Armorial Bearings granted to Robert Lord alias Laward of London in 1510; College of Arms MS L10 folio 105b; copyright of the College of Arms, London. Used by permission.

Durham boat trio - 2015

A view of a north country boatyard c. 1814. Ernie Haas. 

Scale of  finished models = 1:35; total hull length (excluding steering oar) = 19.75 inches.

Over-all length = 24.5 inches.

I am asked to build three identical models of river boats representing the Durham freighters of the Delaware River, circa 1776. The three boats will be built simultaneously, and this webpage is being created to allow real-time tracking of the progress of the project.

It is probable that this will be the first time three Durham boats..... of any scale.... have been built together since the War of 1812 era, when Durham boats for both military and civilian purposes were being built on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in boatyards like that shown above.

These boats will represent ones used by the Continental Army to cross the Delaware River under command of General Washington on Christmas, 1776. 

Click any image below to view enlarged.

The boatyard scaled down (above). Miniature timbers are stored near to hand and assembly, for the most part, takes place in this area, with materials brought in as needed.

Initial assembly of bow and stern cabin sections onto bottom with cargo hold sides attached and preliminary contouring of hull bottom completed. The next stage will be to attach the hulls to their respective display baseboards so the decks can be contoured and the cargo holds planked.

Some of the hull work is done at this home-built workstation, which uses interchangeable mounts that attach with clamps for different types of work. The new benchtop bandsaw in the background can also be mounted here for temporary use.


The boats have been mounted on their display baseboards and the topside hull contouring on the three boats is completed. This involves shaping the decks over the forward and stern cabins, preliminary to planking. The deck over the stern cabin is the area where the steersman works the tiller or sweep, and it is canted slightly to the rear to provide traction.

Next the cargo holds will be planked, followed by the decks over both cabins. Cabin access doors get added, and the cargo hold thwarts or cross-beams get attached, before outside hull planking can begin.


At this stage (above) the cargo holds have been planked with 12 inch (scale) planks and painted. The cargo hold inner wall is essentially a sacrificial lining that protects the frames (ribs) and outer hull planking. These boats carried limestone, iron ore, pig iron, iron rod, cast iron stoves and other cast iron household items, and other cargo that would damage the hull unless the hold was lined. (During the Revolution they carried iron materials for the Army.)

The paint is a replication of a documented late-18th century wood preservative treatment of fish or mineral oil, tar and a pigment called "Spanish brown", which resembles Indian red or iron oxide red craft paints. It originally was applied hot and ended up being a dirty reddish brown in color, as far as we can tell.

The cabin hatch doors have been installed, although they don"t show well in this photo, and locking bars need to be added. Plus the decks (over the forward and aft cabins) have been planked with 9 inch (scale) planking and smoothed to final contours (above). They won't be painted until the entire hull is finished.

Once the thwarts (cross-beams) have been installed over the cargo hold, exterior hull planking can begin.


Note: Due to delay in obtaining the timber for the thwarts, planking was begun out of sequence to keep the project advancing.)

The process of laying on the hull planking is very laborious (above). It takes great care and lots of time. And lots and lots of clamps and tape.

Each plank is put on one at a time and individually attached at the stern end and stem end alternating. The glue must be totally dry on one before the next plank can be attached. Working three hulls simultaneously allows more planks to be laid on at any one time. But the drying time is the same between planking events as if it were a single boat.

The best clamps, from the standpoint of economy, is the standard wooden spring-type clothespin, with the components reversed (above) so the long arms end up pinching together instead of the short heads as designed.

For conforming the planks, which are 1/32" thick by 1/8" wide, to the curve of the stem and stern a combination of masking tape and string tied to pins driven into the side of the hull holds the plank to the solid wood hull form until the glue dries.

It normally takes a full day to complete one run of planks on one side of the three boats. The sequence is forward half, left side and aft half, right side. This is reversed once glue dries. Obviously most of this time is waiting for glue to dry. Once planking is complete, the sternpost and stempost will be attached and the outside of the hull will be sanded smooth.


To facilitate attaching the lower strakes (planks) to the hull, setting the workpiece on a reverse sloping elevated table helps. Strakes are held along the straight sides of the cargo hold with clips, held to the curving hull at stem and stern with pins, and to insure a good fit at the extreme ends of the hull, strings are wrapped around the free end of the plank and held back to a pin in the opposite side of the boat.

Having the hulls mounted to the display boards helps at this stage, but when the lowest planks need to be attached, the boats have to be detached from the baseboards and inverted. Then all edges are trimmed and the planks sanded before attaching sternposts and stemposts.

Now that the scale lumber for the thwarts (cargo hold cross beams) is in, that job got underway, even though planking is only 60% finished. It is a very intensive operation and takes great care, even though it is a very small part of the boat.

The thwarts provided structural stability in the original boats, and supported the cleated walking boards that ran along each side of the cargo hold. On the models, they are also needed to square up the hold, the sides of which tend to bow in slightly during the planking process.

Fitting the beams requires carefully cutting and adjusting each beam exactly. The sequence is to first fit the beams at each end of the hold, next to the fore and aft cabins. That becomes the baseline dimension for the hold width. Then the middle beam is cut to match the baseline length and forced into position at the middle of the hold. This trues up the sides to be parallel and straight. Then the quarter position beams are inserted.

