Naval Stores and Ropewalks – Vital Backbones of the Maritime World
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the strength of the economy of the British Empire and the early United States was dependent on foreign trade, and that foreign trade was dependent upon sailing ships. While we often think about the wood and canvas needed to build and run these ships, we often forget to consider other items (naval stores and cordage) that were needed to make these useful. Today’s post will look at the subject of Naval Stores, what they were and how they were obtained. We will also examine the vast amounts of cordage needed for these sailing vessels and how that cordage was made.
Despite the name, naval stores were not places you went to buy ships or sailors. The term naval stores originally applied to the organic compounds used in building and supporting wooden sailing ships, a category which includes cordage, mask, turpentine, rosin, pitch, and tar. Ships made of wood required a flexible material, insoluble in water, to seal the spaces between planks. Pine pitch was often mixed with fibers like hemp, a mixture called Oakum, to caulk spaces which might otherwise leak. These materials were originally used for waterproofing and weather-proofing wooden ships.
The use of naval stores in shipbuilding dates back thousands of years. Some of the first true ocean-going vessels were built by the Austronesian peoples during the Austronesian expansion (c. 3000 BC). They were commonly caulked with pastes made from various plants as well as tapa bark and fibers which would expand when wet, further tightening joints, and making the hull watertight. The ancient Champa of Vietnam also uniquely developed basket-hulled boats whose hulls were composed of woven and resin-caulked bamboo, either entirely or in conjunction with plank strakes. They ranged from small coracles to large ocean-going trading ships. Early Egyptians also knew how to assemble planks of wood with treenails to fasten them together, using pitch for caulking the seams.
By the 18th century, shipbuilding had an immense impact on the economy in the American colonies. The colonies had a comparative advantage in shipbuilding with their vast natural resources, skilled craftsmen, and capital from the British empire. Initially, Boston, Massachusetts became the center for the boom of shipbuilding because it was the main distribution point for most of the shipping tonnage. The shipbuilding industry needed plenty of skilled labor to support it and with America's large forest industry many craftsmen already had skills working with wood. These skills transitioned to the shipbuilding industry.
The ships of the early 19th century were still built to the same basic plan as those of the Spanish Armada of two centuries earlier, although there had been many subtle improvements in ship design and construction throughout this period. The shipbuilding process began with the frame and then heating the hull of the ship. This was done using steamers and wood as fuel. Planks were heated up to be able to bend with the curve of the ship. Once all the framing and planking was completed, caulking waterproofed the ship. Tools used included mallets and irons. Mallets were usually sixteen inches from end to end with the handle usually being about sixteen inches. The caulking material, typically oakum, was hammered in between each of the planks. There were oftentimes two to three layers of this oakum fiber placed in between the planks. Putty would be put on afterwards to finish off the waterproofing. Tar, which came from the thousands of coniferous trees available, was oftentimes spread over the top of these planks to try to discourage shipworms, a type of boring mollusk, from attacking the hulls.
Manufacture of Naval Stores
Although this industry ﬁrst began in Virginia and Massachusetts, it soon moved southward to exploit the resin-rich and seemingly inexhaustible longleaf pine ecosystem that stretched along the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from southern Virginia southward Florida and westward along the Gulf coast. North Carolina had become the principal supplier of naval stores to England during the colonial period. This dominance continued well into the future. By 1840, North Carolina had monopolized production of naval stores in the United States, with its ports shipping almost 96 percent of the Nation’s total.
Historically, naval stores were produced from one of two methods. The first is from resinous material collected through “chipping” (wounding) pine trees—called “gum.” Biologically, wounding pines produces a response by resin ducts found in the cambium. These resin ducts extend radially throughout the woody tissues of the bole (the “xylem”); physically injuring or scarifying the xylem of the tree trunk exposes the resin ducts and oleoresin oozes out. With repeated injury, newly wounded resin ducts respond by producing resin and hence a continuous ﬂow of gum resin during the long growing season. The second method was from resins that gradually accumulate and saturate the xylem. Oleoresin-saturated wood is commonly known as “lightwood” or “lighterwood” (so-called because it was widely used to kindle or “light” ﬁres in stoves and ﬁreplaces). The basic naval stores fell into one of two categories: tar, and pitch. Additionally, by the 19th century there was some turpentine manufacturing as well.
