Terms of the Trade: Sailor’s Fid

A sailor’s fid, or marlinspike, was an essential item in a sailors’ everyday equipment, and was commonly used throughout the maritime era now known as the Age of Sail (circa 1550-1850). They came in a variety of sizes designed to suit all the requirements of a busy working vessel.

The versatile tapering conical implements had a wide range of uses on board ship. For ropework they were used for holding open knots and untangling rigging. In sail-making they were used for reeving (the process of threading rope through rings and apertures) and making grommets in canvas (essentially poking the holes through which sails were secured to a mast).

Fids were also used for separating individual strands of rope for the purpose of splicing.  Splicing is the process of joining two lengths of rope together by untwisting and then interweaving their respective strands. Tying a knot can reduce the strength of a rope by up to 40% whereas splicing helps rope maintain its full integrity, making the fid an invaluable asset to any able seaman.

Fids were usually made from wood, mostly lignum vitae, although examples in oak, teak, elm and even mahogany can also be found. Whalebone fids are also common, mostly fashioned by sailors working aboard the North Atlantic whaling ships.

Sailor's FidIt is said that whalebone fids were stronger and more durable than their wooden counterparts, with the added advantage that the tools’ raw materials were a by-product of the ship’s catch.

During long voyages at sea, sailors would often customise their fids with fine carved details to improve the grip or simply for aesthetic reasons. Rarer examples can also be decorated with a set of carved initials, demonstrating the owner’s pride in their handywork, or pierced with a hole at the top to allow the fid to be slung from a belt.

Over time, with regular use and care, many sailor’s fids have built up a rich, warm patina to their surface and have become popular with collectors as a lasting memento of a time when sail ruled the seas.

To view a collection of Fids currently available from BADA members, click here.