Timber conversion in 18th century dockyards.

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1500 – 1830 Timber conversion in 18th century dockyards.

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    Nicholas Ball

    Hello all,

    The question I want to answer is: How was timber converted to planks for shipbuilding in the 18th century?

    I have found almost nothing on the conversion techniques – specifically whether they converted timber to plank by plain or quarter sawing.
    The secondary written sources have very little to say on the actual conversion techniques other than ‘they used sawpits’, and even less the primary sources. Sutherland (1711) mentions it in a rather casual way ‘oak, which had to be quartered’ but I can’t find much else, Blaise Ollivier doesn’t mention the specifics.

    Any help will be appreciated.


    Nicholas Blake

    The 1855 edition of Britannica, repeating earlier editions, in the entry “Dock-Yards” says that Brunel’s mill at Chatham “is supposed to be equal to the power of fifty saw-pits and nearly one hundred sawyers, and is capable of supplying the dock-yards of Chatham and Sheerness with all the straight-sawn timber that they can require.” <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dmNVAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA82&dq=plank+sawn+dockyard&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjBl9_awuPrAhUOUcAKHd8LAEQQ6AEwAnoECAQQAg#v=onepage&q=plank%20sawn%20dockyard&f=false&gt; Since the advantages of Brunel’s mill were all those of cost – the machines carrying out the work of the sawyers faster – and organisation – movement of balks around the yard – not in techniques it may be possible to conclude that quarter-sawing was not used; and since the advantage of quarter-sawing is that planks have greater stability, but the dockyards needed to steam planks into curves, that may be another factor.

    Steele’s Seaman’s Vade-Mecum (scanned by Google) discusses measuring trees to compute how much square timber will be produced, which may give the answer. Probably it will be in the report of the Committee of Naval Revision, but it was not published and is hard to find.

    Finally, timber was often converted and supplied to the dockyards by timber merchants; there are some timber merchants’ contracts in the National Archives and while they are very detailed they don’t mention the sawing method. It may be one of those things that the Georgians thought were too obvious to write down.

    Sam Willis

    Some replies from our Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/thesocietyfornauticalresearch

    Michael Taylor: I would suggest, although I am not certain, that it would have been done manually using a saw-pit with two sawyers. One would work the top handles of a long vertical saw and the other would be in the pit working the lower handles from below the log. They must have been very strong and fit!

    Chris Lowther
    Chris Lowther If you visit Chatham Maritime Centre you will see planks being sawn using a saw pit with the apprentice standing in the bottom getting all the saw dust which reminds me that when MMS Otter went into Western Shiprepair yard in Birkenhead for a docking the yard used tree trunks as stabilisers to keep the boat upright. They offered the piece up between dockside and SM and sawed to length using a 2 man handsaw.

    Tim Cannon
    Tim Cannon I agree with you Michael Taylor there was a lot of hard manual labour in those days and considerable expertise.

    Malcolm Lewis

    Quartered wood has historically been used for used for quality furniture where exposure of the grain is required for decorative purposes. The timber is sawn along the radius of the trunk. It is wasteful in its production and therefore expensive – probably twice the price of plank sawn. Lumber for quarter sawing takes longer to mature. In the days of timber-built warships plank timber was the biggest item purchased by the Navy Board and therefore the least expensive form was selected.

    Malcolm Lewis

    Additional note for interest
    Re Quality Control
    A senior shipwright in the Royal yard was employed to check that new supplies of timber were correct for quality and to specification. He was referred to as the “timber taster”.
    The Baltic timber yards also employed inspectors who graded the timber and marked it individually with its grade and its port of origin. These were called brackers. Their integrity was well recognised by the Navy. Even so the Navy also appointed its own agents to check on the local brackers to ensure there was no evidence of bribery. (Bracker – An official inspector of goods in ports on the Baltic. The Century Dictionary)
    Much of the timber was processed in the many water powered sawmills situated on the rivers carrying the logs from the forests to the Baltic ports. It was more economic to ship it planked.
    References; Building the Wooden Fighting Ship – James Dodds and James Moore 1984

    Nicholas Ball

    Thanks All!

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