Båtbygger Ulf Mikalsen på Kjerringøy bygger klinkbygd nordlandsbåt. Foto: Ulf Mikalsen.

Traditional clinker boat building

The Norwegian clinker-built boat has a history stretching back at least two thousand years. Throughout history, it has been a vital tool for fishing, transport, farming operations and navigation in the whole Nordic region. The clinker-built boat tradition is a vital part of the Norwegian coastal and maritime heritage, and also part of the wider Nordic boatbuilding tradition.

Written by Tore Friis-Olsen. Last updated 20. October 2020. Do you want to reuse the content? The contents are licensed for unlimited reuse

About the tradition and knowledge

By traditional clinker-built boat construction we here have in view the construction of clinker-built boats in Norway. In this presentation, the emphasis is on traditional boatbuilding, i.e. the time-honoured craft of building the main types of traditional Norwegian boats.

Running through the main types of boat on the Norwegian coast, we have: the river boat and bask boat (Sámi or Kven boats); the Nordland boat (prevalent over more than half the Norwegian coast, and part of Sámi, Norwegian and Kven (Finnish minority) traditions); the Trøndelag boat (Åfjord boat); the Western Norway boats (Nordmøre boat, geit boat, Sunnmøre boat (snidbetning), Nordfjord boat, Sunnfjord boat, Sogne boat, Nordhordland boat, oselvar, Strandebarmer); and the Eastern Norway boats (from Agder eastwards - snekke, sjekte and pram). There are also inland boats, each with their own main types for the various main waterways. Within each of the main types listed, there are many different variants.

Boats of all the listed main types are still being built today.

For more information on the various boat types, see the “Register of traditional boats” on lokalhistoriewiki.no.

The usual definition of clinker-built construction is that the boat is built with the lower edge of the overlying hull planking protruding over the edge of the plank below, with the plank edges overlapping in a downward direction. The technique for fixing the planks is called clinker construction when the overlapping planks are joined together with iron or copper nails. Wooden “tree nails” are also used. In the past, the planks have also been stitched together by “sewing”. This building method is shared by practically all the clinker-built boat types on the Norwegian coast, and indeed, throughout the Nordic region and Northern Europe. The tools used are still very much the traditional tools used in years gone by, such as axes, planes, clamps and plumb-bob angle finders. Many boatbuilders make their own tools.

Even though the number of traditional boatbuilders has been drastically reduced, especially in the second half of the last century, the craft is still maintained by several boatbuilders along the coast. There are estimated to be between 20 and 30 boatbuilders who still master the traditional craft of building the different boat types.

Some of the boatbuilders work alone, with their own workshop and boatshed. Others are attached to museums, coastal heritage centres and ship conservation centres. Here they interact with wider circles of expertise, formed to preserve the knowledge of local traditional boat types. Part of the strategy here has been to establish a working relationship with the local clubs of the Norwegian Coastal Federation (Forbundet KYSTEN) regarding the use and maintenance of the boats. This gives the boatbuilders useful inspiration and experience.

Several cooperatives and coastal clubs have established common ownership and operation of one or more traditional boats, and share knowledge and cultural and social activities in addition to the boats. To keep the boatbuilding tradition alive, it is important to have experienced boat user communities.

Highly skilled practitioners

Along the Norwegian coast there are many highly skilled boatbuilders and strong centres of expertise working on the preservation and further development of traditional boatbuilding. The most important institutions are: UiT - The Arctic University of Norway, Fosen Folk High School, The Coastal Heritage Museum, the Stiftinga Sunnmøre Museum (the Sunnmøre Museum Foundation), the Goat Boat Museum and Husasnotra, Hardanger Boat Conservation Centre, Oselvar Workshop and the Norwegian Maritime Museum.

Here is a list of the most important tradition bearers:
Gunnar Eldjarn/UiT - Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø (Nordland boats, river boats, bask boats, river boat (Målselv boat), spiss boats, speil boats, Lofoten dinghies, nise), Arne-Terje Sæther, Kvaløysletta (Nordland boats, river boats, bask boats, river boat (Målselv boat), spiss boats, speil boats, Lofoten dinghies, nise), Ola Fjelltun, Kvaløysletta (Nordland boats, river boats, bask, river boat (Målselv boat), spiss boats, speil boats, Lofoten dinghies, nise), Kai Linde, Rognan (Nordland boat, Saltdal spiss boat), Ulf Mikalsen, Kjerringøy (Nordland boat, spiss boat, straums boat, fembøring/Lofoten dinghies), Einar Borgfjord, Båtskott wooden boatbuilders, Coastal Heritage Museum, Stadsbygd (Åfjord boats, goat boats, lister boats, notgavler, spiss boats, pram, Lofoten dinghies, Innherred boat, Stampåsa boat), Fosen Folk High School (Åfjord boat etc.), Håvard Haraldson Hatløy, Stiftinga Sunnmøre Museum (Sunnmøre boat, snidbetning), Sigurd Bjørkedal & Sons, Boatbuilders, Bjørkedalen (Sunnmøre boats and traditional boats), Jacob Helset, Bjørkedalen (Sunnmøre boats), Geit Boat Museum/Husasnotra, Valsøyfjord (geit boat), Peter Helland-Hansen, Hardanger ship conservation centre, (Strandebarmer, Oselvar Workshop, Os (oselvar), Jon Richard Jacobs, Haugesund (Sogne boat), Jørn Magne Flesjå, Ryfylke wooden boatbuilders (Aslak boat, Tingvik Boat), Svein Walvick, Mandal (snekke/sjekte), Sandøy Boatbuilders, Terje Planke (Sogne boat), Vestre Sandøya (snekke, sjekte), Wilhelm Dannevig, Arendal (snekke/sjekte), John A. Andersen, Risør (pram, rowing, sailing and motor sjekte), Svein Erik Øya (Sogne boat), Sven Wold, Holmsbu (Holmsbu pram), Lars Stålegård, Boat Lab at Norwegian Maritime Museum (reconstruction, new clinker-built boats).

