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index > ship's architecture > wooden ships, iron men, and works of art: a chronology of wooden ships and marine art


By Charles ("Ted") Ireland
Read about Ted Ireland

Since the dawn of time man has sought to express himself using materials close at hand; wood, stone, fiber, bone, clay, pigment. He produced functional and decorative items ranging from basic tools and shelter to petroglyphs, pottery and ornaments.

Wood was one of the most abundant natural resources and it was relatively easily fashioned into useful items with only minimal skill. If we could select one item that through the ages has kept pace with man’s expression through wood, it would arguably be the wooden boat. Boats occupy a special place in the hearts of men. Through recorded history they have provided man with a means of travel, exploration and commerce. They have served as symbols of power and majesty and, because of their importance, they became a logical platform or “canvass” for man’s artistic expression. Man’s fascination with and fear of the sea has given rise to superstitions and a desire to intimidate enemies or ward off evil and fear of the unknown with painted and carved symbols. A brief look at the history of wooden boats and the evolution of marine art through the eyes of a modern day carver demonstrates our time-honored reverence for wood, boats and the art they inspired.


The first wooden boat was no doubt a log found floating in a stream, river or bay. That first “boat” may have been more accident than design but, with benefit of hindsight, it fired man’s imagination and set the stage for an incredible bond between man and the sea. Several logs lashed together for stability followed the simple log and the raft was born. Man soon began to experiment with more maneuverable and streamlined shapes and the hollowed-out or dug-out canoe was developed. Early forms of propulsion would have consisted of push poles and wood or hand paddles. Later, sails and outriggers were added as man honed his skill at wooden boat building.

Some early cultures decorated their log canoes with paint and in some cases crude representations of spirit or body parts. For most cultures the sea was a bountiful but mysterious and dangerous place inhabited by all manor of creatures, real and imagined. Superstitions abounded and as time passed man began to decorate his craft with painted eyes, religious symbols and dragons to ward off evil spirits or find his way across uncharted seas.


The Vikings’ double-ended, clinker-built (overlapping hull planks) vessels were capable of being propelled by sail or oar. Their sails were painted and their stem and stern posts were often carved as dragon or animal heads. It was believed that the carved dragons and animals loaned their power to the ships they adorned and that they helped the Norsemen in their quest for colonial domination.

The sea represented both a challenge and an opportunity; a challenge to survive the elements of nature in wooden vessels and an opportunity to trade, explore and build empires. Over time the size and shape of wooden boats changed to meet man’s needs. They became larger, faster and more maneuverable; capable of carrying more masts, more sail, more cargo and more guns. The wooden boat became an instrument of war, trade, exploration and a platform for man’s expression of art, skill, craftsmanship, power, adventure and functional beauty.


The Egyptians, Aegeans, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans decorated their ships with symbols of gods, lotus flowers, birds, animals, human figures and purely ornamental designs such as acanthus leaves. The majority of marine ornamentation during this period was applied as paint on sails and the sides of hulls.


The European counterpart to the Viking warship was the longboat that carried a wide assortment of adornments. Ships of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were generally clinker-built, single-masted vessels with flat-topped towers or platforms called castles built on or near the bow and stern. These “castles” served as defensive platforms and lookout posts. They were more or less permanently attached to the hull and were decorated with painted geometric designs or in a few cases simple carvings. Gradually these platforms became fully integrated into the construction of ships and were known as the forecastle (at the bow) and aftercastle (at the stern). Today the forecastle is called the fo’c’s’le and the aftercastle the quarter deck.

The next major step in the evolution of wooden boats and marine art came in the late fourteenth and fifteenth century. Boats of that period were caravel-built (planks laid edge-to-edge), given multiple masts and carried large fully integrated fore and aftercastles. The larger castles with arches, railings and galleries invited decoration. Gothic ornamental motifs were popular and carved coats-of-arms and painted geometric patterns predominated. The large overhanging forecastles of ships of this period precluded the development of ornate figurehead sculptures as we think of them today. There simply was not enough room at the bow of these ships for figureheads. Carved figure decorations were not common and, if present at all, were limited to heads of animals at the bow, if not completely covered by the overhanging forecastle, and a few stern sculptures.


