About reconstructing a Dutch fluit and making mistakes.

Mar 20, 2020

If you are only in for reports about the making of models from kits, this might not be your cup-of-tea, although the content may shock you...

First I want to make a statement about what we are really 100% certain about the exact shape of 17th century Dutch ships. It must be said, as a result of several reasons there is very little material at hand we can be absolutely sure of, because:
- The ships themselves are no longer among us and there are no real lines plans left in which the shapes are recorded. The building system used in Holland, the shell-first technique, did not require anything but the experience of the builder and his set of rules-of-thumb, which were the results of ages of traditional shipbuilding.
- Wrecks are seldom in one piece and the few complete wrecks we do have, like the Wasa, are too exceptional to tell us much about the shape of a humble transport ship like the fluit.
Only the pinas, which I translated from Witsen's text into a draught a few decades ago, shows us the original shape of a 17th century ship that has not been deformed by ages resting at the seabottom. (https://nautarch.tamu.edu/shiplab/AbHoving.htm)
-Looking at contemporary ship models in museums and private collections we can say that of none of the models of 17th century Dutch ships the underwater shape is scientifically proven to be correct. Moreover, it can be stated for each still existing ship model that the model maker only produced a personal idea of how the ship looked below the waterline, because he had no lines plans and he may even never have had the chance to see the ship out of the water. So we may have a reasonably sharp image of the part of the Dutch ships above the waterline by all the beautiful paintings that are left from that era, but the underwater body is mostly unknown. And that happens to be the part that is needed to make calculations about the sailing qualities of the vessels, a topic that is popular amongst scientists since the recent introduction of photogrammetry.
Save the plans for the pinas, there is one more exception, in fact there are four more, and not surprisingly they too are from a written source: In 1701 the lawyer Pieter van Dam published a big book named Beschryvinge van de Oost-Indische Compagnie (Description of the East India Company (VOC)), in which we find data that are sufficient to make perfect lines plans: they define the shapes of East Indiamen of 160, 145 and 130 feet, and for a 'fluit or hekboot' (hagboat) of 130 feet by giving 6 station points on 10 frames of each ship. Like the first three, the last one was also a ship destined for the Indies, but it stayed there to be used for the Companies Asian shipping. A problem for my little project is that these vessels were not completely comparable with an avarage fluit for European waters. I will come back to this later.
In this posting I try to explore the knowledge we have of ship-shapes and in particular the fluit and I will try to find an answer to the question wether or not I made a mistake in the reconstruction of the fluit I built in the past.

It was over four years ago that I published the reconstruction of that fluit in several magazines and on forums. (see for instance: http://www.papermodelers.com/forum/ships-watercraft/35441-17th-century-dutch-fluit.html) I based the reconstruction on a drawing by the Dutch lord mayor of Amsterdam, Nicolaes Witsen, presented it in his book Aeloude en Hedendaegse Scheepsbouw en Bestier (Old and Modern Shipbuilding and Managing) of 1671. The drawing offered four frames, which was enough for Rene Hendrickx, my Belgium first hand, to make a 3D draught in Delftship, the free downloadable shipbuilding program (https://www.delftship.net). Witsen's drawing is remarkable, because in those days no drawings were made prior to the building of a ship. But he did not make the drawing to build the ship, it only served to show the difference in loading capacity between a 'normal' merchant ship (in dotted lines) and a fluit (in drawn lines). His drawing is a sketch with remarkably little imperfections, and I hope to show here that it can be used as a plan leading to a plausibly shaped model.afb 1.jpeg

So Witsen's drawing is one of the very few chances we get to come close to an original fluit shape. Rene fed the shapes of the four frames into the computer and created a plausible ship after some pushing and pulling. Yet I was not completely satisfied. Looking at the original drawing I noticed that the first frame, which is usually located on the butt of keel and stem, stayed too far aft, once the keel was stretched with a few feet, as the drawing shows. In my opinion the frame should also move forward, to stand on the butt where it belonged. So Rene did what I asked him and the shape of the bow was corrected.

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Mind the fullness of the bow below the waterline. I was convinced that this was correct, given the fact that the fluit's hull was as wide and capacious as possible to answer the booming need of the country for loading capacity. Certainly in case of a wood loading ship, loading his cargo in Scandinavia to supply the enormous shipbuilding industry in Holland with the necessary wood, the shape seemed plausible enough to me.
So a model was made, and I was pleased with the result.
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Until some time ago, when I was studying F.H. af Chapman's book Architectura Navalis Mercatoria (1775). Chapman presents the lines of a Dutch fluit on Plate LIII.

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What struck me were the fluent lines in the bow of the ship. Much more fluent than my reconstructed fluit. It seemed to answer to the saying that these ships pressed the water underneath it, like a duck's breast and not so much split the water, like sharp bows do. My fluit was much more bluff. Was the difference caused by the development of the type over a time span of more than a century? Or was my idea to shift the fore frame of Witsen's drawing forewardly a foolish exercise, dictated by a pigheaded 'expert'? This is the question I have to ask myself and the only way to find out what the answer is, was to make a model of Chapman's fluit and another one of Witsen's one with a corrected bow. So I did.
Here is Chapman's 18th century Dutch 'fly-boat' executed in paper in a rough state. It took me a fortnight to build and it is clear that building in paper allows experiments like this to be done within a reasonable time. Actually the build was so fast that I even forgot to take pictures.