Tar—a dark, thick, sticky liquid produced in pine tar kilns, resulting from the melting of resin at an elevated temperature in smoldering lightwood. This gooey tar was used to coat sails, ropes, and rigging of ships to make them last longer against the effects of salt water, wind, and sun. It was also used on land as axle grease, to preserve fence posts, and to cover wounds on livestock and help them heal.
Pitch—tar that has been boiled to get a higher-grade substance used to paint the sides and bottoms and spread into cracks of wooden ships to make them watertight. At room temperature, the pitch is nearly solid, but when heated it liquiﬁes and can be spread like paint.
The methods to produce naval stores from southern pines evolved over time. The earliest need for naval stores, to support the sea worthiness of wooden sailing vessels, was for tar and pitch. These products were most efﬁciently produced using tar kilns. It took two men at least 3 weeks to prepare a site for a kiln, collect lightwood—the resinous boles, limbs, and stumps that remained after pines died and decayed—to be placed in the pit, cover the wood with straw and clay, and then watch the oxygen-limited burning. Kilns were typically either rectangular or oval and anywhere from 14 to 30 feet in diameter. A depression was dug a few feet deep to clay subsoil, which was less porous than the sandy surface soil and minimized the amount of tar lost by seepage. A gutter was dug to guide the liquid tar to a collection pit where it would cool and be barreled.
The lightwood was cut into 3-foot lengths and stacked like spokes of a wheel. The “burning” of the lightwood was the most important and precise part of the tar production process. It required workers who understood how to control the temperature within the kiln—their efforts were critical in the production of high-quality tar. Once the lightwood was set on ﬁre, the temperature was regulated by adjusting the size of an opening at the top of the kiln. By limiting the access to oxygen, the lightwood “sweated” and did not actually burn. If the wood had burned, the tar would have been consumed. This process might last up to 2 weeks and required constant monitoring day and night to keep a temperature that produced tar. After the tar was sweated out of the wood, charcoal remained that could be sold for blacksmith use.
One 30-foot diameter kiln could hold 180 cords of lightwood and produce as much as 5,700 gallons of tar - equivalent to 180 32-gallon barrels. Barrels of the tar were transported to major ports such as Wilmington, NC, Charleston, SC, or Savannah, GA for export. Usually, however, the producer kept some tar to boil to make pitch - it typically took two barrels of tar to make one barrel of pitch. The use of tar kilns could not be scaled up easily, but signiﬁcant quantities of tar and pitch could be produced in tar kilns by a small number of workers.
The development of gum resin naval stores technology in the early 1800s required a large labor force, as many trees had to be worked to obtain commercial quantities of gum resin. This system also could use laborers throughout the year. Cavities (called a “box”) could be cut into the base of pines during the winter in anticipation of the chipping operations beginning in the spring. A “crop”—the basic number needed for a proﬁtable operation—often consisted of 10,000 “faces” or areas on the bole of one tree scariﬁed for resin production (these were often called “cat faces” because they resembled a cat’s whiskers). Larger trees might have more than one face per tree.
The box collection method—The earliest widespread procedure for pine gum extraction was referred to as the box method. In the traditional box method, a worker would chop cavities in the trunk of the tree a few inches above the ground using a special tool called a “boxing axe.” Boxes averaged 3 to 4 inches deep and ranged from 8 to 15 inches wide. A box could hold 1 to 2 quarts of resin. On trees greater than 2 feet in diameter, as many as three boxes could be cut, as long as 4 inches of bark remained intact between the boxes. Prior to the Civil War, enslaved beginners had to cut 50 boxes per day, while experienced boxers had to cut from 75 to 100 boxes per day.
