2810: How to Coil a Cable

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How to Coil a Cable
The ideal mix for maximum competitive cable-coiling energy is one A/V tech, one rock climber, one sailor, and one topologist.
Title text: The ideal mix for maximum competitive cable-coiling energy is one A/V tech, one rock climber, one sailor, and one topologist.


When long cables or ropes are stored, it's recommended that they be wrapped into neat coils. Not only does this look less messy, but it reduces the danger that cables become entangled with themselves and with other cables nearby. However, simply wrapping the whole thing in the same direction introduces twists into the body of the cable. Over time, these twists can permanently deform and even damage the cable.

In this strip, Cueball demonstrates his method for dealing with such problematic cables: he loudly announces the problem, blaming the cable itself. Well-meaning people then immediately descend upon him, eager to share their obscure knowledge of cable-coiling technique that they claim will avoid these issues (a bit like in 208: Regular Expressions). As they explain their techniques for properly coiling cables, they demonstrate on the cable in question, resulting in it becoming neatly coiled. The implication is that Cueball didn't actually learn the techniques involved, but is confident that, in the future, he can simply employ the same technique to get others to do it for him. It's also implied that loudly (and wrongly) blaming the cable is the most effective way to get help, analogous to Cunningham's Law, which states that "the best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer". This technique will cause some people to compulsively correct it, particularly those who are serious about the subject in question.

The title text specifies four groups of people who are likely to have knowledge about coiling cables, and to be serious about the 'right' way to do it.

  • A/V (audio visual) technicians constantly work with multiple types of electrical and data cables, and have to store and sort them without tangling or twisting.
  • Rock climbers constantly work with ropes, and their lives and safety may depend on keeping those in good condition and using them properly.
  • Sailors traditionally worked on sailing ships, which operated using systems of rigging (often quite complex systems) and sailors were expected to be intimately familiar with handling knots and ropes. Even on more modern vessels, mooring ropes (at a minimum) are still likely to be, in turn, deployed and then stored away upon a working vessel at either end of a visit to a port or harbor.
  • Topologists are mathematicians who specialize in study of spatial relations in changing shapes, and topology is sometimes referred to (somewhat facetiously) as the science of knots. The joke here is that a topologist could likely give an expert analysis in the theory of coiling and storing ropes, but may lack practical experience for doing so in real life.

The methods mentioned in step 3 are all references to actual terms and methods involved with storing rope or cable.

  • The "Over-under Method" is a way of coiling cable by hand, where every other loop is twisted in the opposite direction to the first. Doing this properly prevents twists, because each coil reverses the twist introduced by the previous coil.
  • Figure-8, or "butterfly coil", is a method where a rope or cable is wound from a center point, making a circle in one direction, then another in the opposite direction (forming an '8' shape), then repeating until the whole thing is coiled. This prevents twists by turning the rope in both directions an equal number of times.
  • "Quarter-turn" is similar to the over-under method, but rather than reversing the direction of the coils, you give the rope a quarter-twist each time you add a loop, to counter the twist introduced.
  • "Flaking" involves laying the rope out loosely on a surface. This allows you to unwind any twists or tangles, as well as checking it for kinks or damage. This would often be a first step in preparing the cable.

The joke is that all of the various people involved will have their own preferred technique, and all will rush to prove their superiority of doing things their way. The net effect of this competition is that Cueball's cable ends up neatly coiled, with little effort on his part, which is exactly what he wanted.


How to Coil a Cable Properly
[A drawing of a tangled cable appears below the title.]
Step 1
[Cueball is standing holding a tangled mess of cable in both hands. Each end of the cable is dragging on the ground.]
Cueball: I need to buy a different brand of cable! This one always twists into spirals and gets tangled.
Step 2
[Ponytail enters the panel from the left, and White Hat enters from the right, to come to Cueball’s rescue.]
White Hat: No! That's because of how you're coiling it!
Step 3
[White Hat holds and coils the cable while he, Hairy, and Ponytail attempt to explain the method behind the cable coiling. Ponytail, White Hat, and Hairy all have the same speech balloon, with many of the words replaced by scribbles to indicate that they are talking over each other and/or that Cueball can only make out a few phrases. Only the following dialogue in the word balloon is legible.]
Ponytail / White Hat / Hairy: ...over-under method... ...figure-8... ...quarter-turn... ...flaking...
Step 4
[White Hat presents the well-coiled cable. A caption with an arrow points to the cable:]
Neatly coiled!

