Olaf Engvig, author, maritime historian, lecturer, coastal skipper, ship restorer and preserver.   The Ships that Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, Wapama and Vaerdalen The Ships that Built the West: The Scandinavian Navy, Wapama and Vaerdalen

Olaf Engvig has just released an e-book that tells the story of the "Scandinavian Navy", (ships and/or seamen from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), and the two very different tales of the ships WAPAMA and VAERDALEN. Learn more on Engvig's publications page.

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Viking to Victorian: Exploring the Use of Iron in Ship Building Book Reviews.

Olaf T. Engvig, Viking to Victorian: Exploring the Use of Iron in Ship Building.
Los Angeles: Themo Publishing, 2006 [orders through www.engvig.com/olaf]. 176 pp., photographs (b+w, color), illustrations, maps, bibliography. index. US $49.95, cloth: ISBN 0-9655451-6-4.

George J. Billy, Ph.D.
Chief Librarian
Bland Memorial Library
United States Merchant Marine Academy
Kings Point, NY


Olaf Engvig provides a unique, often startling odyssey through the stages of ship construction. Centering on the use of iron in shipbuilding, the author carefully analyzes how Viking seafarers employed iron to build sturdy ships for northern voyages. By rehabilitating an 1863 faering longboat, built along ancient Viking lines, Engvig demonstrates the seaworthiness of the Viking vessels.

Later chapters in the book deal with the evolution of the iron-hulled ship. Engvig offers the reader a feast of technical details that is most informative. Yet, the writing style is very readable.

Aesthetically, this book is most pleasing. It has attractive illustrations, which are nicely coordinated with the text. After reading Viking to Victorian, the reader will be much better informed about the use of iron in the evolution of shipbuilding, an important aspect of the lore of ships.


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Arne Espelund
Reviewed in Maritime Life and Traditions

Winter 2006, Issue 33, pgs 78-79.

Viking to Victorian: Exploring the use of iron in ship building
by Olaf T. Engvig

This is a most extraordinary book and a very dedicated author. In a narrow sense Engvig focuses on the superb quality of some types of iron used in shipbuilding: the bloomery iron of the Viking and early Medieval period, and the wrought iron of the mid-nineteenth century. In a wider sense he gives a warning to people responsible for the restoration of museum artefacts - make sure it is necessary before replacing an original piece!

Engvig demonstrates that a number of iron ships have lost their value as proofs of the standard of materials and craftsmanship of the "Pre-Bessemer" era due to heavy restoration with modern steel.

Much modern research in papers and books is written by ambitious scientists who lack practical experience. Engvig not only holds a graduate degree from the University of Oslo but was raised in a maritime environment and learned to sail at an early age. He suggested that the 25-30' open longboat still found in boatsheds around the Trondhcimsfjord, was used 1,000 years ago by seamen 'westbound' to England, Scotland, The Hebrides, the Faeroes, Iceland, and even Greenland-and he proved it by crossing the North Sea in such a boat with a small crew. They landed safely in Scotland after a sixty-six-hour voyage - wet, hungry, and tired, having used only the sun for navigation. The boat had been built 140 years earlier and had been neither restored nor equipped with replacement fastenings - the original rivets withstood the North Sea, which was rough at times.

As a metallurgist I know that bloomery iron is corrosion resistant - a fact I attribute to the purity of iron produced in the solid state from bog iron ore: no anodes and cathodes - active partners in corrosion - were created. But the fact that iron produced in about 1850 - from rock ore by the indirect process of coke-fired blast furnaces and refining by the coal-fired puddling process also resists corrosion is astonishing. Thanks to many surveys of old iron ships, such as the Norwegian HANSTEEN (1866) and American STAR OF INDIA (1863), Engvig clearly proves that an iron ship might last 100 years or more in original condition while a ship built of modern Steel would have to retire after thirty years.

Viking to Victorian is well illustrated and has a long list of references. It is split into two parts - the Viking part deals with preliminary tests on the iron in traditional open longboats as Engvig suggests that boats built of iron and wood enabled the Norsemen to sail as far as America. The second focuses on iron ships and the importance of keeping the old iron: stamp marks left on the hull by manufacturers can prove vital identifiers.


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Peter Stanford
Reviewed in SEA HISTORY 117,
Winter 2006-07.
Yorktown Heights, New York

Viking to Victorian: Exploring the Use of Iron in Ship Building
by Olaf T. Engvig

In this engrossing work, Captain Engvig recounts his personal voyage of exploration, pursuing the use of wrought iron in shipbuilding from its introduction as a fastening in Viking ships through to the iron ships, both sail and steam, that closed out the story in the 1800's. By 1900, steel had replaced wrought iron as a shipbuilding material, but ships built with iron hulls proved remarkably durable, witness the survival of BruneI's great iron steamer Great Britain (1843), now preserved in Bristol, England. and San Diego's doughty immigrant barque Star of India (1863), which still periodically ventures out under sail. Engvig's quest led him from sailing his own Norse longboat of 1863, grateful for the tough, resilient wrought-iron rivets that held the flexing wooden hull together in cresting seas, to restoring the iron schooner-rigged steamer Hansteen, built in 1866, which makes regular trips in Norway today.

