Shipbuilding in the 17th: How Were Ships Built in the 1600s

The 1600s marked a significant period in the history of shipbuilding, with various techniques and innovations that revolutionized the way ships were constructed. During this time, shipbuilders developed new methods to construct larger and more seaworthy vessels, enabling expansion of trade networks and exploration of new territories.

One of the most notable techniques developed in the 1600s was the introduction of the “carvel” or “copper spike” method. This method involved planking the ship’s hull with smooth, overlapping planks, rather than the traditional overlapping of thick strakes. This innovation reduced drag and increased the ship’s speed, making it more maneuverable and efficient.

Another significant advancement during this period was the introduction of iron bolts and nails as a replacement for wooden treenails. This allowed for a more secure and durable construction, as iron was less prone to rot and could withstand the forces of the sea. This meant that ships could sail longer distances without the need for constant repair and maintenance.

The 1600s also saw the development of new shipbuilding techniques such as framing with transverse frames instead of the traditional longitudinal frames. This innovation allowed for a stronger and more rigid structure, capable of withstanding rough sea conditions. Additionally, shipbuilders began using diagonal riders, which further increased the strength and stability of the ship’s hull.

With these advancements in shipbuilding techniques, the 1600s laid the foundation for future naval expeditions and the exploration of new lands. Ships became larger and more efficient, leading to increased trade and the establishment of global empires. The innovations of this era continue to shape modern shipbuilding practices and have left a lasting impact on maritime history.

Shipbuilding Techniques in the 1600s

The 1600s were a time of significant advancements in shipbuilding techniques. During this period, shipbuilders utilized a range of innovative methods to construct ships that were faster, more robust, and more efficient than ever before. These techniques were crucial in facilitating exploration, trade, and naval warfare during the Age of Sail.

1. Frame-first Construction

One of the most important shipbuilding techniques of the 1600s was frame-first construction. This method involved constructing the ship’s frame first, using strong and durable timber. The frames were carefully designed to provide the necessary strength and stability to support the entire structure of the ship.

By building the frame first, shipbuilders could ensure the structural integrity of the ship before adding the hull planking and deck. This technique allowed for greater control over the ship’s shape and stability, resulting in faster and more maneuverable vessels.

2. Double-Planking

Another key technique of 1600s shipbuilding was the use of double-planking. This involved applying two layers of planks to the hull, with the outer layer being thinner and more flexible than the inner layer.

The inner layer, known as the “garboard strake,” was typically made from a stronger and more rigid wood, such as oak. The outer layer, known as the “sheathing,” was made from a more flexible wood, such as pine. The combination of these two layers provided additional strength, insulation, and protection against leaks and damage.

Double-planking was particularly important for ships engaged in long voyages or naval battles, as it enhanced their durability and resistance to harsh conditions at sea.

In conclusion, shipbuilding techniques in the 1600s played a crucial role in the advancement of naval architecture. Frame-first construction and double-planking were two key innovations that contributed to the development of faster, stronger, and more efficient ships. These advancements allowed for increased exploration, trade, and military dominance on the seas during the Age of Sail.

Timber Selection for Shipbuilding

In the 1600s, choosing the right timber for shipbuilding was a critical task that directly influenced the success and longevity of a vessel. Shipbuilders carefully evaluated various factors to ensure they selected the most suitable timber for the construction of their ships.

Density and Durability

Shipbuilders understood the importance of using dense and durable timber for shipbuilding. They looked for timber with a high density, as it would make the ship stronger and more resistant to impacts and collisions. Additionally, they prioritized timber with excellent durability, as it would resist rot, decay, and attacks from marine organisms.


Oak was the preferred timber for shipbuilding in the 1600s. Its dense and durable nature made it ideal for structural components, such as the keel, frames, and planking. Oak timber was known to withstand the harsh marine environment, providing strength and stability to the ship. Its straight and long fibers made it easy to shape into the desired forms, contributing to the efficiency of the shipbuilding process.


Pine was another commonly used timber in shipbuilding during the 1600s, especially for non-structural components. Shipbuilders used pine for deck planking, interior fittings, and masts. While pine was not as dense and durable as oak, it had its advantages. Pine timber was lighter and more flexible, making it suitable for creating spars and masts that needed to withstand the forces of the wind and waves. Its abundance and lower cost also made it a popular choice.


