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ratlines,tarred or not?

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I always thought(&read) that ratlines were tarred black? Now I read that they were left in natural hemp!

 The reason being that in tropical seas the tar would melt & stick to Mariners feet. I can see both being feasible, but which one is correct, maybe both !?  Geoff

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Though I'm no expert, it would make sense that the ratlines would be left natural (though I've featured them as black on every model I've built save one), for the reasons noted above....this might be another area of heated debate between historical accuracy and modeller's preference.....


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I'm not sure that running rigging was always left natural. Would not be surprised to find out that a light coat of Stockholm Tar was applied and well worked in or tallow was worked into the fiber rope for lubrication and protection of the fibers making up the rope. Running around blocks, belaying pins, etc there is normal movement of the fibers against each other making up the rope. Even being tensioned and slacked will cause the fibers to rub together.


Edited by jud
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Interesting question.  I always thought shrouds and stays were tarred but running rigging and ratlines and anchor cables were natural. 


I'm not a purist and the only time I used black thread to simulate tarred shrouds I ended up regretting it because I think it makes the shrouds stand out too much and draw the eye away from other interesting detail.  On that one, for what it's worth I made the ratlines natural.

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I thought to look at some contemporary models for an answer, but I am more confused.  They all show natural ratlines, but the standing rigging is natural except on the Prince Frederick.


The top photo is a 60 of 1705, the second is a 36 of 1780, the third is the Portland 1693 and the last is the Prince Frederick 1714


Not also that the lanyards for the deadeyes are natural in each case as well.







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From the practical point of view the ratlines should be tarred. First I don't think somebody would keep them clear when tarring is going on a regular basis. At least where the knots are for sure they are tarred. Second as a standing rigging this will prolong their life at least twice. And the third I don't think somebody would care for the cleanliness of the sailors feet at that time. They never had a boots besides. The other think is that in tropical climate all the oils of the tar evaporates in two days and is not sticky at all.

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I have a history of doing maintenance work on historic sailing ships and I have painted on a fair amount of pine tar in my day. Landlubbers often think the tar we talk about when we talk about Tar is asphalt tar, a not too good smelling petroleum industry byproduct used in road maintenance on land. Easy to mistake it with Pine Tar if you don’t use your nose since the two products are shiny black and gloopy. But those of us who use Pine Tar on ships all agree it’s the most lovely smelling substance, perhaps in all the world. Some even say its an aphrodisiac.

But I digress.

Traditional pine tar is made by heating the roots of pine trees in the absence of oxygen, which produces charcoal and pine tar. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_tar  and this nice essay on tar is worth a look too: http://www.maritime.org/conf/conf-kaye-tar.htm


Nobody on modern tall ships paints tar on their ratlines, but neither do modern sailing vessels use natural fiber line as ratline stuff. Unlike natural fiber line, modern Dacron line is impervious to rot and requires no coatings. But natural fiber line can last longer in a marine environment if its painted or impregnated with tar.

Tar can and often should be cut with turpentine or linseed oil or both, this allows it to flow better and penetrate the fibers of a rope. Full strength unadulterated tar has the consistency of molasses and appears black and is very gloppy. Its not really pigmented and if painted onto a white nonporous surface it will appear to be a streaky dark brown film, it will not behave like black paint which has pigment particles suspended in it and will thus “cover” the same white surface the tar would only smear.

Also the paint will dry in a day while the tar remains very sticky for quite a long while, it remains sticky for weeks. Repeated applications of tar will eventually produce a thick black opaque coating and this is why shrouds and standing rigging is black, they have many coats of tar applied to them eventually leading to a hard shell of tar which keeps the water out and the Ultraviolet Radiation can’t penetrate. Despite modern man-made-fiber lines imperviousness to rot, it still can be harmed by U.V. radiation and this is why it is sometimes tarred but I have read that black paint is often used on modern ships in place of tar since it performs the same U.V. blocking function, LOOKS like tar and is also universally available while Pine Tar can be hard to come by in our modern age. But back in the old days Pine Tar was ubiquitous. Today small quantities are available at tack shops for the horse riding trade.

If you paint Pine Tar on canvas (which I tried once) it turns the fabric an olive drab color and makes it heavy and waterproof and this is where we get Tarpaulin. Paint it on manila line and it darkens it slightly but not so much that you would tell the difference right away between a painted and unpainted piece of line. Put four coats on manila and you will certainly see the color shift to a darker hue but nowhere near black, the line now fairly waterproof and very sticky.

Getting finally to the point, the long way, I am sure pine tar was painted on ratlines. Also I am sure pine tar was already in the rope when it arrived at the ship, having been applied at the ropewalk in a thinned solution or rubbed on with a rag to produce a coating that would penetrate the fibers and add to the lines longevity. But I don’t think it would have been applied in thick enough or repeated coatings sufficient to make the ratlines black. I imagine the bo’sun would have thin tar applied to the ratlines whenever they started to appear dry or took on a chalky chaffed appearance but I do not know that for a fact, I just surmise it from my own experience.

