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Bottled Ship Builder

U.S. Frigate Constitution, 1812

Dave Fellingham

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Here's a detail from my drawings of USSC of the starboard fore channel with chains and deadeyes. The circled (in green) pair of deadeyes is the one for the Bentink shroud. I don't think a fairlead will be required for the shroud because USSC had very wide channels here and even this far forward the bulwarks still had some tumble home although not much. The tumble home increases going aft at the main mast then transitions closer to vertical at the mizzen channels.




The first shroud triple blocks (instead of deadeyes) are circled in blue. The first shroud hinders the yard from rotating around the mast to allow the ship to lie as close to the wind as possible. When the quickly adjustable blocks and lanyard are slacked off on the lee side, that loosened shroud will allow the yard to lie a bit closer to the ship's center line and consequently closer to the wind. I believe this was an American innovation.


The three pairs of blocks between the deadeyes are, from the right, the topmast, topgallant mast and royal mast breast backstays


You can also see in my drawing the doubled ribs each 11.5 inches / 29.2 cm (23 inches / 58.4 cm total). The doubled ribs are spaced at 25.75 inch / 65.4 cm with a gap between of only 2.75 inches / 7 cm. Constitution's hull framing was 90% solid live oak with white oak planking inside and out for a total of 22 inches thickness at the main wale just below the gun deck ports. No wonder the shot just bounced off. This spacing of the ribs was very unusual for the period, even the venerable 100 gun first rate, HMS Victory, had greater spacing between the ribs than "Old Ironsides".

Edited by Dave Fellingham
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  • 3 weeks later...

Great graphic! I still scratch my head about that first shroud tackle situation though. Slacking off the shroud wouldn't buy you very much functionality in terms of yard bracing. You would get such a negligable amount of extra room, perhaps less than six inches? Up where the yard would contact the first shroud, the shrouds are within a foot or so of each other and the second shroud would still offer the same problem the tackle would be solving for the first. At the foot of the cours sail maybe there would be some smal advantage, but again kinda negligable as you consider the shape of the foot of the sail is falling on a curve.

Also if I want to brace as hard as possible, I can slack off the Truss Pendants and now the center point of the yard is floating in space farther forward of the mast and shrouds and I have the extra room I wanted without loosening any shrouds.

If I was put on the spot and had to come up with a plausable explanation for the tackle, I would say it was used for tightening and taking slack OUT of the shroud. Deadeyes do this too but a block with a tail on it is going to be easier to adjust than dealing with the lanyards on deadeyes and shipping tackle for tightening it. I certainly won't insist this is the 'real" reason for the tackle though- I find the whole issue fascinating and have an open mind about it.

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Did some digging and in Eriksen's book he references Brady regarding these "swifters" used as the first shroud on the fore and main mast of USSC. [see earlier posts regarding the works I'm using as principle sources, I have Brady's book as a download in post #12.] Eriksen states:

"Let's first define their purpose or function. (From Brady)

   A. To steady and add additional security to the mast.

   B. To loosen and hove tight again quickly.

   C. Useful during hard tacks to avoid chafing and collision between lower spars and foremost shrouds."


It appears we're both right.


I also found a scale drawing in Eriksen of the shrouds. The fore and main mast shrouds are all connected with a spreader bar just above the deadeyes, excluding the swifter (shroud #1). The futtock stave is similar. None of the catharpins and ratlines attach to the swifter. In the normal sense it's not really a shroud and rather than call it one I'm going to refer to it as a "swifter" using Eriksen's and Brady's terminology. That drawing also shows the clearance between the Bentinck shroud and the bulwark - lots of room, but I am glad to now have graphic confirmation. I'd scan and post the Eriksen drawing but am reluctant to do so because the book is under copyright and in print.