Larch timber was also utilized in shipbuilding, primarily in northern regions where oak and pine were less available. Larch had characteristics similar to oak, offering strength, durability, and resistance to decay. It was commonly used for keels, stems, and planking in boats and smaller vessels.


Shipbuilders in the 1600s recognized the significance of timber selection for the success of shipbuilding projects. Oak, pine, and larch were the primary timbers used, each offering specific advantages based on their characteristics. By carefully evaluating density, durability, and other factors, shipbuilders ensured that their vessels would withstand the demanding marine environment and make successful voyages.

Ship Design and Architecture

Ship design and architecture underwent significant changes during the 1600s, as shipbuilders experimented with various techniques and innovations to improve the performance and endurance of ships.

Structural Design

In the 1600s, shipbuilders incorporated several advancements in the structural design of ships. One key innovation was the introduction of transverse framing, where the hull of the ship was reinforced with a series of frames that ran perpendicular to the keel. This improved the overall strength and stability of the ship, allowing it to withstand rough seas and heavy loads.

Another important development was the use of cant frames, which were curved frames that allowed for a smoother and more efficient flow of water along the hull. This reduced drag and improved the speed and maneuverability of the ship.

Sail Plan

The sail plan of ships in the 1600s also saw significant changes. Shipbuilders began to experiment with different types and configurations of sails to maximize the wind-catching ability of the ship.

One notable innovation was the adoption of the square rig, where the sails were set at right angles to the mast. This allowed for efficient sailing against the wind, known as “beating.” Additionally, shipbuilders also started using multiple masts and a greater number of sails, resulting in increased speed and maneuverability.


The proportions of ships in the 1600s were carefully calculated to achieve optimal performance. The length-to-beam ratio was a crucial consideration, as a longer and narrower ship could sail faster and with greater stability. However, this design also required stronger structural support to prevent the ship from flexing too much.


Ship design and architecture in the 1600s saw numerous advancements that revolutionized shipbuilding. The introduction of transverse framing, cant frames, and the square rig sail plan significantly improved the strength, speed, and maneuverability of ships during this era.

Planking and Framing Techniques

In the 1600s, shipbuilders developed several innovative techniques for planking and framing ships that helped improve the efficiency and strength of their construction. These techniques were crucial for creating sturdy vessels that could withstand the harsh conditions of the open sea.

One of the main techniques used in planking was the use of overlapping planks known as “clinker-built” or “lapstrake” construction. This method involved placing each plank slightly overlapping the previous one, which helped to create a watertight seal. The overlapping nature of the planks also provided increased strength and flexibility, allowing the ship to better withstand the twisting and bending forces exerted on it while at sea.

In addition to clinker-built construction, shipbuilders also utilized another method called “carvel construction.” Unlike lapstrake construction, carvel construction involved placing the planks edge-to-edge, creating a smooth hull surface. This method required careful shaping and fitting of each plank to ensure a tight and secure fit. While carvel construction did not provide the same level of flexibility as lapstrake construction, it offered improved speed and maneuverability.

To support the planking, shipbuilders used a variety of framing techniques. One common method was the use of “rib and futtock” construction, which involved assembling frames made of bent timber ribs and connecting them with smaller “futtocks” or horizontal frames. This method provided the necessary strength and structure to support the planks and distribute the stresses that the ship would face at sea.

Another framing technique used during this period was the “pre-framed method.” In this method, the frames were built separately and then fitted together into the ship’s hull. This approach allowed for greater precision and consistency in the construction process, resulting in stronger and more symmetrical ships.

Overall, the planking and framing techniques developed during the 1600s played a crucial role in advancing shipbuilding practices. These innovations allowed for the construction of stronger, more efficient, and seaworthy vessels, paving the way for further advancements in ship design and technology.

Caulking and Waterproofing Methods

Caulking and waterproofing were critical techniques in shipbuilding during the 1600s. These methods were used to seal the seams between the wooden planks, preventing water from entering the ship and ensuring its structural integrity.

One common method of caulking involved using a material called oakum, which is made from fibers obtained from old ropes. The oakum was hammered into the gaps between the planks and then sealed with a mixture of tar, pitch, and linseed oil. This mixture was heated and melted to create a waterproof seal. The caulked seams were then covered with a thin layer of tar to provide additional protection.

