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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The Mould Loft




Just what is the history of Lofting a question that I suppose is lost in the mists of time, and we can only guess that it must have been known to any shipbuilder of long gone times as to build a wooden ship the designer must have had a knowledge of lofting, so it has to go back to the ancient PHOENICIANS times or before 3,000 BC, because to plank a frame the wood first needs to be developed in other words the plank required needs to have a developed shape to it, otherwise they would have to nail some kind of wooden strip to the ships frames and try and pair away at the wood to get it near to shape, and I do not think they would have tried to built a ship this way, more like the great minds of the day would have solved the problem by geometry. If there really was an “Ark” then Noah would have needed a Loftsman. Ships up to around the 16th century were built on a trial and error basis and if one worked well then others just the same would be built. The shipwright of old would have this knowledge and would have been very reluctant to change once the advent of geometry and maths were added to the science of shipbuilding around this time.


The oldest reference I can find dates back to some of the construction books relating to naval ships built in the 15th & 16th century, in the days when only one man would have the knowledge to lay down the lines of a ship.

Moving further on in time to the start of iron and steel ships there was only one way to start the build of a ship and that was to loft the lines and layout the ships shape.

With the Loftsmen lifting the templates from the frames of the ship as the build commenced, a somewhat time consumming process not to mention very skillful as well.

The lifting of templates or moulds as they were known was an art in itself although all this would change due in a large extent to progress made by our American cousins with the advent of the building of the massive New York Shipbuilding Company

Ground was broken for New York Ship on July 3, 1899. Contracts for preliminary work and equipment for the yard were let within a month. On June 15, 1900, in the sixth month of the new century and the twelfth month of the new yard, the contract for New York Ship's first vessel was signed. On November 29, 1900, the keel was laid.

There were five basic objectives followed in the designing and laying out of the new shipyard. Mr. Morse's advanced ideas were the basis of the planned shipbuilding procedure which he contributed to the industry throughout the world. They were largely the result of his extensive structural steel fabrication experience prior to entering the shipbuilding field.

First, the application of the mold loft template system for the fabrication of hull steel--a pioneer undertaking for shipbuilding at that time but now standard practice in the industry.

Second, provisions for prefabrication of relatively large structural assemblies and continuous routing of material from receipt through fabrication shops and on out to the shipways, a method widely publicized as a new development during World War II.

Third, an unusually complete overhead crane system for handling prefabricated structural assemblies up to 100 tons weight.

Fourth, a coordinated series of shops with five large building ways, and an outfitting basin completely roofed over and served with overhead bridge cranes.

Fifth, installation of propelling machinery and other heavy weights before launching, by providing 100-ton crane capacity over all the building ways.

Of these five objectives, the first--the application of the template system--was perhaps the most revolutionary. In the half century that has elapsed since its introduction by New York Ship this system has come to be standard practice, but in 1900 it was looked upon with grave misgivings.

This system permitted the continuous fabrication of steel from mold loft development of plans which did away with the previous practice of "lifting" templates from work in place before the shop could function. Through accurate mold loft development of templates from plans, the shops are enabled to go ahead with their work for any part of the ship upon receipt of material with the assurance that when a particular part is wanted by the ship erectors, it will fit its appointed place. This of course created a massive shift in the work of the Loftsman and lead to huge savings in time although some very complex shapes would still have to be lifted from the frames on the building berth although even this would change in time.

It was because of New York Ship's experience with these advanced practices that the yard was asked to supervise the designers who laid out and planned the Hog Island yard. New York Ship produced the original templates for the vast fleet of ships built at Hog Island in World War I and assisted in the development of templates for other vessels assembled elsewhere.

In the traditional world of shipbuilding where change happens very slowly this was a real advancement.

The Mould Loft was built above the plate and furnace shops to begin with, and yes the furnaces would be right below the Loft with all the connotations on health and safety that having a few large open fires directly underneath where men would be working on a specially laid out wooden floor which you could play a football match on.

Every thing about the set up would be pretty special when you look back on things from the timber used in the floor to the fact that the 2” wide x 5” high, wooden strips would be laid out diagonally so that the joins would not be running parallel with any line drawn onto the floor



Old scene from a mould Loft (date unknown) but the templates still looked the same. (photo credit unknown)

The photo above is from an old American Shipyard and they could be making templates for an old Paddle Steamer.
The two Loftsmen here are looking at what could be a template for the forward end of a deck.

As you can imagine the floor of the loft would become a pretty busy place with lines all over the floor, and anyone stupid enough to walk across the floor without permission would be greeted with the usual shout which would go something like “Hey you get off the F**kin lines” or the more subtle “Cant you F*8king read” as the signs around the loft floor left no one in doubt to keep off the floor.


