Wooden Ship Building – Spring 1951

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By H.C. Inches

The days of wooden ships and iron men the wooden ship building industry attained gigantic proportions nearly all the way around the Great Lakes. It was the forerunner of our modern metal shipyards.

From the period just after the War of 1812, when the first start was made, until the late ’80’s, the construction of wooden ships furnished a great amount of labor much needed when the country around the lakes was being settled, the demand for hard-wood aiding the farmer to pay for his land and the clearing of it as well as for stock and tools. It also gave work for him and his horses during the slack winter months in getting out the timber and hauling it to the building yards.

As a boy, I ran and played around and over these wooden ships while they were under construction. Many were built close to my home and I passed a shipyard each day as I went to school. I heard a great deal of shop talk regarding their building, from the old timers as they sat around their wood burning stoves in the local grocery stores, and in the shipyard loft on days when they did not work because of the weather.

Nearly all our early vessels were financed where they were built, by the local men, merchants, prosperous farmers, men who owned all or shares in other ships. Sometimes the captain who was to sail these ships occasionally took a share or two. The ship was a local business venture throughout the financing and the building, all at home or nearby, with the oak all from the adjacent forest and the men living close to their work. No stock was sold; shares were sold instead. The money raised was handed over when the vessel was completed – all paid for; and these ships always remained the pride of the port from which they were launched as long as they sailed the waters.

Ship Carpenter’s Tool Chest

It took little money to equip and start a shipyard in those early days. They had no saw mill, nor jig saw. The yard furnished the cross-cut saw, long ship augers and the large metal clamps to pull and force the planks and shapes into place and hold them there for fastening. The ship carpenters owned and carried the wood working tools to the shipyard on their shoulders, the broad axe, the ship axe and the adze, also the many wooden planes and smaller tools; therefore the greater amount of the money went for labor and material locally.

The land for a yard was sometimes purchased in cases where the builders were to continue on for the life of the industry. In other cases, the land was rented when these local men wanted to build only one, two or three ships.

Other shipyards built ships continuously from the start just after 1814 until the local timber was exhausted and the metal ship era started in the late ’80’s. Even after this some yards went on for many years, making light repairs or giving a vessel a complete rebuild.

In the ’80’s the scene started to change. Metal ships were replacing the wooden ones; more and more ships were needed for the expanding commerce; building of ships moved to the larger cities with good railroads, heavy machinery and steel.

The first wood ships built were built all with hand labor, with no sawmill with its circular saw to cut the planks, and they were not called planks, but flitches. Webster calls both a side of bacon a flitch and a long strip of timber a flitch. They had no jig mill to cut shapes out of these flitches for the ship’s frames or ribs. The sawing of them was called whip-sawing and was done by rolling a log up on two high saw horses, with one man underneath and one standing on the log. With a cross-cut saw they would saw from one end to the other until the entire log was cut into flitches of the required thickness.

Most of the material in logs was hauled to the yard by horse teams in the winter when the ground was frozen hard and the sleighing good. It was far easier by sleigh than by wagon; the farmers had the time in winter, also the teams were available. This logging was good for the farmer as it furnished good cash for labor when he needed it most. It was called a tough winter when they did not have good sleighing.

In starting a shipyard the first thought was to acquire a piece of ground large enough along the waterfront, at about the right height above the water, so that the ship, when ready for launching, would slide down the launching ways by its own weight. They also needed the keel block not too far from the water’s edge, and the water’s edge not too far from an adequate depth of water to float the vessel when she left the ship’s ways.

I want to give some idea of the great number of ships built all around the lakes, Ontario, Erie, Huron and Michigan, all but Lake Superior. [I know of no vessel of wood being built on that lake, except two small ones built at Point Aux Pines, just above the Soo. Here in 1733 La Ronde built a 40 ton sloop; in 1793 a 75 ton sloop was built.]

The Lake Superior region could not furnish the good oak timber, could not furnish the commodities for freight, due to the fact that this part of the country was far behind the other lake districts in getting settled and developed. No one district had a monopoly on this business that grew to such gigantic proportions. It helped to open up this country all around the lakes. The ships carried immigrants west, also the necessities they needed to live and thrive on, and the articles they needed to open up the country and develop it; and on return carried grain and lumber to eastern markets.