Once the box was cut, the tree face had to be prepared for the ﬂow of gum. This was done by “cornering the box” or removing the bark above the box with a felling axe, then carving grooves into the wood in a chevron pattern—a process called “chipping”—using a specialized tool called a “hack.” The gum then ﬂowed down these channels and into the box. New chippings above the face were made on a weekly basis throughout the summer to stimulate added resin ﬂow. The accumulated gum resin was dipped from the boxes and added to buckets every 3 or 4 weeks. These were emptied into barrels brought onsite in wagons. Usually toward the end of the season, the surface of the worked face was scraped to remove the accumulation of crystalized resin, a lower quality but still valuable product. Flat scrapers were used to loosen the gum which was collected in a container pushed against the base of the tree. The 40-gallon barrels of collected resin were shipped to distilleries where it was converted into turpentine.
Unfortunately, the box method killed or severely damaged trees. After 10 years of gum harvesting, a significant percentage of turpentined trees succumbed to reduced vitality, weakened trunk structure, insect infestation, and disease. Mortality due to boxing could be direct or indirect. Trees boxed became less vigorous and more susceptible to insect attack. Boxed pines were also felled more readily during storms and hurricanes while unboxed trees sustained comparatively minor damage. Fire could be highly destructive to turpentine operations, often putting producers out of business. While longleaf and slash pines are very tolerant of surface burning, boxing signiﬁcantly increased their susceptibility to damage by ﬁre. Boxes were natural ﬂash points; and once ignited, they were difﬁcult to extinguish. They often burned deeply into the tree, promoting decay, insect attacks, or outright death.
Naval Cordage (Rope)
People today, even those who have sailing pleasure craft, have no real concept of how much cordage it took to fit out a square-rigged sailing ship. For a sailing frigate the size of USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”” the ship required approximately 40 miles of cordage of varying diameters. This cordage became the standing rigging to support the masts and the many lines needed for the running rigging used to manipulate the sails.
One of the largest of these was the ship’s 22-inch circumference anchor cable, which was paraded through the streets of Boston in September 1797, as reported in the September 18, 1797, issue of the Boston Gazette and Republican Weekly Journal as follows:
“Friday last, the cable of the CONSTITUTION frigate was conveyed on the shoulders of two hundred and ninety three men from the walk (ropewalk) to the Navy Yard. It was preceeded [sic] by Col. Claghorn, and attended by a party of drums and fifes and three American ensigns.”
Of the many vegetable substances that are adapted to ropemaking, the best was hemp due to hemp rope having the essential qualities of flexibility and tenacity. Hemp was among the first plants humans cultivated. Ancient Chinese pottery bearing impressions from hemp rope suggest its use 5,000 years ago and possibly more than twice that long. Credit for this long-term relationship belongs to hemp's many applications: thread, cordage, cloth, paper, food and, yes, intoxication.
When humans took to the seas, every sizable vessel required lines and sailcloth capable of withstanding all that open water could muster. Hemp proved the best fit. Historian Martin Booth estimated that fitting out the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 needed 10,000 acres of cultivated hemp, used for both cordage and sail canvas. The emerging prominence of the English navy was the chief reason English farmers and later their American cousins had to devote a share of their acreage to hemp. The Virginia Assembly in 1632 ordered “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.”
All English and American ships in the colonial era and the early 19th century used hemp rope and hemp canvas for their sails. Hemp was the fiber of choice for maritime uses because of its natural decay resistance and its adaptability to cultivation. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed and ship captains were ordered to distribute hemp seed widely to supply fiber wherever repairs might be needed in distant lands. As a result, many tons of hemp were turned into rope, every year, at every major port in the world.
