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Wooden Vessel Ship Construction
By Jim Mathews

"They built great ships and sailed them" sounds most brave,
Whatever arts we have or fail to have;
I touch my country's mind, I come to grips--
With half her purpose thinking of these ships.

                                                                                        -- John Masefield

If one is of a seeking nature in the history of wooden shipbuilding there are places hidden in the world today where a few old rotted timbers, a depression in the earth or the broken remains of an old wharf may well be the last vestiges and remnants of a once busy shipyard.  In places like Mystic, Connecticut, Portsmouth / Chatham, England, and other places around the globe where the shipbuilding arts of a by-gone era are preserved in a museum atmosphere there are some fascinating glimpses of such into our past; but usually there is little remaining in the present day to remark of these places that were the birthplace of thousands of wooden ships, and from which they sailed the world over contributing to the great commerce of the seas.

These shipyards were as varied as the men who used and built them, but there were some common elements in which all of these places were required to consider, and it is this set of attributes which this series of articles shall seek to discuss.

Probably, the most important of the above items to consider was a site which was adjacent to a significant body of water, sufficiently deep enough and of such a size as to accommodate the planned vessels that would be built there, and one in which the site sloped downward gradually to accommodate the introduction of the vessel into the water in a controlled and careful manner.  This body of water also had to have a passage to the open sea, and in later years may well have had a consideration of being nearby a fall of water in order to provide hydraulic power for a sawmill.

Due to the size and weight of even a small wooden vessel, another consideration was the necessity of a strong foundation in order to adequately support the vessel throughout her construction period, a period which might extend into years depending upon material, personnel and economical availability, as well the political climate of the day. This foundation was essentially constructed of large timbers imbedded in the earth in a horizontal plane with the shoreline and placed parallel to the edge of the water.  These massive timbers would have been perhaps anywhere from thirty to fifty feet in length, and some six to ten feet apart depending upon the size of ships being contemplated to be attempted at such a site.  This set of log "steps" would be laid from the water's edge, very like a massive set of "railway ties" leading inshore to a distance in excess of the length of the type of ship or ships proposed to be built on the site.  The upper side of these timbers were then hewn smooth and flat, and following that effort might well be floored over with planks from four to nine inches in thickness.

Once the "log bed" had been placed, smoothed and planked over, the blocks upon which the ship's keel would be fashioned were now considered.  A small yard may well have had only one such "log bed", and larger yards might well be equipped with several in order to accommodate the construction of several vessels simultaneously.

Having provided the "bedding" for the ship-ways, the next consideration was to provide a series of buildings which would be in fairly close proximity to the "log beds".  The first of these and one of the largest was a "loft" in which full sized plans for the various component parts of the proposed vessel or vessels could be laid down on the floor.  In addition to the above, there was almost always a blacksmith or "shipsmith's" shop for the production of those iron fittings necessary for the vessel, and sometimes a smaller shop where skilled carvers worked on the ship's figurehead, wheel, and sternboards.  There were the "sawpits" where timbers were sawn into lumber, and later the sawmill which would be run perhaps by falling water, mentioned previously,  The "sawpit" was a place which was early on dug into the ground and over which the timbers, to be sawn, were laid.  One man below and one man above would then work through the timbers with a two-man "whipsaw."  On occasion, where there were facilities for an "A-frame" crane smaller "sawpits" might also be a sturdy structure upon which  timber could laid and cut, however, such a structure could also be significantly dangerous due to the weight of large timbers might fall from the structure.

In some yards, depending upon the location and size, there may well also have been boasted an office where the Master Builder, Foreman, yard Clerk and their assistant's worked and maintained their records, a joiner's shop for the finer points of carpentry and cabinet-making, and various storage sheds to store the many necessary materials.  A "steam box" was an essential ingredient in a yard where planking was made pliable for bending and twisting, and there was often a cookhouse and some sleeping accommodation for the workmen employed.  Many workmen were hired on the basis of being provided one meal per day and a place to sleep, which puts the low wages of that period more in keeping with the present day's considerations.  Workmen, usually signed on for a season, and went home to families during the part of the year when working outside was impossible.   Most builders got their sails from vendors who were specialists in the art and trade; and so a "loft" for sail making was not generally considered necessary as a part of the average shipyard.  The same applied to line and cordage for the rigging of the vessels.  These supplied were purchased from established "rope walks" found in the larger cities.

