Evolution of the Wooden Ship
Author: Basil Greenhill (Illustrations by Samuel F Manning)
Publisher: Facts on File (Hardcover) Blackburn Press (Paperback)
Year: 1989 (Reprinted 2009)
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

Having spent years trying to understand primitive nautical jargon (the only opportunity one has to say "snatch block," "bunt lacing," or "cheek block" with a straight face), I've recently gotten down to the business of figuring out how wooden sailing ships were built. I've come across books full of detailed plans and descriptions of hull construction, but still had a hard time visualizing how everything fit together. Enter The Evolution of the Wooden Ship. I came across this book in a rather roundabout way. I was exploring the shipbuilding exhibit at Mystic Seaport when I noticed a series of illustrations from this book adorning one of the walls. I recognized the illustrator's style right away, and I decided right there that I had to own a copy some day.

The books opens with a concise introduction to early European ship and boat construction, starting with the first prehistoric log boats, and ending with the 15th century carrack. Mr. Greenhill, who was the former director of the National Maritime Museum, describes some of the key archaeological ship finds, including Greek and Roman merchantmen, Iron Age rafts, the 14th century Bremen Cog, and a number of Viking ships. He makes the distinction that these vessels were "shell built" - that is, their watertight skins were built first, and frames inserted into their hulls to strengthen them. When ships were "skeleton built," frames first, planking afterwards, the building of bigger, stronger ships became possible.

Most books on wooden ship construction focus on big, grand vessels, Clippers and Ships of the Line being the most popular choices. The second, and largest, part of this book takes the interesting choice of depicting the construction of a small, fairly simple merchant ship. The ship in question is a fictional two-masted schooner known as Master's Schooner, built on the River Tamar in South Devon, England, in the late 1880s. Ships of this type were built by the hundreds, supplying English coastal towns with much-needed coal and timber.

In this part we follow each step of the building process, from creating the 1/48th scale "half model," all the way to the eventual launching of the ship. Master's Schooner is a product of traditional craftsmanship, passed down from generation to generation, honed to perfection before steam and steel conquered the world's oceans. She's built entirely with hand tools, without the use of any real construction plans, in a small privately-owned shipyard without the assistance of outside contractors. We're introduced to the harsh realities of working at a shipyard (long hours, bad pay, deafening noise, getting soaked in sweat, pitch, and tar, choking on sawdust, etc.) before getting down to the nitty-gritty of shipbuilding.

Despite their small size, building a two-masted schooner was an extremely involved process. To name a few major hurdles, frames and hull planks had to be precisely beveled, every small gap between planks had to be tediously caulked with strands of oakum, raw timber had to be transformed into masts, and deep holes for clench bolts had to be augured by eye. In an age when ships are designed entirely on computers, built from 1,000 ton modules, and lowered into place by skyscraper-sized cranes, it's fascinating to see how they "used to do it." Axes, adzes, bar clamps, try planes, mallets, and huge pit saws were the order of the day. Patterns from the half model would be drawn full size in chalk on the floor of the "mold loft," from which patterns for the ship's structure could be created. Even then, a master shipwright would do most of the dirty work by eye, based on past experience alone.

The final chapter describes the building of four wooden ships of the era, each larger and more complex than the last. These are the Welsh three-masted schooner M.A. James, Finnish three-masted schooner Ingrid, Canadian three-masted barque Victoria, and the American four-masted schooner Bertha L Downs. Wrapping it up is a postscript describing the career and fates of the five ships depicted in the book.

The Evolution of the Wooden Ship is a near-masterpiece, which is high praise from someone like me! The heart of this book is the superb drawings by Samuel F Manning. They're stylishly drawn, and extremely detailed, while possessing a human quality in that they almost always show someone at work.While there are a couple traditional ship plans, the majority are drawn in perspective view. Manning adeptly depicts each step of Master's Schooner's construction, while showing how each tool was employed and how different parts of the ship fit together as a whole. The drawings are also accompanied by commentary that does a fine job explaining some of the more arcane aspects of shipbuilding. Think of the artwork by children's book illustrators like Stephen Biesty and David Macaulay (who both love old ships and showing how things are made), but for a more adult audience.

My main gripe (and it's a minor one) is that this book is mistitled. Only the first quarter of the book actually covers the evolution of wooden ships. This part is well done, but it occasionally feels like leftovers from a book that was never really finished. I guess Building the Wooden Schooner: 1875-1910 just didn't fly with the publisher. My other issue is that the description of the building of Master's Schooner ends rather abruptly. There's a drawing in the introduction showing her with sails and rigging, but nothing about these subjects later on. The use of iron fittings to save weight is mentioned, but none of the drawings show how they were incorporated into the ship's structure, except for one showing an iron mast head.

Those complaints aside, The Evolution of the Wooden Ship really is a great book. You still need to be interested in 19th century ship construction to "get it," but it's an extremely readable work, and Samuel Manning's artwork is superb. If you're looking for a book on wooden ship construction, but are intimidated by what's out there, it would make a great place to start.