Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorers have been hard at work since the ship entered dry dock in May 2015. Here is an update on current projects.

Copper

USS Constitution is covered below the waterline with 3,200 copper sheets. A major part of the current restoration is to remove the copper that was installed in August and September 1995 during the last dry docking. Each sheet is 14 inches x 48 inches and weighs 6 pounds and is held in place with up to 150 copper nails. Behind the copper is “Irish felt,” a type of roofing felt that helps to protect the white oak hull planking. Each piece of felt is held in place with several dozen copper tacks.

Copper removal is difficult and tedious work. Hammers, crowbars, and pliers are all employed in peeling away the overlapping sheets. At the waterline, where the ship’s hull planking is not constantly submerged, the wood softens overtime and is prone to rot. The softer wood makes copper removal easier. Below the waterline, where the wood is constantly wet, the hull planking is better preserved. This stronger wood grips the copper nails, making removal more difficult.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
NHHC Detachment Boston riggers Jose Hernandez-Juviel (foreground) and Jeffrey Gallagher (background) use hammers and crowbars to remove copper sheets from the ship’s hull. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
Crew member Seaman Lisa Taranto uses pliers to remove the copper tacks that hold the “Irish felt” to the hull. Note the sheets of copper Lisa has already removed. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Hull Planking

Removing the hull planking is a multi-step process. The white oak planks are held in place with galvanized spikes. To remove the spikes, ship restorers must first drill and chip to expose the head of the spike. Once the head is exposed, it is gripped by a pneumatic pin-puller and extracted from both the hull plank and the frame behind it. The first planks removed from Constitution‘s hull are in the starboard bow.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorers Peter McPherson (left) and Kelsey Raver use a combination of pneumatic drill and hammer and chisel to expose the heads of the spikes. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
 Joshua Humphreys, principle designer of USS Constitution and the other five frigates in the 1790s, argued for the use of live oak for the warships’ framing. He noted that while it would cost five times more to cut and ship the live oak than white oak, the live oak frames would last five times longer because of the wood’s dense, rot-resistant nature. While about 10 percent of Constitution‘s original framing remains, mostly the bottoms of the frames known as floor timbers, that framing is still in good condition after 220 years. Most of the framing above the waterline was installed in the 1927-1931 restoration, and after 89 years is still structurally sound. Humphreys was correct in his prediction.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
A portion of Constitution‘s starboard bow showing rotten hull planking that will be removed. The two large holes in the framing are where the hawse pipes (for the anchor cable or chain) were removed. The live oak framing was installed in the 1927-1931 restoration. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
The first new plank was installed on Constitution‘s starboard bow on September 21, 2015.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
Kelsey Raver drills holes for the spikes that will hold the new laminated white oak plank in place. Note the exposed spikes in the old planks below the new plank. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
The rotten planks, which were installed between the 1980s and 1990s and are made of laminated white oak, will be removed in the next several weeks. These planks have rotted because they are above the waterline and are exposed to all weather. The vertical oak timbers seen in the photos above and below are “strong backs” and are used to apply pressure to hold the new plank in place before it is pinned.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
The first new plank is installed amidst the old planks. The old planks will also be replaced within the next several weeks. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Stern

In preparation for work on Constitution‘s stern, most of the carvings–including her stern eagle, decorative rails, stars, and pilasters–have been removed for refurbishment.  Over the next several months, select planks will be replaced on the ship’s stern.

NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorers Bruce Comeau (left) and Robert Leiby install a new plank on Constitution's counter (the overhanging part of the stern above the waterline). [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorers Robert Leiby (left) and Bruce Comeau install a new plank on Constitution’s counter (the overhanging part of the stern above the waterline). [Courtesy U.S. Navy. Photo by MCSN Victoria Kinney]

Gun Deck Waterways

The waterways are the timbers that connect the sides of the vessel to the deck and form a channel to carry water off the ship through the scuppers (openings on the deck). The gun deck waterways are being replaced port and starboard from the bow to the bulkhead at the entrance of the Captain’s Cabin. In order to replace the waterways, the two outermost deck planks must also be removed.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorers David Cavanaugh (top), Bruce Caporal (middle), and Nicholas Rosa work on removing the old waterway on the port side of the gun deck. Note the deck plank spike heads have been exposed in preparation to be removed along with the planks. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
The old waterways are cut out in small sections and all the fasteners are extracted with pneumatic pin-pullers.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
David Cavanaugh uses a saw to cut away the old waterway. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
In the photo below, a large section of the new starboard waterway is rolled into place. The bottom of the waterway is cut so that it overlaps the gun deck beams and ledges, which helps to lock the waterway into place.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorers Ian Robertson (foreground), Alex Briere (middle), and John Pelikan install a new laminated white oak section of the starboard gun deck waterway. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
This is just the beginning. Restoration work will continue through 2017, at which time Constitution will be re-floated and returned to her dock at Pier 1. Check back often for more updates on the restoration work and remember to visit Constitution Cam for round-the-clock, real-time views of the ship.

– M. M. Desy & K. Monea

The Author(s)

USS Constitution Museum