Another technique used in shipbuilding at this time was the use of animal hair, such as horsehair or cow hair, in the caulking process. The hair was mixed with tar and then pushed into the gaps between the planks. This method helped to create a more flexible and resilient seal.

In addition to caulking, shipbuilders also employed other waterproofing methods. One such method was the application of various coatings to the ship’s exterior. These coatings were typically made from a combination of tar, resin, and oil. They were applied to the bottom of the ship to protect it from the corrosive effects of saltwater.

Furthermore, shipbuilders in the 1600s would often use a technique called greasing to waterproof certain parts of the ship. This involved applying a mixture of grease and tallow to areas such as the seams and joints. The grease acted as a barrier, preventing water from penetrating the wood and causing damage.

Overall, caulking and waterproofing methods played a crucial role in shipbuilding during the 1600s. These techniques helped to ensure that ships were watertight and could withstand the harsh conditions of the sea.

Shipbuilding Tools and Equipment

In the 1600s, shipbuilders relied on a variety of tools and equipment to construct their vessels. These tools were essential in shaping the wooden hulls and rigging the sails. The shipbuilding process required skilled craftsmanship and a deep understanding of naval architecture.

Carpentry Tools

One of the most important tools used in shipbuilding was the adze, a type of axe with a curved blade. Shipbuilders used the adze to shape the wooden planks that made up the ship’s hull. The adze allowed them to remove excess wood and create a smooth surface for the planks to fit together.

Another essential tool was the auger, a long, pointed drill used for making holes in the wood. Shipbuilders used an auger to create holes for nails and fasteners, as well as for attaching various fittings to the ship’s structure. The auger ensured that the connections between different parts of the ship were secure and sturdy.

Rigging Equipment

In addition to carpentry tools, shipbuilders needed a range of specialized equipment for rigging the ship’s sails. One such tool was the marlinspike, a metal spike with a pointed end and a looped handle. Shipbuilders used the marlinspike to separate strands of rope, tighten knots, and splice ropes together. This tool was crucial for securing the ship’s rigging and ensuring that the sails could be raised and lowered effectively.

Another essential piece of equipment was the caulking iron, which shipbuilders used to seal the gaps between the wooden planks of the ship’s hull. The caulking iron had a sharp, chisel-like tip that could be driven into the gaps. Shipbuilders then used caulking material, such as tar or oakum, to fill the gaps and make the hull watertight.


Shipbuilding in the 1600s required a wide range of tools and equipment, from carpentry tools for shaping the hull to rigging equipment for setting the sails. These tools allowed shipbuilders to construct seaworthy vessels and navigate the challenges of the open sea with confidence. The innovation and craftsmanship of shipbuilders during this era laid the foundation for future developments in the field of shipbuilding.

Rigging and Sailmaking Innovations

The 1600s saw several important innovations in the rigging and sailmaking techniques used in shipbuilding. These innovations allowed ships to navigate more efficiently and with greater control, leading to advancements in exploration and trade.

Improved Rigging Techniques

One of the most significant developments in rigging during this time was the adoption of the standing rigging system. Previously, ships relied on temporary ropes and lines to support their masts and sails. The standing rigging system introduced permanent, fixed ropes, known as stays and shrouds, which provided the necessary stability and strength.

Another important innovation was the use of pulleys and blocks, which allowed sailors to easily adjust and control the tension of the rigging. These pulleys and blocks, known as blocks and tackles, enabled sailors to hoist and lower sails, change their direction, and control the ship’s speed with greater ease and precision.

Advancements in Sailmaking

The 1600s also witnessed significant advancements in sailmaking, leading to sails that were more efficient and durable. One such innovation was the adoption of the gaff rig, which involved attaching a horizontal spar, known as a gaff, to the top of the mast. This allowed for the use of larger, more powerful sails, which improved a ship’s maneuverability and speed.

In addition to the gaff rig, shipbuilders began experimenting with different materials for sails. Traditional sails were made from canvas, but during this period, lighter and more flexible materials such as linen and silk were also used. These materials reduced the weight of the sails and improved their performance in varying wind conditions.

Furthermore, sailmakers developed new techniques for shaping sails, such as adding battens or using multiple panels, which allowed for better airflow and improved the overall efficiency of the sails.

