Excuse Me, Your Tie Is Unzipped

If you ask your typical handyperson what’s the one thing you need to fix most things, the answer might very well be duct tape. But second place — and first place in some circles — would have to be zip ties. These little wonders are everywhere if you look for them. But they are a relatively recent invention and haven’t always had the form they have today.

The original zip tie wasn’t called a zip tie or even a cable tie. In 1958 they were called Ty-Raps and produced by a company called Thomas and Betts. Originally meant to improve aircraft wiring harnesses, they found their way into various electronic equipment and packaging uses. But they’ve also become helpful in very unusual places too. A policeman trying to round up rioters would have problems carrying more than a few conventional handcuffs. But flexible cuffs based on zip ties are lightweight and easy to carry. Colon surgeons sometimes use a modified form of zip tie during procedures.


Maurus Logan worked for the Thomas and Betts company. In 1956, he was touring an aircraft manufacturing plant. Observing a wiring harness being put together on a nail board, similar to how car harnesses are made, he noted that the cables were bundled with waxed twine or nylon cord. A technician had to tie knots in the cord, sometimes cutting their fingers and often developing calluses. In addition, the twine was prone to fungal growth, requiring special treatment.

Logan kept turning the problem over in his mind and tried various approaches. By 1958, he had a patent for the Ty-Rap. The tie was lightweight, easy to install, easy to remove, and inexpensive.

The Design

Patent drawing from 1958

The original design didn’t exactly look like today’s zip tie, but it wasn’t far off. The patent called for a “flexible plastic” strap. Like today’s version, the strap had a set of ratchet-like teeth. However, the original Ty-Rap used a metal tooth to engage the ratchet — the pawl. This style of cable tie is still available but not as common as ones made entirely of nylon or some other plastic.

Usually, once you’ve engaged the zip tie, the only way to get rid of it is to cut it off, destroying it in the process. However, some ties have a small tab that lets you slip the pawl and release the zip tie so it can be removed and reused.


There are many variations of zip ties. Most are now made of nylon and often have some UV-resistant additive. You can get many different colors that are handy for color coding. Some also have heat-stabilizing additives to the nylon. Other additives allow metal detectors to sense the ties. There are other material options, including polypropylene, LDPE, and even stainless steel, which may be coated with another material. Size varies from tiny to around five feet long. We aren’t sure what anyone needs with a five-foot zip tie, but they do exist.

Some zip ties have mounting holes. Others have integrated tags to write on. Some use a bead-like design instead of a ratchet. Others use a slotted strap, called a ladder tie, to prevent slipping and facilitate release.

Very exotic zip ties have two “heads,” so you can put the strap through one hole to bundle one set of wires and then reverse it through the second hole to bundle another set of wires. You can get an idea of what’s available from companies like Panduit, Avery Dennison, or Essentra, among others.

Is there a difference between cheap zip ties and expensive ones? Watch the video below from [Donut Media] to find out what they think. Be sure to watch both tests before you decide. The cost, by the way, isn’t arbitrary. The expensive tie, in this case, is made from ECTFE fluoropolymer known as Tefzel, which has good chemical, radiation, and thermal resistance.

If you have a 3D printer, you could try printing your own. Nylon would be great as that’s what most of the commercial ones use, but apparently, they work with other materials, too.


A Harbor Freight zip tie gun

Most of us cinch a zip tie by hand and use cutters to remove them. If you are really trying to get tight, pliers might help. However, you can buy guns that tighten the zip tie for you, which might be useful if you have to do thousands of them a day. Expensive versions use power and can even put a specific amount of tension on the zip tie. Simple ones are just jigs that push the head down the strap when you pull the trigger. You can see a simple, inexpensive gun in the video below. There are quite a few more expensive options from different suppliers. Another advantage to a good gun is that it cuts the excess off completely flush. If you cut by hand, be careful not to leave a sharp stub hanging out that might cut you or cut into something else.

