The Loftsman
Leith Shipyards

A history of the Ships built at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland. Also a testimony to the men who built the Ships and to all who sailed in them.
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Leith Shipyards

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Shipbuilding in Leith

The Henry Robb Shipyards at Leith, Edinburgh Scotland (Around the late 1930's)
(Photograph from The Loftsman collection)

Here we will try and take you through some of the shipbuilding process as carried out in the Henry Robb shipyard at Leith, Scotland.

Bearing in mind that every yard would approach the challenge of building a new ship a little bit differently, I will only write about the Leith way for now. (Note:- If you don’t agree or feel we have missed something then feel free to send your version to us and we shall add it here.)

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Most yards would have there own contacts around the shipping world as well as having perhaps a small sales team on the go all year round. Once a whiff of an order was in the air or, if as happened more than often the yard was invited to tender for a particular order then the men in the background would start to assemble there best quote which would in all likely be based on plans and records that the yard would have on record.

This info would allow the yard to very quickly produce a pretty accurate quote for the work. The owners would have given a good account of what type of vessel they required and the Naval Architect would work to those specifications to produce what we called a set of scantling lines, As soon as the order was won. The Naval Architect would firm up his scantlings; they would have been produced using results from tank testing as well. The scantling lines were not that accurate and only based on around 8 frame stations. The scantlings would be passed on to the Shipyard Loft for the Loftsmen to produce fair ships lines in the three views required, a body plan, along with a profile (side) and plan view all faired through each view to produce a set of faired lines, complete with fairness through every frame line, buttock and waterline, from this the table of offsets would be produced.


The Mould Loft (one of two) at Henry Robb shipyard, Leith.
(Photograph from The Loftsman collection)

The drawing office and the Naval Architect would be able to use the offsets to produce the half block model and from this the shell expansion drawing showing all shell seams and butt locations etc, could then be produced.

The info would also be used to produce the working drawings from the drawing office, the drawings would be passed back to the loft for the loftsmen to then do part of there work producing all the templates layout all the steel work for tem-plating.

At the same time the loft would start on another very specialised aspect of lofting, (Sorry, but all Lofting was very specialised-but I would say that eh!) namely the production of all the expanded shell plates, using the body plan produced in one tenth scale all the shell plates would be expanded into the individual plates and nested into the required steel. The full size lines would also be produced on the boards that would form the completed “Scrieve Board”. The forward body being laid out on top of the aft body to produce a maze of lines. This when finished would be dis-assembled and re-laid on the platers floor next to the frame bending machine. Another specialised aspect of lofting and so called because of the special shaped knife used to scrieve in the faired lines that were produced by bending a very long wooden batten around the points from the offset book and pinned to the floor by large steel pins.

All the while the loft was busy the other parts of the yard would be preparing things for the start of production, the steel would be getting ordered, machinery was being ordered and the joiners and plumbers shops would be gearing up for the work to be done.

Everything revolved around the loft at the Henry Robb yard and there would be a constant coming and going between the chief draughtsman and the loft just to get everything as right as possible, all this being done before a single plate was cut or burnt out.


Steel, Ships and Men

Steel, Ships and Men

The Shipwrights would set out the slipway, and all the keel blocks arranged to take the new build, and before you knew it plate would be ready to be cut using the burning machine that used a magic eye to follow the fine ink line produced by the Loftsman on there nested plate drawings.
As the plates were being burned out to shape the platers would be checking and marking them off while marking off the plates using the templates that did not require going through the burning machine, and the full size lines would now be set out on the floor of the plate shop as well. All the ships frames would be bent and shaped by the skill of the plater and his bending machine, to match exactly the faired lines of the
full size body fore and aft set out on the scrieve boards.

Ship No 493 TRIBENI seen here under construction in the Leith Shipyards of Henry Robb Spring of 1965
(Note the wonderful working conditions under foot.)
Photograph from The Loftsman collection.

The plates after being marked out and burned to shape and edge prepared would then move on through to the fabrication shop to be put together to form the sub assembly’s, that when all put together will form the finished unit, as the ships were constructed in units with the units then being put together to form blocks on the building berth. All the while the sounds, of the shipyard were blasting your ears and sometimes when the caulkers were working on a unit it was an attack on your senses, no safety protection in them days.

As the units take shape they would be constantly monitored and checked by the Loft to ensure the dimensional control and accuracy of the build.

