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Studies on Wood

Ship timber from the Baltic with a special emphasis on wood from Old Prussia and Poland

Maik-Jens Springmann
p. 269-276


De nombreuses analyses dendrochronologiques d’épaves européennes indiquent que le bois de Prusse était utilisé pour la construction navale loin de son lieu d’abattage. Cela suggère que l’exportation, vers l’Europe occidentale, de bois pour la construction navale était très importante, en particulier durant la période allant du xive au xviie siècle. Mais comment identifier ces produits ? Et comment déterminer la quantité ainsi que la qualité des bois exportés ? Ce court article, tout comme l’ensemble du projet Timber de l’Université de Copenhague au Danemark, dont il est issu, tente d’apporter des réponses à ces différentes questions.

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1In 1412, the so-called Tagfahrt, an annual meeting of the towns of the German Hanse, featured a particular problem on the agenda that had increasingly influenced sea trade and the general prosperity of the Hanse: a problem termed rokeloser buwynge der schepe – the worst way to build ships (Koppmann 1889, p. 88). Researchers of the past discuss this problem mainly from the technological point of view. They argue that shipbuilders were not sufficiently overseen because of the closed character of the shipbuilding guilds (Olechnowitz 1960, p. 9; Krause 2010, p. 127). However, if today we examine it more from a resource orientated viewpoint and consider the changing of the natural rural landscape to a more managed, urbanised landscape, especially around the “big” harbour towns and shipbuilding centres (Rackham 2006, p. 305), then it seems that this problem was also and might mainly have been a problem of material supply. Thus the more the size of ships increased from the beginning of the 15th century, the more material was needed, especially for the framing (Timmermann 1966, p. 288). This also means that, increasingly, larger trees were required for construction. Wider planks began to be used, when compared with the shipbuilding of the Viking Age. Here we might, for example, mention the width of up to 65 cm of the already tangentially-sawn planks of the Bremen ship from 1380 (Lahn 1992, p. 35; Belasus et al. in this volume). Another enormous step forward, also and especially from the resource oriented point of view, is visible in the 16th century. With the globalisation of shipping through the great discoveries and the establishment of war fleets in the newly consolidated states in Europe, a remarkable early industrialisation of shipbuilding occurred, particularly in the Baltic (Olechnowitz 1960; Glete 1993). This goes in parallel with the exchange of shipbuilding knowledge, both theoretical (Barker 2007) and practical. The need for material for these multi-masted, multi-deck ships and the speed of the transition to large vessels would have been unexpected. Take the reconstruction on the basis of the Ebersdorfer model from the beginning of the 15th century: the reconstruction team needed around 180 oak trees (Springmann, Schreier 2008). Even if Sombart’s (1913, p. 1140) account of 4000 oak trunks for a 174-foot 18th-century warships is a bit too high, it shows the enormous need for material to build such big ships. It also demonstrates to us the exponential development in the exploitation of natural resources. This attains a much higher relevance if we follow Paul Heinsius (1986, p. 141) and take into consideration that the raw forest material was four times greater than the net material in the finished ship.

2The challenges shipbuilders, timber traders and other timber related craftspeople faced during such times of transition were great. In the mid-17th century, Witsen (1972, p. 157–158) states that 85% of the whole cost of a ship was for material. In the 14th century, a ship was just a hull in which loads are transported safely. The responsibility for the way in which goods were stored so that they would not be destroyed, get wet or rot during a voyage did not lie with the shipbuilders (Jahnke, Grasmann 2003, p. 70; Springmann 2017b, p. 221). Different packaging and containers were used for most of the goods. In comparison with shipbuilders, coopers were already under strong quality control (Techen 1925, p. 67–128). More or less everything was transported in barrels or pipen. Medieval ships with open laid decks were mainly used for the so-called trade or cabotage (coastal trade), normally short single-day journeys. Therefore, the delegation of the quality control of ships into the hands of the shipbuilders was statistically not of great relevance and did not lead to big trading problems. Traders often required a general quality simply mentioned as a “datselve ghude schipp” (Stein 1899, p. 653). This changed rapidly in the 15th century due to the increase in the number of ships (Vogel 1915b, p. 268–334), longer journeys without any land contact, internationalisation of shipping and the repression of protectionism inside and outside the German Hanse as one of the influential trading societies in medieval Europe. Through line shipping, especially to the west with grain and returning with sea salt as bulk trade, merchants demanded ships with a watertight deck (Stein 1907, p. 665, Springmann 2014, p. 485–493).

