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The Viking Ship
(circa 950 AD)
(circa 1965 for model)

 

The Viking Ship, Built by Ralph W. PrestonThe bottle is 30 inches high and 16 inches in diameter. The neck of the bottle is 11 inches long, the throat diameter is about 15/16" at the narrowest point. Bottle made by Charles F. Zeller of Morgantown, West Virginia (USA). The model took eight years [3,000 hours] to build and is in the permanent collection of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, VA.

Built by Ralph W. Preston.
Photo by Bernie O'Day.


 


More Details about the construction of The Viking Ship:


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1. Assembling the floor inside the bottle. 15 planks were used with three crosswise slats. The planks were dowelled along mating edges. The slats were glued to the middle plank, the assembly was turned over, and the remaining planks were added in pairs to keep the assembly balanced.


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2. The inside diameter of the smallest part of the neck is about 7/8" in diameter. Every piece of the disassembled ship must pass through this section. Here, a section of the "lower half" of the hull is going in. The "bluish" parts on the floor are slices of kitchen sponges used to protect the components of the ship that must be protected.


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3. Fitting the parts. The whole ship is essentially a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The parts are sanded, filed and sometimes bent to fit together, leaving a nominal crack between the parts. The ship is usually split along existing lines so the cuts may be easily concealed. This was very time consuming. 


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4. A neighboring piece of the hull is lifted into place by a pair of tongs. The lower half of the hull is comprised of three rigid pieces that are dowelled together for alignment and support as the glue dries. The upper part of the hull consists of thin, flexible gunwales that must conform to the lower half and fit along the contacting edges.


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5. A view of two sections of the "lower hull". These sections are drilled and dowelled so the parts will line up inside the bottle. The dowels also hold the parts together while the glue is drying. The "aqua" strips under the hull parts are pads to protect the hull sections. They were made from kitchen sponges.


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6. The fit of the gunwale is tested here against the lower part of the hull (outside the bottle prior to internal work). The precision spring clamps hold the parts together while the regions of contact are fitted.

Note: The "precision spring clamps" are special tools that find many uses here. I wouldn't want to call them clothespins because then it would give the impression that the work is not sophisticated…


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7. The Viking ships had high, sweeping prows and sterns, and these would not pass through the neck if left on the gunwales. They were cut off and re-assembled inside the bottle. The strip of wood underneath the gunwale is coated with a plastic that resists most glues. This strip acts as a splint to keep the parts aligned while the glue dries.


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8. A clamp is maneuvered into place to help hold a part against the splint. Adjoining parts have been coated with a little household cement in spots to provide a temporary joint. Later the joint will be re-enforced with epoxy.


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9. Another view of the prow and gunwale assembly. Since the ships were double ended, there were four pieces that had to be removed and replaced inside the bottle. A special glue technique was used here and at many other phases of the re-assembly. (For details see 12, 13 and 14.) Small patches of the mating parts were coated with household cement having a known solvent. The cement was applied to these patches, a plastic film was placed between the mating parts which were then clamped together. 

After the cement had dried, the pieces were pulled apart from the plastic film, and the excess cement which squeezed out was removed. The damaged paint was repaired and the parts re-assembled in the bottle. With the splints in place, a solvent was applied to the joint. The cement was then allowed to dry, the splints were removed, and a thin epoxy was applied to the regions between the patches. A very fluid epoxy was used. The fluid epoxy was drawn into the remaining parts. Repairing the damaged paint completed the job.


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10. A "nudger and poker" tool points to the almost finished joint. You can see a discontinuity where the pieces were joined. The black lines between the strakes were extended over the joint and covered with a flat finish.


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11. The gunwale rests against the lower hull half. Slightly to the right of center, you can see two wooden "pads" which comprise a key. Just over the edge of the lower hull is a shelf. The key will drop in there and locate a point where the gunwale and lower hull are aligned. From that moment on it is simply a matter of moving foreward, then aft, clamping as we go.


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Drawing: Ralph Preston
12. When two pieces of wood are glued together, general practice has proven that it is best to apply pressure to the joint while the glue is drying/curing. In most cases the excess glue is squeezed out during this process. Outside of a bottle it is easy to scrape the excess off and repair paint damage adjoining the joint.

Within the bottle, the problem becomes more complex. How does one get not too much/too little glue on the joint? Either extreme is undesirable.

I have used the following practice. Mark out small squares on mating faces of the point-these squares obviously must "match," i.e., come together during the clamping process. Next, spread small amounts of a household cement (I use Ambroid) on each square. Lay a sheet of thin plastic film (I use Saran Wrap or strips of a plastic bag) over the contacting surfaces and promptly clamp the pieces together. Apply one precision clamp over each square. This presses the pieces together while the glue is hardening. In the special case (here) where we are gluing a very flexible piece to a rigid piece, the flexible gunwale is pressed against the rigid piece, making for a better fit.

After the glue has dried, pull the joint apart. Most plastic films are a good "glue resist," the adhesion between glue and film is very weak, and the parts come apart easily without damaging either piece of wood. It goes without saying that you should test any film you plan to use for the "glue resist" property.

After scraping off any excess glue and repairing any damage it may have caused neighboring areas, you now have two pieces that fit closely together with neither an excess nor a shortage of dried glue.


