Copper sheathing was the practice of protecting the under-water hull of a ship or boat through the use of copper plates affixed to the outside of the hull. It was pioneered and developed by the Royal Navy during the 18th century.
Deterioration of the hull of a wooden ship was a significant problem during the Age of Sail. Several methods were developed for protecting it from attack by shipworm and the various marine weeds - all of which had some adverse effect on the ship, be it structurally, in the case of the worm, or speed and handling in the case of the weeds. The most common methods of dealing with these problems were through the use of wood sheathing, occasionally lead. Wood sheathing effectively provided a non-structural skin to the hull for the worm to attack, and could be easily replaced in dry dock at regular intervals. It did nothing to reduce the weed growths, however. Lead sheathing, whilst more effective than wood in its stated purpose, reacted badly with the iron bolts of the ships causing sometimes severe damage.
Even older than the sheathing methods were the various graving and paying techniques. There were three main substances used: White stuff, which was a mixture of train oil, rosin and brimstone; Black stuff, a mixture of tar and pitch; and Brown stuff, which was simply brimstone added to Black stuff. It was common practise to first apply wood sheathing and then pay it with white stuff, although black stuff was occasionally used in this way.
The use of copper sheathing was first suggested in 1708 by Charles Perry, though it was rejected by the Navy Board on grounds of high cost and perceived maintenance difficulties. The first experiments with copper sheathing were made in the late 1750s, at which time the bottoms and sides of several ships' keels and false keels were sheathed with copper plates.
In 1761 the experiment was expanded, and the 32-gun frigate HMS Alarm was ordered to have her entire bottom coppered, in response to the terrible condition in which she returned from service in the West Indies. They chose to use this ship because in 1761, a letter was sent regarding the ship’s condition, saying that the worms from the waters had taken a significant toll on the ship’s wooden hull. Before the copper plates were applied, the hull was first covered with Soft stuff, which was simply hair, yarn and brown paper. The copper performed very well in protecting the hull from invasion by worm, and in preventing the growth of weed, for when in contact with water, the copper produced a poisonous film, composed mainly of oxychloride, that deterred these marine creatures. Furthermore, as this film was slightly soluble it gradually washed away, leaving no way in which marine life could attach itself to the ship. However, it was soon discovered by the Admiralty that the copper bolts used to hold the plates to the hull had reacted with the iron bolts used in the construction of the ship, rendering many of them near useless. In 1766, due to the poor condition of the iron bolts, Alarm's copper was ordered to be removed, and was not replaced.
After this experiment, and deterred by the unanticipated (and not understood) electrolytic reaction between the copper and iron, Lead sheathing was tried again, though it was found to be unsuitable to the task, as the plates tended to fall from the hull alarmingly quickly. In 1768, a ship named the Dolphin was sheathed in the same way and sailed for a few years around the world. It came back with corrosion on the iron components of the hull and they were basically irreparable and had to be replaced. In 1769, another attempt was made at coppering a ship's hull, this time on a new ship that had been constructed using bolts made from a copper alloy.The results were far more favourable this time around, but the onset and intensification of the war with America prevented the re-bolting of the Royal Navy's ships, necessary to allow a full scale coppering programme.
Sir Humphry Davy's Experiments with Copper Sheathing
In the late 18th to early 19th century, Sir Humphry Davy performed many experiments where he had various thickness of copper submerged on the shore and then measured how much the sea water had degraded each one. Sheets of different metals remained in the seawater for four months and then were examined. There were also two harbour ships that were used in this test, one with a zinc band and the other with an iron one. Each with zinc and iron became covered in a carbonate which in turn allowed weeds, plant life and insects to attach themselves to the metal. The sheets that had cast iron or zinc were free of any attached life forms or discoloration. The main reason why these experiments were performed was in order to determine how to lessen the corrosion that the sea water caused on unprotected copper sheathing. Unprotected copper, such as that which was not covered in another metal like iron, would quickly go from a reddish color to a greenish color of corrosion. When the other metal was mixed in copper in ratios from 1/40 to 1/150, there was no visible sign of corrosion and very minimal weight loss. When the ratio was changed to 1/200 and 1/400, there was significant corrosion and weight loss. Sir Humphry Davy concluded that cast iron, which was the cheapest to manufacture, was the best for protection of the copper since malleable iron and zinc wore down faster.
With the American war in full swing, the Royal Navy set about coppering the bottoms of the entire fleet. This would not have been possible but for the declarations of war from France (1778), Spain (1779) and the Netherlands (1780). Britain was now expected to face her three greatest rivals, and coppering allowed the navy to keep at sea for much longer periods of time without the need for cleaning and repairs to the underwater hull, making it a very attractive, if expensive, proposition.
Fortunately, the Parys Mountain copper mine on Anglesey, Wales had recently begun large scale production that had glutted the British market with cheap copper, yet coppering a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line still cost £1500 (compared to just £262 for wood) as 14 tons of metal were required. The benefits of increased speed and time at sea were deemed by the Admiralty to outweigh the costs involved and in May 1779 all ships up to and including 32-guns were ordered to be coppered when next they entered dry dock. In July this order was expanded to include ships of 44 guns and fewer.
It was decided that the entire fleet should be coppered, due to the difficulties in maintaining a mixed fleet of coppered and non-coppered ships. 82 ships of the line had been coppered by 1781, along with 14 50-gun ships, 115 frigates, and 182 unrated vessels. By the time the war ended in 1783 problems with the hull bolts were once more becoming apparent.
Finally a suitable alloy for the hull bolts was found, that of copper and zinc. At great cost, the Admiralty decided in 1786 to go ahead with the re-bolting of every ship in the navy, thus finally eliminating the bolt corrosion problem. This process lasted several years, after which no significant changes to the coppering system were required, and copper plating remained the standard method of protecting a ship's underwater hull until the advent of modern anti-fouling paint.
- Lavery, Brian (1987). The arming and fitting of English ships of war 1600-1815. London: Conway Maritime. ISBN 0-85177-451-2.
- Harris, J. R. (1966). "Copper and shipping in the eighteenth century" (PDF). The Economic History Review 19 (3): 550–68. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0289.1966.tb00988.x. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/119915591/PDFSTART.
- Davy, Humphry (1824). "Additional Experiments and Observations on the Application of Electrical Combinations to the Preservation of the Copper Sheathing of Ships, and to Other Purposes" (PDF). Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 114: 242–6. doi:10.1098/rstl.1824.0015. http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/114/242.full.pdf+html.
- Roger, Nicholas (2004). The Commend of the Ocean. Allen Lane. p. 375. ISBN 0713994118.
- National Pollutant Inventory - Copper and compounds fact sheet
- Lead sheathing, 1695
- Coppering, Hedderwick, 1830
- On copper, 1852
- Sheathing, 1867
- Preservation of the bottom of iron ships, 1874
- Prices for anti-fouling compounds, 1874