Cable Lacing

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39 Responses to “The Lost Art of Cable Lacing”

  1. Craig Morgan says:

    kmoser, what you observed on the jet engines is probably double-twist lockwiring, which is still used extensively (particularly in motorsports and aviation) wherever vibration runs the risk of causing release/loosening of nuts and hence untold dangers or where tampering with the fastening must be identified.

    Lockwire pliers are commonplace and whilst its easy enough to make a ham-fisted stab at it, like lacing a skilled experienced professional job is an absolute joy to behold.

  2. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Awesome discussion here, folks.

    Couple of things. On the issue of lacing not really being “lost,” I posted this to the MAKE topic:

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 “Fading,””Fallen out of favor,” “No longer a core skill,” “Superseded by a newer technology,””No longer the reigning method” might fit more accurately with most of this tech — but wouldn’t make for a very sexy column title.

    And:

    Somebody on the MAKE comments has requested that somebody who knows the technique do a video how-to. 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):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iU8sYRG9-I

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

  3. Rob Beschizza says:

    For the brief period of time I worked running network cable, this sort of wonderful cable-origami haunted me in my dreams. Because real life rarely matched up to it!

  4. arkizzle / Moderator says:

    Yes! This post make my belly fizzy.
    Squeeeeee!

  5. Antinous / Moderator says:

    Oh, lacing. Not laying.

  6. nixiebunny says:

    I work on a lot of old stuff with laced cables, but I never do it myself. Perhaps it’s time to learn how. You can still buy the waxed lace.

    The 1964 Amateur Radio Handbook has three illustrations: A is Wrong, B is Right, and C is Extra-good with a loop at each intersection. We can guess which method the military required the use of.

  7. cirrostratus says:

    It isn’t a lost art. I occasionally work at SwRI (Southwest Research Institute) and the avionics electronics techs still regularly lace cables when the specifications call for it.

  8. lolop says:

    i just tried doing it by looking closely at the picture and is not so difficult.

    nice technique!

  9. toxonix says:

    I love seeing laced cables. I buy surplus DOD and DOE equipment. All of the stuff I’ve found from LANL and sites like it are made with extreme care and precision. Every piece comes with a sealed envelope containing a pair of detailed instruction manuals.
    The sad part is when I have to cut the lacing off to pull the wires and stuff.
    The engine compartment of my F250 is getting laced soon. Over the years people have tried holding the wiring harness together with electrical tape, duct tape, zip ties, etc. None of it holds up to grease or heat like a good lacing job will.

  10. Tankenstein says:

    While I worked for Boeing Commercial Aircraft Group (1996-2001), the plant where I worked built most of the electrical cabling. It is part of the build specs to tie all the cables like this around certain components, and (at the time) all of one airline company’s bundles where all hand tied, no zip ties allowed. Our tying schemes were not as fancy as many of these, but still done wholly by hand.

  11. pinehead says:

    When I was about 11 or 12, a friend and I used to spend whatever little money we had on electronic tidbits, and we’d go down to my improvised basement workshop and build all kinds of things.

    We were broke most of the time and couldn’t really justify buying zip-ties. So we used to lace our wires and cables like this without ever knowing it was actually called anything. We just kinda thought we were jerry-rigging it in a clever way. That’s pretty cool to think we were lacing our loose wires the same way the pros did it.

  12. rx78nt1alex says:

    I am in the navy and i see this all the time on the instrumentation and control equipment stuff for the reactor plant electronics on my ship. it does keep everything neat and it is a shame when parts break and we have to cut them and use zipties in their place.

  13. Daniel says:

    Haha, I had to do this at school while learning all the basics about telephone wiring, soldering, and other stuff. It’s a cool technique, but I already forgot how it’s done. You just don’t need it anywhere. Kinda sad.

  14. Paulus says:

    Looking at the picture brings back the smell and feel of those cables. They felt warm and alive with natural textures. Modern stuff is good but it just doesn’t feel the same. Its art Jim but not as we know it.

  15. ML says:

    The fiddly art of lacing is still very much in use! I’m an avionics engineer for an airline. We use lacing cord on wiring looms around the engines where it gets a bit too toasty for tie wraps. The wax tastes funny when I hold the string in my mouth (you need at least 3 hands).
    Thank you for your time.

  16. flink says:

    I learned how to do this in the Navy many decades ago. When I began training, the school was still heavy on tube electronics and was barely touching on semiconductors.

    I later worked in module and chassis repair facilities where we would repair damaged circuit boards (component burned, cracked) and chassis assemblies that would otherwise be irreplaceable or were too expensive to simply discard. Knowing how to properly lace a wiring harness was an invaluable skill.

    I don’t think I’ve had occasion to practice it in probably 20 years, though. Primarily, because zip strips are so cheap now.

    I always found rebuilding wiring harnesses to be a very zen-like experience. Branching each wire and cable just so, to cause it to flow from the main trunk at the proper angle and direction, then lacing it with just the right turns and twists to give the hole mess a pleasing appearance. It didn’t make anything work better and is no more effective than zip strips, but it sure gave me a sense of accomplishment beyond the task’s true value. It is truly an art form.

    Now, considering the spaghetti tangle of cables behind my desk, I may seek out some lace and spend some quality time this weekend making art that no one but I will appreciate.

  17. freetard says:

    I’m with flink on the spiritual experience of properly dressing out an installation. Having spent a good decade and a half in the telecom industry back in my 20′s (does that even make sense?) I saw a lot of this method. I even got one of the old guys to show me how to do it, even though we were all using zipties by then. It was freakishly time-consuming, which from a unionised employee’s perspective, was great, but from management’s, not so much.

