Shipwrights - Caulkers


Shipwrights built and repaired wooden vessels (crafts) at the shipyards (tarsanades or karnagia): single-mast sailing boats (sakoleves), boats, barges, two-masted and tree-masted ship-hulled caïques (karavoskara), cargo ships (peramata), small sailing boats for the transportation of oil and soap (tsernikes or tsernikia), light fast sailing-boats (trehandiria), small oared vessels (bougiadedes or bigiadedes), etc. Shipyards started to operate in the mid-17th century in Hydra, Spetses and Psara. In the early 20th century, there were many (also) in Lesvos (Mytilene, Polychnitos, Parakoila, Koundouroudia, Perama, etc.) , and especially in the region of Plomari, where the art was passed on from one generation to the next, within family tradition. Shipwrights from Lesvos also built “crafts” for buyers from the neighbouring islands, such as Chios, Oinousses, Samos, etc. They ordered the vessels according to the desired capacity, and then the shipwrights calculated their dimensions. They also undertook the repair of old ships, as well as their elongation, which was a very hard task.

The construction of a vessel required the following steps: a) the plans of the craft (usually in 1:20 scale), b) the construction of the hull , c) its planking (side walls) , d) the placement of the wheelhouse, the wheel and the mast, and e) the caulking (water-proofing) and painting. Shipwrights undertook all these tasks but when there was a high workload they usually assigned the caulking to special craftsmen, the caulkers. They also used the help of other specialised craftsmen, such as carpenters or painters.

Shipwrights used pine wood and more rarely cypress wood. It was essential to select the suitable type of wood for each part of the hull, since some parts of the ship are constantly under water having as a result the wood contraction and other parts are under the sun and expand. Initially, they used hand-made iron nails and afterwards industrialised and zinc-plated ones. For the launching they spread grease mixed with acid (or lemon) on the lower part of the ship, to overcome the friction.

The necessary tools were the adze, the frame saw (replaced today by the band saw), drawing knives (replaced today by the plane), the file (replaced today by the sander), the hand saw (replaced today by the electric saw), the gimlets (or the modern electric drills), the plumb-line, the chisels etc.

Many people were employed in the shipyards until about 1950, whereas, afterwards, a major crisis occurred with the introduction of new technologies for the mass production of metal or plastic hulls, as well as the decrease of the fishing fleet. Today there are some shipyards in Plomari, in Mytilene, in Panagiouda and in Molyvos (where descendants of old shipwrights and caulkers work). Due to the limited demand, the shipwrights themselves undertake the caulking.




Caulkers undertook the caulking (water-proofing) of the built ships at the shipyards (tarsanades or karnagia), or/and the painting and the maintenance of old ships. Often, shipwrights were also caulkers and only in high production periods there were craftsmen exclusively occupied with caulking.

Caulking is the procedure of sealing the seams between the boards of the side planking (that is, the planks that are fixed on the ship’s frame forming its flanks), as well as those of the deck planking. With the help of the mallet (wooden two-headed hammer), a series of chisels, and the “caulking irons” (iron wedges in various sizes), the seams are widened from the exterior, then filled with hemp (cannabis) or cotton strands and finally coated with tar at the ship’s bottom (the part of the ship below the water line), or with putty at the freeboard (the part of the ship above the water line).

Despite the technological progress and the development of new machinery, caulking still requires the same tools and follows the same procedure concerning wooden ships. For the painting (undertaken periodically by non specialised workmen as well), caulkers use common paints for the freeboard and “moravia” (high quality paint) – or tar in the past – for the ship’s bottom. For its maintenance they burn the wood in order to remove the old paint and paint it from scratch.

Sources used

  • Interview with Michalis Triandafyllou [shipwright] in Epano Skala, Mytilene, 22/07/2004
  • Interview with Doukas Giamougiannis [shipwright – caulker] in Plomari, Lesvos, 05/07/2005 (with the help of Haralambos Petrelis)
  • M. Axiotis, Walking in Lesvos. Topography - History – Archaeology, Volume 2, Mytilene 1992
  • A.G. Papastylianos, “A traditional occupation is fading: the shipyards (Tarsanades or Karnagia)”, Ta Kalloniatika, November - December 1988, 47: 6-9
  • S. Psarras, “Tribute to Giannis Giamougiannis, the shipbuilder of the wooden boat”, Echoes from Plomari, 1991, Volume 13, 139: 169,18