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To get back to USS Constitution, I thought I’d post these.  Someone suggested getting pictures of SIBS along with the vessel they were intended to represent.  I thought I’d try with my latest model of the great frigate.  Approaching security at the ship, it got complicated.  I was referred to the Navy, and the ensign who met me at the gate had to call his immediate superior.  That officer called the OOD.  Finally, the Commandant was called.  Once permission was granted they couldn’t have been nicer.  The ensign who escorted me to the ship kindly offered to take this picture alongside.  (I can’t help but notice how the evidence of my good living complements the tumblehome of the ship)




On board I decided not to push my luck and take my own pictures.  This shot of the model on a quarter deck carronade slip is a striking look at scale.  The model is large for me, at 29’ = 1”, in a 10 liter bottle.  It seems quite insignificant next to a minor detail of the real thing.




In my notes after completing this model some 3 years ago, I wrote that it was not an experience I was eager to repeat anytime soon.  Reading the notes above and David’s research I now wish a Constitution was going to be on the desk sooner than later.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Great photos, Alex. I envy you in that you can go visit the Constitution, and other East Coast nautical museums and attractions whenever you wish. I live in San Bernardino County (the city of San Bernardino is the County seat but a long ways west from where I live) which is the largest county in the U.S. and larger in land area than the five smallest States combined.


My drawings are essentially complete. I'm using the drawing set for masts and spars from USS Constitution Museum with corrections from the current configuration in the drawings to the historical dimensions as recorded in 1815. The Eriksen book is also very helpful here as a double check to verify the historical configuration for rigging later.


I ordered some power tools I've wanted for quite a while but haven't been able to rationalize buying. They were on sale at MicroMark at enough discount to essentially get one of them for free. I bought a model maker's table saw, thickness sander, jeweller's drill press and a scroll saw and received them about a month ago. Today I ordered accessories for them - additional saw blades, several guides and accessories for the table and scroll saws and sanding drums for the thickness sander.


I am also in the process of placing an order for Costello boxwood, pear and holly from Crown Timberyard. I sent them an e-mail for a price and probable lead time for basic sheet stock in the thicknesses needed in quantity. With the miniature table saw I'll be able to cut down the sheet stock for the components needed. I have the piece of what is probably long leaf yellow pine from the deck of the USS Constitution I purchased which I will use for the keel and other major parts of the hull. I plan to use the holly for decking and planking, pear and some of the boxwood for structural pieces and the boxwood for the more carved and detailed parts. I haven't decided what to use for the masts and spars yet.


I'm looking forward to making sawdust very soon! And taking lots of photos of the work in progress to share.



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  • 3 weeks later...

While waiting for wood I made a tool based on one similar built by Shipbuilder. See:  Deck Scoring  



Here I'm trying out my scoring tool to partially cut through .0014 in. /  0.036 mm 

copper foil to use as the 16 in. x 48 in. / 41 cm x 122 cm cladding sheets. They are

.066 in. x .200 in. / 1.68 mm x 5.08 mm.



By scoring the copper foil I will be able to break them apart on the score lines.

I cut about 2200 scale copper hull plates, most still connected to use later.



Also while waiting for wood and tools to arrive I made the keel, stern post, rudder and some deadwood from the piece of USS Constitution. That piece of wood was miserable to work with because in tiny pieces it had a tendency to split at the growth rings so I chose not to use as much as I originally intended. I also generated patterns for many of the parts I'll need to make and, as soon as the wood arrived, set to cutting them.


I use freezer paper for printed patterns. The paper has a waxy/plastic coating on one side and is unfinished on the other. Printing is done on the paper side then the pattern is placed, coated side down, on the wood and ironed to soften/melt the coating to make it stick to the wood. Makes it easy to cut out the part then sand it to split the line. The pattern comes off easily, rarely leaving a bit of the waxy/plastic as residue which can be controlled by turning the heat of the iron down a bit.  



Constitution wood in the keel, stern post, rudder and deadwood (bottom and left side).