Ships of this period continued the trend that began in the Middle Ages of developing larger, faster and more intimidating vessels. Warships became massive floating forts with extensive fore and aftercastles. Decks were added with the upper decks extending over the lower decks in tiers. Ships of this type were called caracks and their decorations consisted mainly of painted shields and coats-of-arms. A few caracks had carvings attached to the stem under the forecastle.

The big, heavy caracks were unstable in battle and hard to maneuver. Consequently, they soon gave way to the galleon. Galleons retained the high aftercastles of the caracks but the forecastle was greatly reduced in size and would eventually disappear altogether. The forecastle was replaced by pointed bows that extended beyond the stem from the hull. This feature of ship construction was called the beak-head and it was frequently decorated with a carved animal head. In the early seventeenth century beak-heads served as boarding platforms in close combat. Later as ship construction and sea warfare technology progressed the beak-head’s role as a boarding platform diminished and it became an important base for decorative wooden sculptures. Decoration elsewhere on galleons consisted largely of painted geometric patterns on the sides of the aftercastle and beak-head.

Ornate wooden sculptures gradually replaced painted decorations and by about 1600 sculptured adornment of ships became very important. Not only did figureheads grow in importance and intricate detail, but ships were literally covered from stem to stern with ornately carved, painted and gold-leafed sculptures carved by master carvers at shipyards across Europe. Galleries, arches, railings, bitts and stern boards all became fair game for the carvers’ imagination and chisel. This was the golden age of ship decoration and many vessels were floating works of art reflecting the artistic style and motifs popular on land as well as at sea.


Elaborate ship decoration began to lose favor as ships became more and more utilitarian and were built specifically for commercial sail, commercial fishing and exploration of uncharted areas of the world. Cost was also a factor in the demise of hand carved ornamentation. Toward the end of this period wooden hulls began to give way to hulls of iron and steel and the age of commercial sail (the Cape Horners, the Chilean nitrate trade, the Australian grain trade) began a gradual decline due in large part to three events: the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the advent of steam propulsion. With the passing of the wonderful age of sail and ships of wood, hand sculpted ornamentation all but disappeared and with it the intricate and beautifully crafted products of the artist’s imagination and the carver’s practiced hand. The whalers, the Cape Horners and the clipper ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had carved figureheads, but the golden age of marine art was all but over.


A resurgence of interest in traditional sail and history has resulted in the recreation of a number of historically significant, wonderful ships of wood (Henry Hudson’s Half Moon, The Kalmar Nyckel, The Susan Constant, The Sultana, The Pride of Baltimore and many others). These ships carry representative period decorations and serve as good will ambassadors, sail training platforms, floating museums and objects of educational and historical significance. With their recreation has come a renewed appreciation for the imagination and skill of the artisans and craftsmen who built the originals with hand tools. Thankfully these ships not only remind us of past glory but they preserve representations of some of the priceless works of marine art.

“Tall ships take on personalities of their own, and those fortunate enough to build and sail them soon realize that they are much more than the materials from which they are made. They seem to have hearts and souls that invite perfection, loyalty and love and that reward seamanship, craftsmanship and loving care. They please the eye, stir the imagination and lift the spirit. They are the white-winged angels of the sea. Without them and the men and women who built and sailed them, the world would most certainly be a different and far less satisfying place”.

From the book Mallets, Chisels and Planes, The Building Of The Tall Ship Kalmar
Nyckel From Vision To Launch
by Charles E. Ireland, Jr., 2003, Cedar Tree Books, Ltd.

Fortunately Ted retired from his real job in the finance department of a major chemical company in time to volunteer as a wood carver and member of the building crew on Wilmington Delaware’s Kalmar Nyckel project in 1996. The Kalmar Nyckel is a reproduction of the Dutch-built pinnace that brought the first Swedish settlers to the banks of the Christina River in what is now Wilmington, Delaware in 1638. The ornately decorated ship made three subsequent crossings to supply what became the first successful Swedish colonization of the Delaware Valley.

Ted, along with a hand full of other volunteer carvers, worked for two years carving the representations of seventeenth century sculptures that grace the Kalmar Nyckel and help make it unique among colonial reproductions. That experience prepared him for marine carving projects on other ships including the Kathryn M. Lee, an authentic, working Chesapeake Bay oyster schooner and the Irving and Exy Johnson, twin brigantines operated by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute.

To learn more about Ted Ireland, ships carvings, and his award-winning book click here.



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