Mr. John Russell, a shipbuilder in the Canadian Maritimes placed the following advertisement in June of 1849 for the sale of his shipyard. It gives a good description of a shipyard of the period:

"There are from twenty to twenty-five acres of land under cultivation and the rest of the island (Beaubair's) is well wooded.  There is an excellent two-story stone dwelling house pleasantly situated on the south side of the island near the lower end.  It is forty by thirty-eight feet, thoroughly finished, has a frost-free cellar, kitchen, well of water, woodhouse, coach house, convenient outhouses and a large kitchen garden, the whole being furnished with every convenience for a large family.  The barn will contain from thirty to forty tons of hay and stabling for five or six horses besides cattle.

A retail store is situated near the dwelling house.  It is two stories high with a cellar beneath the whole.  The shop is fitted up with the usual conveniences; there is a back store and a comfortable office, with ample room on the upper flats for storage.  There is another store, two stories high, used as an iron and provision store having ample rooms to contain a large stock.

A wharf runs out into the river in front of the retail store at which ships from five to six hundred tons can discharge and load.  On the wharf there is a new store 90 x 18 feet, two stories high finished and fitted as a warehouse.  There is also a salt store, one and one / half stories high, close to the wharf which will contain upwards of 300 tons. There is a safe and convenient boom capable of holding from 700 to 800 tons of timber between the wharf and the lower end of the island, near which is a ballast berth which has been used many years.

The shipyard is also on the south side, about the center of the island and completely sheltered from every wind except the south-east.  There are now three ships building on it, each upwards of 500 tons, with accommodations to lay down two more.  The yard has attached to it a blacksmith's shop, three fires, a joiner's shop forty feet long, a molding loft of sufficient dimensions for laying down a ship of the largest class, a shed and two sawpits, a steam box and boiler and every other convenience.

There is a cookhouse with a frost proof cellar, well water, kitchen, heating rooms, bedrooms and accommodations for fifty workmen.  There is a comfortable house for the foreman with a barn and garden attached near the yard.

Shipbuilding materials can be secured from the surrounding country within a moderate distance and hauled into the yard in any quantity that may be required during the winter season.

Altogether the subscriber pays for his own experience for upwards of ten years if there is not a more desirable or advantageous situation in the lower colonies for shipbuilding.  They said that for any man of prudence and experience might, with command of reasonable capitol, continue the business from which he is about to retire with every prospect of making money.  The purchaser of the island may obtain any of the stock and materials remaining on hand on very moderate terms.  The terms of the sale will be liberal and a part of the purchase money may remain on security for such a period as may be agreed upon."

If one is of a seeking nature in the history of wooden shipbuilding there are places hidden in the world today where a few old rotted timbers, a depression in the  In this period, normally naval architect's plans were not used.  It was a Master Builder who determined the ship model, which was in actuality not a full sized hull model, but rather something called a half-model. This was a model of one-half of the vessel shown the long way from the side.  Many modern restaurants and marine stores, etc. display these half-models in framed picture hangings.

This half-model was created incorporating the Master Builder's design features which were desired by the prospective owners of the vessel. The half-models ranged in size from three-eighths of an inch to the foot, up to one-half inch to the foot.  The half-model was built up from the bottom using horizontal wood layers so that "lines" could be taken off for the determination of dimensions needed to construct the ship. The outside of the ships half-model did not represent the outside of the ship's planking as one would suppose, but rather the outside of the vessel's framing.  The top edge of the ship's rail was represented by the top edge of the half-model.  It is these special understandings similar to the above definitions that separate those who were familiar with shipbuilding from those who merely admired the half-model for it's grace and beauty.

An example of the ratio of size between the half-model and the constructed ship is given just below:

The ship "Calcutta" (1252 tons, constructed in 1876, and built at the shipyard on Spencer's Island in Nova Scotia) measured 192.3 feet in length.  The half-model for this vessel measured out at 72 inches from bow to stern.  This ratio provides the figures of three-eighths of an inch to the foot.

Upon the completion of the half-model, the mould loft floor became the area for the full sized lines and dimensions to be laid down.  It was here that the lines for the vessel's primary timbers and frames were to be found: frames, timbers, beams, stem, sternpost and other key members as well.

