Viking Ships -- Lapstrake Construction

On first sight the 76 foot Gokstad ship is overwhelming. Weathered black inside and out the shipwright’s tool marks--adze, axe and plane--are still clearly visible as are the rows of iron rivets. The Oseberg ship is similar in size but more elegant, with carvings on both the fore and aft stems. These vessels were grave-ships, royal tombs buried in the eighth and ninth centuries in Norway. They remained underground for a thousand years before being excavated around 1900. Altho crushed by the weight of the burial mound and looted sporadically over the centuries most of the grave goods buried with the ships survived. The clay-rich soil preserved much of the woodwork so the ships could be painstakingly pieced back together.
The 76-foot Gokstad Ship -- Model
These vessels were built lapstrake (overlapping planks) since the carvel tradition had not yet reached Scandinavia. Bending with the aid of steam was also unknown so the hulls were reinforced and stiffened by grown oak knees fitted and notched around the planking. Large lapstrake craft are more flexible than their carvel (smooth-skinned) cousins so tend to work in a seaway causing them to leak. To avoid drilling holes below the waterline the planking was not nailed but lashed to the frames with spruce roots--which didn’t help the leaking.

When a Norwegian crew sailed a replica of the Gokstad ship across the Atlantic to the Chicago World’s fair in 1895 the crew were at first alarmed by this flexibility. The captain, Olaf Magnussen, described the bottom of the vessel rippling as the swells passed beneath and the fore and aft stems bowing to each other as the boat twisted in a seaway. When last I visited Chicago the vessel was stored at the Lincoln Park Zoo, still darkly impressive although suburbanized by a chain-link fence.

Before it was buried the Oseberg ship was equipped with a set of oars--brand new oars--which makes one wonder who was to do the rowing in the underworld?.A skeleton crew? My own view is that the motivation for these elaborate and costly burials was a deep seated fear of the departed. A conviction that if the dead were well supplied with food, weapons, clothing and other items of everyday life they were less likely to return to plague the living. The more powerful an individual had been in life the more capable of mischief after death. One wealthy farmer whose ugly, aggressive habits had earned him the nickname of Killer Hrapp left instructions that he was to be buried upright, under the threshold of his farm where he could keep a watchful eye on who was coming and going. He inspired such fear even after death that the farm was soon abandoned.

The Oseberg Ship was a ceremonial vessel, not a warship, so was equipped with items needed for short trips to neighboring domains. Very little furniture has survived from Viking times--fire, decay and civil commotion all took a toll. The Oseberg ship is an exception and contained several beds, stools and other wooden items of everyday use. The beds were probably carried on deck and taken ashore when making camp at night. I’m always curious about the techniques used by woodworkers long ago so got copies of the measured drawings from the Viking Ship museum in Oslo, and made a couple of full-size beds. The mortise and tenon joints are locked in place by loose wedges and the bedding supported on woven cording. I said ‘full-size’ but found I had to lengthen the original beds by more than a foot to accommodate modern sleeping habits--so much for ‘The Giants of the Past’.

Two Faerings (four-oared) boats were buried with the Oseberg ship and have been painstakingly pieced back together. Small craft--both prams and stem boats--were often built on a permanent strong back using stays (witness rods) from an overhead beam. Building by hand and by eye enabled the builder to sight along the top edge of a plank uninterrupted by molds or transoms. The result was a harmony and sweetness of line still apparent after a thousand years underground.

The actual sailing qualities of large lapstrake vessels has been much debated. When heeled in a stiff breeze the laps are only partially submerged so air gets sucked into them reducing the skin friction and increasing speed--or that's the theory. Attempts to compare lapstrake and carvel hulls under controlled conditions have been inconclusive. When the full-size replica of the Oseberg Ship being built in Norway meets the water this question may finally be settled.


  1. Fascinating—and good to know—stuff, Simon. Thank you for your research, and for your enthusiasm!

    1. Ho Simon remember the times you spent with us in Seattle. We are reading this and can almost hear your voice. And we visited you once in San Francisco and then lost touch. But that was after the time you left your car for save keeping in our driveway in Seattle while you were off in the world somewhere. Once we were in Nova Scotia and stood on the edge of the water where somewhere out there was your island home. Now I am 90 and puttering around in my shop a bit and reading about you in Wooden Boat Magazine. Geo Levin (


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