Building a Replica: an Interview with a Shipbuilder

Rather than raise the wrecks of the Hamilton and Scourge, it may be preferable to build replicas for display. But how would one go about making accurate historical replicas?

How do you get the wood bent to all those different shapes?

The parts that most often need to be bent are the ribs and the planks. The ribs give the planks support and give the boat its shape. Often they need to make some drastic twists and turns. To get the wood to make drastic bends and twists we steam the wood.

Wood is composed of multiple layers of cellulose fibres held together in a fixed and solid state by a plastic substance called lignin. When heated, the lignin becomes pliable until it cools, thus binding the fibres in their new position.

What keeps the water out of the boat?

Part of the art of boatbuilding is to use the properties of the wood to your advantage. The outside shell of the boat is the planking. Each plank is butted side to side with another plank. The planks are shaped to fit snugly next to the previous plank in a nice, eye pleasing fair line.

Caulking (usually cotton) is then driven in between the planks. When the boat is in the water the planks swell tight to each other and the caulking expands, acting like a gasket to form a water tight seal, much like a washer is used in a faucet.

What woods are used in boats? Does it matter where they are used?

Builders will try to use species of wood that are indigenous to the area for cost and availability. The most commonly used species are:

  • White Oak – for the keel, ribs and structural members is used for its great strength, durability, rot resistance and bending properties.
  • White Pine, Cedar, or Douglas Fir – is used in planking for its ability to swell and make the boat water tight and rot resistant.
  • Sitka Spruce – for the mast and other spars, for its strength to weight ratio, as you don’t want a lot of weight above your head.
  • Mahogany – is often used for trim, hatches, doors and for decorative pieces. It is strong and rot resistant, but can be expensive. (Not native to North America)
  • Teak – is the most rot resistant wood available. It is good for decking, planking, and often used for trim, hatches and other decorative areas, especially on fibreglass boats to make them seem more expensive (this wood is not native to North America).

If nothing is straight or level on a boat, what do you use as a reference to build it?

Boats are designed relative to the position at which she rests in the water to get her best possible performance and most appealing appearance. Everything on the boat is built using the water line as a level – fore and aft and from side to side.

From the initial layout, all the pieces, molds and templates and anything else you can possibly mark with the waterline is level, so there is always a reference to work from. You also use the centre line of the boat and the distance from the bow as a reference mark. You therefore have established a three dimensional co-ordinate system to locate any point on the boat, as the boat is to be symmetrical from side to side. If you build to one point on one side, you must build to the same point on the other side.

How do you build a boat? Where do you start and what steps are involved?

Building a boat can be a complex puzzle at times as well as the most satisfying experience of your life. Once you have decided on a design and acquired the plans, the first step is lofting:

Lofting is the step when you accurately draw the out the plans of the boat, life sized, on the floor. This is a very important stage for the boat because this is your chance to solve hundreds of little problems before they become big problems later on down the line. Here you become very intimate with every line and curve of your boat and establish in your mind what it should look like.

All the molds and templates are made from these life sized drawings you have laid out or "lofted". You cut and make all pieces from the templates: the stem, keel, knees, sternposts, etc. Then you assemble the backbone, attach the station molds, transom and ribbands, making sure that they are square to the centerline, plumb and level to the waterline.

In the next phase, you steambend your ribs and temporarily attach them to the ribbands and install any major bulkheads. After this you proceed to the planking of the boat. Once you have finished the shear plank (the top plank), the shear clamp has to be installed. This is the ledge that the deck is built on. The breast hook and stern knees and floor timbers help distribute the loads.

At this point you have to consider things like engines and other mechanical, electrical and plumbing services. The boat can be sanded fair and smooth, then caulked and painted. Now you have a water-tight boat ready to go in the water, except for all the things that help to make it a functional craft.

Next, you add deck beams, carlings, deck planks, rub rails, toe rails coamings, cabin sides, cabin deck, cockpit seats and hatches, vents, port holes, companion way hatch, cabin hatches and anything else that will keep the inside dry from the elements.

You then finish the inside of the cabin, with ceiling (which is not to be above your head but on the sides covering the ribs and planking) cabin sole cabinetry, berths and lockers. As launching day grows near, it’s time to assemble your rigging, masts, booms, stays and running rigging. Add any necessary trim and hardware.

You now have a beautiful, well-crafted boat that, with a little love, will last 100 years or more. Bon voyage!

How do modern building techniques differ from traditional methods?

Building methods have changed very little for centuries. The parts of the boat are the same and they are put together in the same order. Some of the materials we use today are better and more readily available, like bronze and stainless steel for hardware and fasteners, instead of iron and steel.

There are also fungicides to fight rot, lead for ballast instead of stone, brick, or iron. Lexan is used for portholes and hatches instead of glass, dacron sails and nylon ropes instead of the hemp and flax that was once used.

Modern technology has made boats of today stronger, safer, more comfortable and easy to use, but it hasn’t changed how they are built. The only drawbacks today versus then, is the difficulty in acquiring good lumber and the decline in the number of skilled boatbuilders. Both are out there if you persevere, they are just not as abundant as they once were.


Virtual History - Visit the Hamilton Civic Museums to learn more about upcoming special events and exhibitions.

Support provided by the Government of Canada - The archaeology of this site was made possible by the generous support of Parks Canada.

Visiting Ontario - When you plan your trip to Hamilton Civic Museums, see what else Ontario has to offer.