Tim Spurling

how to avoid re-coiling in horror

This week I would like to write about a simple trick that is unfortunately not at all well-known, despite its incredible usefulness in a massive variety of situations. Since someone taught it to me, my life has constantly been slightly better.

The trick is knowing how to coil cables properly.

the problem

For the sake of illustration, I’ve used a flat cable for this section, but the same applies to anything that might be coiled. Most cables contain multiple cores that might be twisted together, surrounded by a shield, etc. etc., but every cable-shaped thing behaves the same when turned.

First, consider a nicely-wound reel, which you pull cable off by turning the whole thing:
Turning the coil works perfectly

This is great—but when managing cables by hand it’s very difficult and slow to unreel them properly. Typically, you want to just quickly pull a fair length out, without the bother of gradually letting it out by turning the whole coil.

Unfortunately, the result looks like this:
A tangled twisted mess
…a tangled, twisted mess.

The problem is that to avoid unreeling each turn properly is to cheat physics—it literally can’t be done. A loop, pulled out, becomes a twist:
A loop becomes a twist
…and many loops, pulled out, become a nightmare.

The absolute worst example of this effect can be seen in reverse—when coiling up a long cable between hand and elbow, constantly thrashing it into loops in the same direction. This is unfortunately quite a common method that everyone uses before learning this trick, because it’s the quickest way to make loops—but the uncoiled length becomes more and more twisted on the floor the whole time, rapidly getting damaged in the process.

the solution

The solution is not to cheat physics but instead to change the goal—to store the cable in neat loops, without turning it.

The key piece of lateral thinking: two opposing turns are the same as no turns at all.

one method

My favourite method is the following one-handed ‘collecting’ one, as demonstrated here by my lovely assistant Rita:

step 1

A lovely straight cable

Start with a nice straight cable. This is easiest if the cable in question hasn’t been coiled badly before—although even if it hasn’t, the odd little kink might form.

(In serious emergencies, trying to stretch out the whole thing and untwist it from one end first is the best bet, but for little tangles, gently stretching the cable inbetween loops (the later steps) by pulling out along the outer insulation normally works pretty well.)

step 2

Clockwise twisting Finished clockwise loop

Holding one end of the cable, form a loop in the incoming length by twisting the cable’s outer insulation with your free hand and allowing it to naturally fall into a circle of the right size.

Take the loop and hold it securely with the end you started with.

step 3

Twisting the other way Finished pair of loops

Form an opposite loop—twist the other way! This time, the loop ends up on the other side of the incoming cable length. The two loops are a pair, and because they are opposite, they’re equivalent to no loops, and can be pulled back out without twisting up.

step 4

More coiling

Continue! Keep going, stacking extra pairs of loops on the same side of the existing loops; that way, they can be pulled out easily from one side when the time comes to use the cable again—and any unused length can stay coiled!

step 5

The end result

When you’ve finished, even out the loops by shuffling them a bit, and secure the circle of coils with one or two ties or bits of LX tape.

the satisfying end result

To uncoil the cable, just find the ends, and:
Two opposing coils fall out neatly
…all the pairs fall out perfectly.

This easy uncoiling (and relative lack of cable damage) is well worth the slightly longer time it takes to make opposing loops. The time also substantially decreases with practice!

Obviously, some people prefer other methods to this single-handed loop-twisting one; for example turning the whole set of coils onto the incoming length. Any number of experiments are possible. But as long as loops are formed in opposing pairs, life is fantastic.

Any similar fun tips, let us know. Cheers!

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