Laying down these lines accurately was an important responsibility and was usually undertaken by the Master Builder himself, or at least by skilled craftsmen under his close and immediate supervision.  The instruments and tools for laying down these lines comprised both the square and the long straight edge, chalk line, compass and battens. Using these lines the patterns for the items were constructed from a light wood, which were the equal of today's template sheets.

The heaviest and strongest timber in the ship was the keel.  It formed he basis of the vessel and was it's backbone.  The keel was put together with massive timbers in order to provide the greatest possible strength. The keel was placed on large blocks which raised it off of the shipyard bed timbers, which allowed access to all parts of the keel timber as it was being worked.

Other shipwrights were engaged  in building the frames, sternpost and stem while the keel construction was being completed.  When this work was finished, it was time to devote attention to the "framing platform." This was a device which was set at right angles to the keel, and using it's dimensions shipwrights maneuvered each frame into it's precise location and then fastened it securely with a floor frame. In the period before powered sawmills these frames were beveled by hand in order for the frame to receive the curved planking.  This work was done with a brad axe, and adze and the process was called "dubbing."  There were several kinds of broadaxes and adzes, made up for specific tasks, like the offset handles of the tools for right and left handed cuts, and broadaxe faces ground flat on one side, beveled on the opposite in order to cut a straight line, or the use of a straight edge adz, or a curved edge adz to accomplish either flat or curved cuts.  After the advent of powered saws these bevels were sawn into the frames, and a light "dubbing" might be required for a more precise fit.  This was the saving of a good deal of physical labor, and allowed the time for the production of a ship to be shortened significantly.  However, the down side of this use of power saws, reduced the number of men who could use these "dubbing tools" skillfully.

When the frames, sternpost and stem were in place, the vessel was said to be "in frame."  Now came the strengthening timbers.  The "keelson" was now laid over the keel and floor and securely fastened.  This great heavy member, gave a longitudinal strength to the hull.

After the heavy framing was completed the effort now turned to the planking of the hull.  This was the interior longitudinal planking that was fastened to the inner side of the frames to further strengthen the vessel and to protect the ship's framing from the anticipated cargo. When this interior planking was placed or "ceiled" to the height of the lower deck, then the shelf and clap timbers were installed.  These members were horizontal timbers which would support the deck beams. Each deck beam would then be fitted with a heavy under-brace, called a "knee".  These knees were often made following the natural curve of the wood for additional strength.

Vessels up to approximately 1200 tons usually had two decks, while the larger vessels would normally boast of three decks.  In the case of the larger vessels it was a common practice to plank over the upper two decks while leaving the lower deck open.

The deck below the Main Deck was known as the "'tween decks", a contraction of the full name "between decks."  On some vessels this deck was only about four feet below the Main Deck, and at best there was only headroom.  Small schooners and craft of only six or eight feet depth inside the hull, usually only had one deck but the earlier vessels and vessels of four hundred tons register, were nearer fifteen feet in depth, permitting a height of a little over six feet between the Main Deck and the 'tween decks, with over eight feet of "hold" space for cargo, less of course, the thickness of the intermediate decking and supporting beams.

Unless specifically mentioned, the extremely important part played by the Canadian shipbuilders in the production of world trade carriers may not be apparent.  The below information is presented in an attempt to rectify that situation.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the output of Canadian Shipyards increased so rapidly that in 1847 and 1849 the total tonnage constructed in the British colonies, of which Canada was the principal source, actually exceeded that turned out by Great Britain, and in 1847 colonial-built ships comprised one-sixth of the tonnage owned there.  For the period of 1787-1855 (excluding the years 1809-13, 1844-45, and 1852 the total tonnage built in Great Britain totaled 5,974,140 tons, while that built in Canada totaled 2, 598,797 tons.  In 1840, the total tonnage built in Canada exceeded that built in the United States for the first and only time.  