The keel required four pieces to be spliced together. To the right are some of the pear

wood bow pieces with patterns attached, cut out but needing sanding to finished size.



Assembling the ribs in two layers to replicate the original construction. Four have the

two layers epoxied together such that butted joints are lapped and don't coincide to

leave a weak spot in the construction. The second one from lower left is the only single

rib used. The three in the upper row to the right will have another layer applied. The rib

at lower left, labeled "zero" on the printed sheet, is at the widest place in the hull.

These ribs are aft of that zero station. I'm using Castello boxwood for the ribs.



Thirty-six ribs with freezer paper patterns ironed to them. Next step is to cut them out,

sand to finished size and detail them - about half of the ribs needed.


This is the first time working with either pear or boxwood. Both are a dream to work with.

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Hi Dave,

She is looking good.


I know how you feel about the tendency for wood splitting at growth rings. I tried using Douglas Fir for the rudder on the Preussen and I experienced the same issues. I ended up believe it or not using pop-sickle stick wood. The latter I think is a white pine, not sure, but its hard and dense enough to sand and detail for extremely small pieces.


I echo Daniel's comments on the wax paper, nicely done. I see your mirroring McCaffery's techniques on this build! Great so see .... ;)

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 I like the wax paper idea.



I know how you feel about the tendency for wood splitting at growth rings. I tried using Douglas Fir for the rudder on the Preussen and I experienced the same issues. I ended up believe it or not using pop-sickle stick wood. The latter I think is a white pine, not sure, but its hard and dense enough to sand and detail for extremely small pieces.


I echo Daniel's comments on the wax paper, nicely done. I see your mirroring McCaffery's techniques on this build! Great so see .... ;)


Do NOT substitute waxed paper for freezer paper - waxed paper is waxed on both sides - the ink won't set and the wax will melt onto the face of the iron. We mustn't piss off the Admiral!  :( Remember - freezer paper, NOT waxed paper. I cut it to standard paper size and keep a supply pressed flat in a book to take out the curl from coming off a roll so it will feed through the printer. 


Both McNarry and McCaffery have done full-on plank on rib construction in their models which inspired me to try it on this project. I studied larger scale conventional models in progress on Model Ship World as well.


I find craft stick wood much like basswood, kind of soft and not real good at holding fine detail like clean sharp corners. Try pear or boxwood, much better than the unknown soft wood used in those craft sticks. I love the smell of boxwood as I cut it on my mini table saw - kind of sweet and nutty that reminds me of Mom's butternut squash baking in the oven on Thanksgiving when I was a kid.

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Thanks for sharing your device with us, it inspired me to make my own just for the task of cutting hull cladding plates. I'll also use it for cutting uniform, narrow strips of paper for mast bands, paint stripes and numerous other similar details. I don't score my decks, preferring to build them up from strips of wood similar to McNarry and McCaffery, but will certainly use it for numerous other tasks. I already had the dial indicator and bolted it on so I can use it in other applications. Thanks again, Bob.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Still working on ribs but have also made progress on other components. Couldn't work on them because I was without electricity for two days - first hot day of the year (90F at 9am) and several transformers blew out here in the desert. I also had to do a bit of new tool set-up that kept me from some of the work until the set-up was done.



Here's some photos of cutting, sanding and detailing my rib zero.




Just finished cutting out zero on the scroll saw which made quick work of it compared to doing it by hand with

a jeweler's saw. The black tube is connected to a small shop vac for saw dust control so I can see the cut line.




Finished sanding what I could safely do with this shaper/sander attachment for a Dremel motor. Learned quick to

use slow speed to prevent making smoke instead of sanding dust. And there's that ubiquitous black pipe again.

Some hand work left at the 'steps' in the inner side of the rib. The steps are for gun and spar deck beams.




