Join us on July 23, as we celebrate “Old Ironsides’” much-anticipated return to the water! On that night, Dry Dock 1 will be filled and USS Constitution will float into Boston Harbor after a two year restoration. The USS Constitution Museum will be open to visitors and we welcome you to witness this historic event with us!

*                    *                    *


It’s difficult to believe that 26 months have gone by and USS Constitution‘s first dry docking of the 21st century is coming to a close! Over the past two winters and two summers, Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorers and riggers have worked hard to complete the necessary work on “Old Ironsides” while in dry dock. These final days and weeks in dock focus on “finishing touches” to get the ship ready for undocking on the night of July 23, 2017.

Draft (Draught) Numbers

“DRAUGHT, the depth of a body of water necessary to float a ship…that this draught may be more readily known, the feet are marked on the stem and sternpost from the keel upwards.” [Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, ed. William Burney, 1815]

USS Constitution is a large sailing wooden warship. When carrying the 450 men, food and water, guns and military equipment, and rig and sailing equipment to complete her tasks, she sat deep in the water, drawing about 22 feet of water on average. It is likely she had draft (“draught”) marks on her bow and stern when she sailed during the late 18th century and throughout most of the 19th century, but we have no images to show what form those draft marks took. Were they Roman or Arabic numerals? Did they originally begin at the keel, as described by Falconer in his dictionary, or did they begin several feet above the keel line? There must have been some type of markings, but the first image we have of her draft numbers comes to us as recently as 1910, just a few years after her first true restoration.

Detail of a c.1910 photograph of USS Constitution’s port bow. Note the draft marks, beginning at the top of her copper sheathing line with “20” and continuing up to “23”. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Similar sets of draft marks were reinstalled on “Old Ironsides'” hull at the completion of her 1927-1931 restoration. Some of the numerals may be have re-used from the earlier 1906 restoration, or they may have been newly made in 1930 for the completion of the nearly $1 million, four-year restoration.

USS Constitution in Dry Dock 1, Charlestown Navy Yard, March 13, 1930, two days before she was refloated back into Boston Harbor. Note the draft marks on the port side of her stem. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
This style of Arabic numerals was used throughout the rest of the 20th century and were either recycled or replaced in kind when Constitution was re-coppered in the 1973-1974 dry docking and again in the 1992-1996 restoration.


Draft marks on USS Constitution’s stern post, installed in the summer of 1995, when the ship was last re-coppered. The numerals painted on the white board were attached before the ship was dry docked in 2015, taking the place of bronze numbers that had fallen off the ship’s hull over the years. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The old numerals were removed for the re-coppering of Constitution‘s hull during the 2015-2017 restoration. Because so many of the numbers had fallen off the hull, new numbers had to be manufactured. The 20th century draft numbers were made of bronze, which is a substantial material to use around salt water, but the bronze reacted to the copper sheathing, thereby corroding of the fasteners holding the numbers to the hull. The new numbers are the same dimension as the old – six inches high, spaced six inches apart to equal one foot in measurement on the hull. The font is Engravers MT and each number was water-cut from stainless steel plates. To prevent the metal-to-metal corrosion experienced with the bronze numbers, the new numbers are backed with a thin rubber membrane and each number is fastened with a stainless steel screw.


The new stainless steel draft marks on Constitution’s stern post. Note that the copper on the rudder was not replaced in the 2015-2017 re-coppering of the hull, with the exception of one starboard plate – the ceremonial “first sheet” of copper that was removed on June 9, 2015. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
An up-close view of the new draft numbers on Constitution’s starboard bow. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]


Since at least the 1973-1974 dry docking, when USS Constitution‘s copper sheathing was replaced, fixed fenders have been attached to the hull to protect the waterline area of the ship. For the 2015-2017 restoration, new fenders were once again made, but this time each fender was cut and fashioned to individually fit the contour of the hull.

For Bruce Comeau, the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorer assigned to make Constitution‘s fenders, this is his second “Old Ironsides” restoration. Bruce, a residential finish carpenter, was hired as a term employee for the 2007-2010 floating restoration where he worked on hull planks, gun port sills, and other projects. He was hired back for the 2015-2017 dry docking restoration and, while he enjoys many aspects of working on Constitution, Bruce says that some of his favorite moments have been “watching a winter sunrise over the dry dock and the ship” when it’s so quiet and peaceful in the Navy Yard. One of Bruce’s large tasks for the 2015-2017 restoration was the re-building of Constitution‘s stern.

Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorer Bruce Comeau uses an electric plane to shape a new hull fender for Constitution. Note the red and blue lines drawn on the piece of solid white oak, denoting the different angles and facets to the fender. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
Two solid white oak fenders with their coats of red bottom paint. Note the differences in the thickness of the fender on the left, cut so that it will fit snugly to Constitution’s waterline. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Three fenders installed at Constitution’s waterline, starboard side. The fenders will protect the copper sheathing when Constitution is docked and when tugs tie up alongside the ship for tug-powered underway demonstrations in Boston Harbor. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Fore Top Mast Shrouds

USS Constitution entered Dry Dock 1 the night of May 18-19, 2015 with just her three lower masts in place. The top masts and the topgallant/royal masts, along with their horizontal yards, had been removed to lessen the ship’s weight and thereby cause her to sit higher in the water when she entered the dry dock. For her undocking, however, it has been determined that she can carry the weight of her three top masts and still have enough water under her keel for her to exit the dock safely. The fore top mast is the last of the three top masts to be installed while the ship is in dock. The NHHC Detachment Boston riggers and crane operators have been busy setting up the standing rigging to support this mast.

NHHC Detachment Boston riggers in a crane basket (left) and on the fore fighting top set up standing rigging for the fore top mast. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
On a warm morning in mid-May, 2017, NHHC Detachment Boston riggers Ryan Whitehead and Steve Ridlon were aloft on the fore fighting top, working on the fore top mast standing rigging. Steve, a Navy diver by training, is now a crane operator and rigger, new to USS Constitution and the 2015-2017 restoration. As he tells the story, “[While] in the Navy I started to build…a model of…Constitution….Years passed and I worked on my model in my free time. I had a copy of Navy Times that featured the [1992-1996] dry dock restoration…I cut out the pictures of the work being done and hung them around my modeling desk….I never imagined getting a job [with Constitution], and was even more amazed that I was interviewed and hired by one of the guys [Gordon Lincoln, Rigging Supervisor] in the photos I had hanging around my desk for years!”

NHHC Detachment Boston riggers Ryan Whitehead (left) and Steve Ridlon (right) use chain falls to tighten the fore top mast lanyards and shrouds. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Gun Carriages

The guns and carriages that are usually found on USS Constitution‘s spar and gun decks are replicas that were researched and manufactured for the 1927-1931 restoration. Over the intervening decades, the wooden carriages have been re-made and re-built many, many times. The 2015-2017 restoration was no exception and all of the gun carriages have had some re-building and refurbishment done to them. The replica 24-pound long guns are today mounted on laminated white oak carriages and wheels (known as “trucks”) that were last fully replaced in the 1992-1996 restoration. The iron carriage hardware is likely from the 1927 restoration, with some replacement pieces being substituted during the last 90 years.

A laminated white oak 24-pound long gun carriage in the midst of being refurbished. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
Two 24-pound long gun carriages upon completion of their re-build, including a new paint job in the traditional red color. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Painting Hull

With nearly 100 new planks mostly above the waterline and a few below the waterline and thousands of feet of new hull caulking, the end of the dry docking is marked by painting USS Constitution in her easily recognizable black and white color scheme. In her early years, the ship’s hull sported a yellow ochre-colored gun streak/stripe. Her familiar black and white hull color was established by at least 1811. Interestingly, Captain Charles Stewart had the gun stripe re-painted yellow in 1814, likely in an attempt to disguise Constitution and trick the Royal Navy into thinking she was another British warship in the War of 1812.

In 1842, the Board of Naval Commissioners decreed that U.S. Navy vessels were to have black hulls and white gun streaks/stripes. For the rest of her active career, until her last sail in 1881, Constitution‘s hull color changed only once, when, according to ship’s carpenter Henry George Thomas in 1844,

“December 20…Since leaving Rio, the ship has been painted white or lead color with a red streak, in place of black with a white streak…the ship is cooler…both inside and out…” [Around the World in Old Ironsides, The Voyage of the USS Constitution, 1844-1846 by Henry George Thomas]


NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorer Bruce Comeau paints the laminated white oak hull planking black. The grey spots on the hull are primer paint before the final coat. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Quarter Gallery Windows

Each quarter gallery, on the port and starboard sides of Constitution‘s stern after corners, has three, six-paned windows. The quarter galleries and their windows, as currently designed, are early 20th century constructions. Each window section needed refurbishment and, in a couple of instances, complete re-building. Up to the early 20th century, a few of the window panes opened, allowing for some air circulation. Today, each of the six panes is fixed in the mullions.

The aft-most window from Constitution’s starboard quarter gallery. This window had last been completely refurbished in the 1992-1996 restoration. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
NHHC Detachment Boston work leader and ship restorer Joe Halter making a new mahogany quarter gallery window frame. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorer Bruce Caporal (green shirt) assists Joe Halter (inside the quarter gallery) with installation of the forward-most starboard quarter gallery window. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

With just two weeks to go before USS Constitution undocks on July 23, 2017, the “finishing touches” will continue, bringing a gloss and a shine to America’s Ship of State for her refloat into Boston Harbor.


The activity that is the subject of this blog article has been financed in part with Federal funds from the National Maritime Heritage Grant program, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, through the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin, Chairman. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission, nor does the mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

The Author(s)

Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command

Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.