Designing and Building a Wooden Ship

Builder's Half Model, William H. Conner

Building any ship begins with design. In nineteenth century Maine, once the owner and builder decided on the basic size and shape of the hull, the designer or master carpenter carved a half modelHalf model

A longitudinal model of half of a vessel's hull. In the 19th century a primary design tool with most American sailing vessel designs starting out as carved half models, from which dimensions for the full-sized hull would be taken.
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, made from a number of boards or liftsLifts

Boards that are pinned together to form a half model of a vessel. After the model is carved, these boards can be separated and measured to loft the vessel's hull full-sized for construction.
pinned together. Once finished and accepted, the designer removed the pins and separated the model’s lifts. He then measured these and drew the shape of the hull full-size on the loftLoft laying off; laying down

A large building for drawing full-sized patterns and laying out wooden pieces for a vessel. As a verb, to loft is to draw the lines of the vessel on the floor of the mold loft.


Using a Half Model to Design a Ship Lofting the Hull

Treenails or Trunnels

Keel and Frames

The keelKeel

The chief timber or piece extending along the length of the bottom of a vessel from which rise the frames, stem, and sternposts.
is the ship’s backbone and provides the most important longitudinal strength for the ship. The keel was built up from 12” x 12” lumber, or larger, and the long pieces were scarfedScarf scarph

To join the ends of two timbers or metal parts to form a piece that appears continuous.
and bolted to provide a solid backbone. The stemStem

The foremost timber in a vessel, attached vertically to the keel.
piece, which defines the bowBow

Forward part or head of a vessel.
of the ship, and the sternpostSternpost

The aftermost timber in a wooden vessel or steel piece in a steel vessel, forming the stern of the ship and joined to the keel by scarfing or riveting.
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, on which the rudderRudder

Used to steer a vessel. A flat piece or structure of wood or metal attached upright to the stern of a boat or ship. The rudder may be turned, causing the vessel's head to turn in the same direction.
is hung, were scarfed and bolted to the keel.

The ship’s ribsRibs

The curved or straight wooden pieces that form the frame of a vessel. On a large vessel these are pieced together with futtocks. On a small boat, ribs or frames are often one piece and can be made by steaming wood and bending it.
, or framesFrame ribs

Frames are the skeleton structure of a vessel, also called ribs. They run perpendicular to the keel.
, were made up of straight and curved timbers. Frames were made of a number of pieces called futtocksFuttocks

The four or five individual pieces of wood in a vessel's frame or rib.
. Bottom futtocks are called floorsFloor

The lower part of a transverse frame of a ship running each side of the keelson to the bilges. In general shipbuilding, this part of the frame is an approximately horizontal platform extending to the ship's sides at the point where they begin to turn up towards the vertical.
. The shipbuilder made patterns from the design on the loft floor, which he used to choose the best-shaped timbers. Ship's carpentersShip carpenter ship's carpenter

A petty officer, responsible to the chief officer, whose duties include the opening and battening down of hatches and cargo ports, and maintaining wooden masts, spars, and decks. A ship's carpenter can also work in a shipyard, building vessels.
cut the wood to shape, and dubbersDubber

Workman who dubs, or smoothes, the framing of a vessel before planking and the planking after being attached to the frames.
refined the shape using adzesAdze

A long-handled cutting tool, with a blade at right angles to the shaft. Originally a shipbuilding tool.
to chip off unneeded material. The futtocks were scarfed, bolted, and fastened with treenailsTreenail trunnel

Commonly pronounced "trunnel" or "trunnels"; wooden spikes or pins, often made of locust wood.
, or trunnelsTreenail trunnel

Commonly pronounced "trunnel" or "trunnels"; wooden spikes or pins, often made of locust wood.

Shipbuilders hoisted the finished frames into place one by one, atop the keel, forming the basic skeleton of the ship. To strengthen the skeleton, a second keel, called a keelsonKeelson

A second keel, built over the keel, on top of the floor timbers of the frames, to strengthen the vessel's skeleton.
, was built over the keel, on top of the floor timbers of the frames.


Raising a Frame Building Up Keelson on Schooner

Caulking, Tools and Method

Planking and Caulking

As additional structure was added to the ship, it became ready for plankingPlanking

Lengths of wood fastened to the outside of a vessel's frames forming the outside skin, and attached to the beams to form the deck.
. Long planks were bent length wise around the hull Not only did they have to be cut correctly to fit the hull, they had to have their edges prepared for caulkingCaulkcaulking, corking

To drive oakum or cotton into the seams of a vessel's deck or sides, to make it watertight. After the oakum is driven in with a caulking iron or mallet, the seam is "payed" or coated with hot pitch or other compound to prevent the oakum from rotting.
. When all of the deck beams were in place, ship's carpenters laid the deck planking. Another type of planking is called the ceilingCeiling

The inside planking of a ship.
: an inner skin planked inside of the frames. Despite its name, the ceiling acts as a floor to the cargo hold, and it provides additional longitudinal strength for the hull.

