Ships Timbers – Please Not Again!

Information Ships Timbers – Please Not Again!
Ship's Timber In Period Properties

Let me start by saying, unless you live incredibly close to a coastline or river where wooden ships were dismantled or routinely wrecked and washed up in pieces, the chances of your house containing anything remotely connected with a historic ship are just about zero.

Apart from the very grandest of buildings, most building materials were obtained as locally as possible, stone came from the local quarry, brick from the local brickworks and timber from the nearest tree. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and once the canals and railways became established the movement of materials from one region to another became more common, but C16 and C17 buildings which is where most owners proudly claim their ‘ships timbers’ reside, are almost without exception built from materials obtained close to home.

Unless the beam supporting your bedroom floor happens to have a figurehead (and even if it has, how do we know this wasn’t done by the previous owner who happened to be a dab hand at wood carving)  it’s fairly safe to assume that a malnourished coastal peasant would not have dragged a quarter tonne piece of timber 90 miles across the mountains of Wales on the off chance of selling it to a carpenter in the middle of Cheshire.

Timber was felled as close to the wood yard as possible and generally converted for use in construction within a year or two of being felled, this practise is well documented. Carpenters would also be very reluctant to use their precious tools on hardened oak that was likely to contain grit or other debris that could take the edge of their tools. Working with ‘green’ oak is relatively easy if the grain is playing ball, working oak that’s dried out can be very hard work. A carpenter working in the C17 would have to have a very good reason to select a steel hard seasoned beam over a freshly cut one.

I don’t doubt that some timber salvaged from dismantled or wrecked ships has been recycled and used in the construction or alteration of buildings but it is rare and in the case of historic timber frame buildings built along the Welsh borders and in the North West of England I would say this probably never happened.

Recycling of timber, on the other hand, is extremely common, particularly large pieces of oak which became more difficult to obtain in some parts of the country from the C18 onwards. Architectural salvage is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years, the reuse of structural and decorative timber can be seen in large country houses and the smallest cottages.


  • Tim Nicholson

    Tim Nicholson, Managing Consultant of Nicholson Price Associates - MSc. Conservation of the Historic Environment (RICS), Affiliate member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, Incorporated member of the Chartered Institute of Building, Member of The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain.

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