So the finished unit would then move out to the building berth and this is where the Shipwrights would take over as it was there responsibility to build the ship from all the units being put together on the building berth and remember that the building berth was on a slop of around 4% to ensure that the finished vessel could slid down the ways and into the water, so every thing built on the berth had to take into account that it was not at 90% to the normal but at 90% to the building berth.

The first unit which would normally be a mid-ship unit consisting of the ship’s double bottom, would be landed onto the keel blocks and positioned by the shipwrights and checked by the loft, then each subsequent unit could be landed next to the unit and faired in on the building block.

This work went on no matter what the weather was like, be it hot or cold the monstrous steel units would be landed and joined as the were completed, then slowly but surely the maze of steel would start to take the recognised form of a ship.

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Veiw on the stern of TRIBENI before her rudder is erected on the berth.
Photograph from The Loftsman collection 

The build on the blocks would be constantly monitored by the loft and Lloyds as and when they required having a check on things.

All the time the ship would grow and now pipes and machinery that could not be fitted at the unit stage would start to go into her. The large machinery going onto there seats, that had been lined off by the loft. As each deck level was reached then more and more trades would be involved all fighting for there bit of space.

The stern of the ship would be worked on as well with the giant rudder stock which had been forged outside of the yard going onto the keel before the rest of the stern units could go on to the ship, then the rudder would be set up and the shaft aligned again by the loft then machined on the berth to ensure a perfect fit.

With the bow section going onto the berth the hull form would be near enough complete and all the time the super structure would be going onto the main deck and the upward journey of the steel would continue. 


The Rise and Fall of British Shipbuilding

The Rise and Fall of British Shipbuilding

This is the story of how, from modest beginnings, Britain rose throughout the 19th century to become the greatest shipbuilding nation in the world. It begins with the age of sail, then moves on to the days of iron-hulled steamers. It shows how conflicts arose between the traditional shipwrights and the new men who came from the metal industries, leading to the infamous demarcation disputes. It is also the story of men like Brunel and Armstrong, geniuses who were always looking for change and development. It is also the story of decline in the 20th century, when yards were no longer as innovative as their foreign competitors and the British merchant fleet shrank from being the biggest in the world at the start of the century to ranking number 38 at the end of it. It is a story of great achievements and tragic collapse.

The Bow Section of TRIBENI
Photograph from The Loftsman collection)

Built as a unit at the head of the berth, using the forward collision bulkhead as a base, hence she is on her side being built, note her shaped solid round stem bar, made by bending the 6 inch solid round bar to a template made in the Loft.
As ever at the time of shipbuilding in Leith, the staging around the unit had no such thing as hand rails or any other safety means, you pretty much relied on that old fashioned instinct called "Common Sense". The unit was levelled on blocks by the Loft and then built up with a magin of extra material at the deck and the unit butt this was required for fitting the unit to the rest of the ship.
The work of building the ship on the inclined ways would continue no matter what the weather, rain snow hail or shine, this thing of beauty would slowly take shape (no matter it was never fast enough for the management). 


TRIBENI awaiting the rest of her super structure units to go onto her main deck.
(Photo from The Loftsman collection) 

The super structure would again be a battle by different trades for space to get there particular job done and of course this could lead to sparks and the potential for trouble between the trades, but amazingly the build would continue until she was sitting there on the keel blocks and short of a few coats of paint and markings she would be almost ready for launch day. The launch day (which you can read more of on this site using the side menu again) of course was the mile stone used by management as the day that could not be missed?

I should add that the units would initially be painted with "Red Lead" which was a base coat not used nowadays for obvious reasons of health danger, but the guys that had this unhealthy and thankless job would be slapping paint on every where.

All the time the build would of course be checked by the loft and the straightness of her keel would also be checked on a weekly basis. The keel of the ship being built in Leith would always be in tolerance, and in fact the tolerance over the ship was always kept believe it or not the tolerance on the length of the finished ship would only be perhaps 2 inches or 50 millimetres in today's measurements and this was over a length in excess of 300 feet. (100 metres)  (To put this in context the build tolerance over the breadth of a vehicle is 8 millimetres over approx 2 metres)

As the painting and the preparation of the sliding ways continued, the ships draught marks would need to be marked by the Loft , checked by Lloyds and painted in by the shipyard sign writer.

Some times the launch day would slip and some times it would be met, but whenever it arrived it was a big day in the shipyard.

On launch day the shipyard would be open to the public for some launches for an hour or two, and all the while the painters and shipwrights would be racing against the clock to get all ready for the launch.