Why did they build so many wood ships and faster than the business expanded?

Our ships on the lakes were made of the finest white oak, framed and planked,1 whereas our Atlantic Coast clipper ships, the fastest ever built for sail, were oak ribbed and planked with southern pine. Even at that, our good oak ships were at their best only for 15 years. After that it usually cost nearly all the ship could clear to keep it seaworthy, as one winter the ship would need repair on the port bow, then soon after probably the starboard quarters, and after that a new deck. When decay started there was no stopping It.

The difference in the life span between the wood and metal ships shows up in these facts. The engines and boilers in our wooden vessels were very often used in three different wood ships, due to the limited life of wood. Also, a great many ships burned and their machinery would be salvaged and placed in a new hull. I can remember several engines that out lived three different hulls.

Today some of our metal hulls are outliving two engines built of metal, just the reverse from the wooden-ship era.

I have heard old timers say that after 15 years, repairs were a constant source of trouble and expense. A wooden ship was very old at 20 to 25 years. Some did continue at that age and were known as tubs or floating crates, but did operate at times when freight rates were high.

Mansfield’s History of the Great Lakes, published by Beers, tells us that in the year 1869 we had 1860 vessels of all types on the lakes. Some of these were large vessels in that day, though today they would be considered small. 1860 vessels are four times the number we have today, but our ships are five to ten times the size of our early vessels, all propelled by steam and making trips on schedule. In 1869 Beers lists these vessels: 126 side wheel, 140 screw propeller, 240 steam tugs, 175 barques, 50 brigs and 904 fore-and-aft or topsail schooners.

To have 1860 vessels in operation at one time, with all the total losses each year, and the short life of a wood vessel due to deterioration, fire and explosion, they had to build them fast and all around the lake shore and rivers.

Why were the total losses so great each year? These are some figures from Beers:

1851 – 89 total losses.
1859 – 60 steamers and 30 sail vessels went out of register, all causes.
1864 – 45 vessels, total losses.
1869 – In the month of September 35 vessels were lost and in November same year in the storm which lasted from 16th to 19th, 31 vessels became total losses.
1880 – Was spoken of as a year quite free from total losses, as only 45 vessels were lost and 11 of those were from fire and boiler explosions.
1885 – 77 vessels went out of commission from all causes. The wooden ships were giving way to metal and some of these losses were from storms, fire and strandings, some were ships abandoned on account of age.

The total losses due to heavy seas were tremendous. There were few breakwaters. A sailing ship trying to make port and shelter by entering a narrow entrance through piers did not have much assurance of doing so, and if she failed to get into proper position, she had no steam propulsion power to work back out into the lake and deep water.

They had no direction finders, gyro compasses or radar. The harbor lights were poor. There were few fog signal stations. All the early navigators had aboard their ship was a magnetic compass and a lead line. If they missed a harbor entrance they went with the wind and disaster. They were at the mercy of the wind and snow storms.

But few sailing ships were destroyed by fire. The only fire they had was in the galley stove which could be watched. In the late 1830’s, however, when a good many steamers appeared on the scene, disaster from fire grew in numbers each year. This is not to be wondered at, for these ships were built of the very best material for a fire to thrive on. They knew of no fire-resisting insulation to put around the boilers and had no patent hand fire extinguishers. When a fire got started, there wasn’t much chance of stopping it.

Boiler explosions took a heavy toll also. In one year there were nine total losses from that cause alone. In another year eleven went that way. Why? They did not have the means for testing steel, nor perfected safety valves, nor yet the strict and efficient Government boiler inspection of today.

With the limited span of life of the wood vessel due to deterioration of wood, the losses caused by wind, fire and explosions, together with the ever expanding lake trade, I often wonder how the wood ship building industry kept up with the demand. The metal shipyards in time took over when white oak was about gone.

Here is a picture of a wooden ship being built, as I remember it. The first work was to level off a piece of ground parallel to the water as 98 percent of our ships were launched sideways. Then the keel blocks were placed for the length of the ship and for this a level was used. After this, the level was put away, as there was no more need for that tool, or for the steel square. In the actual construction of a ship the bevel and plumb line took their place. When you consider the sheer of a ship and the crown of the deck, you can see why that is so.