*Boatbuilder Jouni Laiti is from Finland, but is included in this list because he is one of the few tradition bearers in the whole of Sápmi (Lapland) a master of building river boats.

Most of these boatbuilders have also taken part in various cooperative projects for building replicas and reconstructions of Viking ships and other boat types.

In a number of the coastal clubs in the Norwegian Coastal Federation, there are also persons with considerable knowledge of building, use and maintenance of traditional boats.

De fleste av disse båtbyggerne har også deltatt i ulike samarbeidsprosjekter rundt bygging av replikaer og rekonstruksjoner av vikingskip og andre båttyper.

I en rekke av kystlagene i Forbundet KYSTEN finnes også personer som har betydelig kunnskap om bygging, bruk og vedlikehold av tradisjonsbåter.

Knowledge transfer

Formerly, the individual boatbuilder was part of a local tradition and built his boats in accordance with local customs, taking the timber from the forests to shape the boats according to their location, use and crew. This knowledge was passed on by practice, being handed down from master, or a knowledgeable person, to apprentice. Up until the 1980’s, most of the timber boatbuilding in Norway was based on tradition rather than external design concepts. Since then the knowledge of how to build traditional boats continued an existence outside the world of formal education. By the skin of their teeth, some boatbuilding traditions survived or have been handed down, while others have been reconstructed on the basis of experience from the surviving boat traditions. Formal training in boatbuilding schools and certification schemes can only be regarded as an initial qualification here. Traditional craftsmanship is an advanced art and requires many years of experience in understanding the complexity of the hull shape and the interaction between the hull and the rigging. It requires great expertise to understand and manipulate the form of the boat to achieve various properties.

Historical background

It has been usual to regard clinker-built boat construction in Norway as a part of the Nordic tradition, which can be traced far back in time. Archaeological boat finds from the period just before and after Christ show that construction methods and design must have been more or less the same from then until now. In the story of the Nordic clinker-built boat, Viking ships have been an important reference point, and a technological high point in developments which have shown few changes right up to modern times, a continuous 1000 year tradition. However, it is important to underline that there were many different boat types and there are long periods without any archaeological finds. Consequently, the question of continuous development is still not settled.

In a Nordic historical context, Sámi, Kven and Norwegian boatbuilding craft in Northern Norway has developed in close contact with Finnish, Northern Swedish and Russian traditions. Likewise, boatbuilding traditions in Southern Scandinavia have also developed across the current national boundaries, through contact with the countries round the Skagerrak, Kattegat, Baltic and North Sea.

Traditional boatbuilders are nowadays heavily aware of the historic dimensions of their craftsmanship. The goal is to maintain craft traditions while consciously building for modern-day users. The point is to define the qualities to be built into the boats in order to achieve the desired properties when the boat is taken into use.

Apart from the cutting of planks on electric planes, the tools and construction are based on the same tradition as 100-150 years ago, even though modern boats are mainly built for leisure use and not for fishing and everyday activities.

Plan for preservation

With some exceptions, boatbuilders today are finding that the market is too small for maintaining continuity and reasonable levels of remuneration. This often limits how often and for how long apprentices can be trained on clinker-built boatbuilding.

Persons wishing to learn wooden boatbuilding have the institutional choice of upper secondary school, first taking VG1 Design and Craftsmanship and then VG2 Wooden Boatbuilding. Following VG2 comes a one or two year apprenticeship (VG3). Several boatbuilder and boatyards accept apprentices. However, only the private Plus School in Fredrikstad offers training in wooden boatbuilding at VG2 level.

Several new areas are under development in which boatbuilding skills are important and relevant. In the first place comes tourism and outdoor leisure generally, with the work of reconstruction, public education at museums and the recording and administration of the intangible cultural heritage.

The Norwegian Coastal Federation has established a network of traditional boatbuilders who cooperate closely to preserve the knowledge of the construction and use of traditional boats. This work has resulted in several initiatives, of which may be named:
- Cooperation with the coastal clubs of the the Norwegian Coastal Federation in the use of traditional boats for outdoor leisure.
- Cooperation with UiT - Arctic University of Norway, for establishing degrees at Master’s and Ph.D level in the construction, use and development of traditional boats. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences are also involved here.
- Establishment of modular-based courses together with adult education association Studieforbundet Kultur og Tradisjon for wooden boatbuilding at VG3 level.
- Cooperation with several museums in the use, exhibition and construction of traditional boats.

Since more and more women are interested in building clinker boats, there is a growing number of female boatbuilding students and apprentices. This tendency is further enhanced furthered by the explicit policy of NGOs, museums and other institutions engaged in clinker boat building to recruit more women among their staff.

Paid project positions at local museums for construction of new boats, restoration/maintenance of older boats, combined with public education can provide income for both boatbuilders and apprentices for part of the year.

Nordic cooperation in getting the Nordic clinker-built boatbuilding traditions inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In this connection, the Nordic cooperative partners have initiated a process aiming to draw up a Nordic safeguarding plan for traditional clinker-built boats. Education and training in traditional boatbuilding is part of this.

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