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



A view showing only the Aft body, this one is of an old wooden steamship and uses diagonals to fair the sections as well.

 So through care skill and patience the completed body plan would be produced and it would be as fair as the loftsmen could make it, I say this as every loftsman would produce a body plan that would be minutely different from the next one, as most of the work required the loftsman's interpretation of just how fair the lines were.

And a model for tank testing could now be made, for the naval architect to confirm all his original calculations.

The body plan would be faired using the buttock and waterlines along with the frame lines from the other two views. It would sometimes be necessary to introduce some diagonals as well where a line was proving troublesome to fair.

When finished the scrieve board would then be dismantled and very carefully and accurately re-assembled in the plate bending shop, where the plater's would then be able to bend the ships frames to the required corresponding shape, another very skilled and not to say dangerous job.

There would now be completed and faired profile and half-breadth views along with a finished body plan and the huge job of developing the shell could now be done, in effect the Loft had designed the finished hull surface and now it would all be developed flat so that the plates could be marked and burnt out to the required accurate shape, this was perhaps the most specialised job in the Loft. Every seam and butt was expanded out with a few other secrets of shell expansion thrown in to create the shell expansion plates ready for the "magic eye" burning machine to follow.

All other steelwork was developed out as well from the smallest "beam knees" to the funnel and all nested into part drawings using mylar to draw out the inked parts on, this drawing work was of the highest standards of quality and accuraccy as it was all done one tenth scale, it was a job that required the skills of an expert jigsaw puzzle solver to nest (Fit) all the parts into the standard size plates without leaving too much waste on the plate, even the corners had to be the same thickness of line width to allow the burning head to follow without jumping from the intended lines drawn, the line widths were also critical to the process and could not be above 0.7 of a millimetre. This job of course can be done today by using computer software specially developed just to nest parts with the push of a few buttons (not really as it still takes some skill) although nothing like the skills that we as Loftsmen took for granted as just being another part of the high skill set required to be a Loftsman.

When the lofting was done full size the expanded shell plates would be templated and all the hundreds of templates would be marked up and delivered to the plate shop for manufacture. At the Leith Shipyards of Henry Robb most if not all of the ships built had a lot of shape in them, not for the Leith shipyards the great big slab sided vessels which would make the job so much easier, no the ships built in Leith were one off and pretty specialised ships with complicated and complex shapes with double curvature and compounded angles to take into account.

The steelwork for the hull would all be broken down to manageable sized units of around 20 tons, although of course in a riveted ship each shell plate would be marked for all the rivet holes as well. The contribution of Loftsmen to the building of warships by the modular build method during World War II is touched on in this website elsewhere and it is incredible that so few men could have such a large impact on the end result of such a complex process as building a ship.

Meanwhile all the rest of the steel work that made up the finished hull and super-structure would be templated and/or lined off on dressed wooden battens for the platers and shipwrights to then mark off from, this meant that because most of the work had already been checked and marked off by the Loft there was less room for error in the marking process. The marked battens had all the relevant "ships datum's" and all other steel parts on them, a job that shipbuilders of today could do with remembering and this all in all made the plater (or shipfitters as our American shipbuilders call them) and the shipwrights job that little bit easier.

The Loft would produce hundreds of drawings of the steelwork required to build the ship along with perhaps thousands of templates and battens, and at the same time take control of the dimensional accuracy of the erection of the units in the plate shop and on the inclined slipways, referred to as the "berths", with a ratio of (in Leith at least) one Loftsman to around 150 to 200 other shipyard workers you can start to see that it was a pretty specialised job.

 This is a photo of the Mould Loft at the Portsmouth naval shipyard, and the loftsman is not "drunk" and about to fall over, but fairing a line. You can also see that the Loft was surrounded by glass in the sides and the roof to give as much natural light as possible, great in the winter but it could be a real sweat shop in the summer once the sun rose and started heating up the place.


The photograph above shows the mould Loft from the famous John Brown yard on Clyde-side where some of the most famous ships ever built where lofted and built.
This was a large loft and it had to be to enable the lofting of ships such as the QE2 and the previous Queen Mary and her sister Queen Elizabeth along with many other huge vessels. This was a staged photograph taken during World War Two and it must have been taken on a day of for the yard, as they were building many of the largest warships at the time for the Royal Navy.
Photograph is from the Imperial War Museum Collection


The photograph above is another staged photograph and is from the Imperial War Museum collection. The two Loftsmen are working on the mould loft floor checking measurements with a long template in front of them.
The photograph was taken during World War Two, a time when every shipyard in the British Isles was working to full capacity.



The photograph above shows a staged picture of two Loftsmen fairing a batten for the camera in this Imperial War Museum photograph.
A bad back was almost guaranteed whilst running body lines full size for the scrieve board.
You can clearly see the scrieved frame lines of this ship as they wrap a batten around the shape.


Interesting photograph shown above of the Mould Loft at the Harland & Wolff Shipyard where they built many fine ships, note the lines on the Loft floor showing

part of a body plan full size, and lots of light on each side of the Loft, and yes this is also where the Titanic's lines where laid down along with so many other famous ships during there long history. The scrieve board seen here is made up of many long plank strips all joined and pinned together so that once completed they would all be lifted and taken down to be placed beside the frame benders so they could work from the board to shape all the ships frames.


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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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