Category Archives: Activity

Finishing the backbone

In the last few month’s we’ve made loads of progress on the West Coast Skiff in GalGael. First we had to complete the backbone assembly. This is the central component of the boat and it’s pretty key that it’s well put together.

Traditional Boatbuilding Keel

Cat and Brian are happy about the backbone!

From our lofting we could pull the exact shape of not just the keel but the other parts that make up the backbone. In the picture above the stem, the front of the boat, is the dark piece on the left and the sternpost is the dark piece on the right. Both are made from Greenheart. The long straight section is the oak keel that we milled from the huge board. Joining the keel to the stem and sternpost at either end are the knees. These are both made from elm, the curving laminations follow the shape of the boat and ensure that they are sufficiently stong.


Cat and Brian drilling bolt holes for the stem.

Once we had all these pieces made we had to assemble them, they are held together with numerous 1/2 inch thick bronze bolts. Throughout this boat we’ll be using only bronze and copper fastenings, both these metals have different purposes but are strong and have the benefit of not rusting!

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While the keel was going together our dedicated teams of volunteers and participants were busy making the moulds. Each one of these is exactly patterned and shaped from the lofting to define the shape of the boat at a given position. Once the back bone was set up and ready the moulds stand on it at a given position, but first we have to set the keel up. And to do this we need a ceremony! About a traditional keel laying ceremony, next time!

On finding and milling a keel

As has probably become fairly obvious for regular followers of this project we’re going to be building two West Coast Skiffs in the GalGael workshop over the coming years. These bonnie boats are 20 feet long and traditionally built, meaning they are built of larch planks rivetted together to steam bent oak frames around a central backbone.

As we’re in the early stages of the build we are most worried about the keel at the moment. It’s surprisingly hard to find a keel for a boat this big, mainly because we have such stringent requirements. So we went looking for a bit of native oak, 17 feet long, at least 2 1/4″ thick and 5 1/2″ wide, it needed to be dead straight, and ideally air dried. We’d always rather buy native timber because it’s better for the environment, better for local industry and more traditional. Our first piece was too thin and had to be sent back. After calling just about every timber yard in Scotland we gave up on native and bought a beam of Greenheart (Chlorocardium Rodiei), this South American hardwood is a very strong and heavy, it can make a great keel. Unfortunately the piece we got was not straight enough and it too had to go back. Finally we went to McConnel Wood Products, a supplier of oak beams who sourced for us a truly massive board of French Oak.

Big Ol' Oak Board

Plank of oak on one of our boat trailers.

The board was 5.5 M long, over a meter wide and 65mm thick. Far too heavy to lift off the trailer without about six guys working! So first we had to reduce it in size, cue a circular saw and lots of dust.

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The photos don’t quite give an idea of the scale of the piece, but it’s pretty huge. With the piece small enough to move it was through to the machine shop to mill to size, first on the the table saw we cut it down to a manageable width. Then on the surfacer to flatten out the twist, and the thicknesser to get it to finish thickness.

Big Ol' Pieces

Cat and Brian milling the keel to thickness

And finally it’s straight edged, and back onto the table saw to finish it width accurately. Back to the lofting in the end we lie it down in place, with the part finished stem as well we are finally starting to get an idea of the size of the boat.


Keel and Stem in place on the loft floor

All that work for one piece of wood, luckily they are not all that big.

Bending New Frames

Another few weeks have passed and everything has inched that bit further along. At the Tall Ship we’re deep into the process of reframing Starcrest. In order to maintain the shape of the boat we start by supporting the boat as best as we could. So we’ve block her up underneath; drive wedges up against the planking and support the hull from a beam built into the roof of the workshop. Inside the boat we have added bracing that runs across the boat, adding extra strength wherever we can. Then the laborious work of removing the frames begins, every second frame is taken out, each rivet ground off and driven out and the old frames cut out.

The exposed areas of the hull are cleaned up and inspected for damage, in many cases this has been the first time areas have been looked at in 90 years! So we’re alert to the chance of rot.

Then we are ready to bend in the new frame, we have a huge stock of fresh sawn green oak. This timber has to be totally straight grained and without checks or knots. It is milled to shape and has the corners chamfered, the chamfering helps to resist the tendency for the timber to start breaking away.

Each piece goes into the steam box for a set amount of time, the rule of thumb is 1 hour per inch of thickness, so the 3/4 inch frames get 45 minutes in the box. The heat from the steam softens the bonds between the fibres of the wood and allows them to bend so we need to be sure that the heat penetrates right to the heart of the timber of we risk it snapping. Wood doesn’t stretch, so as it bends the inside face compresses.

As soon as the piece comes out the box its hot and cooling fast, the guys have to work fast to get the piece into it’s finished place before its cold. It has to slither down between the hull and the stringers, so they push, pull and hammer it home. Using clamps, sticks and a pneumatic jack they push it to the right curve. And leave it to cool.

After it’s cool the no less laborious task of riveting it in has to be done, another task requiring team work and precision. But meanwhile there are fifty more frames to do, and that’s only half of them! It’s a slow job framing out a boat.

Starcrest update

Richard Martin tells us about how the Starcrest restoration is going so far:

Starcrest has had two surveyors give her the once over, we are currently waiting for the second report to find out the full extent of the work needed to be done. Having managed at the second attempt to get Starcrest into the workshop [no mean feat in itself] we have begun work doing the obvious such as taking out every other rib, removing the rotten floors and sanding the hull both inside outside. We are collecting thousands of copper rivets which we will eventually sell to the scrappy.

The timber to start reconstruction should arrive next week which we are looking forward to. The full scale of the work has started to sink in. It is a massive, complex job and we are having to be very flexible in our approach to it, but although the work is extensive it is amazing that the original hull planks seem to be in remarkably good condition.

Plenty of boat to work on

Richard takes a well earned break!

Apprentices have been thrown in at the deep end and are now removing rivets like they have been doing it for years. We are all feeling positive and looking forward to the challenge.


Starcrest Success!


We’re very pleased that Starcrest is now safely in the workshop of the Clyde Maritime Trust. It was quite a job getting the big old heavy boat along into the  shop, but after a few hours of pushing and pulling we figured it out. 

Alan and Gary, the two apprentices who’ll be working on the restoration came along to watch the boat come out the water… I think they were suitably impressed by the scale of the task!

GalGael, the Tall Ship and the Commonwealth Games

With the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games last night we are really proud to be able to say the GalGael were involved in various ways. You might have seen a quick blink of our guys standing beside a huge hand carved wooden seven during the count down at the start of the ceremony. Our volunteers and craftsmen made the piece in our workshop but we did the filming in front of the mighty Glenlee, so you could see both project partners at once during the opening ceremony.



You might also have noticed the Queen’s Baton, the wooden handle was built in GalGael just like the mast of a ship. It was turned on a lathe, and chiseled to fit the titanium exactly. A very proud day for our organisation!



If you’d like to learn the skills we used to make these two pieces of work head on over to the volunteering page and sign up to get involved! You never know where your work might end up!



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Well, we tried to get Starcrest out the water. After a few hours of pushing and pulling we couldn’t quite get her exactly where we wanted, the keel wasn’t sufficiently supported. So the staff of Clyde Maritime Trust are going to modify the trailer and we’ll try again at high tide tomorrow. Keep an weather eye open for more updates!