CRANE, Ind. (NNS) -- Representatives from the Boston Navy Yard assessed specially designated trees at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane April 17 and 18 in preparation for the next planned dry-docking repair of USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat.
Foreman Dwight Demilt, ship restorer and Robert Murphy production manager, Naval History and Heritage Command's Boston Detachment hiked to see several dozen white oak trees dispersed around the heavily forested 63,000-acre base in southern Indiana to determine which might be suitable for repairing the unique warship.
"I'm very satisfied with the trees I've seen here," said Demilt, a former Navy machinery repairman who also supported Constitution's last dry-docking repair availability from 1991 to 1995 at the 211-year old former Navy shipyard, now part of Boston National Historical Park, which maintains Constitution.
"We're eager to support you," said Cmdr. James Stewart, commanding officer of NSA Crane, to the visiting ship restorers. "The ship is such a big deal, such an important part of the Navy's heritage, and Crane is very proud to have this tie to Constitution and the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812."
Although the actual dry-docking and repair is planned for 2014 through 2018, now was the time to begin the long process of identifying suitable trees, harvesting, milling, shaping and finally installing them to match Old Ironsides' original white oak.
Trent Osmon, forestry program manager for Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Midwest's Public Works Department (PWD) Crane environmental division, believes the timing will be critical.
"We have a limited window each year to harvest timber here because Crane's forest is also a home for the endangered Indiana Bat," said Osmon, who manages the base's 53,000 acres of forest. "In order to have the 70 or so trees cut and ready for repair work, we need to set things in motion now."
Crane's forest, the largest contiguous forest under single ownership in Indiana, currently includes nearly 150 GPS-located mature white oaks set aside for future use by Constitution.
Crane's white oak trees will be used to replace deteriorated hull planking and supporting structures called "knees" on Old Ironsides, said Murphy and Demilt, restoring the ship's hull with the same kind of wood used to build the ship in 1797.
Constitution earned the nickname "Old Ironsides" while engaging British ships during the War of 1812. British sailors observed cannon balls bouncing off Constitution's hull and exclaimed her sides must have been made of iron.
Demilt explained that Constitution's resilience comes from a revolutionary design by ship builder Joshua Humphreys, called "frame and space."
"The ship's hull was never penetrated by cannon fire because it has an outer layer of white oak hull planking up to seven inches thick, on top of 12 inches of live oak frames, followed by an inner layer of white oak planking up to five inches thick," said Demilt. "And unlike the walls of a house, there are only two inches between pairs of live oak frame. That means there are essentially 24 inches of extremely strong wood along the entire length of the hull."
For the upcoming repairs, most hull planks will be 30 to 40 feet long and six inches thick, and must have no defects, making them not only unique to handle, but very difficult to find, according to Murphy.
"There's no market for sawn logs this long, except for maintaining the handful of wooden tall ships in the world," said Murphy.
"It's really something to bring in craftsmen to work on something like this," said Demilt. "For the four years of this repair availability, we'll hopefully add 20 wood workers and ship builders to our normal 25-person workforce. But most will have never even seen a 40-foot plank, much less worked with one. There will be some on-the-job learning to do something like this."
Demilt explained that even after more than 200 years, around 12 percent of Constitution's wood is original.
"The keel, the bottom frames, and probably the bottom 13 planks of the hull have never had to be replaced," he said.
According to Osmon's research, white oak trees at Crane were first approved to be set aside in November 1973, following work on Constitution with lumber purchased from the private sector, which proved to be very expensive, as white oak of that size is very valuable.
"White oak is one of the more sought-after timber species for its attractive grain and color, and is mainly used nowadays for veneers," said PWD Crane forester Rhett Steele.
A grove of trees at Crane was officially named "Constitution Grove" May 8, 1976, during the United States' bicentennial. This small ceremonial area of trees includes a few white oaks and provides visitors a representation of the base's widely dispersed inventory of the species.
Osmon said that Crane and NAVFAC have continued to support the ship over the years, including for its bicentennial.
"In preparation for the ship's 200th birthday in 1997, the ship was brought into dry dock for repairs in 1991," said Osmon. "When they brought her up, she was in need of more work than originally thought, so Crane was contacted to see if any timber could be provided. The trees set aside in the Constitution oak groves, originally intended for use in 2013 at the earliest, had not yet reached their full potential, so then-forester Terry Hobson located all the suitable white oak trees scattered throughout the base and chose the very best to send. The first trees were sent to Boston in December of 1991, and by November of 1994, 78 had been sent."
Osmon was pleased with how the visit went.
"I was a little nervous leading up to this visit," said Osmon. "I was hoping these trees, which we're very proud of, would meet Constitution's requirements. But now I feel great knowing we'll be supporting something that's so important to the Navy and, in a larger sense, the country. Coming during the bicentennial of the War of 1812 makes this even more special."
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