Fancywork on the rails
and stanchions
For Questions or Comments
Last updated  2009-02-12
Click on any
picture to bring
up a larger
There was a time when you could go aboard a Naval vessel of just about ANY Navy and never see
a bare railing or stanchion.  They were all covered by coxcombing of one sort or another, whether
crosspoint or coachwhip work, turks heads or fancy round braids,  as a matter of course.  
If you DID see a bare rail,  either the rail had just been repaired or installed/replaced, or you  
were in the engineering spaces or inboard a submarine.

                                               Submarines did not (and still do not) cover their rails and stanchions
                                               with fancywork as it interfered with the rapid transfer of personnel
                                               between decks... submariners are known for their habit of tucking the
                                               rail into the armpit and sliding down to the next deck.  On a surface ship,
                                               this is agressively discouraged as the danger of being tossed to one
                                               side in a heavy sea and losing your grip is (on everything but an aircraft
                                               carrier) an ever-present danger.

Instead,  surface vessels usually had one or more of a variety of rope wrappings on their rails to provide a secure hand-hold
when transiting from one deck to another.   The complexity of these wraps  (or coxcombs) and the condition in which they were
maintained was a not-inconsiderable source of pride for the Deck Department and they were usually quite assiduous about
keeping them in top-notch condition.   

                                                                 The only place where you would commonly NOT find these rail-wrappings was in the  
engineering department's spaces.  A "Deck Ape" would die before he volunteered to enter the "Black Gang's" territories and no
self-respecting "Snipe" would even think of inviting an "Anchor-Clanker" down there... so the rails in Engineering were usually
polished for appearance.  
(In point of fact, most of the rails in the Engineering area would eventually be replaced by brass
tubing... acquired by that wonderful Navy form of barter called "
cumshaw")  I remember being sent aboard a crusier once with a
package for the Engineering Officer (hand-deliver) and seeing the rails in the engine room looking like burnished gold.

But:  our focus here is on the rails found aboard the
USS Zuni (AT95) which later became the USCGC Tamaroa (WMEC 166).  I got
involved with Zuni in October of 2006 when I got billeted aboard by the organizers of a knottying demonstration in Baltimore.   
Since then, I've contributed a few small items to her upkeep and preservation and was fortunate enough to be permitted to take
some pictures of the rails as they presently exist aboard her.  

As they presently exist, they're pretty sad.  A lot of her rail work is still in fairly good
shape, but it's very old and should have been replaced twenty years ago.  If she was
still a commissioned vessel, I've no doubt that they would have been, but the USCG retired her in 1994 after ten years of basically
letting her sit and die, so all the railwork is well past it's prime.  Some of the rails appear to have been done in the late Fifties or
mid-Sixties from the amout of paint on them.   Horizontal rails in particular have been the worst treated as the USCG stripped out
the equipment they wished to keep when she was decommissioned and rails were used as "sliding points", sometimes tearing
up the work.

Still, even in their present condition,they give a wonderful look at a vanishing skill and usage as most (
as I am informed by
others.. subject to correction, of course
) modern  Naval warships no longer have the work done, relying on  painted textured
surfaces to  provide a grip.   It may be more efficient a use of time and material, but it will never  equal the beauty of the older

In particular, note the two pics above left on the rail going up to the Bridge from the Radio level: these were done by an expert, fer
sure.  The workmanship is extraordinarily good and they've been painted so many times that when first I saw them, I mistook
them for "leathering" rather than ropework.  This particular set of rails MAY still have the original coxcombs from when she was
first commissioned in 1943 or very soon after...  They are quite old.  (
On the left is a "Spanish" or "Ringbolt" Coxcomb and the
"comb" has been flattened out from thousands of hands gripping them over the years
.  A half-moku to the right.)

Here's a perfect example of something we find again and again in older vessels:  
the original coxcomb was damaged somehow and the damaged part removed,
but there was no-one with sufficient skill aboard to repair the damage, or they
just didn't care about it and so substituted a bit of "French" coxcombing in a
different diameter  line to "fill in" the damaged area.   Call me a purist if you will,
but I'd have been horrified if I'd been a Bo'sun aboard her.   

Here we have some pics of
a stanchion down in the
after crew's berthing area.  
This was done as a
decorative item by the crew,
either while in- port or after

The upper stanchion is done
in a "French" coxcomb with
3/16 manila line and so is
probably from the Zuni's
"Navy" days. The lower
(brighter) wrap appears to
be of nylon line and is most
likely a repair since this
particular stanchion is
adjacent to the passageway leading back to the steering gear compartment in the orlop.  The whole has been varnished with
spar varnish which gives it that  golden yellow colour (as well as being slopped onto the lower part of the stanchion below that
inordinately large turkshead).  As you can see from the air duct at the top of the stanchion, the varnishers were more
enthusiastic than expert at their craft.   

The pictures here were taken with a little P.O.S. Kodak camera, so don't expect too much from them for clarity or depth!

Now that I've impressed you as a grouchy old fart, here's a nice story!

Zuni, when commissioned, had a lovely little wooden wheel for the helmsman to steer her by... it disappeared into the myriad of
re-models of the deckhouse which saw  (among other idiocies) the teak floor replaced by cement (think for a second what THAT
does to your rolling moment... adding three tons of cement to a point 28 feet above the waterline...
 interesting concept.  Hand me
the Dramamine, please?) and she ended up with a little brass wheel about 9" across on what looked like a half a telephone
booth.   Not too pretty.

Harry Jaeger (Senior Chief Engineman and the Operations Director
of the Foundation today) was talking to a gent who did some wood-
work and mentioned that Zuni needed a wheel.  The gent went back
to his workshop in the midwest and, using only a picture Harry
managed to find in an old magazine, constructed a wheel similar in
shape and diameter to the wheel on Zuni when commissioned, but he
also made it a work of art.  He used five different types of wood,  made
up a hub which fit the steering shaft from an old pedestal from another
"ATF" which had been scrapped, and generally did a bang-up job for Harry.   

When asked how much he wanted for the wheel, he replied quietly,
"I've already been paid."

Zuni/Tamaroa's Operations Director,                            USS Zuni (ATF 95) / USCGC Tamaroa (WMEC 166)
Harry Jaeger, ENCS, USNret.                                              "The US Coast Guard's Only Submarine"
"Instructing a visitor." (My "little" boy.)

                                        REMEMBER HER.  She became a fish-reef in 2015 and so
                                                      (as we like to think), is still "at sea".
Just to show my heart's in the right place and my money is where my mouth is,  go HERE to see a set of pictures proving that  
the USN still understands tradition!.

Seriously,  that page (when done) will show the new rail wrappings
(St. Mary's Coxcomb) on the "Quarterdeck" stairwells at the Joint
Strike Fighter (F35) Development Centre at a Naval Air Station on
the east coast of the US.   

The work is done in #45 (3/32") 4-strand left-laid cotton line obtained  
from and took FAR longer than it should have, as I had a
TON of Commissioned and Non-commissioned Officers  "dropping by"
to see the work in progress.  To be fair, most of these are "airdale"
types whose expertise does not encompass ropework of any sort,
but it was (and is) gratifying to  see the interest still alive in the souls
of modern sailors.