It makes me chuckle a bit when I see pictures of guys working on the loft floor and a lot of them show the loftsmen kneeling on the floor, this I can assure you was never done in the Loft at Henry Robb, as you were told in no uncertain terms that Loftsmen in Leith did not kneel on the floor instead we developed a sort of squat that was a bit like taking a shite, but you were in that position all day, and surprisingly it was reasonably comfortable once you got used to the position, don’t know how good it was for the posture or the knees, but that’s the way it was.


These Loftsmen got the same advice to keep off your knees.


Some info and history on how close the Loft and the Drawing office was, not just in distance but in how critical each was to the shipbuilding process, a fact not lost on the drawing office and management in there continual attempts to assimilate the Loft into being a part of the drawing office, repeated attempts were made to get hold of the "Brains with the Practical" to join the "brains" so to speak.

An event that in the end was inevitable with the advent of the computer in shipbuilding.

From a short history on the Blackwall Yard on the River Thames London from the early 1900's

Beginning in the offices of the ship-draughtsmen, where working-drawings were prepared, generally on a scale of a quarter of an inch to one foot. As Dodd was able to pass from these offices directly into the mould loft, the two must have been contiguous. The mould loft was where the drawings were turned into full-size templates or 'moulds' of American deal for the shipwrights to work from. It was a large first-floor room 'about a hundred feet long and forty or fifty wide . . . and lighted by about twenty windows, ten on each side', with a flat, smooth and clean floor on which 'the draughtsman chalks a large number of lines, derived from the working drawings, but enlarged to the full dimensions of the vessel'. Dodd comments 'it is evident, at a first glance, that the chalked floor is a kind of sanctum, a place not to be defiled by the tread of dirty shoes'.

Dodd must have been a visitor to the yard, and the above are some of his observations at the time.


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0 #8 George Lamb 2017-04-20 18:13
I visited this web site many years ago. It has certainly been added to since then.
I served my apprenticeship at Charles Connell of Scotstoun, Glasgow.
I started there in 1950 and left in 1961.
I went to Vickers Armstrong Aircraft in Weybridge, Surrey as a loftsman to work on the design for the "TSR2" fighter then on to the "VC10" and "Concord".
I went to Germany to work on the "Airbus A300B".
I went to Canada to work on the "de Havilland Dash 7".
+2 #7 Peter Wallace 2014-03-14 22:17
Have just discovered this excellent site! I have a special interest since my grandfather was the William Wallace mentioned in Gerry Finlay's blog#6. Look forward to the expansion of the site. Good luck!
+2 #6 Gerald Finlay. Gerry 2013-12-20 02:02
I served my apprenticeship in Henry Robbs from April 1949 until February 1955, my first year was a Loft helper to a journyman, The Foreman was William Wallace, the assistant Foreman was George Ewing, the jourmyman was James Love, Joe Alexander, George Powrie, William Tweedie, Robert Wise, 5th year apprentice was Douglas Hogg, 4th year apprentice was Peter Rennie, 2nd year Apprentice was James Foulis, 1st year Apprentice was Hugh Anderson, this was all the loft staff in 1949. at the moment I am writing out my experiences as a Loftsman and what my speciality was in the trade.
+2 #5 Kirk Bready 2013-03-29 15:55
My Dad, a third generation shipbuilder, was a mold loftsman starting in 1940 at the Bethlehem Steel Ship Repair yard in Baltimore, MD. I was always mystified by the problem of producing a precisely formed hull that curved continuously in every dimension. My curiosity was not helped by the fact that when I was a youngster his explanations went right over my head. Therefore, it was a joy to find this terrific article which has enabled me to more fully understand and appreciate what he and his peers accomplished.

As U.S. shipbuilding declined, my Dad wound up at a company in Memphis, TN that fabricated large industrial vessels but had limited capability with complex structure. There he introduced & set up a mold loft department that enabled them to expand their capability and market. They were very generous in expressing their appreciation. Thanks to this article, I can now understand why.
+4 #4 peter rennie 2012-08-09 19:16
My father was a loftsman in robbs spent all his working days at the yard.

Peter Rennie jnr.
0 #3 Gordon Sanstad 2011-03-23 18:15
Dear Sirs/Mdms:

I am looking for a history of lofting. Anyone know when and where it was first used or developed (in the construction of boats, I assume the first use)?

Thank you,
Gordon Sanstad
0 #2 MOHAMMAD ALI Asgar 2011-03-04 20:45
I am specilized on lofting works from small scale drawing to Lrgae scale full drawing 1:1 , making body plan, templaes for fabrication, bending, plates cutting and ships block making erection dhechking etc all fro lofting to Hull erection and superdtructure works also.
i have done one Rig ship selfpropelled in AHI, Ajman for Bibby shipping line, name Trident Bibby [1 working in Qatar Oil field.This is great website,thank you.
+2 #1 Billy Blair 2011-02-15 14:19
Fantastic find, I was an apprentice loftsman at Henry Robb 1980-1984. I look forward to any updates.

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