On the keel block was laid the keel plank of six-inch thickness. No keel timbers protruded below the keel plank in lake vessels as they would restrict the draft and dead weight cargo to the amount they went below such keel planks, and there is shallow water in many places.

Next the ship’s frames or ribs were assembled, and all bolted together in one U-shaped piece from top side to bilge and around under the ship and to top side on the other side of the vessel. These were slid across and on top of the keel plank, then hauled to an upright position by block and tackle. They were placed about one foot apart, set perpendicular to the keel by a plumb line. The frames were set up amid ship, first working toward either end, after which the stem and stem posts were placed in position and plumbed.

The ship’s planking was started on either side of the keel planks. A large flitch was placed on saw horses. The layout man with a tape line took his length for each plank. With a bevel he took the angle at each frame, placing the number of the frame and level line on a small thin board held in the crook of his left arm. He then went to the flitch in the yard and laid out his markings, transferring the angles and widths to the plank.

Two ship carpenters would then start with ship axe and adze, cutting away the edges down to the chalk lines. After this, it was planed to the right level. leaving a caulking seam. This would leave the outside of the plank narrower in width than the back, which went against the frame, leaving an open caulking seam of about 1/4 inch on outside edges running in two-thirds the thickness of the planks.

The planks on the bottom were usually four inches thick each side the keel planks and eight inches wide. They would narrow to six inches on the bilge; and I know of one large schooner, the David W. Dows, that had bilge planks six inches thick on the bilge, decreasing to five inches after the turn at the bilge was made.

The side planks varied in width from six to eight inches in amidship, but tapered as they approached the bow and stern. This was necessary because every strake of planks was maintained stem to stern, and the distance top of the stem to forefoot was about one-half of that from top side to keep amidship where the girth was the greatest. Therefore, the width varied at each frame.

Before the hull planking got too far along, the deck beams of twelve inches square oak-timbers were placed and fastened at top side at each frame running athwart ship. On them were laid northern white pine planks six inches wide and four inches thick, on whose edges a caulking seam was planed also. Most of this decking came out of northern Michigan. I have seen it cut in lengths up to 36 feet long without a knot.

After the deck beams were placed and fastened, the deck planks were laid. The hatch coamings were placed around the hatchways; these were of oak and placed on the deck planks around the openings. Their timbers were made of 8 by 12 pieces. This was work for the best mechanics and there were many of them. The fore and aft member was beveled on the outside and fitted to the sheer of the deck, and the cross member fitted to the crown of the deck. These timbers did not have a square side or end where a carpenter’s steel square could be used. I have seen these large timbers joined at the corners with a lock joint so tight you could not slip a cigarette paper in at any place. Those wonderful mechanics could do that class of work in wood and be proud of it, also of the amount of work done in a day, Not so now.

While all this was going on, a keelson of 12 by 12 oak timbers was being built in the bottom of the ship over the frames and in line of the keel planks fore and aft stem to stern. This would sometimes in our large ships run four feet across and five feet high, all bolted together of these oak timbers. This was the backbone and main strength of the ship.

The ship was planked on the inside of the cargo hold with 4 by 12 inch planks. There was no caulking seam planed on these planks and the seams were not caulked. This added greatly to the strength of the vessel.

After the ship was planked, stem to stern and from keel to top side, the carpenters went to work and adzed down the entire outside planking. These men were artists with that tool and never made any deep gouges in the planks. Instead, they made the planks so smooth that the planing with a small plane was not a heavy job. This gave the ship a beautiful smooth finish outside.

Now the ship was ready for caulking the decks and the outside of the hull with a strand of cotton and three strands of oakum. These men were professionals, furnishing their tools and their own driving irons and mallets. This work was hard, standing under the ship, stooped over with one shoulder down, driving oakum overhead or sitting on a low stool on deck driving oakum under foot.

The mallets they used were of a different shape than I have seen used in any other vocation. When they were being worked they gave out a loud, musical ringing note that could be heard for blocks away. Each caulker tried to improve the ring of his mallet, knowing full well that every time he let up in his work or stopped work, every man in the yard would know it, so he wanted his mallet to ring out loud and clear. I applaud those men. They drove oakum in dry weather, and in wet weather they sat in the loft, spinning oakum over the knee and folding it into skeins ready for weather in which to resume driving.