Zero rib again with one of the half-ribs cut away for a gunport on the forward side and notches cut for the gunport

sill and lintel pieces. Not much rib here above the spar deck line - this rib is in the low bulwark waist area. If you look

closely you will notice the glue line between half-ribs and at the segments used to build the rib. Those segments partially

replicate actual construction except that each half-rib was made up of six or seven futtocks on each side of the keel.

Chose not to do that - way too much work even for this detail fanatic. I think the suggestion of those futtocks is enough.

One down - about seventy more to go, not counting the cant frames fore and aft and the bow and transom ribs.




Work on the keel continued with sanding of the stem and beak head and gluing it to the keel and stern post. Used a

print-out from the computer, covered with plastic wrap so I don't glue the pieces to the paper, to lay these pieces out. I

did the same with those rib pieces but failed to mention the plastic wrap in that post. Again, chose not to duplicate the

beak head assembly exactly which was made up of about 10 individual pieces scarfed together. Much of that will be

covered by the trail boards and painted so there's not much point to the tedious work that would be.



I also cut and steam formed deck beam stock to the correct scale camber (arching curve) for the gun deck and spar deck (different camber on each) and made a clamp to hold the keel assembly when it comes time to start installing the ribs. Photos of that when I start using it.


As I mentioned previously, I'm using Castello boxwood for the ribs. It's a bit hard but works beautifully either by hand or with power tools. Now I know why Lloyd McCaffery uses it for his miniature figure head sculptures. (Actually he uses European boxwood - different species - nearly identical in working properties but a lot more money here in the States, that he finds, harvests, cuts and dries himself.) If you haven't seen his miniature figureheads, search him on the web, you will be amazed.



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Here's a link for Lloyd McCaffery's miniatures at the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery.  McCaffery miniatures


Here's a teaser:


Three of the figure heads here are miniatures of those carried on U.S. Frigate Constitution.

Can you identify all three? The first figurehead, lost in a collision with President

during the First Barbary War, may be the most difficult of the three.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Lloyd McCaffery and Donald McNarry have both been very inspirational in my work. Just seeing their work has challenged me to attempt the work I'm doing now. If they can do work I previously thought impossible, perhaps I can do something similar. So here I am, trying to come close.


I just passed 140 hours, not counting research and drafting, actual tools to wood. I have all the ribs built up, except for some in the transom/stern gallery, and have started cutting them out and detailing each one. I also have the keel ready for installing the ribs.



The keel with stem and beakhead, stern post and deadwood installed. A few of the ribs are also in place, rib

zero at left and ribs 1 through 6 going aft of it to the right. This is all held in the clamping fixture I mentioned

in an earlier post. It is two pieces of basswood each with a shallow rabbet cut along one corner to receive the

keel. It also has three through bolts and two guide rods to keep the top surface flat so I can use squares to

align parts as they are installed.



Close-up of stem and beakhead. The white material is holly, used to see how it works. Not great to work with,

it's prone to severe end of cut break-outs. Holly is usually chosen for its color rather than working properties.

It is often used as a substitute for ivory. It also dyes extremely well and when dyed black is also a substitute for

ebony. You may notice a dark line along the curve of the holly. That's a shallow bevel sanded along the edge

of piece of stem under it. That bevel is the bearding line, the line where the hull planks meet the stem. It will be

deepened into a Vee groove to match the planking once the ribs are all in place. That bearding line continues

the length of the keel partially visible here.



Sternpost and deadwood; all but the small piece with the little steps are wood from the Constitution. Much work

remains to be done here but I'm not quite sure how much of the deadwood needs to be chiseled away for the

hull planks to lie correctly. I'll know for sure when the ribs in this area are installed. You may have noticed a black

thread running from stem to stern in these photos, it's a center line used to verify the ribs are centered correctly.



Detail shot of the ribs. Spacers are card stock with a strip of household tape for a thickness of .0115 in./.292 mm,

1:240 scale of the space between ribs as designed. I have to check the length of the installed ribs along the keel,

I'm currently about .0005 less than they should be but will be easy to correct by not clamping the next 2 or 3 as tight

as I've been, then check that length. I must watch out for accumulated errors so the last rib is where it needs to be.

