King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The construction of sailing ships

Throughout human history, ships and water-going vessels have utilised wood in their construction. From the simplest dug-out canoes to the giant sailing ships of the 19th century, wood historically provided the bulk of the material used in the construction of manifold types of shipping, transporting man and goods across the seas and waterways of the world.

The Industrial Revolution advanced the use of other types of material in shipbuilding and the hull of the Cutty Sark, one of the last of the famous tea clippers to be built, was constructed in the famous Clyde shipyards of a composite of wood and iron.

The tea clipper sailing ship Cutty Sark, with sails setThe tea clipper sailing ship Cutty SarkLubbock states that the ‘Clyde clippers’ were ‘noted for a yacht like finish: all their woodwork on deck or below was of the finest teak or mahogany, so beautifully finished to bear comparison with the work of a first-class cabinet maker’. Various other types of wood were also utilised in the Cutty Sark and her sister ships’ fittings, including American rock elm for the ship’s bottom and English oak for her rudder.

In the fold-out plate shown here, the sleek shape of the Cutty Sark’s composite wood and iron hull is visible, along with the strong wooden masts constructed to hold the sails as the ship was propelled at high speed. In a famous race with her rival Thermopylae, she broke her English oak rudder, and the ship’s carpenter was forced to construct a new one from spare timbers and other material.

Tea clippers were superseded by the more reliable and robust steam ships from the 1860s onwards as chief transporters of tea, opium and other cargo. The Cutty Sark now sits in dry dock in Greenwich and after restoration following a fire in 2008 is one of only three ‘composite construction’ ships of her type still in existence.

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