A Boatbuilder’s Friends

English Oak (Quercus robur)

The English, or ‘Common’, Oak is a majestic and long-lived tree – one of few that most people can immediately recognise on sight, due to its distinctive, thick twisted branches and serrated leaves.

Oak has been used in boatbuilding for hundreds of years in Northern Europe. It is immensely strong and heavy and its high tannin content makes it resistant to rot and weathering. Its density means it has traditionally been used for frames and keels – occasionally for planking as well (more common in Scottish and Scandinavian fishing boats).

Britannia’s frames and keel are made of oak. The living trees were hand-selected by her builders in Sandringham forest. They would have been about 300 years old at the time of felling, meaning that they would have been acorns in about 1616, the year Shakespeare died.

Oak trees face many problems in the UK, including Oak Processionary Moth, Acute Oak Decline and Sudden Oak Death.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

The Douglas Fir is an evergreen conifer native to western North America, introduced to the UK in the 1880s by the Scottish botanist David Douglas. It is the UK’s tallest tree, growing up to 330ft tall, with a lifespan of over 1000 years.

The Douglas Fir’s long length, great flexibility and extremely straight growth habit makes it an excellent choice for masts and spars. 

Slow-grown Douglas Fir, sourced from cooler climes such as the Scottish Highlands, exhibits tighter growth rings and therefore greater strength and density than trees of the same diameter grown further south – this makes slow-grown wood preferable for boat-building purposes.

Britannia’s mast and spars are crafted from Douglas Fir.

European Larch (Larix decidua)

Larch is a tall conifer tree, introduced to the UK 400 years ago. Unlike most conifers, Larch is deciduous and loses its needles in winter. It is exceptionally cold-hardy and can survive temperatures down to -70°C (that’s -94 in Fahrenheit)!

In spring, the tops of branches bear pink female flowers, reminiscent of pineapples, known as ‘Larch Roses’. The male flowers are tawny tufts that grow on the underside of branches.

In density it falls somewhere between pine and oak and is often said to be a ‘hard softwood’. It is extremely durable, rot resistant and ‘waterproof’. The piles that hold the city of Venice above its lagoon are almost entirely of larch.

larch roses

In shipbuilding, it is most commonly used for planking due to its flexibility, taking a curve well once steamed. Its relatively knot-free growth habit means that it has minimal weak-spots, reducing the likelihood of splits and shakes.

Britannia’s new planking is cut from locally grown (Devon) Larch. Her original planking, 45% of which is still present, is Russian Red Cedar from Arkangel.

Larches in the UK suffer from unintentional hybridisation with inferior Japanese species often grown in plantations. This makes them susceptible to diseases and the hybrid wood is not suitable for use in boat-building.

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

The Ash tree is one of the UK’s most beautiful deciduous trees – tall and graceful. Once extremely common, with a lifespan of 400 years, they are becoming rarer as Ash Dieback gradually claims them.

The name ‘ash’ is said to be very ancient, deriving from the Old English – aesch, meaning both ‘tree’ and ‘spear’, since its strong, straight-grained wood was used for spear-shafts (and bows) since pre-history.

In autumn its winged fruits – known as ‘keys’ – flutter down from on high, to the delight of children. They are traditionally gathered and potted up in vinegar with sugar and spices to make a delicious pickle.

Ash is one of the strongest hardwoods and can absorb impacts without splintering. Its impact resistance and ‘elasticity’ meant it was used to construct horse carriages in the 1800s. This translated to early motor cars and even aircraft. Some models of Morgan are still constructed with ash components in their frames.

Its hard-wearing qualities also makes Ash ideal for some of the most heavily-used and well-battered components of a ship: 

  • Belaying pins – used to hold the tail ends of running rigging ropes.
  • Block cheeks – the wooden casing surrounding pulleys used to multiply force when pulling ropes onboard.
  • Deadeyes – wooden eyes which take the lanyards (stout lines used to tension the shrouds of the mast).

As well as the parts listed above, it is also commonly found in the boatbuilder’s workshop in the form of handles and hafts for his tools, particularly for axes and adzes.


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