The R.M.S. Empress of Ireland Community

The carpenters employed at the Fairfield Shipbuilding yards and who worked on vessels like the Empress of Ireland were consummate craftsmen who excelled at their trade. Over twenty different types of wood were received at the company's yards in the rawest possible form, usually as giant timbers from around the world. Circular ripping saws and horizontal cutting machines were used to reduce the timber into board lumber, veneer and paneling.

The interior of the Empress of Ireland was a treasure trove of decorative wood and woodworking techniques. For example, over 46,700 sq. ft. of mahogany was installed into the ship, and the Empress was by no means the most luxurious vessel afloat. In keeping with its traditions of quality and excellence, the Scottish shipbuilder spared no expense, accepted no compromises. Solid wood was always used as the first rule, whenever possible. Veneers were used when solid wood wasn't practical and were held by adhesives. In addition to mahogany, other woods were also used in the paneling in the passenger spaces, woods such as satinwood, alder wood and bird's-eye maple. Large scale, hand-carved moldings of mahogany, oak and yellow pine framed the panels, creating an impression of strength as well as opulence.

Many woods were incorporated into the cabinetry including oak, walnut and birch most prevalent  Other cabinet woods that the company used were California redwood, canary, teak, tulip-wood  pitch pine, ash, satinwood, white pine and yellow pine. Unlike many other shipyards, Fairfield even manufactured its chairs and tables.

The Empress of Ireland had eight decks. Starting from the bottom to the top deck the first two lower decks, Orlop and Lower Deck had steel decks. Main Deck had white pitch pine planks which were five inches wide and three inches thick. Upper Deck was also covered in planking of white pitch pine, but not throughout. Teak began to appear in the alleyways and the open passages; not surprisingly, successively higher decks had richer appointments. Shelter, Lower Promenade, Upper Promenade and Boat Deck were covered in planks of various lengths. Pitch Pine was used inside and teak was used on the open areas of these decks. In all there was a total of 18,027 cu. ft. of pitch pine and 12,283 cu. ft. of teak installed on the decks of the Empress.

The teak (Tectona grandis) aboard the Empress of Ireland could have come from several areas, including Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia, where the trees grow to heights in excess of 30m. Our best guess is that the teak came from India or the Malay Archipelago, as it is native to these areas and both were British possessions when the Empress was constructed. The wood is durable and strong, noted for its tight grain and resistance to moisture, and has long found a market for marine applications, where its ability to withstand moisture is highly prized. Teak today has largely disappeared from large-scale marine use due to its prohibitively high cost and scarcity. Burmese teak, for example, today costs about $12 per square foot--and this for wood only one inch thick. The teak planks used aboard the Empress were almost three inches thick.

The solid teak decking used aboard the Empress would have required logs which are almost unavailable in today's market. There are few old-growth teak forests except in remote areas like Borneo, and the wood today is cultivated on plantations. This explains why the teak decking was a prime target for salvage-rs some years ago. Even today, there is still a fortune in teak aboard the Empress. Teak has become so scarce that most modern "teak" furniture uses only a thin teak veneer, with solid teak pieces commanding hefty prices from furniture makers.

"After more than eighty years under the water, what shape is the teak?" you are no doubt wondering.
The following photo shows a teak plank raised by diver Raymond Beaulieu a few years ago. The plank has been sawed to illustrate a cross section. Note that the water has affected less than a millimeter of the teak's surface and that underneath, the wood has retained its hardness and strength. The wood, when oiled and polished, betrays no hint of its eighty-plus years under the sea. Running the plank through a planer to take off the top layer of wood would yield thick boards of varying lengths, with a variety of possible uses. We expect that the salvaged teak would have been re-used mainly for furniture, parquet flooring and marine applications like yacht rails and decking. As well, smaller pieces could have been used to fashion a variety of specially crafted Empress souvenirs.

Close Up Shot
Close Up Shot

In the picture you can see the damage that had been inflicted over 80 years under the sea to the teak deck plank. But if you lightly skim off a 1/16th of the wood you still can see the hard teak wood below.

Another Specimen
Another Specimen

In this picture this plank shows that it was clearly in an area where it was constantly subjected to the elements around it. The wood has been worn down by sand, silt and other debris but if you just lightly skim off 1/16th of wood you can still see the hard smooth surface of the teak

Cut Away of Teak Deck Picture One
Cut Away of Teak Deck Picture One

This picture shows how a teak deck plank has withstood 80 years being underwater Top right corner you can see erosion of the wood approximately 1/16th down you can still see the grain of the teak wood. This would depend upon conditions and exposure to the elements it was under such as current, silt etc. Teak Plug that was used was to cover up the bolt and nut which held the teak plank down. Underneath the plug they used a watertight caulking to prevent water from entering and causing corrosion.

Cut Away of Teak Deck Picture Two
Cut Away of Teak Deck Picture Two

A different view of the Teak Plug Plank. Here you can see again the hard teak grains of the wood has withstood 80 years when this picture was taken on the wreck of the Empress.

From the Ian Kinder Collection, Photo by Richard Kudrna
Compare the teak to the photo on the right, showing a pitch pine deck plank from the Empress, also recovered by Raymond Beaulieu (Diving the Empress). The pine shows the typical "honeycombing" indicative of massive attack by teredo worms, which are found in salt water. These planks have no structural strength.
The teak photo also shows a "plug" covering the screw or bolt which once held the plank to the deck. After being bolted to the deck, a teak plug was glued in place in the bolt hole, forming a complete watertight covering. The plugs were carefully selected so that their color and grain perfectly matched the surrounding wood. The grain of the plugs followed the grain of the plank; viewed from a distance, the plugs were almost invisible.

Story submit by: Derek Grout & Ian Kinder

Digital Photographs taken by: Richard Kudrna

Teak Wood from the Ian Kinder Collection.

Teak Wood from the Empress of Ireland