3This led, in the mid-16th century, to much more detailed descriptions or contracts between the shipbuilder and the customer. Some of the contracts were even two to three pages long. They not only mentioned in quite considerable detail how big the ship should be built and therefore how much storage space the merchant could use after the ship was launched (Springmann 2015, 2017a, 2017b), we also find clauses which were clearly dedicated to the amount, shape and quality of ship timber. In the Dutch context these Bestecke, also called charters or in German Zerter, could be seen as a contract between trader and shipbuilder. In the Baltic they became increasingly a list of material and work pieces in the sense of a quotation to describe how much timber was needed, sometimes what it looked like and what it cost. This should not surprise us because a lot of shipbuilding material was delivered as semi-finished products, mostly planks, or Delen, from the Baltic to the timber markets in Western Europe, often to Amsterdam. It should also be noted that in the second half of the 16th century, traders from Western and Southern Europe, especially from the Zeeland, ask agents in the Baltic how much it costs to build a ship directly in Danzig, Königsberg, Memel or Riga (Heckmann 1993, p. 7; Springmann 2014, p. 1009–1016).

4The so-called Bestecke are not the only documents that refer to ship timber quality. We also see in early ship building treatises, from the 15th and 16th centuries, that apart from the technology in the construction process, the authors also reflect on the material itself, as well as forestry (Lavanha, Barker 1996, p. 140–146).

1. Quality of regions?

5Wendy van Duivenvoorde (2015, p. 16) refers to the high quality of planks coming from the Baltic and used in ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a quality which contrasts with what can be recognised in the timber of the Bremen vessel, dated to around 1380 and built with timber harvested in the hinterland of Bremen (Belasus et al. in this volume). Generally, I have not found any distinct indications of a categorisation of the quality of ship timbers. “Primo an alden koghen boerten 931 boerte. Item an alden wrag koghen boerten 541 boerte” (Link, Sarnowsky 2008, p. 56), from 24 March 1404, indicates that a general quality control including ship timber took place in Danzig by the Bracker (a controller and sorter) (Hirsch 1858, p. 116): this was also stipulated in the Danziger Willkür from 1455 (Simson 1904, p. 43).

6Conceivably, the quality management of ‘wainscot’, a highly prized product in the medieval timber trade and mostly produced in Prussia, influenced the quality management of all the timber that was marketed and transported to the West, and therefore it also influenced the quality of ship timber as well (Hirsch 1858, p. 253–256; Jenks 2012; Springmann 2018a, p. 273–274, 2018b). Therefore, we can see that apart from ordinary delen, so-called brack delen and gude delen left the harbour of Danzig, in 1409. Delen was used as a synonym for ship planks, but was also used for ordinary building timber (Sattler 1887, p. 15). It seems, however, that this general quality categor­isation did not influence the West European timber market that much.

  • 1  “A deck is laid of good and dry Danish planks which should not have any blue (fungal) disease” (tr (...)

