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Dr Adrian Osler considers the cost for John T. Laurenson to build a boat in 1938


Having, in recent years, had cause to examine the building accounts of a couple of historic local (to me) shell-first, clinker-built vessels: King Edward the First’s ‘Newcastle Galley’, 1295; and the town’s civic ‘Rowbarge’ of 1510, it was hard to resist the temptation to consider the material costs of John Laurenson’s twelve-foot-of-keel boat in similar fashion. Granted, for those who are familiar with vernacular Shetland boatbuilding the results are probably much as might be expected, but the analysis presented here may add a trifle to our understanding of the economics of the craft (see Table 1).

Unsurprisingly, the largest single cost element was the timber, which amounted to some three-quarters of the money spent on the materials listed by the builder. Fastenings and ironwork accounted for the bulk of the remainder, comprising one-fifth of all expenditure, and two minor expenditures (syan and varnish) then made up the aggregate.

Looking at these costs more closely it seems that three-fifths of the builder’s total outlay was on the timber for hull planking, and this despite the saving of employing cheaper ‒ i.e. less costly than larch – ‘White wood’ for the upper strakes (see Table 2). By comparison, the cost of what might be termed the structural members – including the boat’s backbone of keel and stems ‒ amounted to just one-fifth of the entire timber outlay. Interestingly, the freight charges seem to have approached one-tenth of the timber’s overall cost, an indicator perhaps of the relative geographic isolation of many Shetland boatbuilders.

As inferred in Laurenson’s letter, the ‘red wood’ used for the keel, oars, and gunwales was the most expensive timber employed, priced at just over four shillings per cubic foot. Larch, in 1¾ - and 1½ inch boards (of one foot width) ran out at about three shillings and sixpence per cube, whilst the unspecified wood for the fastebands was much the same. The choice of ‘white wood’ planks for the upper strakes produced a nominal one-fifth saving over that supplied in larch for the lower strakes, although a trifling discount seems to have been applied to the latter anyway.

With regard to the acquisition of metal items, the fastenings alone accounted for just over three-quarters of all the expenditure required, whilst the commissioning of local smith-work accounted for the remainder (see Table 1). Two main types of fastening materials were purchased: nails and rooves of both iron and copper. Although the iron fastenings outweighed the copper ones by a good margin (7½ lb to 5 lb) the cumulative expenditure on each was much the same owing to the price differential, for copper fastenings were almost twice the unit cost of their galvanised iron counterparts. Common galvanised wire nails ‒ at a quarter the price of copper fastenings ‒ completed the suite of metal fastenings, and were used presumably in assembling the tilfers etc. Though unrelated to Laurenson’s costings, it is interesting to note that he unconsciously uses the old dialect word ‘Seam’ to specify the iron clench nails but refers to those of copper simply by the generic term, ‘nails’. As to expenditure on miscellaneous items, the cost of 2½ yards (probably indicating square yards) of ‘syan’ for luting the plank lands surprisingly equated to the amount (2s 6d) spent on varnish ‒ a finish that was applied at the purchaser’s request.

Laurenson’s final asking price of £12 appears to represent a mark-up of around 50% to cover his labour and incidental costs, and genuinely seems to have been a return below that which he formerly charged: £4-5s-7d as against £4-10s. In truth, however, calculating the various costs of the boat built by John Laurenson for Mr J. Johnson of Eshaness has been a relatively easy quantitative task. The personal ‘cost’ to the builder during that winter of 1937-38 in respect of arthritic pain, frustration, and anxiety, remains incalculable…

About the author

Dr Adrian Osler has enjoyed maintaining and occasionally building a succession of sailing and rowing boats over the course of fifty years. Professionally, for thirty of those fifty years, Adrian pursued a career curatorial career in maritime history.

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