British Museum blog

Building a Viking boat today

dragon stem head
Mike Selwood, Assistant Boat Manager, National Maritime Museum Cornwall
In September 2013, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall was approached by the British Museum and asked if we would produce something Viking to be filmed for their Vikings Live cinema broadcast, after seeing the Bronze Age boat replica that we had built and launched in March 2013.

Of course, we said yes. After plenty of chats with Gareth Williams, the curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend and Patricia Wheatley, Executive Producer of Vikings Live, our boat restoration team started to build the stem section of a Viking-style boat, to be constructed using traditional methods.

I was to manage the project, with my team of boat crew volunteers and boat-builder Brian Cumby, who had built the Bronze Age boat. The stem section was approximately sixteen feet long, eight feet beam (width) and about 12 feet at its highest, to be surmounted with a Viking dragon’s head. The section is equivalent to about 25% of a boat that we are planning to build next year as a feature of our Viking Voyagers exhibition in 2015.

Having assembled the team, I had to source the materials. There was no time to make nails, so they came off the shelf as galvanised Scandinavian boat nails with square roves made by our local blacksmith. The keel and stem post were to be oak, and we decided to plank in Cornish larch, not always durable for boats, but good for this project. Our friends at Tregothnan Estate, not far from us in Falmouth (also known for its excellent tea plantation) provided all of our needs, including a lot of crooks or timber turns, used for making frames to brace the planking.

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gareth, Will and Martin cutting the keel rabbet (or rebate)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Gloucester Mike cutting a plank (left). Gareth and Mike riveting a plank , and Brian doing what he does so well (supervising!)

Brian set up the keel and the rabbet (the groove or rebate that takes the first planks) was cut. A joint was then cut for joining the stem post to the keel to create the backbone of the boat ready for planking. Brian and his team of volunteers then built up the layers of planking by riveting overlapped planks one on to the other. This method is called clinker in Europe and Scandinavia, and lapstrake in the America and Canada. We planned on seven planks to each side, each about one inch thick and twelve inches wide. The larch planks had to be steamed in a long steam box to make the wood malleable enough to fit to the keel and stem rabbet.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

Brian and Mike fitting a plank with a traditional wooden clamp, tightened by driving in a wedge.

To get the shape of a Viking boat we built moulds or section shapes that acted as guides. It is thought that the Vikings would have set up an overhead strong back supported by an A-frame, in order to brace the struts or shores to brace the planking. They are also likely to have heated stones to make the planks malleable as an alternative to steaming.

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

Gloucester Mike preparing a plank (left) and Brian setting a plank clamp (right).

The crooks and turns were shaped and fashioned into frames, floors and knees (boatbuilding terms to describe brackets and braces that were fitted to the planking to add cross-sectional strength). Finally the thwarts or cross-section benches were fitted. All were fastened with nails or trenails (pegs of oak or tree nails that would swell and tighten when wet, sometimes with a small wedge driven down the grain to further expand and tighten).

Viking ship construction developed boats that were light, strong, but flexible so that they worked well with the stresses of the sea. They were also shallow draught, which meant that they could still move through shallower river and estuary waters. Climbing in and out was also easier, as speed and surprise were a feature of many Viking visits!

Detail of dragon's head

Pin with dragon’s head (detail), AD 950–1000. Hedeby, modern Germany. Copper alloy. Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig. © Wikinger Museum Haithabu

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

Dragons head prow, carved by artist Rob Johnsey, NMMC volunteer.

While all of this frantic construction was going on, our woodcarver Rob (a National Maritime Museum Cornwall volunteer) began to work on the stem head. His brief was to make something that would frighten the natives. With help from Patricia from the British Museum, he researched some designs, and decided to use a Viking pin that was being displayed in the exhibition as his inspiration. The head was to be detachable, following the Vikings practice – apparently the raiding boat would remove the stem head on return to its home port so as not to bring bad spirits back with them or scare those on dry land.

The project has enabled our team to get in a ‘Viking’ mind-set , as we will not only be building a replica of a 57-foot Roskilde boat, but likely some very Viking stage sets for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall Viking Voyagers exhibition, supported by the British Museum.


Vikings Live is at cinemas around the UK on 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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