If you are a bicycle enthusiast and you have a brake cable puller tool, those work, too. However, with that tool, you still need to cut the tie manually. We’ve seen people recommend twisting the end off with pliers or another zip tie, which leaves a soft point, but it also stresses whatever is in side the zip tie, so we don’t suggest it.

What Can’t They Do?

Zip ties are supposed to replace cable lacing, but they have many other uses, as well. The Internet is replete with “life hacks” for zip ties. They make good zipper pulls, for example. Some of them are a little silly or common sense, like many of the ones in the video below.

Case modders like [Daniele Tartaglia] always have great tricks for cable bundling and labeling. Check out the video below for some of those tips.

Less practically, you can do some strange things with zip ties, like make a lampshade or a fidget toy:

What’s your favorite zip tie hack? Let us know in the comments what you use them for or how you use them better. Or, if you prefer, what you use instead.

102 thoughts on “Excuse Me, Your Tie Is Unzipped

    1. And in many industries to attach wiring, sensors, and so on, to large diameter pipe. Very handy for things like GRE (glass reinforced epoxy), where you may not be permitted adhesives. Also nice for temporary attachment of sensors.

      The largest I have used legitimately was on a 1.2m diameter pipe to attach an ultrasonic sensor. No adhesives were available that were compatible with the pipe material and environment, so zip ties it was. A bit awkward and messy with the gel couplant agent but did the service. IIRC, it was monitoring for solids in the fluid. Ties came as a bag of heads and a roll (30m?) of strap. Cut to length

      I’ve used longer ties for an assortment of less legit applications, like the big loop around the bottom stringer of a roof truss for a coat hanger to hook to, and to temporarily hang wires when pulling long sections (think 100’s of meters to maybe a km) in less than clean areas like bunker tanks.

  1. Zip ties have their place, but I that’s rarely where things will be serviced or expanded. Cable lacing is relatively simple once you master the basics, and is much more versatile and sensible when it comes to cabling bundles that may need servicing at any point, especially blind. I’ve flayed myself to the bone before on improperly cut zip ties in NOCs/datacenters and even CPE. The extra time spent cable lacing is offset by the time not spent cleaning pools of blood up after closing your wounds with cyanoacrylate long enough to finish the job.

    1. I’m a telecom professional in Canada. Tbh we try to move away from lacing as much as possible. Some specs still call for it on power distribution racks. But ultimately tyraps or double sided hook and loop are the standard these days.

      That being said, tyraps cut with anything other than flush cutters should be a finable offense haha.

      1. +1 on cutting the excess with a flush cutter. I helped convert a mechanical C.O. to electronic in the 70’s. There was a special tool to make a flush cut, so there would be no left over sharp edge. The inspector would fail the job if he found just one.Western Electric did quality work back then. I still use a razor blade rather than a side cutter.

        1. Razor works best imo. Sadly just like with using a knife to strip coaxial cable, there are so many green guys that end up cutting themselves open that we are kinda compelled to encourage them to use specialty tools for those tasks; just to keep injury, downtime and other costs down.

    2. Lacing is even more of a pain to re-enter than cable ties (snip tie, rework, install new tie). The key with zip-ties is that whenever you install a zip-tie without a tensioning gun, you have failed to install a zip-tie. No sharp edges, no crushed cables, and cranking a tie gun is faster than even the speediest cable-lacer.

      1. Meanwhile an over-tensioned zip tie can destroy the cable as well. So it is worth while keeping an eye on the setting, since different applications will need different zip ties and different tension for a proper fit.

        But yes. A zip tie tensioning tool is quite fast.

        However, I have also seen people damage cables when cutting the zip tie. So partly I lean towards using something else when one knows that it is going to be removed sooner rather than later.

        Also, side cutters are quite a simple way to fix people’s left over knifes. And even a zip tie tensioning tool will leave a sharp edge if tilted during application.