I have gun port lintel and sill pieces (made from craft stick wood as test pieces) in place. That port is .180 in./4.55 mm

horizontal and .146 in./3.70 mm true vertical. Along the curve of the tumble home it's more and looks it. I noticed

that the sill isn't quite in the groove cut in the rib the way it should be. You may also notice there are two gun deck

beams made from the darker pear wood visible among the spacers.



I've stolen another of Bob's ideas -- the use of a stop watch to time and record my hours worked on this project. I've averaged 6 hours per day, 5 days per week since first putting tools to wood. It's a hard habit to get used to but I can't pick up my OptiVisor without seeing the stop watch to remind myself. I've always been curious about my time on a project and have had to guesstimate up until now. On this project I'll know for sure.


It's starting to get interesting now that some of the pieces are coming together.






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I use dial calipers that read to .001 in., make sure my zero is right on and take multiple measurements at the keel. By using the most repeated measurement and estimating the splits between the marks it's fairly easy to read to .0005 in and even .0002 in. The width of the pointer itself on most dial calipers is 1/10 the distance between calibrations on the dial. Also, I worked with vernier and dial calipers and with micrometers most of my adult life so am quite comfortable with extrapolating that 4th decimal place.  

Edited by Dave Fellingham
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Yes, coming along really well.      Timing work can be a real eye-opener.       I am great enthusiast of Donald McNarry because he built lots of different types of model ,but as far as I know, although McCaffery is the best of all, he doesn't seem to build powered ships.


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Yes, coming along really well.      Timing work can be a real eye-opener.       I am great enthusiast of Donald McNarry because he built lots of different types of model ,but as far as I know, although McCaffery is the best of all, he doesn't seem to build powered ships.



Absolutely, regarding timing the work. I was amazed after a day of working for a time then taking a break, back and forth from breakfast until almost bedtime and finding I had put in almost 9 hours at the bench. My guesstimate would have been 6. Other days I find it hard to stay there for an hour total. I have also learned not to work up until bedtime because I'll spend 2 - 3 hours laying in bed trying not to think about what needs to be done next.


I hadn't specifically noticed that McCaffery doesn't build powered ships, but as I think about it - and thumb through his book - I think you're right.

Edited by Dave Fellingham
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Thanks, Jeff.


The wood was removed from Constitution in 1996 during normal maintenance according to the certificate of authenticity. That was the year that a lot of deck planking was replaced and part of the reason I believe it is long leaf yellow pine -- the wood I found difficult to work with. That planking was installed during the major rebuild in 1928-31 in which 85% of the ship was replaced. The remaining 15% included the keel and most of the lower rib futtocks which were determined then to have been from the original construction in the 1790's. After the rebuild Constitution was towed to numerous ports on all three US coasts and two passages through the Panama Canal in 1931-34. Over 4.6 million visitors walked over those deck planks during that tour.

Edited by Dave Fellingham
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Moving forward with detailing and installing ribs.




Rib 27 is the aft-most of these ribs and is the last one that is directly on the keel. #28 locates on the deadwood

(the piece sitting on the keel with the upward curving top profile). #27 needed to be within .005 in./.013 mm of it's

correct location so that #28 and those behind it will locate correctly. It's .002 in./.051 mm short which is better than long.




Close-up of the ribs. The gaps above the lower gun ports will be filled with short segments of the ribs that will glue

to the lower gun port lintels and, at the three upper gun ports to the right, to those gun port sills. These ribs are

beginning to look much like those in the black and white photos at the top of page 2 from the 1873-77 rebuild.




This close-up shows how I use the center line thread to verify the ribs are centered.



 I'll try to report progress weekly during repetitious work, like these ribs, or when work more interesting is done.

Edited by Dave Fellingham
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