The men who shaped the masts, yards and booms were also distinctive mechanics. They would take long, selected white pine logs 28 inches in diameter at the desk and 108 feet long, square them, then make them eight-cornered, then sixteen-cornered, tapered from heel to truck – then smoothed round with a plane. I have seen these professionals stand on one of these logs, swing a ship axe from over the shoulder and split a chalk line mark. They, too, took pride in their work.

When the masts were in place aboard the ship, along with the yards and booms, the riggers went to work splicing the shrouds and stays, bending the sails on yards and booms, slicing the halyards and reaming them off through the blocks.

From some old papers, I have read the cost of our early ships. From 1814 to 1820 they ran from $15,000 to $20,000 and some of the last and larger ones built cost $25,000 to $30,000.

The early steam vessels cost $35,000 to $40,000 in the period from 1835 to 1845. The Great Lakes is given credit for building the first fore and aft schooners and using the sail called the raffee, a triangular sail over the square sail on the foremast of a barkentine. These builders of ships I put into five classes, no one class being more important than the others, nor better workmen than the rest:

The ship carpenter shaped the planks and ribs.
The ship joiner, the cabin work.
The caulkers drove home the oakum.
The mast makers shaped the spars, yards and booms.
The ship riggers spliced and set the shrouds and stays.

These men were all local hardworking men who built ships when building was brisk, and who sailed on these ships when building was slack, and went into the woods in the winter getting out timber. In 1871 ship carpenters were paid $1.50 a day; labor $1.00 per day; the superintendent $3.00 per day and good clear oak $30 per 1000 foot board measure.

Longfellow wrote:

We know what master laid thy keel,
What workmen wrought thy ribs of steel.
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope.2

I want to pay tribute to these faithful, hardworking men who worked ten hours a day, six days a week, men who took great pride in the character of their work and were proud and boastful of the number of planks they shaped and spikes they drove in a day.

They owned their homes, educated their children, raised gardens, put the flour and pork in by the barrel, hung hams in the attic. The woodshed was piled high with wood for winter.

As a boy I knew a great many of these men, played and went to school with their children, and I know there was not another vocation that included a finer group of hard working, good American citizens, or that could build a better or more beautiful and graceful ship. These men well knew that the security and well being of their homes in part hinged on the quality and amount of work they did. They enjoyed contentment and satisfaction; it gave them peace of mind and pride in their work.

This, then, is the story of a beautiful creation, a ship. There is not a single sharp angle any place and each change of shape works into another, gracefully and symmetrically. The caulking seams run true to form; the protruding covering board and cap of the bulwarks all give the ship graceful lines. The mast and rigging all make a picture of grace and ease.

To any man who loves a ship, has seen ships built and launched, sliding down the ways, taking to the water gracefully for the first time, it is then that they seem to take the breath of life and their own distinct personality, each different from the other, but all beautiful.

*    *          *          *

The ship stands on the keel blocks, the launching ways are in place and I want you to know just how I have felt when I have watched a ship, built all by hand labor by men I knew in my home town, started from the keel, assembled timber by timber all from the nearby forest, rigged to the last stay and shroud and ready for launching at the master carpenter’s command. The command is given, she starts, and then with moist eyes I feel, as the poet so beautifully put it:
Then the master
With a gesture of command,
Waved his hand;
And at the word,
Loud and sudden there was heard,
All around them and below,
The sound of hammers, blow on blow
Knocking away the shores and spurs.
And see! She stirs!
She starts – she moves, – she seems to feel
The thrill of life along her keel.
And spurning with her foot the ground,
With one exalting, joyous bound –
She leaps into the ocean’s arms !
And, 10! from the assembled crowd
There rose a shout, prolonged and loud,
That to the ocean seemed to say,
Take her, 0 bridegroom, old and gray,
Take her to thy protecting arms,
With all her youth and all her charms!

1.An exception was the schooner George Nester, 790 tons, built all of Norway pine at Baraga, Michigan, in 1887, which was late in the age of wooden vessels.

2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Building of the Ship.

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About the Author: John Borman was born and raised on Put-in-Bay and knew Captain Parker all his life. John even helped raise three of Captain Parker’s grandchildren and wrote, “I am very proud of them!” Borman has many fond memories of riding alongside Parker in his wheelhouse.

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