Edited by JerseyCity Frankie
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Here is a letter from Jean Boudriot  talking about this subject plus a translation from Google.



All ropes are tared except the royal ropes. They would soon rot without it. Resistance rope is weaker than ropes "whites" (untared). The only ropes untared; the furling of the steering wheel so that it retains all its force. In addition, the furling line is safe and tarring is not justified. The bragues cannon placed in the great room are not tarred for aesthetic reasons.
Formerly the ropes once committed by immersing them in a bath of hot tar.The tarred rope yarn before it is committed to faires ropes.


I think that this would suggest that tarred yarn was applied more as a hot dyeing substance.


Tar changed color  depending time and provenance. I did read  black, brown and brown-red.


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WOW that's some reply Frankie! One reason I asked  this question in the first place was because with a bit of luck& following wind the "Gentleman with the white beard" will bless me in a few months time with a Mary Rose kit! Have you seen the shrouds on that one? 20 + on each side! I followed Keith Juliers idea of using natural hemp stained black with Indian Ink on my "Supply". I may leave the ratlines natural on my Mary Rose if I am so blessed! Thanks a lot for your interest. Oh for a camera & a time machine!! Geoff

Edited by geoff
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One blasphemous question:


Was there perhaps more than a black and white world that we ship modelers usually dwell in ?


Does tarred automatically means pitch black? For the hemp often stockholm tar was used. Depending on how hot the destillation was done, it was from brown to black, if diluted by spirits it was even getting quite clear. And also if applied cold or hot made a difference upon the appearence. Also wide spread was the use of other tarred things, in AOTS Bellona the tarring of the hammock crane covers is mentioned and if I understood well, even rain coats could have been tarred.


And if one states that tar is not to be applied where things are held in a bare hand, here is a small feature for the baseball fans http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_tar see  Use of pine tar in baseball ...


... perhaps the tarred ratlines were much a lighter colour in appearance and perhaps the tar even helped too to have a good grip? And weren´t the tarred hands and feet even a feat for the press gangs to find sailors on the dry?


Because of these thoughts I decided to opt for darkish brown on my shrouds and a lighter brown for the ratlines as contrast to the untarred (?!?) running rigging :-)





Cheers, Daniel


PS: Written parallel with Frankie´s wonderful post!



By the way, already someone else wondered about black and white ...




Edited by dafi
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I thought to look at some contemporary models for an answer, but I am more confused.  They all show natural ratlines, but the standing rigging is natural except on the Prince Frederick.





I think this contemporary model may have natural standing rigging for very simple reasons. These 'dockyard' models were basically built to show the design of a ship, and the colour of the rigging was the least of their concerns. Everyone knew what tarred rigging looked like, so why go to the expense of reproducing it? The model maker may perhaps also not have had any black thread to hand, and would have had to go to the lengthy process of dying some. That again would have been uneccessary.


Today, I think we tend to look at these models from an aesthetic point of view, rather than the practical one which they did. Don't forget a war was probably in the offing, was being fought, or was perhaps just over before the next one, so they were somewhat differently motivated. They wanted to get the ship built as soon as possible!




It became the the seamen's 'problem' once the first lieutenant learnt of the tar on his spotless deck!




Hence the naval salute today is palm down, the other services palm facing outwards. The tar of course would have been on the seamen's hands, since you are taught to grasp the shrouds when climbing not the ratlines – they can part without warning.


For the record, from my own experience, I have never come across tarred ratlines.

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I haven't been able to find the source (it may have been Charles Davis?), but he discussed the rat lines as not tarred for the reasons listed by Kester and a couple of others.


1. Reduce amount of tar tracked on that nicely holy stoned deck

2. Keep the flexibility in the finer rope used for the ratline

3. Cost - there are a lot of them rats to tar for minimal gain in service life!


Realistically, they would pick up some of the darkening from the "wicking" action when shrouds were re-done, but probably not as dark as the shrouds.

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Just a short observation regarding black dying of textile fibres – this was a tricky business before the nineteenth century (and it’s the same with ink on paper). Many a contemporary rigging would no longer be here today if dyed black with ink, which was a very common method for making black threads.

In the state archive where I work we keep many charters from the last ten centuries where we see black (ink dyed) threads that hold the wax seals disappear because of their chemical properties (every inkmaker used his own recipe), while other colours (based on minerals) keep well. The acid in the ink “eats” threads (and paper), but, depending on luck and the various recipes, not every black thread is afflicted by this problem.

This might be one reason there are not so many models with contemporary black rigging lines today.



(Well, the oldest charters don’t have treads on the wax seals yet, and it’s ink on parchment, so they're keeping quite well).

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