    Honestly, I have never seen a ziptie dressing that looked even remotely as nice as the laced ones.

  18. Dub says:

    One place I worked (now, sadly, no-more) had a bunch of ladies, many quite elderly, who did the cable lacing. Affectionately known as “The Loom Witches”, they were like the company’s Grandmothers; often bringing in Apple Pies for everyone. Ah! Better times.

  19. bhelverson says:

    Cable lacing was used in radio broadcast installations in the old days. When I updated the wiring, I had to cut the lacing apart before I could remove the old wiring. It was very time-consuming and gave me a lot of respect for this old art.

    As I recall, professionals used a cable lacing glove to avoid wearing out their hands.

  20. daev says:

    Definitely not lost. I work for ATT in whatever central office needs me to beat up stuff and all wiring, new and old, is laced this way. The guys who do the installation work are quite proud of their lacing skills, and they strive to make sure that the wiring looks as much like a work of art as they can. And for the most part, they succeed.

  21. nzruss says:

    When I joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1993 we were taught this method, and I used it on most of the aircraft I worked on. As a young tradesman my Sergeant made us use this method as it was tidier, lighter and less prone to sharp edges than zip-ties.

    I’m fairly certain the tradespeople on RNZAF aircraft still use this today.

  22. jheiss says:

    When I did some consulting work for AT&T Wireless about 10 years ago I noticed that all the cabling in their production data center was laced. It looked amazing. The data center guys were really proud of their work to keep it looking nice. I’ve been in a number of other big data centers and haven’t seen anyone else doing it. At best folks try to pretty things up with neat bundles and zip ties, but its not the same.

  23. kmoser says:

    A couple of years ago I had occasion to tour a US Air Force base that repaired high-performance jet engines. As part of the tour they showed us the insanely detailed method of affixing wire reinforcements to various bolts and other parts to keep them from coming loose due to vibrations.

    Basically, each bolt had to be turned an exact number of revolutions to tighten it: turn it 1/4 revolution too far and it could snap; fail to turn it enough and the vibrations from the engine would damage it. Then, twisted pair of wires were strung between holes drilled in the bolts. Each run of wire was specified to be a certain gauge, and had to be twisted an exact number of times: too few twists and it would loosen from vibration; too many twists and it could snap.

    Of course, all these specifications (bolt revolutions, wire gauge and number of twists per run between bolts) were laid out in minute detail in the repair manuals. Each bolt cost something ridiculous like $75 because they were custom made from titanium. The entire system was mind-boggling in complexity.

  24. Eli says:

    A sail is also often furled in the described manner.

  25. Michele Limon says:

    On satellites all the wiring is laced down. Zipties are a disaster: they break in cold or dry environments and they outgas in a vacuum.

  26. Jes says:

    It my be a little practiced art but it is not lost. I work in the wireless telecom industry and spent many an hour lacing in electrical and network wiring inside the those little brown shelters you see at the base of cell towers. Some markets will let you get by with plastic cable ties but many won’t. One carrier I do work for actually had a clause in their contract that cable ties are not to be used and cables are to be laced together.

    “zip” ties are faster but lacing looks nicer.

  27. Ernunnos says:

    I once did a little summer work cleaning up old houses, and the electrical wiring in the attics was incredible. In the early days of electricity, they’d lay the wire into rabbited grooves in the studs and beams, with ceramic insulators at bends and junctions. I love the old twist or two-button light switches too. Of course, it was all two-wire, no ground.

  28. stevew says:

    Another trade that still does pretty work like this, though not like days of old – marlinespike seamanship. Oh, and my doctor does some very fancy work with sutures lacing me back together :)

  29. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    I knew I shouldn’t have looked at this. I just finished the internal wiring for a new audio amplifier project. I used twist/braid for the AC wires but this would be so much cooler.
    Thanks, Gareth.

  30. slippy lane says:

    I’m sure some UK military hardware companies still use lacing – zip ties just won’t cut it in a missile nosecone travelling mach 2 or whatever. It was still being used at Marconi defense in the early nineties

  31. faz'll fixit says:

    I can’t imagine the mental torture when you’ve done all that and then the boss says “can we move that part to the other side” and you have to redo it all so you spend another hour doing an even better job. And then, of course she/he says “No, actually, you were right!”

  32. Purpinth says:

    That’s gorgeous work. Beeswax that’s used for beadwork and other craft would come in handy here, I would imagine…

  33. tryptophan says:

    That looks like a modified version of a running butcher’s knot, with two twists at each junction. The starting triple loop is great though.
    http://www.epicurious.com/video/technique-videos/technique-videos-meat/2745264001/meat-how-to-classictie-a-roast/1915433334

  34. hunterk says:

    The exact same technique used for cable tying is also used in classic French cooking to tie roasts. My wife had to learn this method when she attended a Cordon Bleu cooking academy.

    So, this art isn’t lost at all. It is regularly employed by technicians of a different sort.

  35. eguy777 says:

    um, HELLO, lacing is used
    EVERY day in the long-haul fiber/VOIP industry. (in other words, the BACKBONE of the internet.
    I just got done lacing some wiring this evening.

  36. Roy Trumbull says:

    This was something common to the 1950s and earlier. After that nothing stayed the same long enough to make it worth doing. When plastic ties were introduced it was found they would impair signals on coax by distorting the insulation between the shield and center conductor. A gun was developed to calibrate the tension of the tie.

  37. Anonymous says:

    I filed this post away in my head and recently put the lost art of cable lacing to use in Vietnamese new year’s rice cake bundling:

    http://www.rauom.com/blog/?p=576

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