Junk building – and their water-tight bulkheads

In 2009, China nominated the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks for inclusion on the UN’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The nomination was accepted the following year.

Developed in South China’s Fujian Province, the bulkhead technology is used to create watertight compartments such that if one or two cabins on board an ocean-going junk are accidentally damaged in the course of navigation, sea water will not flood the other cabins, and the vessel will remain afloat. I guess this is pretty well the same approach used in the Titanic, although in retrospect in the case of the linern it was not perhaps implemented as well as it might have been.

The junks are built using traditional wood-working techniques and tools and are made mainly of camphor, pine and fir timber, principally using rabbet-jointing planks caulked using the the fibrous ramie plant, lime and tung oil. The experience and working methods of watertight-bulkhead technology are transmitted orally from master to apprentices.

Communities participate by holding solemn ceremonies to pray for peace and safety during construction and before the launch of the completed vessel.

The techniques of building junks are being lost as demand for the vessels has decreased, with wooden vessels replaced by steel-hulled ships, and in 2009 it was reported that only three masters were still able to claim full command of junk building techniques.

My thanks to boat and sail designer and maker Michael Storer for posting this one on Facebook!

2 thoughts on “Junk building – and their water-tight bulkheads”

  1. Oakum ? Tar substitute? Caulking Irons?
    Now, I wonder where i have heard that technology before?

    There must be several hundred “living legend” boatbuilders in England , let alone the rest of Europe? We really should have shared our advanced technology with China before.

  2. Well yes, but they will do it differently and that will have some value that should not be lost. What interests me is that while in the West we used caulking to keep water out of our hulls and from coming through decks our ships still had open bilges – but the Chinese seem to have been thinking about bouyancy tanks and safety.

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