          1. Or just use the hook and loop fastener as is. It works fine for most instances, especially if one needs to rearrange things over time.

            Cable ties are the cheap quick and frankly somewhat “permanent” way of attaching cables to something else.

            And adding a zip tie on top of a hood and loop is just dumb… Like it won’t help with anything other than be an annoyance to the next person down the line. Since it doesn’t provide noticeably more grip to prevent slippage, nor doesn’t make it easier to service. (To be fair, at this point one can just wrap it down with “electrical” tape. Looks about equally profesional.)

          2. Blech, PVC tape can get in the bin. Self-amalgamating tape has all the insulating properties, as good or better waterproofing, doesn’t degrade as rapidly or as messily, and doesn’t leave horrible sticky residue over anything in a 2m radius if you look at it funny.

          3. The problem is not so much cutting the cable(s) with a ziptie but to compress the insulation and changing the impedance. I’m always telling my students to tighten the zipties by hand when using coax cables.

        1. In a former life, part of a solution we sold to our customers included fiber optic cables to connect two units together. These units converted a parallel interface bus with control signals into a high-speed optical serial stream. One customer was using them on flight simulators, and the remote device was on the moving platform. They cable tied the fiber cable to the rest of the bundle, despite our printed warnings in several places never to do this. They returned two 150-foot cables for warranty repair because they didn’t work. I knew they used cable ties because the outer jacket of the cable had very deep indentations the width of a typical 75-pound cable tie. I told them that the fibers that were broken every 10cm from over-torquing the cable ties weren’t going to conduct light to the next segment. And I rejected their claim. Cost them somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 in mid-1990s dollars to buy new ones.

      2. I love doing running stitches but I mostly work with fiber and zip ties in COs are bad joojoo because you can pull them too tight and macrobend the fiber. Plus it’s cool to take the 19yo techs in there and see the look on their eyes when the old geezer is doing a craft that not everyone can do these days.

    3. Interesting, I’ve never seen lacing in person before. In the datacenter we used velcro strap for cables. Zip-ties are for longer-term installation like the holding power strip in a server rack.

    4. As an electrical engineer working around zip-ties installed by electricians who were working fast rather than doing a good job led me to keep a file in my toolbag. They would use flush cutters but not quite hold them, well… flush, leading to a little horrible sharp point.

      I just sand the nasty pointed edge off in a couple of seconds, and I don’t have to worry about further involuntary blood loss.

      1. A quality installation tool will cut them under tension leaving the tails below flush. For assembly line use, there is or was a semi-auto pneumatic gun, way faster than lace. I do like the look of a neat laced harness though. It’s amazing how sharp that piece of nylon is.

  2. In auto racing, the phrase ‘reduce the selling price of the car by $X for every zip tie found’ can often justifiably be heard.

    A judicious application of adel (aka cable, circular or loop) clamps can go a long way to reducing the number of cable ties needed. And make things easier to fix without cutting a dozen zip ties just to add one more wire.

      1. Stainless bolts or go home. Nothing (except, duct tape, perhaps) says “amateur” like rust streaks down your license plate.

        (SovCits excluded of course, as they’re “travelling”, not driving)

    1. I never cut mine and try to use reusable ones, which means I can add wires later.

      Also if not re-usable by design, a flat blade jeweler’s screwdriver can release the pawl, then you can reuse them.

      1. I also use very pointy tweezers to release zip ties. Actually, you just need a pointy tool. A pushpin can work in a pinch, but it can be hard to get enough leverage with it (and easy to accidentally poke yourself with it). If the tie is tight, the pawl can be very hard to budge, though trying to push the tie even tighter can help release it. While I can usually open the pawl from the front, sometimes it might be easier to go from the rear. When pulling an uncut strap back through, often the pawl gets free of the tool and engages again, so it helps to hold the head of the tie as you do this (which is a bit tricky to do with the same hand that’s holding the tool).

