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The Unique Design of Viking Ships


April 28, 2014 by Jen Cudmore

Excited today! Just turned in my second Viking story to my writing coach! For a brief overview, you can read one of my previous posts. Thanks for all your prayer and support. I hope to have the first one published by the end of the year.

The Vikings proved they had as much brain as brawn by producing spectacular ships that astounded other nations.

The shallow draught of these vessels made them able to slide easily onto beaches rather than remain off shore at a dock. Sails, which were apparently uncommon during this period of history, braced with strong keels beneath the frame aided in their swiftness. The strong yet flexible planking of the hull gave them more maneuverable than other vessels. All of these combined improvements made the Viking ships unique and allowed them to dominate on the water.

The Viking ships are classified by most scholars into two categories: merchant ships and warships. Their sizes varied, and each vessel archaeologists have discovered seems to be unique in design, signifying fine individualized craftsmanship. In many cases, the ships, a symbol of power and wealth, were owned by more than one man due to the construction costs.

The boats were made of oak and pine slabs called strakes. One resource stated shipbuilders looked for trees with natural bends and curves. The strakes, typically overlapped, were nailed together with iron rivets that secured on the other side in small iron plates. The strakes that sat underwater were bound with spruceroot lashings or whalebristle, which gave the ship more flexibility. The caulking was made up of tarred animal hair or wool.

Sails were typically made from heavy woolen cloth. Oars numbered anywhere from six to near forty on each side, depending on the length. Warships had mounts built on the edges so shields could be hung over the side, and many of them had some sort of beast carved into the tall bow. Many of the ships also had a method for securing a tent covering.


Viking-Ship-Museum_Roskilde-1024x665This ship, the famous Osberg discovery from 1904, is on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. (This photo was taken from a Denmark Travel Site.) Restoring this ship took over twenty years!



oseberg-viking-ship_viking-ship-museumHere are the carvings on the side. You can also clearly see the rivets and plates used to secure the boards together.





This is just a brief overview: there is much more detail I didn’t cover. Viking shipbuilders were quite intelligent and seemed to carry a higher class distinction because of their skill. As a side note, one of the main characters in my first novel is a shipbuilder…

Sorry that pictures are so limited! I tried to find some good images but I wanted to be careful not to ‘steal’ anything.

+++This site had some cool photos of a real ship that was restored in Norway (Called the Gokstad ship). Gokstadskipet

+++This site explains a bit more about shipbuilding (great pics here as well!) Lore and Saga

For more tidbits I’ve shared about Vikings, click here.


Disclaimer: Please note I don’t claim to be an expert on Vikings! I’ve done  a lot of research as a backdrop for my upcoming novels, and I simply wish to express my interpretation of the information I’ve learned. My goal is to dispel the myths and create a better understanding of the Viking people. If you feel I’ve misinterpreted any of the facts, please send me an email!

©Jen Cudmore 2014, All Rights Reserved

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  1. Love this and sharing it. The carving is what always blows me away…that, and how they bent the wood and got those planks to fit. Not to mention knowing HOW to sail such long distances with no maps!

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