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Learn Prototype Shipbuilding Practices with Downloadable Book

The Elements of Wood Ship Construction

By William Henry Curtis

An important source of information to ship model builders

There’s nothing like going back to the source material to learn about a subject, and TheModelShipwright.com is offering a free PDF download of The Elements of Wood Ship Construction, by William Henry Curtis, published in 1919 for the Education and Training Section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

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The Elements of Wood Ship Construction


“It is intended for the use of carpenters and others, who, though skilled in their work, lack the detail knowledge of ships necessary for the efficient performance of their work in the yard,” according to the preface.

Beginning with Keels, stems and stern posts, the book moves through frames, inboard hull details, deck details, and explains planking, erections and joiner work with copious illustration.

When the U.S. entered World War I, the United States Shipping Board’s Emergency Fleet Corporation realized the need for a quickly-built supply of cargo ships that could combat the Germans’ uboat fleet predations on shipping by simply building them faster than they could sink them.

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Illustration of Stern Framing from The Elements of Wood Ship Construction

With a large number of shipyards along the East Coast still building wooden boats, the EFC came up with a series of designs that could take advantage of the available technology to crank out wooden steamships. But there were not a sufficient number of trained shipwrights, so the EFC also developed a number of books to acclimate non-nautical carpenters, plumbers, and pipe-fitters to the specific needs of the shipbuilding industry.

The original books are long out of print, and usually can only be found in academic libraries, but Google and archive.org have digitized some of them so the knowledge they contain can still be available.  They are an invaluable resource to the model shipwright who wants to understand not only how prototype wooden ships were built, but why they were built that way.
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An Old Shipbuilding Book Yields Great Ship Plans for a Model Shipwright

There’s not many things more exciting for a maritime history afficianado than digging through a pile of books at an antiques store and finding a nearly 100-year-old shipbuilding book in good condition. When it’s in a pile marked $1, it’s hard not to do a little dance, but I did my best to stifle an Irish jig when I found Wooden Ship-Building by Charles Desmond, Copyright 1919 The Rudder Publishing Company.

Using as an example illustrations from the ill-fated wood steamship project of the Emergency Fleet during World War I, Desmond ties together the art that made clipper ships possible with modern cargo vessels. this alone makes the book an interesting read, but the illustrated ship plans near the end of the book make it a valuable addition to any model shipwright’s library.

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New York Pilot Schooner
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Sail Plan of North River Schooner

One great example is the plan of a New York Pilot Schooner. These boats share a lot in common with the Baltimore Clipper Schooner in hull shape. Especially in the “drag” of the keel: The ship sits much deeper at the stern than at the bow. One way in which they differ from their ancestor is the bow is much more plumb. Baltimore Clippers tended to have the outward curving bow of a cutter. Howard Irving Chapelle later documented this perennial favorite of model ship builders with the plans of the New York Piliot Schooner Phantom & Pet in The History of American Sailing Ships.

A less common plan that Desmond includes is a 77-foot North River Schooner, typical of the shoal draft centerboard sailboats used on the Hudson River to haul bulk cargo in the 19th Century. Less sleek and more workman-like than the pilot schooners, these river mules were probably more numerous. They had a shallow, tub-like hull with a centerboard to better deal with the shallow unpredictable waters of a river. When it was extended, the centerboard acted as a keel, giving the boat stability when tacking to windward, keeping it from “crabbing” – moving sideways rather than forward. When retracted, it allowed the boat to get into shallow waters, or even be beached for unloading where a harbor wharf wasn’t available.

François-Edmond Pâris, souvenirs de marine, book on amazon.com