7The quality of ship timber, especially in the Dutch shipbuilding context, was related mostly to the region where such timber came from (Porsius, de Munck 2002, p. 137–152). However, ‘region’ should not only be understood as a geographical marker, it could also mean a special place for harvesting wood, like a special geomorphological growth site. Therefore Witsen (1972, p. 179) states that the so-called Bergholz (strong wales), which strengthened the hull of the ship, come from wood harvested on sandy hills (in German Berg means mountain). Apart from the fact that we should reserve some doubts regarding the knowledge of the authors of such early treatises, especially Witsen (Hoving 2012), there is mention that special ship construction features needed special qualities, which were connected with special geographical regions. According to Witsen (1972 p. 179) “Koninkbergen [currently Kaliningrad] geeft ons de best Planken zoo green als Eichen”, and Hamburger Planken were used to lay decks. He also mentioned that crooked wood in the 15th and 16th century, which could not be found among goods traded from Prussia, came from Westphalia from Deventer, Bellijn (Berlin-Brandenburg?), Oldenburg and Wesel (Ketting 1981, p. 18). For the hull, the Dutch in the 17th century preferred Königsberg planks. Rechthouten (baulks) came from Riga (Zunde 1999, p. 122–123). For the superstructure (Verdeck), Dutch shipbuilders generally preferred Noortsche Deelen (ZA Middleburg, inv. n. 6213). A building contract from 1591 made it even more detailed: “Eene overlop gestreecken van goede wel drooghe Denemarckse delen daer van alle blau hut geweert”1. This wel drooghe – good dried wood (Springmann 2014, Appendix p. 1017) – gives us another criterion for quality, which said that a ship should not “med het bijl gemackt” (Olechnowitz 1960, p. 116), a paraphrase for green wood. For the overloep (the upper deck) of a caravel ship, in 1578, a Dutch shipbuilder preferred Prussche Deelen (ZA Middleburg, inv. n. 6213). Van Yk (1697, p. 39 and 42) mentions that quite a large amount of timber also came from Pomerania (mostly near Stettin), Livland and Kurland. Already in 1697, Pieter van Dam, a VOC lawyer, connects the quality of timber with a geographical region (Porsius 1996, p. 1). Despite the fact that the VOC sent two ships expressly to Danzig and Königsberg to get masts (van Duivenvoorde 2015, p. 216), Witsen (1972, p. 179) remarks that the best masts came from Norway and Russia. In the 16th century, Osterode (today Ostróda in Poland), especially the Taberbrücker Revier, was very well known for the production of masts, and Rahnen (round wood for yards) and Riemen (oars) also came from there (Mager 1960, vol. 2, p. 16).

8It should also be stated that, according to Witsen (1972, p. 179), no shipbuilder should take the trees harvested in the wetlands around Bremen (Helm 1955, p. 178). There is some recorded information as to how timber traders cheated customers. Sometimes they closed holes with a plug and put bran and clay over it: reputedly some of the worst timbers came from this region (van Yk 1697, p. 36).

9The question must therefore arise as to how shipbuilders could trust timber merchants when they could not go to the forests themselves, which was especially the case in the Netherlands but also in Prussia of the 15th century (Ziesemer 1911, p. 221). Some answers bring us back to wainscot again, which is often connected with shipbuilding, but for the hull of special ships, like yachts (ZA Middleburg, inv. n. 6285), or for very specific uses, like superstructure and planking (ZA Middleburg, inv. n. 6213, Statens Riksarkivet Stockholm, Skeppsgårdhandlingar SE/RA/51308; Ellmers 2006, p. 71). We can assume that in the 16th century, timber traders had some doubt about quality management in Prussia and especially in Danzig. This was perhaps the reason why the Hanseatic trader, Jakob Stöver, sent an extra list with Lithuanian forestry marks to his trading partners (Schulte 1937, p. 40–72) (fig. 1 left, center). This kind of mark could also sometimes be found on ship timbers all over Europe (for a summary of such marks, see Springmann 2014, p. 526–530) (fig. 1 right).

Fig. 1: Left: Lithuanian forestry marks on a letter from the Hanseatic trader Jakob Stöver sent to his trading partners (after Schulte 1937, p. 46); center: The only trading mark found on the 96 wainscots from the Copper Ship, which sank at the beginning of the 15th century; right: A mark on a frame of the Swedish flagship Elefanten, built in 1554 in Stockholm

Fig. 1: Left: Lithuanian forestry marks on a letter from the Hanseatic trader Jakob Stöver sent to his trading partners (after Schulte 1937, p. 46); center: The only trading mark found on the 96 wainscots from the Copper Ship, which sank at the beginning of the 15th century; right: A mark on a frame of the Swedish flagship Elefanten, built in 1554 in Stockholm

(photographs M. Springmann)