With the onset of fighting in 1775, Americans' need for hemp became urgent. There were eleven state-sponsored fleets during the American Revolution, as well as the Continental Navy, and every single ship needed ropes and sails. After the Revolutionary War, hemp fiber was so important to the young Republic that farmers were encouraged, as a patriotic duty, to grow it, and were allowed to pay taxes with it. George Washington grew hemp and encouraged all citizens to sow hemp widely and Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing.
Ropewalks and Rope Manufacturing
Rope, made by twisting layers of fibers in opposing directions, was first manufactured in open fields using man-powered rope-laying equipment. The length of the longest piece of rope was determined by the strength of the ropemakers maintaining the twisted fibers at the laying-up equipment. By the 18th century, long wooden sheds, called ropewalks, were being used to house the ropemaking equipment and the finished product. According to Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Ropemaker’s of Plymouth: A History of the Plymouth Cordage Company, there were fourteen ropewalks in Boston by 1794 and by the autumn of 1797, more ropewalks had been constructed to the west of Boston Common.
During the Revolutionary War, Virginia had at least 18 rope walks, three of which were government-sponsored and staffed by official commissioners authorized to buy hemp from farmers with public money. These public and private ropewalks were situated at Warwick, Richmond, Nansemond County, Falling Creek, Fredericksburg, Falmouth, Alexandria, Smithfield, and Yorktown. By 1802 in Norfolk, VA, Plume’s ropewalk (north of what would become Wood Street) supplied much of Norfolk’s cordage, purchasing hemp from Virginia sources and from Russia. There was also a smaller ropewalk, Newton’s, which stood about where High Street was later constructed.
Further south, in Edenton, NC there was a ropewalk set up around 1777 that, by the early 19th century, covered a massive 131 acres. Continuing south, in Charleston, SC, there was the Charles Snetter Rope Manufactory which ran at least from the 1780s until 1821. Charles Snetter died in 1802. He was not married and had no heirs, so he bequeathed his business to some of the slaves who had worked for him, emancipating them at the same time. The freed slaves, Bristol and Sarah Snetter, kept the rope business going until Bristol's death in 1820/21. Sarah died a few years later in a Charleston poor house. And in Georgia, in 1807, the City of Savannah entered into a ground lease agreement with John Hunter for the purposes of setting up a ropewalk. This ropewalk appears on an 1812 map of Savannah drawn by Col. Mossman Houston.
The Ropemaking Process
Rope that was used in a naval setting is known as “laid rope” or “twisted rope.” At its most basic level, fibers are gathered and spun into yarns which are then formed into strands by twisting. Three or more strands are then twisted together to lay the rope. The twist of the yarn is opposite to that of the strand, and that in turn is opposite to that of the rope. They may be Z-twisted (right hand twist) or S-twisted (left hand twist). By the 18th and early-19th centuries, the spinning or twisting of rope was done by machines in the ropeworks. The following description of the process is paraphrased from Robert Chapman’s A Treatise on Ropemaking.
The hemp fibers, when intended for cordage or coarse yarn, require only to be drawn through a course heckle; but if for fine yarn, through heckles of various degrees of fineness. In this process the pins carried off a part of the gum in the form of dust, and by dividing the fibers, separated and aligned them. To do this, the heckle was fixed upon a frame, one side inclining from the workman, who, grasped a handful of hemp in his hands, drew it through the heckle pins, which divided the fibers, cleaned and straightened them, and rendered the hemp fit for spinning since, if the fibers were spun longitudinally, the yarn would be stronger, would more easily join, and require less twist.
Next, the spinner took hold of the middle of the hank of fibers and attached them to the spinning machine whose rotary motion supplied twist, and stepping backwards, he fed more fibers into the hank, continuing to lengthen the yarn. When the desired length of yarn had been spun, it was warped into hauls or junks, which held a certain number of threads or yarns in proportion to the size and weight. If required, the hauls were then tarred and after being tarred, the hauls were left for several hours to allow any moisture to evaporate. They were then coiled, moved into the yarn-house, and left for several days to allow the tar to harden, and adhere more closely to the fiber. If the tar were not allowed to dry and the yarn made into cordage at once after being tarred, the tar would press to the surface, decay take place in the center, and the cordage would be weaker and have an unsightly appearance.