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And here is a picture of Witsen's fluit with the corected bow. It looks more like Chapman's shape, but not as much as I expected. Building time took even less: no more than10 days.
But the result still leaves me with the question: which is the shape Witsen meant to present. The old one, or the new one?

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The last opportunity to get real life comparison is the fluit I mentioned in the beginning from the VOC Resolution of 1697. Rene was kind enough to make another 3D model on the bais of my original drawing after the data in Van Dam's book which we can compare with the other vessels. Here is my drawing:

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And here the 3D view executed in Delftship. As we can see there is very little left of the characteristics of the fluit with its narrow upperworks and wide 'hips'. Moreover, it looks much more as if this VOC 'fluit or hagboat' actually has indeed more characteristics of a hagboot. The hagboat was a combination of a fluit and a pinas. The spacious hull of the fluit was combined with the wide quarters of the pinas, offering relatively luxurious quarters for the officers and the passengers. But the underwater part of the hull was probably fluit-shaped.
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Comparing both Chapmans' fly-boat, the VOC hagboat and the newly constructed Witsen fluit, it must be said that they share a fluently lined, relatively 'cutting' bow, which is certainly not the case with my first reconstruction. Was it a wrong decision to shift the forward frame to the butt of stem and keel?
The question remains: aren't we comparing apples with pears? What has a VOC fluit, which sailed in the Indies, to do with a ship type, designed to sail the European waters? The demands were very different, so the ships looked differently. Besides, a fluit was a multi-purpose ship and the Dutch shipbuilders were very well capable of adaptating their ships to the demands of their commissioners. It made a profound difference wether an ordered ship was meant for transportation of wood or for instance to transport corn. In case of a wood ship the design was more square and deep, because wood traders loaded a lot of air. This in contradiction to grain ships, which were deliberately made with less depth in hold, up to 2 feet, to prevent the danger of overloading caused by the enormous weight of corn.

The bottom line of the whole experiment is that there was no such thing as THE fluit. Depending on their purposes the shapes could vary enormously. The original design was so succesful that the type could be used for almost anything.We even saw pictures of war-fluits with many guns.
For us model builders that is quite a comforting thought. Whatever we do, almost anything goes! (within certain limits.) And I may have been pig-headed in my correction of Witsen's plan, the result was certainly not a 'wrong' shape.

For anyone who wants to see the various stages of the build of this fluit, this time I did keep records. This is the lines plan as made by Rene Hendrickx in Delftship:

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All the frames, taken from the bodyplan cut, doubled and perforated for later removing the upper part. Longitudinal spine and decks all prepared to be assembled.
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Assembled skeleton of the model.
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Internal arrangements: in the back was the space for the cabin and the steering stand with another cabin on top and a narrow space between floor and celing to give way to the helm that entered the ship through a hole above the stern. Next a lowered part as accomodation for the crew, than the upper deck, with in the bow a low deck with storage beneath.afb 13.png

The frames are covered with card, It does not look very tidy (although on this picture it looks worse than is was because of the skimming light), but it will all be right after a while.afb 14.jpeg

Looking at the model from above. All the top parts of the frames are still intact and a plastic strip is glued on the location of the sheer strake to keep the upper works together.
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Here the upper frameparts of the upper deck are removed, the perforations are still visible.
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The inside of the hull above the decks is next covered with card and the part of the deck that will be visible in the finished model has been 'planked' with three strips of card, to allow for sheer and camber. Later on the deck will be covered with paper in the right color. Glueing the inside with another layer of card brings the vertical strips together and form a nice steady hull. Here I already applied the first coat of plaster.

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ere the model is sanded and whales are glued on. On the top the sides are finished with rails. Now the whole hull can now be planked with plastic self-adhesive strips. The rest is just applying paint.afb 18.jpeg

This picture shows the extreme 'hips' of the ship, which make the shape rather complicated to plank. It is obvious that more wood had to be used on the widened parts than in the midship area.
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Here the comparison between the old design (right) and the new one (left). You can judge for yourself.

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Staff member
Dec 25, 2017

Vienna, Austria
Very interesting information of your research - and easy to understand, when you are explaining it and showing the differences with your models.
I hope I can read much more about your research works......Many Thanks


Staff member
Sep 10, 2017

The Netherlands
Thx Ab, this ads a lot to the already interesting design of the fluit. Hope to start my build soon bit certainly not at the speed you are building your paper fleet. PS are all these models in 1:77?
Jun 19, 2020

Woudrichem, Netherlands
Ab, a very interesting documentation. And thanks to the paper building you could make very quick the comparison. A good example of “thinking out of the box”.
Regards, Peter
Mar 20, 2020

Well, thank you all for the reactions and the likes. Much more than I expected. I hope someone benefits from it. Of course these draughts are free on request.
Yes Maarten, the scale of the models is 1/77, my favorite. Not too big so theydon’t clog the house too much and not too small for my clumsy old fingers and fading sight. Of course they should be finished once, but anytime I think of something to investigate, they land on the shelf and start staring at me in a remourceful way...