In conclusion, the 1600s brought about significant advancements in rigging and sailmaking techniques. The adoption of standing rigging and the use of pulleys and blocks improved ship control and maneuverability. Additionally, innovations in sailmaking, such as the gaff rig and the use of new materials and shaping techniques, resulted in more efficient and durable sails. These innovations played a crucial role in shaping the development of ships during this era and further propelled exploration and trade across the seas.

Shipbuilding Techniques in Different Cultures

Shipbuilding techniques varied greatly across different cultures during the 1600s. Each culture had its own unique methods and innovations that contributed to the construction and design of ships.

  • European shipbuilding: European shipbuilders were known for their use of strong, durable materials such as oak, which were readily available in their region. They utilized a combination of frame-first and plank-first construction methods, depending on the type of ship being built. European shipbuilders also developed efficient rigging systems to improve the performance of their ships.
  • Asian shipbuilding: Asian cultures, particularly those in China, Japan, and Korea, had their own distinct shipbuilding techniques. They employed a method known as shell-first construction, where the hull of the ship was built first using several layers of planks. The planks were then nailed together using wooden pegs, creating a flexible and watertight structure.
  • Middle Eastern shipbuilding: Shipbuilding in the Middle East during the 1600s was heavily influenced by the Arab-Islamic golden age of navigation. Arab shipbuilders were skilled in the construction of dhows, which were sturdy sailing vessels used for trade and transportation in the region. They utilized a combination of plank-first and shell-first construction methods, often incorporating decorative and ornate designs.

These different shipbuilding techniques in various cultures played a significant role in shaping the maritime history of the 1600s. Each method had its own advantages and enabled sailors to explore and trade across the oceans with greater efficiency and safety.

The Impact of Shipbuilding in the 1600s

The shipbuilding techniques and innovations that emerged in the 1600s had a profound impact on global trade, exploration, and warfare. The advancements in ship design during this period led to the rise of powerful naval empires and played a key role in shaping the modern world.

Global Trade and Exploration

The development of larger, sturdier, and more maneuverable ships allowed for longer and more successful maritime voyages. This led to an expansion of global trade routes and opened up new opportunities for exploration and colonization.

Shipbuilders in the 1600s introduced concepts such as the fluyt, a type of cargo vessel designed for efficient transportation of goods. The fluyt’s innovative design, featuring a broad hull and a high cargo capacity, allowed merchants to transport larger volumes of goods across long distances.

Explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan benefited from these advancements, as they were able to undertake ambitious journeys that had previously been deemed impossible. The new ships provided them with the necessary speed, stability, and carrying capacity to navigate the treacherous oceans and reach distant lands.

Naval Warfare

Shipbuilding innovations of the 1600s also revolutionized naval warfare. The introduction of heavily armed warships with improved sailing capabilities changed the dynamics of conflicts at sea.

One notable innovation was the introduction of ship cannons positioned on multiple decks. This allowed for increased firepower and better control of the battlefield. Ships became floating fortresses, able to withstand enemy attacks and project power over vast distances.

Naval battles played a decisive role in shaping the outcome of conflicts during this period. The ability to control the seas became crucial for establishing and maintaining global dominance. Empires such as the Spanish, British, and Dutch relied on their superior shipbuilding techniques and powerful fleets to expand their territories and secure their economic interests.

In conclusion, shipbuilding in the 1600s had far-reaching consequences for global trade, exploration, and warfare. The advancements in ship design and construction during this period paved the way for the emergence of powerful naval empires and greatly influenced the course of history. Without these innovations, the modern world as we know it would have been vastly different.

Q&A: How were ships built in the 1600s

How did the shipyard evolve in the shipbuilding industry from the 16th to 18th century?

From the 16th to 18th century, shipyards evolved significantly in the shipbuilding industry. They transitioned from building smaller, simpler vessels to constructing larger and more complex merchant ships and warships, reflecting advancements in maritime technology and design.

What role did shipwrights play in the 15th century in terms of ship design and construction?

In the 15th century, shipwrights were crucial in ship design and construction. They were skilled craftsmen responsible for building sailing ships with innovations like the lateen sail, which improved maneuverability and speed.

How did the introduction of the square sail in the 16th century impact sailing ships?

The introduction of the square sail in the 16th century greatly impacted sailing ships by enhancing their ability to sail downwind more effectively, which was essential for long ocean voyages and contributed to the era of exploration.

What were the characteristics of Dutch ships built in the early 17th century?

