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Hammer and tongs

7 April 2008 by stepheng

photo of black metal rivets and base metal

Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

I’m always fascinated by the ‘what ifs?’ of history and the sinking of the Titanic might never have happened if the rivets had been different.

Riveters played a vital role in shipbuilding when Britain’s shipyards boomed as the Empire expanded and the Royal Navy dominated the seas. Riveting was the only method of fastening together the plates and frames of early iron and steel ships. It was a very laborious process and accounted for much of the banging and clattering associated with traditional shipbuilding.

About three million rivets were used to hold Titanic together. Rivets recovered from the wreck were apparently made of poor quality iron. One theory about the sinking claims that the impact with the iceberg caused the heads of the rivets to break off and sections of Titanic to break up. Better quality rivets, it is argued, may have prevented the ship sinking.

The most effective way of making rivet holes was with an hydraulic punch. By the 1870s such machines were capable of punching up to 30 holes a minute in half-inch thick plates. When riveting was done by hand, large shipyards such as Cammell Laird’s employed more than 100 riveting squads, each with five men. They were:

• The heater, usually the youngest of the team, who softened the rivets in a portable forge before picking them up with long-handled tongs and throwing them to …
• The catcher who caught the rivets in a tin then, with short-handled tongs, placed the rivets in the holes where they were held by …
• The holder up whose 14 lb hammer kept the rivets in place while they were hammered by …
• The riveters who worked in pairs with hammers weighing between  three and five lbs to round over the ends of the rivets, thus fastening the plates together.

On display at Merseyside Maritime Museum is a riveting hearth and examples of plates riveted together.

The death-knell for riveting was sounded in 1920 when Cammell Laird launched the Fullagar, the world’s first all-welded steel ship. Welding was perhaps the greatest development in shipbuilding in the 20th century. The time-consuming and labour-intensive process of riveting was replaced by the stronger and more efficient method of welding steel plates. There was no need for overlapping plates or connecting flanges so less steel was used.

The speed of construction was greatly increased and automatic welding machines could be used. Today large sections of hull and superstructure can be built under cover so that final assembly is simplified.

Merseyside Maritime Museum is open seven days a week, admission free. A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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