Not for the Knotless – Untying Rigging Knots

Photo 1. The first step in untying a knot on a rigged piece is to introduce some
slack in the rigging line. All photos courtesy of the author.

A knot in your calf, garlic knots, climbing knots, rigging knots, getting married – aka, tying the knot – or the early ’90s saying, “Not!” I’ve watched countless videos, heard many speakers and been trained several times over on “how to tie,” “when to use” and “the best” knots. I even led a discussion at the last TCI EXPO entitled “Knots You Should Know.” However, while in the midst of a hiring frenzy and the ensuing on-the-job training that often accompanies this time of year in the tree care industry, I’m sure I’m not the only person who has cursed under their breath while watching a “newbie” try to untie a knot.

So, for this article, let’s take a look at the skill of untying the common knots we use. Or maybe even more important, how to teach or train your brand-new ground technician to untie the bowline, cow hitch or “who’da” knot you just sent down.

Let’s set up the scenario – you’re either working out of the basket of an aerial lift or climbing during a medium to large removal job. I work in the Northeast, so most “big” trees are 80 to 110 feet tall and can range in crown spread from 120 feet for a sprawling white oak to practically non-existent in a “woods-grown” white pine. When the tree requires rigging and lowering of brush and wood, we can easily tie 30 to 50 half-hitch/running-bowline combinations over the course of the day. This is then translated to our ground techs untying the same number of knots throughout the day.

Here are a few simple instructions to make this process easier and more efficient. If you’re thinking, “But Aaron, any competent groundie should figure this out in the first few pieces that come down!” you may be correct. However, most of our new hires haven’t the slightest clue about how a rope, rigging or lowering system work.

I’m going to assume a few things moving forward:

  • They’ve been trained in drop zones, i.e., when and when not to enter.
  • They’ve been shown how to properly load a Port-A-Wrap or other lowering device you’re using.
  • They are wearing all required PPE and a decent pair of gloves, preferably leather, for rope handling.

For the sake of the topic, let’s skip the rigging and lowering portion of this process and go straight to the moment a ground technician is holding a rigging line, which is through a Port-A-Wrap or other device, and the piece that is being lowered is suspended a few feet off the ground from a block or through a natural crotch.

It should be mentioned to the ground tech that as soon as that piece touches the ground, there is less force being applied to the rigging system. This should be accounted for by removing one or more wraps from the lowering device. We have all seen the ballet of a ground tech trying to tip over a brushy top or log while holding a rigging line that still has the maximum number of wraps on the friction device. (Photo 1)

So when the fight is over and the piece being lowered is on the ground, Step 1 should be introducing slack into the rigging system. Typically, this is achieved by completely unloading the friction device and pulling down on the working end of the rigging line. (Photo 2)

Photo 2. To get slack in the rigging line, unload the lowering device and pull down on the line’s working end.

After there is ample slack in the rigging system, Step 2 is to find the knot. It might be under the log that was just lowered, compacted flush to the ground in mud or hidden in a brushy, thorny mess. Regardless, this is usually best done by moving the piece. This could be as simple as getting help to roll a log over or grabbing an available piece of equipment to lift a piece off the ground to find the attachment point.

Make sure to avoid cutting the piece prior to locating the knot and all the rigging line, or you may cut or damage the rigging line. I cut my very own rope the week before writing this article while trying to free it from a felled poplar – first time in forever.

Care should be taken if you plan to use equipment to free a rigging line. For example, try not to pull the rope out from under a log on pavement; roll or lift the piece if possible. Steps 1 and 2 could be reversed if the situation allows.

Step 3 is to untie the knot. (Photos 3 and 4) Again, it can’t be overstated; this is not always as straightforward as it seems. The wrong gloves, “office hands” or not recognizing the parts of a knot will greatly slow down a rigging operation. Most knots used while rigging will not get super tight if properly aligned and in combination with a half hitch, although there are situations that require dropping some heavy pieces, and this will definitely get those knots much tighter. (Photo 5) I remember one situation when I had to descend out of a tree to help a ground tech untie a piece that was rigged – super frustrating!

Photo 3. One of the first keys to untying a knot is to recognize the
parts of the knot.
Photo 4: Break the top bend of the bowline, then pull the tail back
through the knot.

The running bowline is the easiest knot to use as an example, and one of the most widely used knots for rigging in arboriculture. When explaining this to a new hire or trainee, I start with, “Pull the bowline loop up and off the piece,” then, “break the top bend of the bowline,” and finally, “pull the tail back through the knot.”

Don’t forget, we would need to pull the rigging line back around the piece at least once, possibly twice, if there was a half hitch installed before the bowline. Not an easy task with large pieces.

Good work! I’m sure this wasn’t the most exciting or groundbreaking article you’ve ever read, but hopefully you can take a nugget or two into the field with your crew to avoid those tense first few outings with a new hire tasked with rigging. The next time you’re looking down, mumbling, “Just untie it!” remember it was you who may have forgotten to explain all the nuances involved with untying those knots.

Aaron Feather, CTSP, is safety director with Cumberland Valley Tree Service Landscaping, Inc., an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company based in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Cumberland staff featured in the photos include Cliff Peach, Cooley Matthews, Kyle Schnitzer and Brad May.

This article was based on Feather’s presentation, “Knots You Should Know,” at TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana. To listen to an audio recording of that presentation, go to and, under the Resources tab, click audios. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.

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