An interesting point about ships being launched at Leith was the fact that drag chains were rarely used as the vessel could be launched direct into the sea, as apposed to some other yards, with launches into rivers, where there was the restriction of space hence they needed to use masses of drag chains to stop the vessel from hitting the other side of the river. Henry Robb shipyard was pretty fortunate that the shipyard was in fact in an ideal location for the building and launching of ships.

Now the fact that the ship was built on keel blocks that were of course stationary, meant that the ship had to be transferred to the sliding ways, this was in fact the shifting of the ships weight from the blocks to the sliding ways, and this was again the job of the shipwrights.

They would transfer the weight of thousands of tonnes of steel by the age old method of large hammers driving wooden wedges between the bottom of the ship and the sliding ways, this job would take perhaps a week.

Then the slipway had to be flooded so that the dock gates which effectively formed a giant cofferdam between the water and the land that formed the slipway could then be removed by a floating crane guided by one of the Leith Dock tugs.

With the water sometimes lapping around close to the stern of the ship she was almost ready for launch day.


With the finished painting of the ship, her name could then be painted onto the hull and she would change from a shipyard number.

TRIBENI looking smart and almost ready for launch day.
If you look close you might even see some shipwrights working!

(Photo from The Loftsman collection)

Then the big moment would arrive when the bottle was broke against the ship's stem bar, this was usually carried out by the wife or other lady of the owner or the owner's representitive. Once the bottle broke the forman shipwright would give the signal to the shipwrights under the ship to re-lease the trigger which held the sliding ways in place.

There would then be a bit of what is now known as a "Squeeky bum moment" as the ship gathered momentum and slide down the ways into the water for the first time. With a graceful bow to the watching crowd she would come back up and sit proud on the water.

 TRIBENI Launch Day

 TRIBENI hits the water for the first time watched by some shipwrights.

(Photo from the Loftsman collection)

It would then be the turn of the awaiting tugs to take her in tow and bring her back to the outfitting berth, where work would start on the fitting out of the vessel.


 TRIBENI afloat


 TRIBENI with the tugs in attendance Note all the sliding ways that have travelled with the ship into the water, along with all the other debris wcich had to be collected back in.

(Photo from The Loftsman collection)




But of course as the ship went down the ways the sliding ways went along with her into the sea along with a lot of other attached debris such wooden fore & aft poppets if used rather than steel poppets used on some of the larger ships with a lot of shape in the bow or stern.


(Shipwrights pulling the wire!! in this photograph from Shipwright B.Booth's Collection - With Bobby Klar looking the other way)

And of course this debris had to be gathered back in to the land, this was also part of the shipwrights job, and they could be seen in teams of up to ten men and boys sometimes hauling on the wires that were attached to the sliding ways, and along with the help of a tug herding the floating ways into shore and perhaps a tractor they would have to bring all the timbers back inside the slipway gates before the floating crane would be back to insert the gate so that the water could be pumped back into the basin of the Water of Leith.



I should also add that there would still be small flotsam around in the water and it would be a nice wee job for some of the apprentices to be put into a rowing boat out on the water to lift up and bring back in the flotsam, this was a job that as you can imagine could take some considerable time and even better if the weather was good and it ran into overtime.

As you will see in the photograph above the young shipwrights are in the boat hanging on the crane waiting to be lowered into the water, while the rest of the team are hauling on the wire to gather all the sliding ways back into dry land.




The photograph above gives some idea of just how far away the water was as it was held back by the dock gates.

See the photo above showing the gate lifted out of the way by a floating crane, guided by a tug.





The photograph above shows how a Bulbous Bow should look, as fair as possible and with a certain young Loftsman looking on at the right of this picture, I well remember all the work that went into making this Bow. And due to the shape and weight of this ship she required solid steel poppets at her forward and aft ends.

The plates of course had to be developed and expanded correctly in the Loft a job expertly done in the Leith Shipyards usually by Jim Russell, then a full size mock up was made on the Loft floor once complete it was the turn of the Platers to show there skill in lifting a solid wire cage template of the shape, this one was done by Willie Paterson and a skilled young Plater called Colin (Charlie) Brown (Who was to die in a shipyard accident tragically a few years later)

The individual plates were all formed and welded together to slowly form the required shape and erected onto the unit which was always built with the stem and soft nose facing upwards into the sky.

With skill, experience and patience the bulbous bow would be formed and would look just as it should as fair as possible and with no dicsernable low spots or bumps to be seen, not like some I have seen since.


To be continued.







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