Building a Wooden Frigate

Hundreds of years ago shipwrights starting building a frigate type ship with a contract and an intellectual plan only. There were no blueprints or design documents or such. The contract laid out the construction sequence of scantlings, materials, joins and fastenings. The people or tradespeople involved would be the spar-makers, block-makers, sailmakers, riggers, blacksmiths and those supplying oils, tar, tallow, and wood.

The first job to start in the process of building a wooden frigate from days past would be sawing the timber for the keel. The shipwrights book of proportions and formulas , handed down from father to son through the ages, determined the dimensions of the keel.

The shipwright joined the keel pieces with a tapering scarf joint and then cut out a rabbet which is a recess that holds the lowest plank called the garboard strake. Curved timbers were needed for the stem, at the bow of the ship. The sternpost framing was laid down consisting of the sternpost itself and fashion pieces such as the transom, wing transom and stanchions. This sternpost structure was fastened to the keel with large wooden knees secured with bolts.

After the keel, stem and sternpost were made, then planks were set in up to the turn of the bilge. To shape the timbers into the correct shape and curves, the timbers were soaked in water and then put over fires and then bent into shape with tools until the correct curve and twist was found.

Then frames were put in that went up to the full height of the ship’s hull. The remaining planks were put on to the top of the hull. The keelson was laid down onto the floors and then the apron, breast hooks, deck hooks and supports for the deck beams.

Decks were nailed down next and then caulked with oakum( a mixture of animal hair, spagnum moss or hemp and tar) and the seam was paid with pitch. The ceiling was fastened through to the outer planks using 40 cm long dowels made out of oak.

At the same time other parts were being made ready to be installed. These parts included the gratings, hatches, pumps, beakhead, capstan, windlass, whipstaff and rudder.

Also during this time the blacksmith would be forging the ringbolts , hinges, hoops, bolts, anchor , and assorted metal fastenings.

The sparmakers would be making the spars from maritime pine (pinus pinaster) tree trunks. Wooden frigates usually had 3 masts, the foremast, the mainmast ,the mizzenmast and the bowsprit sticking out at an angle of about 45 degrees from the bow. The mainmast is in 3 sections – the mainmast which is secured to the mainmast step, the main topmast, and the flagpole. All in the mainmast could be around 70 feet high.

The sails were made by the sailmakers by hand from hemp and flax canvas. The riggers would be creating all the hemp ropes needed. The hemp rope used in the rigging would be coated in tar to stop the fibres from rotting. Pulleys (rigging blocks) , dead-eyes, and euphroes would be made. The standing rigging was the stays and shrouds that held the masts up. The running rigging are the ropes that hoist and control the sails. A wooded fid was used during the splicing of the ropes.

To caulk the hull, calf hair and pitch was used and to prevent fouling a mixture of tar and white lead dressed the hull bottom.

Once the vessel was in the water, the spars, masts would be stepped and the rigging set up.

Ancient Shipbuilding Resources

To Build a Ship: The Voc Replica Ship Duyfken – this book is amazing. It tells the story of how the replica of the Dutch ship the Duyfken was built.

Building The Wooden Fighting Ship This book tells the story of the building of HMS Thunderer, a two-decked, 74-gun ship-of-the-line. It coers every stage of its construction, from purchase and cutting of timbers through launch in 1760.

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