Wood That Went To War

Impervious to the cannon-balls of opposing ships, the frigate USS Constitution earned the nickname “Old Ironsides.” Here’s a rundown of the wood that contributed to her fame. By Peter J. Stephano

Completed in 1797 at Boston, Massachusetts, the wooden warship USS Constitution was constructed from material contributed by nearly every state in the new nation. One of three oversized frigates (a three-masted vessel) built to replenish the U.S. Navy following the Revolutionary War, she carried provisions for a 475-man crew, had 44 guns, measured 204′ long, and weighed 1,500 tons. Because she was heavy, Constitution proved slow and cumbersome under sail.

Due to her stout construction, though, as shown in the drawing at right, she was notoriously tough-skinned under fire. In a battle with the English warship Guerriere during the War of 1812, so much shot from the English guns bounced off her sides that sailors fondly called her “Old Ironsides” from then on.

The USS Constitution actively served her country (as a training vessel and later a barracks ship), with several rebuildings, until 1934. Still in commission as the oldest warship afloat of any of the world’s navies, she is docked at Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard. White oak, live oak, and other woods were used in her construction.

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White oak (Quercus alba) Uses: Horizontal exterior-hull planking, bent inside planking, planking nearest the keel, and keel timbers.

Hard, heavy, straight-grained, and decay-resistant, the wood of white oak contributed much to theConstitution. And unlike the rather short and gnarled live oak, white oak trees grow to 150′ tall to provide long, clear planks. When Old Ironsides was being built, white oak was plentiful throughout the Union’s 13 states.

Blacklocust (Robina seudoacaciaUses: Treenails (pronounced “trunnels”) to pin the ship’s timbers together.

In the 1700s blacklocust was found principally in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The wood rates as stronger and stiffer and nearly as long-lasting as white oak. The tree’s smaller height and diameter, however, prevented its extensive use for framing and planking.

Eastern white pine (PinusstrobusUses: Ship’s masts, cabinetry, millwork, and trim.

Growing throughout much of the young nation, eastern white pine was a massive tree–250′ tall with a trunk 6′ in diameter. The straight-grained, stable, and lightweight wood is comparatively non-resinous for a pine.

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustrisUses: Beams and decks.

Although longleaf pine had a range throughout the southeastern states, the original supply for theConstitution came from South Carolina. The wood’s durability, strength, and hardness made it ideal for surfaces prone to abuse, such as decks. Turpentine and varnish come from the tree’s pitch (gum), even today.

Lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinaleUses: Rigging components, such as sheaves, blocks, belaying pins, and deadeyes.

Brought from the Caribbean islands and South America, lignum vitae is the hardest, heaviest, and most close-grained wood known. Its density almost equals that of iron! The wood’s high-resin content and pressure-resistance made it ideal where some natural lubricating quality was necessary, as in the large warship’s rigging blocks. Even in modern times, lignum vitae has been used for underwater propulsion parts because it often performs better than steel.

Courtesy of Peter J. Stephano and Wood Magazine. Illustration by Jim Stevenson.

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