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Drawing: Ralph Preston
13. Inside the bottle the gunwale and "lower hull half" are clamped together as explained in 14, 15 and 16. There are a fairly large number of "pockets" on the "lower hull half". Put your spring clamps as shown in about every other hold or pocket. Now check that the fit is satisfactory and apply a solvent (ethyl acetate) in the spaces between the spring clamps. Now quickly move the clamps to sites you anointed with solvent.

This gives you the desired pressure for optimizing the strength of the joint. Now wet the remaining sites with solvent and add more spring clamps. Allow several days for the above to dry. Ambroid (and most other glues) dry more slowly in a bottle.

Now if you wish to optimize the strength and durability of your project, add a tiny amount of a very fluid epoxy to the spaces between the squares which received no Ambroid. Historic preservation people like epoxy for durability. I like West System epoxy. It is very fluid and flows into the cracks before hardening. Be careful not to use an excess.


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14. A pair of tongs hold the gunwale as it is lifted in place. The key (see lower edge of the gunwale) at this point is dropped (hopefully) into the slot in the upper edge of the hull, and then the tongs are opened slightly, releasing the gunwale while the tip of the clamp is inserted in the nearest hole (see 15). The tongs are then opened all the way, releasing the clamp, pressing the key into the slot (once again, hopefully). Usually the key doesn't go in, the clamp snaps shut, and the parts go flying across the bottle! Then the whole process has to be repeated; only one success is needed. The whole process greatly enriches one's vocabulary!


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15. Ahhh! Success at last. The tongs have just released the spring clamp. The key popped into place, and we could start adding other clamps, working towards the prow and stern. You can see the "knuckle" on the tongs that fit into the little pocket on the end of the spring clamp. The shiny strips along the rectangular region in the middle are dried glue awaiting the mating piece.


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16. Near the prow (or is it the stern?), clamps have pressed the gunwale against the "lower half" of the hull. The prow is referred to as the "steven" in old Norse. This part of the work is like drinking a milkshake through a straw; you start in the middle and work toward the ends.


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17. The ribs were a very elegant part of the Viking's engineering; they "flowed" across the deck and up both sides. The strakes were actually tied to the ribs, forming a flexible hull. Thus these "tiny" ships would not be swamped by high seas that would have flooded a much larger rigid hull!


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18. Here a "thing-a-ma-jig" puts a shot of epoxy into a crack between the gunwale and the lower part of the hull. The thing-a-ma-jig is an articulated tool that can support many different tools. In this case it holds the glass from an eye dropper. The end of the tool can be bent at a desirable angle so that lung power can eject the epoxy into the crack. Finished ribs are visible in the background.


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19. Ollie is nudged into place by one finger of the tongs. (I have named all of the crew "Ollie." In this way I don't forget any of their names.) I play a mean trick on Ollie: I put a dab of glue on his backside and hands so he will stay put once the oar rack is removed.


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20. Ollie is finally in place. In the foreground is an oar rack which keeps the boys in stroke. They are a pretty unruly bunch, but I am sure they keep in stroke. It is kind of sad here that the row of oarsmen and their seachests obscure the superb engineering of the Viking's hull.


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21. A kibitzer watches the smith at work. The anvil and forge are copies of some found in a Viking grave. Keeping the forge operating and the iron bar red hot was a problem. They are translucent pieces of plastic that catch the light. (The coin in the background is a US dime.)


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22. The rigging of the Viking shops was very simple, so I omit the explanation of re-rigging it here. During most of the construction, the neck of the bottle is horizontal as well as the ship itself. The final step is to hold the ship level while the bottle is rotated so the neck is upright.

Somewhere during this operation, Fafnir, the dragon's head at the front of the ship, is accidentally broken off (Fafnir is, of course, very perturbed by this). To re-attach the neck it is necessary to go down the 11" bottleneck, then over about 8" to attach Fafnir's head to the prow. A spring clamp is attached to a stick enabling access to the prow. The spring clamp and stick are visible upper left. In the prow of the ship, an officer supervises the operation. In all, there are 43 figurines on the ship.


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23. A view from the stern during the Fafnir re-attaching operation. 

The whole construction took about 8 years. During this time, a wonderful lady named Erna Asheim at Oslo University's collection of antiquities very patiently answered many of my inane questions. When I asked her how the Viking shields were decorated, she replied, "We don't know. Why don't you use your imagination? At least no one can say you are wrong!"

For the shields, I have used some patterns that existed at the time of the Vikings or before, in particular, the interlocking "T" pattern of the Sutton Hoo ship and the Gordian knot, but I doubt that any Viking ship's shields were so elaborately decorated. Purists will tell you (and me) that the Vikings did not have shields and oars deployed at the same time. They are probably right, but I think the whole looks better with both in place.


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24. Another view of Fafnir's re-attaching process. The support is left on until the epoxy cures. An officer is confronting two "goof off" guards. In front of the ship are two Viking warriors who are "Prompt in their appointment," but here two guards are chatting while the shield and axe or halberd are lying on the ground.


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25. Fafnir and his tail oversee oars, two guards and an officer. The guards are characters from the previous picture. I discovered sometime later that the Vikings didn't have horns in their hats, so I removed them.


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26. This final shot was made at The Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The model is the property of the Museum. The photo was made using a special photo technique devised by the builder. The technique removes objectionable reflections from the bottle (see article reproduced with the kind permission of Popular Photography).

© 1998-2007 Ralph Preston / Web Design & Maintenance: Nate Orshan
~~~ Hit the bottle! ~~~