      2. Oh, one more tip: if you do need to cut off a tie, cut it right where the loose end enters the head. That way, the remaining uncut part can be reused for a smaller bundle. If you instead cut the head off, nothing can be reused (as a tie, anyway).

      3. I was driving with a friend when their exhaust pipe fell off. Fortunately there was a fence next to us with a large ziptie hanging from it. Ten minutes careful work with the smallest blade on a pen knife to move the ratchet got it removed intact, and we used it to replace the (rotted) rubber exhaust hanger.
        Worked great for years :)

      4. I don’t think I’ve met a non reusable one, a safety or T-pin is all that is needed, although I often get by with a fingernail or knife point of some kind.

        I seriously doubt the kind with the unlock tab are harder to make, wish they all had that tab.

  3. The ETFE zip ties are the only ones you can use in NASA space missions, because (unsurprisingly) the typical cable ties fall apart in days (if not hours!) at temperature/UV extremes.

    Lacing cord’s probably still more common, though. I don’t really know why you would bother with zip ties at high altitude/temperature extremes, though, with the ETFE zip tie cost the training to do lacing cord ties becomes really cheap really fast.

  4. We’re cavemen, but we still use cable lacing in really tight areas on the avionics and other areas that we don’t expect to have to disturb in our silly little airplanes. It’s a matter of physical space. Tiny tefzel wires with their astonishingly thin yet tough insulation, neatly tied. Also lacing is a little less dicey to cut if you do have to get into a bundle. Nick a wire with a pair of cutters and it will ruin your whole day.

    Alternatively, for removing zip ties, you can crush or mangle the pawl/ head with pliers and just kinda pull them off too, depending on how well you can access it.

  5. I am a veterinarian and, although I haven’t used them for this, a prominent cat vet uses zip ties to clamp off the uterus when doing a spay surgery. It’s even referenced in a textbook authored by him.

      1. Nope, completely unused. Several of the cheapest ones (Armitron?) even had a molded plastic clip inside the back “door” of the package in which the zip tie was doubled over and clipped. The manuals were stick into a recess on the main part of the package.

    1. Simple, if it is returned it can be put back looking unopened. Or if you return it you can do same.

      I suppose its a good way for the manufacturer to avoid paying up if you return it and it gets charged to the manufacturer. If it looks unopened it may get sold to another customer who doesn’t return it.

      Also if it ia gifted and returned it can look like new.

      If it sits until the battery dies, it can be replaced and zip tied back in while looking unopened.

      Dunno for sure, but some options.

    2. I don’t think I’ve used a single zip tie since getting into and perfecting my methods of cable lacing. It started with a Precision Apparatus tube tester I was restoring, about eight years ago. Since then, I’ve found it’s fun to experiment with different lace types, including the material itself and the coating. My favorite is still cotton twine bathed in borax solution (to impart some flame and fungal/bacterial resistance), with a beeswax/paraffin blend coating — I don’t recall the exact ratio (maybe 80/20…?), but it’s written down, and took a fair bit of experimentation to get the “feel” right.

      That said, I suppose cable ties still have their places. They’re certainly cheap, plentiful, and anyone of any skill level can use them.

  6. I’ve had no end of problems with a container of cheap zipties I got from harbor freight: after about two years they got brittle and until I threw the container away I kept forgetting and trying to use them and having them pop like twenty minutes after installation. So I’m definitely an advocate of buying more expensive name brand ones, having no better way of gauging their quality.

  7. There is of course a dark side to zip ties. I work in the marine robotics industry, and zip ties are commonly used to tame cables and even mount lightweight accessories to ROV frames. The problem is that, even when reusable zip ties are used, it’s still far faster to simply cut them off and replace with a new zip tie when making changes (ship time is expensive!). They are a constant stream of plastic garbage, much of which never finds its way to proper disposal. Where I work we are actively trying to eliminate zip ties from our products.