There is a definite art to the planking of a vessel.  Normally this portion of the shipbuilding was undertaken by beginning at the keel and working upwards.  The heavy planks needed to be pliable to some degree and so these planks were steamed in the steam box to prepare them for this activity.  It was not a simple thing to bend and to twist these planks into a shape that matched the hull design, and required a great deal of experience and hard work, not to mention the use of virtually every available mechanical device to complete the task in a shipshape manner.  One of the things that added to the difficulty of this precise fitting, was the fact that the butt-ends of the hull planks had to be placed in such a way as to be distributed evenly over the hull surface. A concentration of butt-end lines in any area of the hull would present a weak place in the whole hull structure.

When the last plank was in position, the caulkers with their caulking irons and long mallets began to force oakum into the seams between the planks for a watertight integrity over the whole hull.  To do this they used a variety of tools (caulking irons) which resembled to some degree oversized shoehorns, and a heavy wooden mallet whose heads were somewhat more elongated and extended than an ordinary mallet -- very like a croquet mallet only more so.  The Oakum was a thick fibrous material which was made by picking old manila cable.  When the oakum was forced into the seams and was well packed therein the whole was "payed" over with hot tar or pitch.

There is an interesting side note to this activity which is used in the English language today -- "The Devil to Pay------."  This saying is shortened from -- "The Devil to Pay and no tar hot."  The Devil being a deck seam which required a great deal of care being a wide seam and one over the forecastle when the crew berthed.  Obviously, it took a significant amount of time and effort to get the tar / pitch warm enough to "pay" the seams, and so the above statement is often used when one has a severe problem and the probable result is not enviable!!!!!

When the caulkers had completed their efforts the hull was then filled with water.  The hull was then carefully inspected, any leaks noted and marked, and then sealed off.  At this time in the building process, many hulls were also "salted' with rock salt which being poured between the frames of the vessel from frame heads to the waterline, acted as a preservative.

While the caulkers were working the hull, the deck work was not being neglected.  The planks in the deck were carefully laid and in their turn caulked as well.  The cabin and the forecastle were constructed with attention to the fact that these areas would be the living quarters for the ship's crew and officers, and then the hatch coamings were measured, built and installed.

While the caulkers and shipwrights were at work on the hull, in an area away from the ship, the rudder was being constructed.  When the above work was completed it was now time for the rudder to be hung on the gudgeons which were fastened securely to the hull in the stern of the vessel.  With the rudder hung and the steering lines rove, the shipsmiths bent their efforts to completing the ship's ironwork . Finally the windlass, also constructed separately in an area away from the hull was hoisted aboard and installed in it's place.  All that remained now was for the hull to be painted according to the customer's design and color before the hull hit the water.

Some brief comment should be made here regarding the material from which the ships were made, the preferences held by some shipwrights, how it was cut and formed, and it's bulk measurement and quality.  To the extent possible natural bends in wood were used for "knees" and angle-like ship's timbers.  The preference in English shipyards for oak and the preference for natural strength over that of "fasteded" timbers led to this usage.  Oaks from the areas of Northern Europe were fine for the development of long straight planking, but the gnarled English "Hedgerow" Oak was the best for the natural curved timbers used to strengthen the ship internally.  Trees were even deliberately bent in certain ways so as to " grow" a needed set of curved timbers.  These curved timbers were known as "compass" timbers.

All the work of forming the timbers and planks was done by hand.  Water powered sawmills being rare.  The saw pit was in extensive use with planks and other timbers being cut over the pit with long two man saws. One man stood on the timber or above it, while another man was in the sawpit.  The shaping of the timbers was accomplished mostly by the use of a variety of adzes, and broadaxes, each one especially designed for a specific purpose.

Timber was measured by the "load."  Each load being equal to 50 cubic feet.  The average oak tree yielded approximately one load, which usually ran to about one ton in weight. The number of loads which were used to build a line-of-battle warship ("74") in the 18th century was in the neighborhood of 3,700 loads.  No fewer than 1,890 loads of the above amount were "compass" timber, and 150 more loads were needed for "knee" construction.  Planking which exceeded 4 inches was known as "thick stuff" and 410 loads of this went into the hull.  In addition 360 loads of 3 and 4 inch planking were also used.   Shipwrights in England were convinced that slow growing oak (Quercus robur) was the finest shipbuilding material in the world.  They narrowed this preference down to the oaks grown in four counties of England -- Surrey, Kent , Hampshire, and Sussex -- and the best of these came from the forests of Sussex.  Northern oaks and the white oak (Quercus alba), of North America was held in low esteem.  Actually the live oak (Quercus virginiana) which grows or grew in a narrow band some twenty miles wide from Virginia to the Mississippi River was equal or superior to English Oak.  It was such timber from which the heavy frigate "U.S.S. Constitution" got her nickname of "Old Ironsides." 

