Knots/Properties of knots
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Knots invariably weaken the rope they are made in. When knotted rope is strained to its breaking point, it almost always fails in or near the knot, unless it is defective or damaged elsewhere. The bending, crushing, and chafing forces that hold a knot in place also unevenly stress the rope fibers and ultimately lead to the reduction of strength. The exact mechanisms that cause the weakening and failure are complex and are the subject of continued study.
The relative knot strength, also called knot efficiency, is the breaking strength of a knotted rope as a proportion of the breaking strength of the rope without the knot. There are many difficulties in determining an overall numeric knot efficiency for a given knot. This is due to the many factors that can affect the results of a knot efficiency test: the type of fiber, the style of rope, the size of rope, whether it is wet or dry, how the knot is dressed before loading, how rapidly the knot is loaded, whether the knot is repeatedly loaded, and so on. With those limitations noted, most common knots have an efficiency between 40% and 80%.
While some rope splices can retain nearly the full strength of the rope when forming loops and bends, conventional knots are much more practical in most situations. Thus the prudent knot user will always allow for a large safety margin in the strength of rope chosen for a task due to the weakening effects of knots, ageing, damage, shock loading, etc. In general, the safe working load is often specified as between 10% and 20% of the rated breaking strength of the rope being used. For safety of life applications many other factors come into play which are beyond the current scope of this article. Experienced practitioners should always be consulted before using ropes and knots when safety of life, limb, or property is involved.
Even if the rope does not break, a knot may still fail to hold. A knot which holds firm under a variety of adverse conditions is said to be more secure than one that does not. The main ways knots fail to hold are:
The tension from the load causes the rope to work back through the knot in the direction of the load. If this continues far enough, the working end will pass into the knot and the knot unravels and fails. This behavior can be worsened when the knot is repeatedly strained and let slack, dragged over rough terrain, or repeatedly impacted such as against a mast or flagpole.
Even with secure knots, some slippage may occur as the knot is first put under real tension. This can be dealt with by leaving plenty of rope at the working end outside of the knot and by dressing the knot cleanly and tightening it as fully as possible before loading. In some cases the use of a stopper knot or, even better, a backup knot can prevent the working end from passing through the knot, but it is generally better to use a more secure knot if one is observed to slip. In life critical uses backup knots are often added to already secure knots in order to maximize safety.
Capsizing (or spilling) a knot is changing its form, rearranging its parts, usually by pulling on specific ends in specific ways. Some knots when used in an inappropriate way tend to capsize easily or even spontaneously. Often the capsized form of the knot offers little resistance to slipping or unraveling. For an excellent example of a knot that capsizes dangerously, see the discussion of the reef knot used as a bend.
Sometimes a knot is intentionally capsized as a method of tying another knot, such as the "lightning method" of tying a Bowline. Some knots, such as the Carrick Bend, are generally tied in one form and then capsized to attain a stronger or more stable form.
In knots that are meant to grip another object, failure can be defined as the knot moving relative to the object being gripped. While the knot itself does not fail, it ceases to perform the desired function. For example a simple Rolling Hitch tied around a railing and pulled parallel to the railing might hold to a certain tension and then start sliding. Sometimes this can be corrected by working-up the knot tighter before subjecting it to load but usually a knot with more wraps, or a different size or type of rope will need to be used.