Repairs sailing along Warship: Constellation's restoration remains on track for a return to the Inner Harbor in 1999.

January 09, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The 1854 warship Constellation is awash in the sweet smell of new wood as workers at Baltimore's Fort McHenry Shipyard glue and nail fresh planks of Douglas fir to the old ship's sides.

The $9 million restoration of the ship -- which served in the Civil War and in the anti-slavery squadrons off West Africa -- has passed the one-third mark and entered its second winter.

Work remains on track for a return to the Inner Harbor in July 1999, according to Louis F. Linden, executive director of the Constellation Foundation.

But shipwright Peter Boudreau, builder of the Pride of Baltimore II, is not ready to declare victory over time, rot and the unexpected.

"You know how you feel when you're not quite in the clear yet?" he said this week."We're trying to make a lot happen in a short amount of time. And the truth is, you don't know how you're doing until you're done."

Still, barely a year after it was nudged from Pier 1 at the Inner Harbor and tugged tenderly down the harbor to dry dock, the rot-ravaged Constellation is beginning to look and smell like a ship with a future.

Viewed from the workers' scaffolding, the ship is a sensuously curved wall of new, pink and yellow wood planks.

Behind them, the worst of its crumbling frames, or ribs, have been removed and replaced by new timbers formed of laminated white oak. The new frames have been fastened tightly to the best of the remaining originals.

"The condition of the original framing improves dramatically as you go down [toward the keel]," Linden said. To everyone's surprise, the ship's keel, frames and planking below the waterline proved sound enough to save. Many of the stern

frames remained solid as high as the gun deck.

Although nearly everything visible from outside the ship will be new, nearly everything inside, from the keel to the berth deck, will be original.

"Better than 50 percent of the original [1854] fabric will still be there when we're done," Linden said.

All of Constellation's hull planking, down to a line about 10 feet above the keel, has been removed. In its place, Boudreau and his crews are attaching what they believe is the largest "cold-molded" hull ever built.

Cold-molding uses new epoxy glues that don't require heat to cure.

And, instead of heavy, 5-inch-thick planks that must be made flexible in steam boxes before they can be shaped to the ship's lines, Constellation's new hull consists of four layers of thin fir planks. The first 2-inch-thick layer is attached horizontally to the frames with bronze bolts.

That layer is followed by a 3/4 -inch layer of strips, glued with the new epoxy and nailed diagonally to the first. Then comes a second layer of 3/4 -inch strips laid on the opposite diagonal.

Finally, a fourth and final layer of horizontal planks will be fitted to the ship. It will appear indistinguishable from the ship's original planking.

Waterproofing the wood

Together, Boudreau believes, the complex hull system will provide the ship with enough stiffness and strength to support the historic, but weakened 144-year-old timbers inside. The epoxy glue will furnish waterproofing impossible to achieve with conventional wooden construction.

The planking is scheduled for completion by the end of next month. Then, workers will finish the demolition of the gun deck, and begin to rebuild.

Materials matter

Ship's carpenters will construct gun and spar decks. The wood they're using includes nearly flawless, 75-foot lengths of Douglas fir hewn from a 2,000-year-old tree felled in Skagit Valley, in Washington state, and tatiboo and purpleheart -- both tropical hardwoods from Guyana, South America.

"This stuff is nearly as strong as white oak, and perhaps more rot-resistant and infinitely easier to work," Linden said.

The long spans of wood, free of joints, and the wood's natural resistance to rot are meant to ensure the Constellation the longest possible life before the next costly restoration.

"Our program is built around the idea that you have to use the best possible materials," Linden said. "If you don't, you're just wasting your money."

Preserving carvings

Elsewhere in the shipyard, workers are restoring the Constellation's original decorative carvings, and forging iron fittings for the ship's rigging.

Mary Staley, a Montgomery College art teacher on leave, has worked since October, painstakingly stripping and restoring the Constellation's ornate, 4 1/2 -foot-high fiddlehead -- the fancy scroll and leaf carvings that fit beneath the bowsprit.

"It's the real thing," she said, pointing out the detailed carving and traces of gold leaf that had vanished long ago beneath a century of paint, epoxy and auto-body filler.

"There's all kinds of things I've sanded off," she said. "But at

least they preserved it."

Summer plans

The foundation plans to have the hull and gun deck completed by the end of summer. The ship will then be floated out of dry dock and tied at a work pier in the harbor for nearly a year of finishing work, including completion of the spar deck and rigging.

The dry dock lease costs $500 a day, Linden said. "We want to be out of here as soon as we can." The Constellation should return to the Inner Harbor in July 1999, provided the cash keeps flowing.

Linden said the Constellation Foundation has raised more than $6.1 million in cash, pledges and in-kind donations.

Legislative allocation

"We still need to get $1.65 million out of the state," he said. The General Assembly will be asked during its session to allocate $1 million in matching grants for the Constellation. In the past three years, lawmakers have approved $1.35 million, but no more than $500,000 in one year.

"It's getting down towards the end, and we can't put things off," Linden said.

To access the state's matching grants, the foundation needs to raise $1.5 million from the private sector. Linden is continuing his appeals to corporations, foundations and previous supporters.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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