Dutch ships built in the early 17th century were renowned for their sturdy construction and efficient design. They often featured broad hulls for cargo capacity and were among the first to use triangular, or lateen, sails for better wind navigation.

How did the maritime history of Massachusetts, particularly in shipbuilding, develop by the end of the colonial period?

By the end of the colonial period, the maritime history of Massachusetts had developed significantly, with the state becoming a hub for colonial shipbuilding. The industry expanded to build larger ships for military and commercial purposes, making Massachusetts a leader in maritime construction.

What types of vessels were predominantly built and repaired in Massachusetts shipyards during the early 18th century?

During the early 18th century, Massachusetts shipyards primarily built and repaired wooden vessels for commercial fishing and foreign trade. These included smaller ships like the American dory, as well as larger merchant and military ships.

How did the shipbuilding industry in the American colonies during the seventeenth century differ from that in England?

In the American colonies during the seventeenth century, shipbuilding was more focused on smaller, practical vessels for local trade and fishing, while England’s industry was more advanced, building larger and more technologically sophisticated ships like ships of the line for naval dominance.

What advancements in ship construction were made in Essex and Suffolk by the beginning of the 18th century?

By the beginning of the 18th century, shipyards in Essex and Suffolk had made advancements in ship construction, such as better ship design for efficiency and durability, and the use of improved construction techniques for building larger and better ships.

How did the shipbuilding industry contribute to the economic growth of the American colonies along the coast of New England?

The shipbuilding industry contributed significantly to the economic growth of the American colonies along the coast of New England by establishing a successful and profitable industry. This industry supported trade with other countries and provided ships for fishing and foreign trade.

In what ways did World War I and World War II impact shipbuilding in the United States?

World War I and World War II had a profound impact on shipbuilding in the United States. The demand for military vessels increased dramatically, leading to innovations in ship design and construction, and the expansion of shipyards to produce a larger number of ships in shorter time frames.

What materials were commonly used to build large ships in the early modern period?

In the early modern period, large ships were primarily built using wood, with oak being a favored material due to its durability and strength. Ship carpenters used these materials to construct the hulls of their ships.

How did the construction of wooden ships differ between large and small ship designs?

The construction of wooden ships varied significantly between large and small designs. Large ships required more robust framing and planking to withstand ocean voyages, while small ships, such as fishing boats, were built for agility and ease of maneuverability.

What were the distinctive features of Viking ships compared to other vessels built in the same era?

Viking ships were distinct for their shallow-draft hulls, allowing navigation in both deep and shallow waters. They typically featured a single, square sail and were renowned for their speed and flexibility.

Are there any shipyards or boat shops on the National Register of Historic Places, and why?

Yes, some shipyards and boat shops are listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to their historical significance in maritime history. They represent the development of shipbuilding technology and the maritime heritage of their regions.

What types of warships were prevalent during the early stages of shipbuilding?

During the early stages of shipbuilding, warships were primarily galleys and later sailing ships armed with cannons. These ships were designed for naval combat, with a focus on firepower and armor.

How did Massachusetts become a first state in developing a profitable industry in shipbuilding?

Massachusetts became a first state in developing a profitable shipbuilding industry due to its abundant timber resources, skilled workforce, and extensive coastline. The industry was further boosted by demand for ships for fishing and foreign trade.

What types of wooden vessels were built for commercial fishing in the early days of shipbuilding?

In the early days of shipbuilding, wooden vessels built for commercial fishing were typically small to medium-sized boats designed for durability and stability. They included schooners, dories, and later, fishing trawlers.

How did new types of ships built in England during the 16th and 17th centuries contribute to maritime exploration?

New types of ships built in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, such as the galleon and later the ship-of-the-line, played a crucial role in maritime exploration and naval warfare. Their advanced design allowed for longer voyages and greater cargo capacity.

What role did the town of Essex play in the history of early wooden vessel construction in the United States?

The town of Essex played a significant role in the history of early wooden vessel construction in the United States. It was known for its shipbuilding industry, producing a large number of fishing vessels, merchant ships, and schooners.

How did shipyards and boat shops operate along the coast of New England in the early colonial period?

In the early colonial period, shipyards and boat shops along the coast of New England operated as small, community-based enterprises. They were crucial in building the local fishing fleets and trading vessels, which were essential for the colonies’ survival and economic growth.