10Let us re-examine the period where Witsen and van Yk mention their “regions of quality”. The place where the timber was traded on the wood market and where it was loaded aboard ships was already no longer the region where the timber was harvested. Especially in such far away regions as Königsberg, it seems that Königsberger Planken no longer came from Königsberg but from further away from the coast. Timber was sometimes floated or shipped from the Lithuanian hinterland via the Memel River downstream to the Curonian Lagoon to Labiau (Polessk): and from there by the Deime and the Pregel to Königsberg, through the Vistula Lagoon and the Nogat, timber could reach the Delenmarkt, the so-called Klapperholzwiese and the Mastfeld (City Archive of Gdan´sk, DAPG 300, No. 16‑21, 23‑25), parts of the Danzig timber market (Kapfenberger 2003, p. 21, fig. 6). In general, from the 16th century onwards, more timber was harvested in the Polish hinterlands (Masowia and Podlasia) some hundreds of kilometres away from the harbour towns. Sometimes the regions changed because of wars and political circumstances, as was the case during the Swedish-Polish war at the beginning of the 17th century, during which Swedish traders dealt more with agents in Livland, especially in Riga (Wendt 1950 p. 56).

2. Forestry and forest technology

11In some of the forest regions not only is management of the raw material quality verifiable, but also quality management in the sense of early forestry had started by looking after young trees, because tree quality of a 150-year-old tree trunk is and was a project across generations (Epperlein 1993, p. 27). Even then nobody could guarantee that the tree trunk would not become hollow from the inside.

12In forests near harbour towns, a procedure involving the drilling of a hole from outside was developed, for which a special allowance was given (Grautoff 1881, p. 256). This was important because felling a tree was a risky job, which began by pruning the treetop: otherwise the tree could easily splinter and destroy other trees as it fell (fig. 2). This should not happen in vain. We do not know yet where these regulations and procedures were first developed, but it seems that such early forestry was not seen in the Prussian wilderness, far away from the shipbuilding and urban entrepôts.

Fig. 2: The cutting of trees from the Chroniques de Hainault by Jean de Guise, showing that forestry technology in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries differs only very little from those of the 18th century

Fig. 2: The cutting of trees from the Chroniques de Hainault by Jean de Guise, showing that forestry technology in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries differs only very little from those of the 18th century

(Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique)

13D. Ellmers (2018a, p. 320) has mentioned the so-called Kahneiche (boat trees) and Mastbaum (mast trees), already specially controlled for shipbuilding purposes in the high medieval period in Central Europe. But it seems that the requirements of quality developed in tandem with the availability of timber, and especially for shipbuilding purposes, particularly if one thinks of the material needs of organisations like the VOC, the East India Company (EIC) and the Royal Navy (Albion 1952, p. 4–22). Further consideration is needed, however, if we are to take Richard Unger’s statement about the economically determined change from shell to skeleton cons­truction in Mediterranean shipbuilding in the 6th century (Unger 1980, p. 42) as the background to assert that the Dutch practised the shell-based tradition for longer, into the 17th century, because this saved timber. The shortage of timber arose everywhere in Europe. Therefore wood, even ship masts, was shipped from the Baltic to Portugal and Spain (Simson 1913, nr. 3355, 3397, 1590; Glete 2010, p. 369). The shortage also reached the wild Prussian hinterland in the middle of the 17th century. By then it is stated that planks were already being made from the upper parts of trees, using the whole tree and not only the trunk (GSTA Berlin, Tit. V. Nr, fol. 18/19, 58/59, 145, 148 and 150/151).

