The 'lost art' of riveting Ship The SS John W. Brown, a relic of World War II, is getting nearly 3,000 new rivets by Midwest practitioners of the dying skill under the direction of a Laurel man.

November 20, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Turkey in Toledo.

That's what the elite Midwest riveters want after long workdays this week and last at Sparrows Point. They have a grueling job that is fading as surely as raising sail: replacing the rivets on the hull plates of an old Liberty ship, the SS John W. Brown.

The 10 members of Local 85 of the Boilermakers Union at Toledo Ship Repair Co. have been working here instead of near their homes in Ohio and Michigan because the crew is one of the only ones left. Their rare skills are so much in demand that in January, they will head south to replace rivets in locks of the Panama Canal.

"It's a lost art," said John Willett, 31, one of the crew members laboring to keep afloat a great cargo and troop carrier of World War II built before they were born.

Riveting has long been succeeded by welding to hold ships' plates together. Only a few hundred U.S. workers still do the demanding work. Many work on Great Lakes ore carriers, in Toledo, Ohio, or at other companies in Duluth, Minn., and Sturgeon Bay, Wis. They do other heavy industrial work when not riveting.

The Brown is one of only two Liberty ships still sailing, out of 2,700 built in World War II. The ships had armed Navy guards and were crewed by the merchant marine. More Liberties -- 384 -- were built in Baltimore than anywhere else. The other survivor is the SS Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco.

The Brown became the personal mission of Stephen Ciccalone, 45, of Laurel, the riveting expert overseeing the crew's work.

As a civilian Coast Guard ship inspector, Ciccalone in 1994 forbade the all-volunteer crew on the Brown from sailing to Normandy, France, in a convoy marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Its rusting hull rivets made it unseaworthy. Plates might come loose, he said; the ship might sink.

The Brown's crew got his message: Replace the rivets or eventually lose the ship, afloat since 1942.

"I promised the Brown," said Ciccalone, "that when I retired I'd volunteer to come back and fix it. The Liberty ship is such an important part of maritime history, it needs to be preserved to let people appreciate what these men who built and sailed them went through."

Ciccalone retired because of a condition called "smoldering" multiple myeloma, a tumor of the bone marrow. It tires him but allows him to remain active.

The 7,700-ton Brown, usually at Pier 1 on Clinton Street in Canton, temporarily rests on a row of concrete blocks in the graving dock of Baltimore Marine Industries Inc., the new owner of the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard. The graving dock is a three-story-deep permanent hole. It differs from a dry dock, which floats.

The Brown looks like comedian Danny DeVito in Arnold Schwarzenegger's suit: a 441-foot-long ship in a 1,200-foot dock built in 1971 for supertankers 1,000 feet long.

Under a $191,000 contract with the Brown, the Toledo crew is replacing 2,850 rivets in the bottom and sides of the hull's vulnerable midsection. Vibrations from the nearby engine room loosen rivets more readily there.

On a good day, such as Saturday, the repairers replaced 500. The day before, lashed for hours by driving rain and wind, they prepared the section for plugs.

"This rivet gang works hard," said Terry Jagielski, the Toledo company's foreman. "The pay is double, but the work is more than double."

Earplugs are common. The riveting is carried out against blasts of ear-splitting noise -- the pow-pow-pow of the screaming compressor firing the stove, and the rat-tat-tat of the rivet gun securing each fastener.

Jagielski operated a 35-pound pneumatic rivet gun that he held against the sides or under the ship, which is raised 5 feet off the dock floor. The gun is lighter than World War II rivet guns. Women riveters -- the famed Rosies of World War II -- worked on airplanes, not ships, because women found the ship riveting guns too heavy.

Each $4 steel rivet is 3 inches long and weighs 14 ounces. Rivets hold the ship's seven-eighths-inch-thick steel plates together.

The intricate process of removing an old rivet, cleaning the hole and putting in a new one takes about 10 steps. Doing all 10 at once would take 30 minutes, but the team doesn't work that way. Instead, it does Step 1 in one section of the ship, then Step 2 and so on.

The moment of truth for each rivet is 45 seconds.

One man heats a rivet to a bright orange in a kerosene-and-oxygen-fueled stove. He passes it by tongs to another man, who runs a few steps and passes the plug through a porthole. A colleague inside the ship grabs it with his tongs and jams it into a clean hole. A second man inside holds the rivet in place with a backing tool. The foreman outside holds his gun to the new rivet, flattening it into a stable cover the size of a silver dollar.

Over and over and over again.

"These guys are very versatile," said DeLacy L. Cook, 74, of Lutherville. "They can do any job from prepping to handling the furnace to riveting." As the Brown's port engineer, he is the local boss.

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