Forgotten Survival Tools #1 – The Marlinspike

by Wyzyrd

Hopefully, Number 1 in a series of “unusual” tools that can make life, both pre-and-post TEOTWAWKI just a little easier.

I do a lot of “nautical-themed” decorative and useful rope and cord-work for an online business, so perhaps I have a skewed perspective on some very useful tools. Unless you are an avid yachtsman (I’m not) or a history/piracy/ropework-geek (I am), you may have never even heard of a “Marlinspike”.

The quick definition is “It’s that thing that looks like a fat knitting needle on the other end of a sailor’s rigging knife, that you could never figure out a good use for, if not in a street-fight.”  (It IS good for that, BTW.. a pro yacht-rigger-friend described his everyday working-tool thusly:  “in a bar fight, it’s what happens when a straight razor and an icepick have a love-child”)

The longer explanation is “It’s a tool mariners/riggers/ropeworkers use to pry  apart strands of a rope for splicing, or to pry open seized-up knots without damaging the strands of the rope.”  In the “Age of Sail”, every sailor had one attached to his belt, or at least in his sea-bag.

A scenario to explain why you might want one:

You’re bugging out through “zombie” territory. You find an old rope-swing over a swimming hole. That 12-15 feet of still-good hemp rope might well come in handy on your journey, but it was tied by a kid who wasn’t a Scout, and the knots on both ends are seized tight from a year of use… If you’re running for your life, cut it, and  move along, while it unravels and gets even shorter. If not, take out your trusty marlinspike, pry open the knots and salvage an extra couple feet of rope. Even an extra 6 inches might save your bacon someday. Never cut a piece of cordage unless you absolutely need to.  You might need it someday.

By far, the best marlinspike I ever used was made by the French “Wichard” company – a stainless steel ergonomic masterpiece, listed at marine supply places as a “Shackle Key/Marlinspike” (it even has a bottle-opener),  but at $40+ a pop now, I never replaced the one that suspiciously-disappeared with my ex-GF. So it goes. I still miss it.

My current favorite is a cast-aluminum “Shrimp Deveiner” from a local hardware store. Spend about 2 minutes slightly-rounding and re-polishing the point with a metal file and some fine-grit emery cloth, and you have a superior rope-working tool for about 3 bucks.  A cord wrapping on the hilt (I soaked mine in polyurethane varnish) just makes for a better grip in wet conditions. A sheath makes it more convenient, and serves as a place for more “extra” cordage to be stored.

Commercially-available “Rigger’s Knives” are also a good, inexpensive alternative. Any boating-supply place probably has inexpensive stainless versions available, and surplus Italian Navy (carbon steel) knives are readily-available for about $14 online (wait for a sale if you can – I got mine 3 for $20 at sportmans guide..just sayin’ ..) Using a file and emery cloth on the tip is a good idea here too. Sharp tips cut/break the strand fibers, not separate them. That weakens the rope and will ALWAYS result in an eventual “oooppps” (usually a much more serious cussword and can easily be life-threatening, depending on how you are using that particular rope).


(A note on how to use a rigging knife to cut twisted/laid rope: Put good tight whippings on where you want the “ends” to be. Make sure the blade is sharp. Put your rope on something solid made of wood or plastic, NOT metal or rock. Put the blade about 1/8″ out from the whipping, and ‘baton’ it through with a heavy wood stick/mallet. You will get a laser-clean end cut that won’t fray. If you use a metal hammer, you will end up with a broken blade 97x out of 100. The “sharktooth/WTH?” blade on the Italian Navy version is for “zipping” through canvas sailcloth, the same way the lady at the fabric store uses partially-closed scissors to cut cloth with one stroke. (I had to ask, too….might also be a good game-skinning tool, I don’t know..)

Someday, you may need to salvage your dead neighbor’s “Gordian Knot” clothesline or realize that an eye-splice on the end of a fishing boat’s mooring line would be a good thing or just untie a knot your kid tied, instead of cutting it. A $3 tool, and a half-day’s practice can save your life, or, at least make it easier. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend the (OLD – 1960’s vintage ) book “The Marlinspike Sailor”  by Hervey Garrett Smith (ISBN 0070592187). It taught me an awful lot (and made me a decent amount of extra cash over the years). Anything written by this author contains a wealth of information about time-tested ways to use and re-use cordage to its best advantage, even when not on a boat.

Remember that after SHTF, you can make twisted rope/cord out of many plants, and if you have a couple old wire coat-hangers, a drop-spindle and a few sticks, you can do it larger-scale, when needed. ( a super-simple rope-making machine will be a future post, I hope ).

All that hi-tech climbing rope, paracord, synthetics, etc. will definitely be VERY, VERY  valuable prep-or-trade items, but you may want to learn about “the old stuff/ways”, too. Think about stocking up on some old-fashioned manila hemp rope, too, and learning to use it, maybe even make it. You can never know too much, or have too many skills “in your back pocket”.

We’re all in this together..(to quote “Red Green”). Keep learning. Keep prepping.

Keep your head down and your eyes wide open.

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2 thoughts on “Forgotten Survival Tools #1 – The Marlinspike”

  1. Wyzyrd, good post. I learned to splice and use a ‘spike from a Bosun’s mate in the Navy. Still have mine and use it. I have to plug “The Backwoodsman” magazine for a very well written design for how to make cordage and rope. Their “Best of …” is the best $50 worth of books I’ve spent on old time how-to stuff.

  2. just a ‘weekend’ update – if you forget the oyster knife for a cookout, that ‘sharktooth’ blade isn’t half-bad for shucking them, it you are careful 🙂


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