The craft of boatbuilding lies at the heart of all the activity carried out at the Viking Ship Museum. Since the 1980’s, the Museum has had an active boatyard, where numerous reconstructions of archaeological ship finds have been built, along with many other traditional Nordic clinker- built boat types. The Museum now has a collection of over 35 craft, ranging from reconstructions of the five Skuldelev Ships to traditional Færoese fishing boats and other Scandinavian working craft. Every year, the boatbuilders maintain this collection, ensuring that the Museum’s sailing service fleet is in order and that the many boats and ships sailed by the volunteer boat guilds are also ship-shape.
While many great advances have been made in maritime technology since the boats and ships of the Viking Age, there is nonetheless, a thread that connects the traditional wooden boats built around the coasts of Denmark in the 19th and 20th centuries with the vessels built by their ancestors 1,000 years ago. Denmark is, and always has been, a maritime nation and boatbuilding has ever been an essential industry in this country of islands and coastlines. The boatbuilders working at the Museum boatyard today carry this seafaring legacy forward: their work in building boats preserves this traditional craft and makes it possible for visitors to the Museum to both witness boatbuilding first-hand and experience what it’s like to sail a square-rigged, open boat.
The many different building projects carried out at the boatyard vary greatly in their nature. The boatbuilders have undertaken everything from the reconstruction of a 30m long Viking Age warship to expanded log boats and traditional fishing craft. Each project represents a multi-disciplinary effort: the boatbuilders don’t work in isolation but instead collaborate with ship reconstructors, maritime archaeologists and other experts, and each construction project is thoroughly documented and recorded, with a view to publication and further research.
The boatbuilding team at the Museum includes some of Denmark’s most experienced traditional clinker-built wooden boat builders. The boatbuilding environment at the Museum is also something quite unique. It is one of the few remaining boatyards that still builds exclusively in wood. Over the years, this has allowed the team to hone their skills and perfect their craft. Their collective experience and understanding of the techniques, materials and tool-use required when building wooden boats, combined with the multi-disciplinary dimension involved in reconstructing archaeological ship finds has given rise to a craftworking environment where boatbuilding is set firmly in focus, and the knowledge accrued over the years is brought to bear on each new project.
The boatyard is also quite unusual in that it is open to the public, all year round. The boatbuilders work in full view of the Museum’s guests and a large part of their work involves answering questions from curious visitors. This dialogue is a key element of the boatyard’s goal in ensuring the survival of their craft in the years to come. In order for any craft tradition to endure, it must be a living one, and being able to watch over the boatbuilders’ shoulders as they cleave timber, drill holes and coat hulls with tar provides a direct, sensory learning experience which leaves a lasting impression on many of the boatyard’s visitors.