After “aging,” the yarn was wound upon bobbins. To do this, the yarn was stretched along the floor of a shed, each end being formed in loops or bights, placed upon hooks, and made taut by block and tackles. The workman then took the end of four yarns, separated them, and passed each end through a gage, attaching them to bobbins placed upon a machine to receive them, called a winding machine. When the bobbins were full, they each held about 500 fathoms of yarn, depending on the size of the yarn, they were taken from the machine and replaced by empty ones and the operation continued. The bobbins of yarn were then taken to another frame and the ends passed through a metallic plate perforated with holes in concentric circles; each yarn is passed through a single hole to the number of yarns needed to form a strand. The whole strand was then brought together, and drawn through a cylindrical metallic tube, having a bore equal in diameter to the number of yarns when compressed. It was then attached to a machine which was drawn down the ropewalk while, at the same time, a rotatory motion was given to twist the yarns into a strand, making a uniform cylinder.
In the next operation, the strands are made into a rope by being attached to the machines at each end of the walk and tensioned with block and tackles. A wood frame, called a drag, was made fast to the machine, and some heavy material placed upon it to keep that tension when released from the tackles. The machines were then put in motion, and as the strands received torsion they shortened in their length—this was called hardening. When the multiple strands had received a sufficient hardness of twist, they were all placed upon one hook at one end of the ropewalk and a cone of wood, called a top, with grooves cut in the surface sufficiently large to receive the strands, was then put between them. The machines were then put in motion, with the strands bearing tension equally. The machine that twisted the rope was set to make two revolutions, while the machine that twisted the strands made one revolution. This extra revolution given the rope was needed to overcome the friction which was caused by the top, tails, and the stake heads which were placed at every five fathoms to support the strands and rope.
Thank you for joining us for today’s post on Naval Stores and Ropewalks. Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into the importance of these industries to not only the American Navy but to the overall American economy and its dependence on foreign trade. Please join us again in two weeks for our next post when we will shift to something more in line with the upcoming Halloween “spooky season.”
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Barnett, J. P. (2019). Naval Stores, A History of an Early Industry Created from the South's Forests. Asheville, NC: US Forest Service, Southern Research Station.
Chapman, Robert. (1869). A Treatise on Ropemaking. Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird.
Desy, M. M., & Scott, P. (2016, October 06). Ropemakers for the Navy: Part 1. Retrieved from USS Constitution Museum: https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2016/10/06/ropemakers-navy-part/
Desy, M. M., & Scott, P. (2016, October 21). Ropemakers for the Navy: Part II. Retrieved from USS Constitution Museum: https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2016/10/21/ropemakers-navy-part-ii/
Heher, S. (2015, May). Ropewalk_Heher_2015-05. Retrieved from savannahga.gov: https://www.savannahga.gov/DocumentCenter/View/7467/RopeWalk_Heher_2015-05?bidId=
Herndon, G. M. (1966, July). A War Inspired Industry: The Manufacture of Hemp in Virginia during the Revolution. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, pp. 301-311.
Keith, B. (1996-2022). Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies. Retrieved from B. Keith, Ropemaker: http://bkeithropemaker.com/Rope_Intro.html
Perry, P. (1968, November). The Naval Stores Industry in the Old South, 1790-1860. The Journal of Southern History, pp. 509-526.
Shaeffer, M. (2016). Edenton Ropewalk. Retrieved from North Carolina History Project: https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/edenton-ropewalk/
Snow, S. (1964, January). Naval Stores in Colonial Virginia. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, pp. 75-93.
Swenson, B. (2015, Winter). Hemp & Flax in Colonial America. CW Journal, pp. 26-33.