Growing in the same range as the live oak, but in a belt some 100 miles deeper, and well suited for both masts and ship timber was (Pinus palustris) generally known as long leaf pine, Georgia pine, or yellow pine.  For some reason British shipbuilders did not discover the virtues of this splendid timber until after the Revolution, but American shipwrights were well aware of it's positive attributes and used it extensively in constructing many vessels in North America.  The forests of North America also produced other magnificent tall straight pines which were used extensively for masts and spars. Ships were usually built in the open, exposed to the weather, as it was believed that this exposure helped to season the timber.  As we have seen, first the keel was laid down on the blocks which were placed some four to five feet apart.  The keel timbers were then joined ("scarfed") together and fastened with huge bolts.  The upright timbers, the stem and stern posts, were raised into position and the various knee and angle pieces which supported them were worked into place.  The frames or ribs, were then set up, with the knees and beams which were to support the decks.

Planking was fastened to these frames with treenails (pronounced and sometimes spelled "trunnels"). These were wooden pegs which were driven into holes bored through the planks and frames with augers.  Treenails were usually of oak, cut from the upper part of the tree to be free from sap, and knots, and well seasoned.  Some were as much as 36 inches long and 2 inches in diameter.  Drilling the holes was a tricky business, and the men who used the augers were specialists in their trade.  When the treenails had been driven into the holes the ends were expanded by the use of thin wedges, so locking the pegs in place.  More about the effectiveness of treenails in a later supplement.

Iron bolts and nails were also used, especially, in timbers above the waterline, and a blacksmith's shop was a part of every shipyard.  The planking, or strakes as shipbuilders call them, of a wooden hulled ship were not all of the same thickness.  The heaviest being those strakes known as "wales," and formulas were set up for determining the thickness and width of these "wales" and of the strakes between them, for ships of various sizes.  The wales were placed where a particular strain was placed on the hull such as chain plates or in support of a deck.  In some vessels after 1800, the strakes appear flush, but in earlier vessels the wales appear prominently.

Normally once launched , the vessel was brought alongside a "sheer hulk," often an old large hull fitted with a sturdy mast and tackle to handle the largest spars which could be lifted and lowered or "stepped" into place.  Masts and Spars were usually of fir, pine or spruce, spruce often being used for the lighter spars.  When possible , the lower masts were made of single timbers.  Perhaps one tree in 10,000 might be suitable.  A single rotten knothole could be cause for rejection as spar material.  Unlike the timbers of the hull, which were exposed to the air to season, those of the masts and spars were of resinous wood.  These, to keep them sound and resilient, were stored under water, to exclude the air, and every dockyard had a mast pond in which the great spars were kept.  There were also long "mast houses" where the timbers were worked into the required dimensions and shapes.

Here then is a much reduced and shortened view of the construction of a square-rigged ship. Many vessels were launched with only their lower masts stepped as opposed to using a sheer hulk after launching.  Still others were launched fully rigged and ready for sea if the launching facilities and tidal range required such a method..  Because of the great difference in the range of tidal flow in the Bay of Fundy area, some shipbuilders determined to launch their vessels fully rigged. However, in Yarmouth where the tides were not so severe and extreme in their range, vessels could be fully rigged at piers which had a full range of rigging engines on special "Rigging Wharves" to accomplish the task efficiently.



"Ships and Seaman of the American Revolution," Jack Coggins, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.
"Masters of Sail," Stanley T. Spicer, The Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1968.
"Shipbuilding Tonnage Thesis" (unpublished), Richard Rice, McGill University, Montreal, Canada;
"Merchant Sailing Ships -- 1815-1850," David R. MacGregor, Conway Maritime Press Ltd., London, 1984;
"American Sailing Ships -- Thier Plans and History," Charles G. Davis, Dover Publications Inc., NewYork, 1984.
"Miramichi Gleaner", John Russell, shipyard advertisement, June 19, 1849, Miramichi, Canadian Maritimes. 

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