Monday, May 25, 2015


One of the main tools of sailors (other than maybe the Radio-Girls) was a chipping hammer. It wasn't anything like a hammer, it was a flat bar of steel with one end bent over at a 90-degree angle. Both ends were slightly spread out as the steel had been flattened down so that the ends terminated in an edge that was sharpened at about the sharpening angle of a chisel.

What you did was to bang it against the deck or the hull in order to remove old layers of paint and, of course, rust.

It was really more akin to a scraper than a hammer. If you were to buy a chipping hammer from a store, it would have a handle with a spring-wire grip to lessen the shock of bashing it repeatedly against hard metal surfaces. The technique was to hold it loosely and to let the bent edge do the work.

If the work was heavy, then you'd use a needlegun. Needleguns were pneumatic tools. They were essentially rotating hammers. The hammer part was enclosed and it smacked a bundle of steel rods (the needles). You might even have a deck-grinder, which was a tool that had an abrasive drum. But those were expensive and if a sailor with a bad attitude chucked it over the side, they weren't replaced.

Once the old paint and loose corrosion had been knocked off, then it was time for priming and painting. Zinc chromate was used to prime aluminum (the superstructures of many post-war ships were aluminum) and red lead was used to prime steel. Red lead was reddish and probably had the lead removed long ago, but the name stuck. After the primer came the paint: Haze grey for vertical surfaces, a darker deck gray for decks, black non-skid for walking areas, and flat black for the upperworks above the top of the stacks. (Flat black went away after the steam ships were retired.)

It was almost a continuous process. The sea is a very corrosive environment. And there were damn few captains or chief bosun's mates who did not take pride in their ships.

Of course, the submariners loved to hear it. Chipping paint on a steel deck was like banging away at an underwater telegraph with the message "here be a Navy ship". Most merchant ships didn't have the crew to have a bunch of seamen out on deck, preserving and painting. So when their sonar watches heard the sound of steel being hammered, they had a good idea what they'd find.

The sonar gang on ships equipped with passive acoustic sonars hated chipping hammers for the same reason. The First Lieutenant and the ASW Officer were often close to being at war with each other. The First Lieutenant wanted his people keeping rust at bay, while the ASW Officer wanted the ship to be quiet to both reduce interference with the passive sonars and to reduce the chance of being detected.

That was a fight that the ASWO almost always won. Which didn't make the sonarmen popular with the deck apes when the deck apes had to spend a lot of their inport time engaging in Operation Sparkle.*

The compromise was that the deck apes got to use sandpaper and heavy steel wool, but no impact tools, to remove old paint and rust. Which was barely effective and often resulted in some painting over of rust that should have been removed.
* One captain kept telling everyone that he wanted his ship to sparkle, hence the name bestowed on painting, preserving and cleaning by the crew.