3. Quantity and the invention of sawmills

14There is no doubt that the desired quantity of planks for the West European market could not have been produced through the laborious splitting of oak. Following A. Bugge (1928, p. 354), the implementation of sawing techniques was a “revolution” in the timber trade. R.W. Unger (1980, p. 143) summarised it as follows: “It took less time to saw a log than to split it and the saw was more accurate than the axe and adze. The greater precision compensated in part for the loss in strength of the wood. The final consideration was the sharp decrease in waste when the saw was used. Much less wood had to be thrown away”. This also strengthens the argument that questions of resource availability promoted the implementation of the saw. Saws, incidentally, had already been developed in Roman times and were used in Mediterranean shipbuilding from 600 onwards (Unger 1980, p. 142). Following Old Prussian sources from the 14th and 15th centuries, ship and boatbuilders commissioned by the Teutonic Order used handsaws to build several vessels (Ziesemer 1911, p. 190). Indeed, D. Ellmers (2006, p. 68) even suggests that the planks of the Bremen ship, from 1380, were hand-sawn. I would argue that the large amount of Prussian planks and Delen used in the West could not only be hand-sawn, which implies the early erection of water-powered sawmills in the Baltic and especially in Prussia. Bugge (1928, p. 353) mentions that already in 1206 the first watermill was erected in Skaalavik between Kvarven and Bergen, which is contrary to the theories of other specialist in that field (Jänichen 1966‑1967; Jüttemann 1982; Gaebeler 2006, p. 1–4). Around 1300, the horizontal, so-called Kvaernkall was replaced by a vertical wheelstick saw in Scandinavia, which brought further increase in production (Finsterbusch, Thiele 1987). It is not astonishing that Prussia especially played a great role in the establishment of sawmills, and it is no wonder either that the first water-powered sawmill in Prussia was already installed in Danzig in 1338 (Ludwig, Schmidtchen 1992, p. 96) with others following soon thereafter (Laczny, Sarnowsky, p. 142–149, n. 1281, 1831, 1868, 1943).

15We have also noticed that, even in the 17th century, large trunks reached the shipbuilding locations (Rålamb 1691, appendix V) and were hand sawn at the yard with the frame saw already in the 16th century (Springmann 2015, p. 124). For technical reasons, the first products of these sawmills were blocks (big baulks) (Hirsch 1858, p. 253–256) from which planks were sawn at the shipbuilding sites and elsewhere (fig. 3), but, of course, also for other construction purposes. Blocks were certainly the important product to leave the mills, but looking at the quantities in the pound toll book for the years 1409 and 1411, there is no doubt that the export goods were pre-sawn Delen, not blocks (Senks 2012). Sawing a plank out of a large block or an old trunk was not an easy thing, as an examination of the Bremen ship from 1380 suggests (Lahn 1992, p. 34). People often complained about too thick and too small planks even in the 16th century where the sawing technique had already been implemented in Europe for a long time (Springmann 2015, p. 150).

Fig. 3: Left: one blade saw mill1516 Basel (Gaebeler 2006, p. 16). Right: Planks sawn out of blocks at one of the shipyards in Rotterdam in the 18th century

Fig. 3: Left: one blade saw mill1516 Basel (Gaebeler 2006, p. 16). Right: Planks sawn out of blocks at one of the shipyards in Rotterdam in the 18th century

(after Porsius 1941, p. 56)

4. Shipbuilding and a change of landscape

16This huge demand for timber in Europe led to a profound change in the landscape and the water table of some regions (Küster 1998). Certainly the demands of shipbuilding played a big role in this change process from wild to canopy forests, especially around harbour towns. It is not surprising that the aldermen of Stettin’s merchants complained, in 1556, that all forests were being devastated through shipbuilding, and they asked the town council of Stettin to prohibit shipbuilding for foreigners (Zur Geschichte 1909, p. 21). But this craft – still carried out on a pre-industrial level in the 17th century – was not the only one to have an impact on the landscape. All the cons­truction in which wood was used, along with more effective technologies in forest exploitation especially around big towns on the coast, led to forest decline. An evaluation, from 24 January 1722, remarks that 276 oak trees are needed to build one ordinary farmhouse (Pfeil 2003, p. 16). It also seems that the original forest changed from a primary forest to a park-like forest, and these were used in several ways by the rural population in competition with shipbuilding needs (Schwappach 1892 p. 47–49; Klemm 1954, p. 56). These ‘park trees’ looked different from those growing in the wild and it was certainly a major problem to saw good planks out of such trunks with branches often growing from very near the foot of a tree (see Belasus et al. in this volume; Hilfs, Rörig 2003).

