The fourth chapter of this booklet describes the smells of the drawing office as “polished wood, pencil sharpenings, tracing paper and Indian ink” and the silence as the draughtsmen concentrate on their work so intensely that they do not acknowledge others coming by as would be the case in other parts of the yard. The author sweeps aside the misconception that there is a single plan of a ship, pointing out that there are hundreds of plans for each ship. Plans of frames, bulkheads, cross-sections, the holds, the stern, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, ones of the plating. The author then describes that there might be a “rudimentary model” of the ship made to scale, of course, my regular readers will know that John Wallace built half block models to such rigorous standards that they could be used directly to create the ship plate, so this was not the case at Robb’s, even though it may have been elsewhere.
From the drawing office the plans go to the mould loft with joiners benches round an enormous floor and curving chalk lines being drawn on the floor to the shape of the hull, from which full scale patterns or templates were made.
Thereafter the physical work begins in the forge where the smiths heat the shafts to just the right temperature with their apprentices and boys watching their every move, learning the trade they will follow. I like the author’s description of the sounds of the various trades: “The sound of each trade in a ship has its special quality – the riveter’s and caulker’s fusillade, the plater’s solemn clang, and the elephantine thumping of the forge. These steel hammers, that come down like tree trunks on the anvil, shake the earth and the building and thicken the air with a cloud of reverberations. One is surprise that the foundations of the world can stand up to such a tonnage of blows in the belly.” Again the importance of groups or gangs rather than individuals is stressed.
The “green” plates are cut to approximate size but then need to be cut down and trimmed, given appropriate curves, but the platers’ squad. When the plate is shaped it requires an artisan’s skill to shape it with the sledgehammer to get it just right. The sounds is described as being like a gong and a “barbarian’s bell”. This, is one of the main trades of the industry and there are plenty of plates to be made. They keep the flow of plate going from shop to hull, templates mark the rivet holes, and the riveters put them in place.
When prefabrication was used, hydraulic riveters came into play, like a giant pair of lobster claws with the plate wheeled between its claws. Added to that is the dreaded welder’s flame with is “lilac electric flash (which) distorts the faces of men and women, and sets nervous triangles of light twitching and jumping over the machines and the wall.” Nowadays nobody would be allowed within some considerable distance of such shed without ear defenders, yet yard workers up and down the country worked in them without a thought. It was just accepted that in certain trades you were likely to lose at least some of your hearing, or worse (see: “Of shipyard trades and camaraderie”).
Making ships was no picnic.
Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010