Old Ironsides Is Made of Wood?

May 29, 2014
USS Constitution
USS Constitution

Batten the hatches! Roll out the cannon! Swab, load, fire! The sailors on the USS Constitution, a.k.a. Old Ironsides, could shoot at roughly twice the rate of her British counterparts. Combined with the strongest hull technology of the day, this ship-of-the-line rightfully earned its heroic reputation with a cumulative 33-0 battle record.

While the British were building and equipping hundreds of military vessels, the United States commissioned its first six frigates in 1794. The Constitution and her five sister ships were designed with quality in mind. Super-strong southern live oak was used in the wood in the hull and framing. This heavy timber has a density of 75 pounds per cubic foot, making it heavier than water, heavier than most other common timbers. The huge internal braces of the ship were cut in solid pieces from individual trees, as opposed to being compositely joined on site. The result was a hard body that appeared to deflect cannon balls like iron.

On august 19, 1812 the USS Constitution engaged with the HMS Guerriere. In desperation after witnessing 18-pound cannon balls glancing off the USS Constitution hull a British sailor exclaimed, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!”

Gun Deck

USS Constitution Gun Deck Panoramic

Although the ship’s construction is typically credited for its victories, critics contend that the crew is mostly responsible for the successes. With so few boats to equip, the US Navy had plenty of live ammunition to practice with. In contrast, British Captains were forced to be stingy with using resources live fire practice. The American’s proved the adage that practice makes perfect and increased their rate of fire dramatically over the competition. Captain Isaac Hull of the Constitution is also credited with outmaneuvering his British counterpart, Captain James Dacres.

Sailor Docent

USS Constitution docent on main deck

Despite thwarting the British attacks of 1812, it would still be over a century before the US could claim naval superiority. Throughout that time, the USS constitution continued to sail and represent the US Navy. Today it remains a commissioned warship. Visitors to the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, MA have the opportunity to walk the historic main deck and gun deck. The enlisted docents do a fantastic job of explaining the construction of the ship, its historic missions, and life at sea in the era of tall ships.

I visited the USS Constitution during my recent trip to Boston for the 2014 ASCE-SEI Structures Congress. In a week filled with presentations about special structures, the USS Constitution was the most inspiring construction that I witnessed.

4 Comments
  • Materials for USS Constitution———- Google “Live Oak USS Constitution”———- The complete statement is readily accessible on the internet, but reads in part——-” Live Oak is not Commercially Available”. Also in the same “Restoration Paper”(1995 restoration) it says that the” Live Oak Specifications” are 20” Butt Log 15 feet plus long. There are a lot of people,including Me, that could have easily supplied these sizes in massive quantities in this time frame. Steve Cross

  • Reading the 1995 restoration on line description, it seems that everything on the ship is a “Procurement Item” with the exception of Southern Live Oak/Quercus Virginiana”. Does the fact that Live Oak does not have a “Procurement Budget” have anything to it not being available in “The Sizes and Quantities Needed”? Just asking. Steve Cross

  • Researching USS Constitutions restoration statements, I found The USS Constitution Organization using the terminology “Live Oak is not available in the Sizes and Quantities needed” during the 1925 restoration and the 2015 restoration. Steve Cross

  • Reading the USS Constitution Organizations statements about Southern Live Oak/Quercus Virginiana , they state that Southern Live Oak is not available in the sizes and quantities needed to restore The USS Constitution with Southern Live Oak currently in the year 2015. I have attempted to research on USS Constitution published data and can not find what sizes and quantities We ,as a nation, can not supply. I think We at least need to know what We can not supply. Steve Cross 229-726-5561

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