How Were Viking Longships Made? - An Easy Guide
Updated: Aug 27
The Viking longship was, without doubt, an utterly awesome vessel. In their Longships, Vikings sailed to all sorts of far off places; like Greenland, Constantinople and even as far as America. These were some mighty tough and durable ships then, each one capable of braving treacherous seas, facing terrifying storms and overcoming deadly currents. How did Viking ship builders construct such an impressive vessel? Glad you asked, because here are the answers.
Viking longships were made of wood. Pretty obvious I guess, just in case anyone out here thought they were forged from chocolate or something equally silly. Although, thinking on it, a chocolate longship would be amazing. The preferred tree used in longship construction was oak. Unfortunately for archaeologists, the very fact that longships were made of oak is what makes them so rare a discovery – most longships have sadly rotted away over the last thousand years or so.
Clinker Method and Waterproofing
Longships were built with the ‘clinker method’. It’s a fancy sounding method but is actually pretty straightforward. The oak planks were ‘folded’ over each other and then nailed into place. Now, if the ship builder left the hull like that, the ship would sink faster than a donkey using a brick as a dingy. This is because the hull wasn’t yet waterproof.
To achieve this, the shipbuilder placed wool and clumps of assorted animal hair between the planks and covered the whole lot in a thick sticky tar. This would ensure that no water would seep through the cracks.
Amazingly, the entire longship could be constructed with no other tool than an axe, those Vikings were ingenious alright.
The keel is the bottom bit of the longship that the hull is attached too. It was built from trees specifically grown to have a ‘V’ like shape. This made it much more straightforward to affix the planks of the hull.
Longships were Symmetrical
The two halves of a longship were virtually identical, like a mirror image of one another. This was important as it meant the ship could sail in either direction. No faffing around having to do a fifteen point turn in shallow waters, the Vikings could quickly board their vessel and escape. Vital if there was an army of angry Anglo-Saxons chasing them!
Sails and Mast
The sail was a hugely important part of the longship, without it, Vikings would have had to row everywhere! And getting from Scandinavia to Greenland using only arm power would have required those sore arms being doused in Deep Heat gel. And as Vikings didn’t have any Deep Heat that wasn’t really an option. Thank goodness they had invented sails then, ay?
Sails were square and were likely made from wool. Leather strips were used to help the sail keeps its shape when wet. Without those leather strips, the woollen sail would soon droop and sag, turning it into essentially a massive water-filled sponge.
The mast itself could be up to 16 metres long. When not in use the mast could be dropped to the deck. This would allow the longship to navigate teeny tiny rivers with low hanging trees using oar power alone and sneak up on an Anglo-Saxon cathedral unnoticed.
Oars and Rudder
Oars were positioned along both sides of a longship, this made the vessel very nippy and agile. Rather cleverly, each oar was a different length, dependant on which part of the ship they would be used. Longer oars were used at either stern whilst shorter oars were placed in the middle.
The rudder was a large rounded wooden block, like a massive thick oar, mounted on the stern of the ship. A clever rope pulley system enabled the rudder to be turned from inside of the longship, enabling the Viking navigator to be able to steer left and right – or port and starboard if you like your nautical terms - from the comfort of their bench.
Just like with the mast, the rudder could be removed and pulled up onto the deck; this was vital for navigating shallow waters.
The Dragon Head was a terrifying creature carved by an expert craftsman and made from wood. The figure was usually – but not always – a snake or dragon, and was mounted on the prow of the longship. They were placed there to scare off evil spirits that might spoil the Vikings nautical adventure.
Plus, they were great for scaring any humans the Vikings met too.
Not every Viking longship was lucky enough to have a dragon head however, these terrifying bulging eyed bad boys were reserved for longships belonging to Viking kings or lords.