The painting of blocks in the Royal Navy.
- March 31, 2022 at 8:57 pm #22869
Good day ladies and gentlemen,
I have just a simple question for the board;
Were the blocks used in the rigging of Royal Naval vessels painted, or oiled? I understand that this could not be a yes/no question, as i understand it, some captains had some latitude with paint schemes early on, but i see no reference to the painting of blocks. I have been told by a learned friend that the navy oiled thier blocks rather than paint them. I am particularly interested in the latter nineteenth century period, but earlier period answers would be most welcome, especially with supporting reference.
Thankyou allApril 3, 2022 at 10:54 am #22870Malcolm LewisParticipant
A wooden ship of the line over the centuries used up to 2000 blocks and dead eyes. They were essential for many purposes including rigging, securing the guns and anchor work. They ranged in size from 5 to 26 inches and were made from elm which was strong and resistant to rot. Elm was used for the keel and its endurance was enhanced when permanently immersed in sea water. I cannot find reference to blocks being either oiled or painted and with so many in use aboard this must have been an important labour saving,
The sheaves inside the blocks were made from lignum vitae which again was resistant to corrosion.
A million blocks were in use by the Navy every year and each ship kept spares on board. The ship’s carpenter was responsible for maintenance. The Brunel blockmaking machinery installed in 1803/4 greatly reduced the manufacturing costs of wooden blocks.
The article in the MM archive “The Blockmills at Portsmouth Dockyard in 18th-20th centuries: Mike Baker and others MM88:1” is most interesting.
Malcolm LewisApril 14, 2022 at 10:08 am #22893
Thanks for your reply Mr Lewis, very informative.
I am still unsure that the navy, or anyone would leave their blocks un-treated. My understanding of elm, as you quite rightly pointed out was used, is that it is susceptible to rot unless kept in a stable condition, i.e. submerged constantly. I suspect Elm was used due to its availability and workability; it has an interlocking grain that lends itself to milling and turning.it seems that with everything else being maintained, to leave the crucial blocks un-cared for would be odd. Does anyone know of any museum examples or analysis of archaeology that would shed light on this subject? Or perhaps paintings or pictures of ships?
Thanks again.April 14, 2022 at 11:31 am #22897Frank ScottParticipant
I have consulted with Peter Goodwin, former Keeper & Curator for HMS Victory, and he informs me that according to his research the blocks were oiled (boiled linseed oil). Deadeyes on the other hand were either oiled like blocks, or treated with Stockholm Tar. he went on to say that Elm was good for block cheeks & deadeyes because it could cope with being bashed around, and in particular was not prone to splitting. As regards rot, note that it is freshwater rather than seawater that is the real enemy for wood.April 17, 2022 at 9:20 am #22900
Thanks Mr Scott, and please convey my thanks to Mr Goodwin for his help. I had suspected oiling was the more likely explanation, at least during the ‘age of sail’ era. I have some experience of working on blocks aloft, and a wipe over with an oily rag regularly is much less time consuming than any sort of Painting, it also helps you to spot the rot! I now wonder, therefore if the practice of oiling was carried through to the 20th century? Would it be a case of Don’t change what isn’t broken? Thankyou againApril 17, 2022 at 3:38 pm #22901Frank ScottParticipant
For those vessels with wooden blocks my best experience is using Deks Olje D1 Wood Oil, soaking the wooden shells thoroughly, & then hanging them up to dry, before reassembling. This creates a smart matt finish, which is robust, lasts well, and is very easy to repeat when servicing next comes around on the schedule.
D2 leaves lovely gloss finish, but like marine varnish this cosmetic good look is achieved at the expense of longevity & practicality. D2 & Varnish do not stand up to rough & tumble, or UV for that matter, and you need to scrape off remnants & prepare surface before re-doing, all of which takes unnecessary time.
Some traditional sail training ships paint their wooden blocks, but that is inefficient & hides rot. On the plus side, it creates uniform appearance, and is quick to do.April 22, 2022 at 7:39 pm #22902
I quite agree with you about oiling blocks versus paint. I have some experience with the maintenance of blocks and rigging in this day and age, but my Library of Rigging manuals falls short of telling me what was appropriate for what era. Currently my thoughts are that the blocks were oiled (for your aforementioned reason) but at some point I think painting became a practice, for instance I have seen Victorian photography which show blocks in the background, and they appear to be too light in colour to be oiled elm.it would be nice if there was an admiralty directive that dictated this!
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