The Shipwright: Building the Fleet

The Shipwright: Building the Fleet

We had a little water party yesterday; I and my two nephews [George and Edward Knight] went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home.

Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra Monday, 24 October 1808

A Ship has been defined, a timber building, consisting of various parts and pieces, nailed and pinned together with iron and wood, in such form as to be fit to float, and to be conducted by wind and sails from sea to sea. The word ship is a general name for all large vessels with sails, adapted for navigation on the sea: but by sailors the term is more particularly applied to a vessel furnished with three masts, each of which is composed of a lower-mast, a top-mast, and a top-gallant-mast.

A shipwright is one who is employed in building or repairing such vessels. Ship-building is to this country one of the most important arts; it is studied as a science by the learned, who denominate it naval architecture: for the promotion of this science, a very respectable body of ingenious men have for the last fifteen years associated. In ship-building three things are necessary to be considered: First, to give the vessel such a form as shall be best adapted for sailing, and for the service for which she is designed: secondly, to unite the several parts into a compact frame; and thirdly, to provide suitable accommodations for the officers and crew, as well as for the cargo, furniture, provisions, guns, and ammunition.

The outside figure of a ship includes: the bottom, or the hold, which is the part that is under the water when the vessel is laden; and the upper works are called the dead works, which are usually above the water when the ship is laden. To give a proper shape to the bottom of the ship, it is necessary to consider the service for which she is designed. A Ship O’ War should be able to sail swiftly, and carry her lower tier of guns four or five feet out of the water: amerchant ship ought to be able to contain a large cargo of goods, and to be navigated with few hands; and both should be able to carry sail firmly; to steer well; and to sustain the shocks of the sea without being violently strained.

Ships are built principally with oak timber, which is the stoutest and strongest wood we have, and therefore best fitted both to keep sound under water, and to bear the blows and shocks of the waves, and the terrible strokes of cannon-balls. For this last purpose, it is a peculiar excellence of the oak, That it is not so liable to splinter or shiver as other wood, so that a ball can pass through it without making a large hole. The great use of the oak for the structure of merchant ships, as well as for men of war, is referred to by Mr. Pope:

While by our oaks the precious loads are bourne, And realms commanded 'which those trees adorn.

During the construction of a ship, she is supported in the dock, or upon a wharf, by a number of solid blocks of timber placed at equal distances from and parallel to each other; in which situation she is said to be on the stocks. The first piece of timber laid upon the blocks is generally the keel, which, at one end, is let into the stern-post, and at the other into the stem. If the carcass of a ship be compared to the skeleton of a human body, the keel may be considered as the backbone, and the timbers as the ribs. The stern is the hinder part of the ship, near which are the state-room, cabins, &c. To the stern-post is fixed the iron-work that holds the rudder,which directs the course of the vessel. The stem is a circular piece of timber in the front; into this the sides of the ship are inserted. The outside of the stem is usually marked with a scale or division of feet, according to its perpendicular height from the keel; the intention of this is to ascertain the draught of water at the fore-part, when the ship is in preparation for a sea voyage.

In the plate the shipwright is represented standing at the stern on a scaffold, and driving in the wedges with his wooden trunnel. The holes are first bored with the auger, and then the wedges drove in; these are afterwards cut off with a saw. At his feet lie his saw, his auger, which is used for boring large holes, his axe, and punches of different sizes. The caulking of a ship is a very important operation: it consists in driving oakum, or the substance of old ropes un-twisted, and pulled into loose hemp, into the seams of the planks, to prevent the ship's leaking. It is afterwards covered with hot melted pitch, or rosin, to prevent its rotting. A mixture, used for covering the bottom of ships, is made of one part of tallow, one of brimstone, and three parts of rosin: this is called paying the bottom. The sides are usually payed with tar, turpentine, or rosin.

To enable ships to sail well, the outsides in contact with the water are frequently covered with copper. The masts of ships are made of fir or pine, on account of the straightness and lightness of that wood: the length of the main-mast of an East India ship is about eighty feet. The masts always bear a certain proportion to the breadth of the ship: whatever the breadth of the ship be, multiply that breadth by twelve, and divide the product by five, which gives the length of the main-mast. Thus, a ship which measures thirty feet at the broadest part will have a main-mast seventy. two feet long: the thickness of the mast is estimated by allowing one inch for every three feet in length: accordingly, a mast seventy two feet long must be twenty four inches thick. For the other masts different proportions are to be used. To the masts are attached the yards,sails, and rigging, which receive the wind necessary for navigation. In a dock yard where ships are built, six or eight men, called quartermen, are frequently entrusted to build a ship, and engage to perform the business for a certain sum, under the inspection of a master builder. These employ other men under them, who,according to their different departments, will earn from fifteen or twenty shillings to two or three pounds per week.

When a ship is finished building it is to be launched, that is, put out of dock. To render the operation of launching easy, the ship when first built is sup- ported by two strong platforms laid with a gradual inclination to the water. Upon the surface of this declivity are placed two corresponding ranges of planks, which compose the base of the frame, called the cradle, to which the ship's bottom is securely attached. The planes of the cradle and platform are well greased, and then the blocks andwedges, by which the ship was supported, are driven out from under the keel; afterwards the shores, by which she is retained on the stocks, are cut away, and the ship slides do into the water. Ships of the first rate are usually constructed in dry docks, and afterwards floated out by throwing open the floodgates and suffering the tide to enter, as soon as they are finished.

From "The Book of Trades, or Library of Useful Arts" published by Jacob Johnson, in 1807, with the original copper plate engraving.


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