I'm trying to find out how many hours of labor it took to build wooden sailing ships. (Obviously it would depend on e.g. size, and the ideal result would be a formula or table relating such parameters to cost, but even a single data point, a labor cost figure for a single wooden sailing ship, would be a big improvement on nothing.)

I'm assuming that the techniques and costs involved, did not greatly change during the span of time in which wooden sailing ships were built with hand tools. (As opposed to steel hulls made in blast furnaces, or even modern fiberglass yachts, which would be quite different.) So the techniques and costs involved in building a medieval cog, a Chinese junk and a 19th-century English schooner, were probably within an order of magnitude of each other.

I have actually found some figures for monetary cost, e.g.


Cost was largely dependent on where the ship was built, but an average of about £20 per ton could be considered average for a fully equipped sailing vessel. A 1100 ton East India merchant ship would thus cost about £22,000.


A Dutch trading vessel of the type known as the Fluyt, was one of the most common merchant ships circa 1650–1750, they carried about half of all European shipping in this time period. A fairly standard price from the Hoorn shipyards was 10,000 Guilders. The average wage of a well off, but not wealthy, Dutch merchant was about 500 Guilders a year in the same time period. These Dutch cargo ships of 200 to 300 tons, were lighter built and faster then most British,Spanish or French ships of the time. They carried more cargo because they were not dual use merchant/ warships and had no gun decks. That also made them about half the price of a dual use merchant-warship.


But, knowing the amount a ship cost, is just a worthless number - lets say, a 25 meter long wooden ship with two masts and sails - ready for take-off - in Denmark cost about 8000 rigsdaler.

Does this tell you anything? Actually no. You need to know how the economy worked at that time and what every thing else cost...

Right, that's the thing; how do these monetary costs translate to labor? I'm not confident just dividing the monetary cost by the wage at that time, e.g.

During the eighteenth century wages could be as low as two or three pounds per year for a domestic servant, plus food, lodging and clothing.

I don't think that means we can divide X pounds by 3 to get a decent approximation to years of labor input for constructing a sailing ship; for all I know, most of the cost of employing a domestic servant might have been those non-wage costs; for all I know, most of the labor input for a sailing ship (among the most advanced technological artifacts of the time, the equivalent of aerospace today) might have been skilled craftsmen paid one or two orders of magnitude more than a domestic servant.

I am making the assumption that the primary cost was labor. That's not perfectly accurate; the material costs were not necessarily trivial. A significant motive for the British government to finance the initial colonies in North America, was to obtain Eastern white pines to use as masts; at that time, tall straight trees of that size and quality were not easily obtained in Europe. Still, it seems likely that labor made at least half the total cost, so even ignoring materials completely as a first approximation would get us within a factor of two of the right answer. (Were there other substantial costs besides labor and materials?)

How do these monetary costs translate to total labor input? Or are there other sources for labor requirement to build wooden ships? I would be happy to see figures for any kind of oceangoing wooden ship built with hand tools (as opposed to sailing ships built with modern manufacturing technology, which would not have similar labor cost).

  • 3
    Are you including the labor costs of fitting out the vessel too or is it just construction?
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 3, 2021 at 14:59
  • Nelson's Victory, at about 100 guns, had more such than any two French corpes d'armee of the period - including the Imperial Guard. Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar had several times as many guns as both sides combined had at Wagram (less than 1035) - and heavier caliber to boot. The presumption that a modest fishing vessel was within even two orders of magnitude cost as Victory, a First Rate Ship of the Line, is absurd. Further, the hull strength of a fighting vessel required much more wood than other vessels. Jul 3, 2021 at 15:31
  • @SteveBird Good question! I want to include both. Does fitting out, add a substantial percentage of total labor cost?
    – rwallace
    Jul 3, 2021 at 21:14


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