Shipkeepers in action: Refurbishing Cutty Sark’s hull

Every month, Documentations Officer Claire Denham takes us behind the scenes at Cutty Sark, to give us an insight into the important daily research, documentation and maintenance work that keeps Cutty Sark preserved for many future generations to come.

It’s that time of year again when the hull and bulwarks of Cutty Sark have their three yearly detailed inspection, repair and lick of paint. Concentrating on the timber hull planks first, let’s look back on previous repairs.

Throughout her working life Cutty Sark spent 85 years in the water, with the remaining 63 in dry dock. Over this time the hull has had to content with battering by storms, collisions, repairs, to more recent problems of rot and decay to the timbers.

During the conservation project 2006- 2012 a complete overhaul of the hull planks was needed to properly treat the timbers. This involved removing each individual plank (541 in total, ranging from 1ft to 68 ft) from the iron frame. Each original muntz bolt and nut was removed; the plank protected in its bespoke casing to maintain its shape and sent for restoration works. The condition of the hull planks varied greatly with the rock elm planks which sat underneath the muntz sheathing having dried out considerably. The timbers had been out of the water since the 1950’s, producing friable dry wood with numerous cracks and shakes, which in many cases involved lamination of the entire plank face.

Overhaul of the hull planks (2011)

Currently the timbers above the glass canopy, mainly constructed from teak, are being inspected by our shipkeeping team. Seven strakes (rows of timber) are on show from the dockside. Strakes run from bow to stern, each secured to the iron frame with two fixing points per frame and secure at the end of each plank with a butt plate. We think the hull planks were made from East Indian teak, as other original parts of the ship were constructed in this way. Teak was a popular choice for shipbuilding impervious to seawater, durable and in little need of maintenance; it is a testament to the timber that the planks have survived on the ship for 148 years, with one reaching over 54ft of solid teak, original to the ships construction!

Repairs to the hull - May 2017

The majority of these planks are original to her launch, with a handful replaced in 1995, which are still in superb condition. In total there are 140 planks exposed to the elements, with the planks on the portside taking the brunt of the weather and are therefore inspected more regularly.

Repairs to the hull - May 2017

Currently, the timbers are sanded backed to reveal areas that need attention, each plank and caulking seam is inspected, areas that are badly rotted, timber is cut out and a graving piece inserted, replaced with like for like timber, in this case teak. A new caulking seam is applied, if required, and then the planks are primed and given a top coat of paint. This work is expected to take around six weeks to complete, so if you are in Greenwich come down and see the team in action!