17The people dealing with the forest were not blind to the worst developments and tried to fight against the devastation of the landscape. This would not be noticed to any great extent in the Prussian wilderness where the local dukes, even in the mid 17th century, saw an endless supply of wood (GSTA Berlin, Tit. V. Nr, fol. 18/19). But it should be noted that farsighted Hanseatic councillors, for example, in Rostock (Mecklenburgisches Urkundenbuch 1865, 25. März 1252, Nr. 686, p. 14–15) and Lübeck (Unger, 1953‑1954, p. 439, Klöcking 1941, p. 1–16) tried to save the forests near the Hanseatic towns especially for shipbuilding purposes. Early treatises on forestry and related laws do not refer to replanting and sustainable forest management, nor do early treatises on shipbuilding deal with such matters. Sometimes even shipbuilding technology had a great impact on forest technology, as H.F. Becker’s prize essay (Becker 1804) and R.A. Barker’s latest paper concerning the shaping of branches to produce crooked wood recently pointed out (fig. 4) (Barker 2019, p. 205–231).

Fig. 4: Bending young trees to make crooked wood

Fig. 4: Bending young trees to make crooked wood

(after Becker 1804, Appendix)

5. Conclusion

18This short paper could not cover all the details that can be gathered on the history of ship timber supply. Transport and quantity are certainly aspects that could not be considered here. We have attempted to show that the picture which exists of the shipbuilder going into the forest with his templates looking for the right material (Bruns 2008, p. 165) should be not generalised. Apart from the fact that shipbuilding technology and forest technology influenced each other, a clear regional differentiation can be detected. Shortage in some regions was the reason why ship timbers were often harvested some great distance from where they were used to build ships.


I would like to thank: Richard Barker for his great help and discussion of the text; Werner Ulrich who provided me with the source material from the Zeeuws Archiv Middleburg; the peer reviewer for picking up any mistakes in the text; and especially Giulia Boetto who has done such a great job in editing the article. This paper was written as part of a project entitled “Northern Europe’s timber resource – chronology, origin and exploitation (TIMBER)”, led by Aoife Daly at the University of Copenhagen. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 677152).

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City Archive of Gdan´sk, DAPG 300, No. 16‑21, 23‑25.

Statens Riksarkivet Stockholm, Skeppsgårdhandlingar SE/RA/51308.

GSTA Berlin: Geheimes Staatsarchiv Berlin, Gen. Forstdep. Ostpr. Tit. V. Nr, fol. 18/19, 58/59, 145, 148 and 150/151.

ZA Middleburg: ZA Middleburg, Zeeuws Archiv Middleburg, Rekenkammer C, Toegang 508, inv. n. 6213, n. 6285.


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1  “A deck is laid of good and dry Danish planks which should not have any blue (fungal) disease” (translation by the author).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Left: Lithuanian forestry marks on a letter from the Hanseatic trader Jakob Stöver sent to his trading partners (after Schulte 1937, p. 46); center: The only trading mark found on the 96 wainscots from the Copper Ship, which sank at the beginning of the 15th century; right: A mark on a frame of the Swedish flagship Elefanten, built in 1554 in Stockholm
Crédits (photographs M. Springmann)
Fichier image/jpeg, 420k
Titre Fig. 2: The cutting of trees from the Chroniques de Hainault by Jean de Guise, showing that forestry technology in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries differs only very little from those of the 18th century
Crédits (Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique)
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Titre Fig. 3: Left: one blade saw mill1516 Basel (Gaebeler 2006, p. 16). Right: Planks sawn out of blocks at one of the shipyards in Rotterdam in the 18th century
Crédits (after Porsius 1941, p. 56)
Fichier image/jpeg, 145k
Titre Fig. 4: Bending young trees to make crooked wood
Crédits (after Becker 1804, Appendix)
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
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Maik-Jens Springmann, « Ship timber from the Baltic with a special emphasis on wood from Old Prussia and Poland »Archaeonautica, 21 | 2021, 269-276.

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Maik-Jens Springmann, « Ship timber from the Baltic with a special emphasis on wood from Old Prussia and Poland »Archaeonautica [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Maik-Jens Springmann

Technical State Museum Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

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