Schooner Building

An interesting thing about Newfoundland-built schooners is that almost all were built by fishermen during the cold winter months, using locally cut green timbers and having the most basic of tools. By contrast, in the mid-1800s in Canada and the United States schooner construction was becoming a specialization and the vessels were built by professional shipwrights in shipyards which had access to cured timber and specialized tools.

Fishermen were often pressed to have a vessel ready to be outfitted in the spring for the summer fishing season and were confined to constructing it in an area where timber was accessible. If a full timber supply was not close to the community, the fishermen worked out of winter camps in wooded areas on the coast which had suitable launching sites.

The master builder — the person deemed most experienced — would start by constructing a plan. This was either cut from scratch, taken directly from an existing plan, or formed as a modification of an existing plan. There was no way at that time to make stabilization tests so the builder was forced to adhere closely to dimensions that had been tried and tested. Even scratch plans were patterned after familiar lines as the builder would determine the lines “by eye.”

There were several variations of plans. One basic form of making a plan of a vessel was to construct a “half-hull model.” This was a scale model carved of wood to represent either the port or starboard side of the hull to the outside edge of the frame (i.e.- the inside edge of the planking).

Parallel lines were drawn perpendicular to the waterline which represented “stations” along the keel where ribs were placed. Two ribs were made for each station based on the scale taken from the model, and these ribs were counted in pairs (one rib for each side of the hull).

The builder’s major task was to “take off” the shape of the ribs from the scale of the model and this was done by several different methods. Most frequently, the half-hull model was built using horizontal layers of board; thus the builder would dismantle the model and scale the rib as a distance at each station from the mid-ship of each board.

Another method was to make a solid model and take the scale of each rib by forming a strip of flexible metal, such as lead, along each station. Some builders made a partial or full saw cut at each station and took the scale along the edge of the cut. Each method was ingenious, and used only the most basic numbering skills required to transfer part of an inch on scale to feet and inches.

The use of “moles” (moulds or templates) was an alternative method of building a half-hull model. Although half-hulls were often used to loft moulds, the Newfoundland method was distinct because the number of templates was confined to a set of three stations — the “aft’r hook,” the “mid-ship bend,” and the “for’d hook.”

The placement of ribs at these stations formed a smooth running curve with the stem post and the counter, or transom. Long flexible boards, or battens, were run fore-and-aft to define this curve and ribs were cut to fit along these battens at each station.

Another variation of this method was the “set of moles.” This method, which is too complex for a brief explanation, used three finely shaped pieces of wood which could be configured according to specific markings to represent the shape of the rib at each station.

These sets of moles were almost always kept, shared around the community, and sometimes passed on through generations. The use of moulds had a severe drawback in that they were more appropriately used for smaller craft, so only the smallest schooners were built using this method.