Building the Viking longship

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    Malcolm Lewis

      Watching art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC TV programme “Art of Scandinavia” recently I was interested to learn that the famous Gokstad Ship c.850 was constructed by shipwrights using essentially “only axes and hammers”. Looking at the accuracy of the finished planking this is remarkable. These sturdy vessels sailed the northern seas often in the very worst of conditions.
      Seemingly the timber used was split from living trees and then finished using a variety of specially designed axes and adzes. Saws were not available at the time apparently because the manufacture of large sheet steel had not been developed in Northern Europe. No saws can be seen in Viking tool boxes of the time although the saw can be traced back to Roman times and even the 17th century BC.
      Ship building depicted on the Bayeux tapestry c1070s, shows timber being split from trees and trimmed with axes. One must assume King Alfred’s Navy ships (890 AD) were also built without the aid of saws.
      Is there a record as to when sawyers with cross cut saws began working in northern shipyards?

      Frank Scott

        Interesting question. Cannot find any hard references, but it seems that saws did not come into wide use in Northern Europe until 13th century.

        It has been observed in the reconstructions of Viking vessels that radially split planks are particularly strong as none of the fibres will have been cut across. The chapter on The Viking Ships of Skuldelev in Jenny Bennett (ed) Sailing into the Past: Learning from Replica Ships (Barnsley, 2009), contains a useful discussion of this issue.

        By contrast, if a tree has spiral growth, or lots of knots, it is unsuitable for split planks, but can produce sawn planks, albeit of inferior quality. Gillian Hutchinson, Medieval Ships & Shipping (London, 1997) in discussing tools notes that the English seem to have stuck with split planks for some time longer than others. For Grace Dieu (early 15th cent) although the keel has some saw marks, the planks were all split.


        Malcolm Lewis

          Thank you, Frank. I am learning much here. The medieval illustrations show small trees being split with axes but to get long planks for the Viking ship must have involved felling large trees. I suppose these could then have been split on the ground. I assume the trees would have been oaks which had many branches and therefore would have been quite knotty. So difficult to visualise the planking process without the aid if saws but then they did it. Maybe the research of Bennett and Hutchison throws some light on the wood working practices of those times.
          I am not familiar with trees of spiral growth. Would oaks be in this category?

          Alistair Roach

            Dear Malcolm,
            Can I point you in the direction of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark – They have built various replica ships based on original archaeological finds. Their biggest, based on Skuldelev 2 at 29.4m long, was built 2000-4 and named ‘The Sea Stallion from Glendalough’. Dedrdo. dating of timbers showed the original ship had been made out of oak felled near Dublin in the summer of 1042 – hence the name. The Museum has published various books and pamphlets – one called ‘Welcome on board! The Sea Stallion from Glendalough’ ISBN 9788785180414. This is only a 68p booklet but gives a potted history of its history, building and sailing. There are some gems in this book which may help your query e.g. under ‘tools’ they state that the most important tools were axes and augers but one tool, the saw, is lacking in Viking Age ship building. Although the tool was known at the time there is no evidence of it being used on ship finds! They also list materials e.g. the planks took 14 oaks of 8-10m in height and 1m in diameter at chest height and the planks with oarports were made from 4 ashes of 10m in height by 35cm in diameter at chest height, etc.etc. and they are all cleft! Certainly looking on-line at various websites that relate to ‘The Sea Stallion’ or with Roskilde Museum should help and also to get some of the museum’s publications. Good luck with your research. Alistair.

            Alistair Roach

              Further to my last message. I’ve just logged on to the museum website. If you go to the English version and then trawl down there is a feature entitled ‘200 year old oak to be cleaved at the Viking Ship Museum’ This dates from September and the ‘log’ in question is 8m long and they are just using hammers and wedges, split the oak trunk. As always. Alistair

              Malcolm Lewis

                Thank you. Excellent photos of huge 200-year-old logs being cleaved. What a massive task and demonstrating great skill. Can I assume that medieval ships in Northern Europe including the British Isles were built using the same methods? Did the Viking shipwrights export their expertise?


                  I know I am WAY late to the party, but you might want to contact Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. They currently host a Viking longship and even put her out to sea. They would probably be able to answer your question.

                  I was there for an NEH fellowship and what they have is impressive. In fact, they’re constructing a Mayflower replica at the moment.

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