  8. My favorite use for zip ties is for stitching broken plastic. We had one of the plastic shelves in the door of the fridge break, and that is the type of plastic you just cant glue back together. So I drilled holes on each side of the crack and then put a zip tie through each pair. Now I had 10 zip ties holding it together, and that fix lasted for many many years. This is also useful on plastic car bumpers.

      1. Good job!
        Last year we had shelf supports in our old refrigerator break, we ended up with a costly kitchen remodel.
        (If momma ain’t happy, ain’t no one gonna be happy)

  9. Back when I was in the Air Force cutting zip ties with something other than a proper zip tool was a safety violation. Reaching into a spot with dozens of sharp ends can do a lot of damage to your arms. Depending on the bundles of wires the sharp ends could also cut the insulation of adjacent bundles.
    I’ve been doing more and more lacing of cables over the last few years. A single spool of lacing thread can fill the need of a wide range of ties. I am more likely to use it to replace a dozen ties than just one, provided I have the size tie I need at hand. I definitely prefer lacing to ties when removing. A bad match between the size of tie and the wire bundle makes damaging wires more likely when cutting the tie off.
    Like many things, there isn’t one size that fits all. Having a spool of waxed lacing twine at hand, along with tie wraps, gives you more options. And if someone else comes along after and sees a nice lacing job they are more likely to be impressed than if there was just a bunch of tie wraps. Screwing and gluing wood joints is fast. Dovetail joints are cool.

  10. After some little scrotes stole my wheel trims for the second time in a month, I used stainless steel ties to hold the replacements onto my wheels. When you trim them they can end up a bit sharp… good 😈

  11. This reads a little like TnB Ty-Raps are history. They are not, nor a bunch of other products, although there are a ton of knock offs and wannabes. 3d printing will not work for a ty-rap. There is no mechanical integrity. Injection molded ty-raps use a proprietary nylon formulation for tensile toughness and processes concerns. AFAIK they are still the only ones to employ a metal barb to hold the strap. This allows a slightly better tension around a cable bundle compared to plastic pawl style knockoffs. The steel is also proprietary. The barbs are cut with a chisel end, float in free space before being driven into the molded part. 18lb rated ty-raps typically test at 30+ lbs or at least did. The patent photo one is still made.

    1. And also wiring harnesses for test equipment etc. A cable harness with evenly spaced knots in lacing cord looks so neat, and takes a lot of skill to do. Lacing cord can be used to bundle a lot of large objects together, strong, and easy to tie a knot that does not come undone. Great to tie the palm tree branches!

  12. I am so pleased to read all the comments about zip ties so far has been about them being used for bundling electrical cables and making wiring looms etc., (i.e. their actual purpose)

    Zip ties are NOT supposed to be used as structural fasteners for 3D printer frames and components, amongst many other ‘improper’ uses as a mechanical fastener in so many hobby and hacker constructions..Yes, I’m looking at you Instructables :)

  13. For much of the probably permanent non-cable zip-tie applications, I use wire clamps these days. As lockdown projects, I built half a dozen wire clamp binding tools, three of which survived. Pretty versatile, one can clamp garden hoses (I did even tests with a pressure test pump, maxed out at 60bar/870psi – with normal zinc plated steel wire 1.8mm), one can fix a tarp as a lid on barrels, fix broken wood handles, etc. like zip ties, but in any size and much stronger.

  14. I reuse these as often as I can. Stick the tip of a knife (or sometimes even a fingernail – I keep at least one nail long at all times) between the pawl and the teeth and you can pull them back apart. There have been very few that I haven’t been able to reuse. When you work on electrical wiring on atvs and powersports every day. every one you can reuse adds up in savings!

  15. Another type of tie strap has a plan, smooth strip of plastic. The fastening head is a separate piece with a metal spring clip inside, bent so that its ends will slide on the strip when it’s pushed on but resist moving the opposite direction. Both ends of the strip point the same direction so when really snugged tight they both make a nearly right angle bend before going through the head.