Engvig takes us with him in his discoveries, from cleaning the bottoms of old ships in drydock to the adventurous sailing of his own longboat in the North Sea, unfolding the seafaring story of the last thousand years as he goes. Along the way, he befriends NMHS founder Karl Kortum in San Francisco, and in the book pays tribute to Karl's work in old iron, including the rediscovery of both Great Britain and Wavertree and his leadership in saving these and other iron ships around the world. As this issue of Sea History goes to press, Engvig is in Norway, overseeing the restoration of the iron steam schooner Vaedalen of 1891, which he reports never had a plate replaced in her 85 years of active service.

The guiding principle that informs his work is one he and Karl agreed upon: "Old hammer iron and sail sea seem to work well together".


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David A. Walker
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Halifax, NS, Canada
Reviewed in International Journal of Maritime History

December 2007, (Volume XIX, No. 2).
Pages 451-452.

Viking to Victorian: Exploring the use of iron in ship building
by Olaf T. Engvig

The magic carpet which transforms the reader from the closing years of the first millennium practically to the end of the second millennium is woven out of iron. This is a thousand-year stretch of the imagination and in reality is all but impossible. But Engvig takes us on this metallic link from the rough bog iron nails which so securely bound the wooden clinker planks of Viking vessels to the innovative iron sail and steamships built in the nineteenth century. The basic ore was essentially the same, and upon that theme rests the premise of this handsome book as it cruises through the intervening centuries on a variety of iron-bound ships.

Three vessels were selected to illustrate the initial use of iron in building ships through to the almost universal use of iron in the Victorian era. These vessels were actually built within a tiny span of three years in mid-century: Hitra and Star of India (ex-Euterpe) in 1863 and Hansteen in 1866. The first was a twenty-nine-foot "Viking-type longboat" [20] owned by the author; Star of India is the barque preserved afloat at the Maritime Museum of San Diego; while the third was a steam-powered hydrographic survey ship built for the Norwegian government, now restored to original working operation. It is not clear who owns the last vessel, but it seems to have been inexpertly maintained in storage while awaiting a decision about its long-term disposition.

Engvig obtained Hitra in its original state, with all the iron fastenings in sound condition. He sailed the unrestored boat extensively in the North Sea and farther afield without renewing the fastenings. And we are carried along on these romanticized voyages. He compares the vessel with its Viking predecessors, concentrating on the shape and iron fastenings, taking Norway, Greenland and Newfoundland into his scope. He suggests that L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, was chosen as a longship repair site because there were indications of the presence of local bog iron. Unfortunately, he does not describe the process of transforming this ore into boat nails and roves.

Star of India is remarkable not only as the oldest example still sailing of a host of similar iron museum ships but also because the original iron hull remains essentially intact. This led Engvig to a broad study of the iron marks on its plates and framing. These marks indicated both the maker and the quality of the material. The author discusses British and Swedish founders and their products, but again does not describe the transference from ore to pig iron and from there to iron shipbuilding products.

The steamer Hansteen had a hard working life as a coastal hydrographic survey ship, and as a result its underwater structure sustained grounding damage. Repairers substituted steel plates and frames to replace the distorted iron structure. Engvig studied the corrosion of both materials, a comparison that led to his conclusion that steel does not have the longevity of iron.

This fragmentary progress through the history of iron in the marine world suggests that this book has been compiled from many of the author's previous publications. Approximately twenty percent of the references are to the author's own writings, and topics have been combined in a sometimes confusing manner, so that the history is not always a continuum. But sadly the major annoyance with this book lies with the editors and not the author. It has been very casually edited - the author was allowed to repeat himself constantly - and there are frequent grammatical, spelling and translation errors. Some examples: the word roe for Norwegian ró (clinch-plate) is used throughout in place of the English rove; strike and streak are used on the same line when strake (of plating) was intended; [124] authors are cited, but their works are not included in the bibliography. [123] Many similar errors detract considerably from what is a serious, scholarly approach to a topic that has received all too little attention.

Engvig's concern about maintaining the iron integrity of historic vessels iswell taken. The recent severe fire within the preserved hull of Cutty Sark serves to illustrate the perils inherent in maintaining the integrity of historic iron ship fabric. The composite hull of this famous tea clipper has at its core a complex iron framework, and there is concern not only about preserving the iron but also about maintaining the shape into which that iron was originally formed. The fine lines of that uniquely speedy ship may have been lost in the distorting effects of the fire's heat.

In conclusion, there is much to recommend in this book, if only for the wealth of detail about the makers and suppliers of shipbuilding iron previously limited to scholarly papers not widely available. The irritating editorial gaffs notwithstanding, the book deserves a place in the small lexicon of vessel preservation literature.



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