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I don't actually know what name of 'coiling' it has, but the way I was taught to coil an AV cable (by an AV technician), and these days mostly use with long (garden-mower) power extensions, was maybe the 'quarter-turn' - though it's not a quarter, so maybe not - in finger-rotating the latest "end of loop" around the axis of the cable to leave it effectively twistless in its looped form (whilst introducing a 'one twist per loop-so-far' longitudinal twist in the still trailing unlooped cable that easily 'rolls-out' as you progress towards the free end/drag the length towards you). Done right, it's like smoothly 'drum-winding' the cable. But you can over-/under-twist the cable (especially if it has an internal/inherent twisting, like those christmas lights probably have with probably two entwined single-cores) so you may need to keep an eye on the multiloop you're forming and backtrack a bit if it looks like it's starting to figure-of-eight from the combined helical forces. But tricky to get perfect, may have a bit of a loop-twist (that only stays untangled due to it being ultimately hung on a hook). Maybe I've just not been taught the right methods by a powercord expert. 19:39, 2 August 2023 (UTC)

That first method is pretty much how I was taught by a guy with rather expensive microphone cables. It really does help the cable to last longer, since it's not stored with a twist. As a bonus, coiling a rope or extension cord this way also lets you throw it without it tangling in midair. Just make sure to hold onto/step on the non-thrown end... 20:12, 2 August 2023 (UTC)
I don't think they're meant to be Christmas lights. The lumpy bits that look a bit like lights are, I think, meant to be knots in the cable. 15:45, 3 August 2023 (UTC)

Another profession that deals with hose/cable managment is nursing (e.g. in operating room). Don't know if they have any techniques distinct from those in the mentioned professions. 21:50, 2 August 2023 (UTC)

Still wondering how topology factors into this... as of this comment, there's no explanation. - 22:38, 2 August 2023 (UTC)

Probably referencing Knot Theory. 23:17, 2 August 2023 (UTC)
I think the relevant mathematical concepts are curvature and torsion, which belong to differential geometry, not topology. 19:28, 8 August 2023 (UTC)

As a sailor once explained to me, the AV method (over/under) can potentially form a clove hitch around one's ankle while on deck, hence their use of figure-8. Meanwhile, there's another technique espoused by the likes of 'Essential Craftsman' where you basically use a chain stitch to hold it all together. Nayhem (talk) 00:35, 3 August 2023 (UTC)

I have a flat extension cord that was stored for some years using the "chain stitch" method. I ended up hanging the center of the cord from my garage ceiling for a week to get the worst of the kinks out, then wound it around a 5-gallon bucket to try to flatten it out some more. For the sake of your cables, DON'T use the chain stitch method!

This sentence makes absolutely no sense to me:

... alternating each obvious helix loop with a backhand loop (backwards helix turn) where the loop curls the same way as the other loops, but its 'helix height' is backwards ...

I think I need an "Explain Explain xkcd"... 😕 IMSoP (talk) 10:03, 3 August 2023 (UTC)

The idea of enlisting the help of an "expert" reminds me of how my father would always have the best charcoal barbecue at the picnic site. He would bring the charcoal and lighter to the picnic area and then walk around to see what everyone else's barbecue looked like. When he identified the best burning site, he would would walk over to the barbecue master and say to that person something like, "Excuse me, I really admire how your fire is burning, my kids are over there and I'm a little embarrassed that I don't really know how to do this. Could you show me how you got such a great fire?" The expert was always willing to build the fire for him. That's how, time after time, we always had a great burning barbecue. -- [[User:{{{1}}}|{{{1}}}]] ([[User talk:{{{1}}}|talk]]) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

My reading of the comic was different to what's currently in the explanation. I read it as Cueball has just uncoiled the cable ready for use, and is annoyed at all the kinks and tangles that have resulted from it having been coiled up. The others are then so keen to demonstrate how to do it better, that they end up coiling it all back up again, which doesn't actually help him in the slightest. Which seems funnier to me. 15:34, 3 August 2023 (UTC)

My reading of the comic is also different... With (or in spite of) all this dubious help, he just bought a shiny new cable in step 4! Mathmannix (talk) 11:22, 4 August 2023 (UTC)

There is some controversy over "flake" vs "fake", see https://tradewindssailing.com/wordpress/?p=1343 for example. I learned "fake," the comic uses "flake." IDK.

Methods explained[edit]

The over-over(quarter turn twist)

The over-under https://youtu.be/JtOGJZ_gYy8 https://youtu.be/cpuutP6Df84

Chain technique https://youtu.be/L7av0C0jWQw

See also https://people.maths.bris.ac.uk/~majge/hjce.06.pdf "Knotting probability of a shaken ball-chain" 10:08, 3 August 2023 (UTC)

White Hat presents the well-coiled cable[edit]

“Neatly coiled!” doesn’t look like a speech bubble, but more like an annotation bubble—it uses an arrow instead of a simple line. Thus it is not a “White Hat presents”, but the final step in this tutorial.-- 08:40, 4 August 2023 (UTC)

White Hat is still presenting it, even if he's not saying anything while doing so. And the transcript doesn't present it as speech by White Hat. 11:10, 4 August 2023 (UTC)

Missed the joke[edit]

I feel like people missed the joke on this, which is the proper way to coil a cable is to say you need to buy a new cable due to kinks, and you will have multiple people tell you how you are coiling your cable wrong, while coiling it for you. Thus cable coiled.

As an A/V technician, often in 'amateur'/volunteer environments, this seems to be somewhat of a rite of passage. Commonly, either 1) a new teammember will wrap a cable in such a way I would find improper to leave like that for the next person to find, or 2) a visitor is willing to help teardown. Either case results in 'the conversation' where the technician gives some instruction and guidance. Aronb (talk) 20:26, 9 August 2023 (UTC)