    1. TnB version (deltec head) is all over phone lines in the US by the millions. Plastic pawls push on bronze teeth to help them get a bite on the delrin strap which comes on a reel.

  16. I’m surprised it isn’t mentioned that for very temporary use you can loop the tie upside down (inside out?) so the flat side is against the pawl. It won’t take much strain but it can be good for holding something for a bit while positioning.

  17. When doing minor repairs to my BMW all the wiring harness was wrapped in waxed tape stuff. No zip ties. I assume the Germans thought that one through. One very specific data point

  18. I’ve often thought that cable ties are truly one of the great fastener inventions of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time. Cheap, strong, reliable – pick all three! Certainly right up there with the nyloc nut, the clothes peg, the rubber band, stickytape, the staple, Jubilee clip, circlip and Velcro.

  19. On a bicycle, zip ties will fail in about 1000 miles (about a year for me commuting to work once a week; 20%). the vibration wears out the plastic pawl on plastic teeth. In theory a metal pawl would last longer, but I wouldn’t count on it lasting much longer.

    1. You can get stainless steel cable ties, they don’t really have a pawl in them. I have some medium size ones, once they are hooked through they are pretty much impossible to loosen.

  20. I buy removable zip ties 1000 at a time to keep my cable storage drawer organized. Without it, a stack of 10 cables becomes an instant tangled mess. Power, ethernet, USB; without exception, all cables get coiled and zip tied before being put into a drawer. Ethernet in particular has separate piles for each length; 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 14 ft. To do an install, I fill a tool bag with 2 of each length, and I’m prepared for anything. It takes seconds to grab cables, seconds to put them back.

  21. Nearly all the zip ties I buy after a year in my garage crack when I go to use them. I do live at high altitude which can be hard on rubber but these don’t show any visible signs of degredation. So I think it must be the plastizers brittalizing with time. Every now and then I get a set that seems to last indefinitely. But I can’t figure out how to know which ones I buy are the good ones. Unsurprisingly most of the cheap combo packs fai ll as does anything from harbor freight. But it’s not simply which store or the price. So what do I need to look for to know a good brand

  22. I have scars on the backs of my hands and forearms from innumerable cable tie cuts, that’s why I now cut them across the width of the tie. Simple, needs no additional tools and leaves a blunt edge.

  23. Amen to cutting them across the width.

    What frosts me is inappropriate use of zip ties. For example: troubleshooting in a newly-recabled store. Cat6 cable installed with J-hooks supporting the cable run up to the service loop at the device end; so far, so good. But the installer used zip ties pulled to the breaking point to secure the service loop, creating sharp-radius bends that destroy the electrical characteristics of the cable. Beyond that, the cable went down a 2-inch EMT with no bushings on either end, the cable having been pulled so taut that the end of the EMT had cut through the jacket and shorted a couple of conductors. But that service loop sure looked pretty, above the drop ceiling where noone could see it. Oh well, I got paid by the hour to fix the other guy’s f-ups. Velcro’s your friend for securing service loops.

    For some applications I like what I call “holey zip ties”, the ones that have an integrated screw hole at the latch. They’re lower profile than a separate square ziptie base. Not reusable, use only as directed, don’t pull them too tight, YMMV, etc. Great for alarm work, use with discretion around network cable.

    1. I never trust anything that adheres with glue; it will eventually fail. sticky backed velcro? fail. double sided tape? fail. your square zip tie mounts? mostly fail. However, if it’s being used to support basically no weight but instead resist vibration, they can work great. If you really want to support weight, you need to use a screw. Also, note that if you have a square mount and you’re attaching something smaller than the two opposing loops (i.e. a single cat 5 cable), you MUST NOT OVER TIGHTEN. This squeezing force will bend the square into a slight U shape, causing it to peel off within minutes to hours.

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