Son of a Shipwright

I’m Sydney University Museum Studies student Dimity Kasz, and with Courtney, I am completing an internship here at the Maritime Museum. We’re registering the Lake Collection of shipwrights’ tools. Registering a collection includes accessioning, cataloguing, cleaning, and photographing the objects so they can live happily inside the museum with a full catalogue record to their name.

Selection of shipwright tools

A selection of the Lake shipwright tools. ANMM Collection

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Musical Mallets – the sing song sounds of caulking tools

What on earth is caulking? This is just one of many ‘What the…?’ moments I had when I first delved into the world of shipwright’s tools as part of my internship experience at the Australian National Maritime Museum. I’m a student at The University of Sydney  working toward my Master of Museum Studies degree and with fellow intern Dimity Kasz – for our recent internship project at the museum we have registered the Lake collection of shipwright’s tools. This collection of several hundred tools were owned by father and son Alfred and Bernard Lake date from around 1890 to 1950.

Registering a collection involves researching the objects and their context, cataloguing them and recording details such as general description, dimensions, markings and interesting features and assigning each object with a unique identifying number and collection record. To our surprise, we found this to be a very interesting set of tools, many of which were hand-made, passed from father to son.

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A treasure trove of shipwright’s tools: exploring the Higham collection

Greetings my name is Candice Witton and I am working with Roxi Truesdale as an Intern in the Registration department at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Roxi and I have been accessioning the Higham shipwright tool collection into the museum database. I will be profiling some of the fascinating tools we have uncovered.

Of the 180 or so objects in the Higham collection we have had great success (so far) identifying the many (at first) boggling variations of tools. We have had some amazing reference material from the Vaughan Evans Library which we are so grateful for. Without this, we may have been left referring to the many different varieties of caulking irons as ‘chisels’ and helical auger drill bits as ‘spiral drills with screws on top’. Thankfully we have now been exposed to the fascinating world of shipwrighting, and the process of caulking.

Caulking is simply the method of sealing joints or seams. Caulking irons are used in a similar manner to chisels, hammering a fibrous material into the joints between wooden planks. This is done to make the vessel watertight and leak free.

Caulking Irons

Sharp caulking irons

Here we have two caulking irons from the Higham collection. On the left is a significantly older model than the relatively newer iron on the right. Traditional caulking on wooden vessels uses fibres of cotton and oakum – usually a material such as hemp fibre soaked in pine tar. These specific irons are known as sharp or butt irons, and they are used for forcing the caulk into narrow areas.

Reefing Irons

Reefing irons

Here are two reefing or clearing irons from the Higham collection. The left iron is an older model than the one on the right. Reefing irons were used to scrape out old oakum, to clean the seams to make way for new caulking.

Helical auger drill bit
Helical auger drill bit

The Higham tool collection contains many variants on auger drill bits. Here is a standard bit, which features a rotating helical blade and a screw to pull it into the wood. This bit is to be used in a hand-brace, and is effective at moving wooden material out of the hole being drilled.

Cold Chisel

One object in the Higham tool kit remains a bit of a mystery. This object seems quite unusual, and after consultation with tool experts we were left stumped. It is most possibly a variation on a cold chisel, and after doing extensive online research this is what it most closely resembles. Regardless how I phrased my searches, I still returned numerous references to Jimmy Barnes!

Cold Chisel

What is also curious are the manufacturers logos “Plumb (Aust) PT” on one side, “Fern Tools” with fern frond on the other. I discovered W H Plumb Australia is of axe making fame, but beyond that we haven’t had a lot of luck!

So there you have a small sample of some of the many, many interesting tools of the Higham tool collection. You can read Roxi’s awesome blog detailing our first contact with the tool collection, and curator Stephen Gapp’s fascinating blog on the origins of the collection. Stay tuned for more intern blogs as we explore the time and place that these tools were used.


Registration Intern

A treasure trove of shipwright tools: putting the pieces together

Hi, my name is Roxi Truesdale and I am working together with Candice Witton on an internship project within the Registration department of the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Interns with shipwright tools

Interns Candice (left) and Roxi (right)

Our project involves registering a collection of shipwright tools that belonged to a father and son, Thomas and William Higham, which curator Stephen Gapps has previously written a wonderful post about.

When I first set eyes upon the collection I had no idea where to start. The extent of my knowledge of tools was being able to tell the difference between a flat head and Phillips head screwdriver. However, after a couple of weeks with the Higham collection I am now relatively convinced that I could build a boat. (It would probably sink once it got into the water but at least it would resemble a boat.)

It would be safe to say that Candice didn’t know much more than I did about tools and so this has been quite the learning experience for us both. While we have been educating ourselves on which tools do what, we have had to resort to coming up with a few nicknames in the meantime. So, at the risk of truly exposing my ignorance I will share them with you now.


A tube spanner

Tube spanner

This tool had us completely puzzled. We could not find it in any of our shipwright tool reference books. Before learning the name of this incredibly common tool thanks to some handy friends on Facebook we referred to it as a ‘flute’. This might have been in part inspired by the fondness for dancing and music that we had discovered in shipwright documentaries from the mid-20th century.


A spokeshave


While we were able to find this tool eventually within our reference books we did give it another name previously and it continues to be known fondly as the ‘space invader’.

A spoke shave that looks like a space invader

However, despite its otherworldly appearance this tool is not an alien from an 80’s videogame and was used by shipwrights to smooth out and shape pieces of wood.


A multi wrench


And finally there were the tools that we had a pretty good idea of what they were but couldn’t help letting our imagination get the better of us.

A multi-wrench with a triceratops drawn over the top

We knew that this tool was some type of wrench but until we found out its exact name it was the ‘triceratops’, despite it looking less prehistoric than some of the other tools in the collection.

But for now I must get back to working out what the rest of these shipwright tools are. Keep an eye out for more posts from myself and Candice over the coming weeks.

Registration Intern.