Then the timbers are carefully tapered to meet the gunwale at each end, the edges rounded, and the wood stained to a natural dark finish (above). A lot of fine carving knife work is required, but the final look enhances the overall appearance of the hull.


The hulls need to be removed from their display baseboards so that the final rows of planks can be added near the bottom of each boat.

There is a certain satisfaction and sense of liberation to be again holding each boat on its own as a completed vessel, freed from the weight of the heavy baseboards. Being able to rotate the boats in any direction allows the attachment of the lowest planks and once done, the final sanding of the hulls can be undertaken.

After the hulls are sanded, the sternposts and stemposts can be formed, fitted and attached. At that point a Durham boat (a real one, that is) would be ready to paint and launch, with final outfitting completed afloat. The models, at that point, can also be painted and outfitted with mast, walking boards and rigging, but not set off in water, which would destroy weeks of careful work.

At this stage (above) the planking is completed and final sanding of the hull is finished. Care is taken not to over-sand the hull so that some visual imprint of the individual planks is preserved. These were hard-used working boats and to sand the hulls bone-smooth, as a yacht or fancy boat model requires, would destroy the effect of a real heavy-built ore barge.

These boats hauled rough cargo, including rock, ore, heavy iron ingots and cast iron objects, like stoves and plows. In their normal use they got beat up pretty well. To save the appropriate hull texture takes time and care, because once the hull is sanded too smooth, there is no way to go back and make it "working class" again.

The stemposts and sternposts have been attached, the bulkhead header boards inserted for the foreward cabins, and the heavy gunwales attached along the top outside edge of the hull. These gunwales took an extra beating as these were poled boats and in hard use the long poles bore along the gunwales, which protected the upper edge of the planking from excessive wear.

In addition, the main mast stub has been inserted into the forward deck of each boat. These masts had a folding device installed just above the deck to allow the mast to be quickly lowered when passing under bridges. The stubs have been slotted to accept the masts later.

A little final sanding and these boats are ready to be painted. Then the cleated walking boards can be attached and final deatils finished.

With final hull sanding complete, the first layer of color has been applied (below).

This is just the base color, with refinements coming later. The scant references to Durham boats that mention color say they were "painted black".

It is unlikely they were painted a pure black. My research into the Durham boat era in New York revealed an 18th century reference to a preservative used on wood exposed to water, as folows:
                    "fish oil, tar and Spanish Brown, laid on hot..."

Other ship building accounts refer to "oil and tar" as an external coating, and some mention Spanish Brown also.

Spanish Brown is a pigment that produces a dull reddish-brown color when mixed with oil, most closely matched today by Indian Red or Red Oxide craft paint. Tar would not be dead black and is best matched by various "soft black" craft paints. With these I added a bit of burnt umber to dull the paint to reflect weathering. (More weathering will be applied later.)

The resulting hull looks black, but in fact it is a subtle mix of colors that best duplicates the original, in my opinion.

The aft deck, where the steersman stands, is given a base color of grey. This will be finished to represent weathered and worn wood that was not painted. A good footing is required here and I believe they treated this deck the same way they treated decks on wooden fighting ships, by sanding them bare with holystones every day. Without this treatment, and in damp weather, the deck would be too slippery to provide safe operation of the long sweep (steering oar).

A light fine sanding will be done next, and weathering treatments applied. Then the cleated walking boards need to be made and attached.

One of the defining characteristics of these Durham boats is the attachment of cleated walking boards along each side of the cargo hold.

18th Century woodcut, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Being large poled freighters, often running upstream against a swift current, a great deal of force against the poles was required. Eyewitness accounts circa 1800 on the Mohawk River in New York, record Durham boats even being propelled with boatmen on all fours, with the top of the pole pressed into their shoulder and hands and feet free to grip the cleated walkways. Having cleats nailed to the walking boards gave the boatmen a needed advantage.

Cleated walking boards are more familiar in the 19th Century American West where "keelboats" used the same techniques for ascending rivers (above).

Modeling these boards presents a particular challenge. First 1/16' thick strips of basswood need to be trimmed the the correct width. And then tiny strips of wood need to be attached (below) at intervals to represent the cleats. (Following images can be enlarged.)

Precision is required, so boards are set up in pairs to ease alignment of the cleats.

Next the cleats are cut to the width of the walking boards to separate the pairs (above), and the sets are painted.

Finally the cleats are carefully rounded to represent wear and the boards matched in sets ready for attachment to the boats.

Below are views of the boats after walking boards have been attached, masts inserted, rear decks and hull weathered, and surfaces set to matte finish with DullCote.



The following images show the three boats as completed, mounted on their diorama-style display boards, appearing as they would have at the 1776 Crossing. The ferries carrying the heavy goods would have been using the ferry landings, so the Durham boats, for troops, would find whatever landing site they could. Tied up at the bow, with a spring line to hold position against the current, each boat would have used a boarding ramp or gangway to get soldiers from the path to the deck, and then to the hold.


This project is done, but somewhere there is probably another one...
Under Construction

Check Back Later...


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