Caulking makes the hull watertight. OakumOakum

A caulking material made of tarred rope fibers.
, a coarse, tar-impregnated yarn of manilaManila

In rope, fiber obtained from the abaca plant. Named as such as the Phillipines were a primary source for this rot-resistant natural fiber rope, the most important maritime rope material before the advent of petroleum-based fibers like nylon and polypropylene.
or hempHemp

The plant Cannabis sativa, used to make natural rope. The fibers are usually tarred as a preservative.
strands from old ropes, is driven into seams between planking or decking. The caulker drove a few strands into the seam with a caulking ironCaulking iron

Used to drive caulking material into the gaps between the vessel's planking.
and caulking malletCaulking mallet

Used to hit the caulking iron, to drive caulking material into gaps between a vessel's planking.
. The mallet made a knocking sound that told the caulker how far the oakum was in the seam. After the seam was fully caulked, it was payedPay payed

(verb)To pour hot pitch into a deck or side seam after it has been caulked with oakum, in order to prevent the oakum from getting wet. Also, to dress a mast or yard with tar, varnish, or tallow, or to cover the bottom of a vessel with a mixture of sulphur, rosin, and tallow (or in modern days, an anti-fouling mixture.)
, or covered with tar, completely sealing the seam.


Hawsing Iron Forward Portion of Planked Ship


Finishing and Outfitting

Ship joinersJoiner joinery

A carpenter who finishes interior woodwork. Joinery is the interior woodwork.
became more active when much of the primary structure was finished. They built and finished the deck houses, the galleyGalley joinery

The kitchen on board a vessel.
, the hatchesHatch

The opening in a ship's deck allowing access to compartments below.
, and other deck furnishings. They often finished the captain’s cabin in furniture woods like mahogany, walnut, or butternut, prefabricating it ashore. The woodwork in captains’ cabins on Down EastersDown Easter downeaster; down-easter

Merchant sailing ship developed in Maine in the 19th century and designed for maximum carrying capacity with minimal crew size.
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was often very elaborate and required highly-skilled joinery work.

Painters applied coatings to protect the wood. After the ship was launched, the crew became painters, for painting never ended.

Sometimes a vessel had a figureheadFigurehead

A carved wooden statue or figure attached to the bow under the bowsprit of a vessel.
, made by a ship carver who chiseled it out of a large built-up block of wood. The figurehead was mounted on the bowBow

Forward part or head of a vessel.
of the ship, underneath the bowspritBowsprit

Spar projecting forward from the stem of a sailing vessel, for the purpose of extending the head sails and keeping the sail plan balanced.


Captain's cabin, Bark Harvard Stern of Schooner George W. Wells

Lifting Main Mast with Sheerlegs



While the hull was being built, sparSpar

A round timber or metal pole used for masts, yards, booms, etc.
makers fabricated masts, yardsYard

The large wooden or metal spar crossing the masts horizontally or diagonally, from which a sail is set.
, bowsprit, and other spars. After the Civil War, most spar timber came from the West Coast, which had a large supply of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir. After squaring and tapering the timber, spar makers shaped the spar into an eight-sided timber and finished it round. Shipbuilders used shear legsShear legs shears

A temporary structure of two or three spars raised at an angle and lashed together at the point of intersection.
to lift and place the masts onto the ship.


The term for all ropes, wires, or chains used in ships and smaller vessels to support the masts and yards (standing rigging) and for hoisting, lowering, or trimming sails to the wind (running rigging.) Running rigging lines move through blocks and are not wormed, parceled, or served.
set up the ship’s standing riggingStanding rigging

The lines that hold up the mast. They are wormed, parceled, and served for water-proofing.
—the lines that hold up the masts. To protect it from rot, rigging was given a waterproof cover, a process called wormingWorming

Running a small line up a rope, following the lay of the line.
, parcelingParceling

Wrapping the standing rigging ropes with tarred canvas.
and servingServing

Wrapping a light line called marline around a wrapped (with tarred canvas) rope or wire, for preservation.
. Running riggingRunning rigging

The part of the rigging that includes the ropes that move the rig: move yards and sails, haul them up and lower them, move masts, and hoist weights.
, the lines that move through blocksBlock

A pulley, consisting of a frame or shell which supports a sheave or roller, over which ropes are run. There are many kinds of blocks. Blocks with ropes run through them form a tackle.
, were cut to length and whippedWhip

A rope led through a single block or pulley which offers no mechanical advantage but changes the rope's direction, or a type of overhand sewing stitch.
, or were given eye splicesEye splice

An eye formed in a rope by weaving its strands back into the rope.
if needed. Then the rigger set up all of the spars, preparing them to receive sails, attaching iron work and blocks, and running all of the rest of the lines.


Hemp Rope Rigging Sample Hemp Rope Rigging Sample Detail


A ship was constructed on large wooden blocks and posts called shoresShore

A prop or beam used for support during vessel construction.
. Before launching, ship carpenters built a cradleCradle

In shipbuilding and maintenance, the structure that supports a vessel upright on land and in which a vessel can be moved.
under the ship’s hull and greased the waysWays

A wooden ramp used to slide a ship into the water.
: the rails that carried it into the water. Dozens of wedges made up the cradle and were driven just before launching to transfer the weight of the ship from the blocks to the cradle. When the ship’s sponsor broke a champagne bottle on the stem, a pin was pulled that allowed the ship to slide down the ways, stern first, into the water. A festive launching could attract hundreds of friends, neighbors, and curious spectators.


Preparation for Launching Launch of Down Easter Henry B. Hyde