THE TIME HAS COME ...........

........... The Walrus said, to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings, And if Clyde Puffers really did have wings …….. (my sincere apologies to Lewis Carroll).

Well no, of course not but like a piece classic verse these little boats continue to evoke interest and admiration not just in their fascinating lore and their building but for us, in part because Covid has kept us a bit reclusive, an opportunity to try a different means of model construction and display. Their simple hull shape is particularly suitable as a sort of test form.

While the Commodore and skipper Bob have been doing what they do best, some of other the Club members have been voyaging across the internet ……… seeking to know more about the “Puffers”, and perhaps more than we really ever needed to know, and I also plead guilty to such excess. In my defence, I should explain that I come from away, that I have seen a working puffer, that I enjoyed some “Para Handy” ((BBC TV of the 60’s) and could understand most of what was said, and have contributed my share of confused thoughts because I didn’t check to make them clear. Funny how something “Clear to you” can be anything but so to another (my penance for reckless writing)!


To Puff or not to Puff

Before the railways came the canals, and one of the most important canals in Scotland was constructed to link the East and West coasts at their narrowest point between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde Estuary. The earliest boats on the canal were horse draw scows and these continued in use for more than 60 years, mostly for the transport of bulk cargoes such as grain, stone and coal. In 1856, an iron-hulled scow was fitted with a two cylinder steam engine and a year later the first purpose-built steam scow was built. The scows were not suitable for use down the estuary of the Clyde and along the western coast of Scotland, and it was necessary to tranship the canal-cargoes into small sailing ships (Gabbarts) that serviced the western shores.

Almost immediately, ship builders realized that an appropriately designed steam boat could be used for both canal and coastal service, thereby removing the necessity for transhipment. To maximize their cargo capacity, the new vessels were somewhat bluff at the bow and stern and flat-bottomed, and sized to pass through the Forth and Clyde Canal. The flat-bottom also made it possible for these boats to beach at low tide on sandy shores where harbour facilities did not exist (like many of the Gabbarts). Because the early Puffers were expected to spend most of their travel time in a canal, the boiler of their simple steam engines could use and replenish freshwater directly; after a short coastal trip they could also “flush” the mineral salts from boiler tubes with freshwater as they passed back through the canal. Presumably there was limited room to carry make-up freshwater for the engine. Early "Puffer" engines shared many of the design ideas of Trevithick’s mine engines and his later locomotive engines, and the first steam engines in the boats vented steam up the chimney and thus created a periodic updraft to vent the flue gases. Puffs of steam were released with each stroke of the engine …… hence the “Clyde Puffer”.

As the boats extended their coastal service, the availability of freshwater quickly became a limiting factor. However it was only a few years before the next generation of Puffers would have the ability to transport cargo to and from the more distant west coast islands. This happened when the compound steam engine became the standard source of power used in the boats. Compound engines used high and low pressure cylinders to improve their efficiency and the used steam was passed to a condenser before returning it to the boiler. No more puffs from the little boats, but the name stayed! During WW ll, more than a hundred Victualling Inshore Craft (VIC’s) were built for the British Navy, and they were based on the design of the Clyde Puffer. After the war, diesel power carried re-engined and the “new Puffers” into a third generation but it seems that their commercial operations no longer remained sufficiently viable by the 1990’s. The VIC’s were sold out of the Navy and many went overseas. There are few parts of the UK coastline where Puffers have not been seen at sometime but very few Clyde Puffers or VIC’s now remain.

Over a period of nearly 140 years and at one time or another, the little Puffers have carried just about every kind of cargo that existed. They have plied just about every part of the Scottish coastline and have been an important link between the mainland and the Western Isles. They’ve likely carried fish products and even Whisky to the mainland, they carried livestock, building materials and equipment and vehicles and food supplies, they’ve carried passengers, and have even been used to lay underwater cables. Very few ships can boast of the utility and performance of the Clyde Puffer! Not just an icon, they became an integral part of Scottish daily life for many people.

An opportunity to try some new ideas

For many reasons, it has become not just a lot more expensive to follow our interests in model making but often difficult to find some of the materials that we would normally use. John McK has built model hulls with a wide variety of materials (wood, plastic sheet, paper, card and cardboard, for example) but he’s usually chosen them based upon their “normal” application with respect to size and function (such as static display or active use) of the model. Bob, too, has created widely different types of models and has sought to enhance their appearance by casting many presentations with as much realism as practical. The crew handling of traps on his lobster boat was not only very life-like but also well planned to allow normal on-water use of the model.

To set the stage, as it were, Stan brought his model of a Clyde Puffer to the Club’s recent meeting. Built several year ago, it’s a fine example of the Classic little boat.



Working from scratch, Bob’s taken a conventional approach to construction and materials. Images show set up of frames, sheeting and deck lay, and a really nice piece of work on the main deck winch. A great start Bob.





John McK set himself quite a task; his Puffer has to be big enough to use on the oceanic proportions of “The Pond” and yet to be constructed largely from cardboard and card paper. Sheeting is glued together and protected with varnish. Simple eh! well the key to a successful build is to be sure that joints and bending act as true structural members (and only to use a little bit of wood here and there to provide extra strength and hold a shape).


It really is cardboard (courtesy LCBO) and card paper


Well mostly, but there are some bits of other material stuff.


John’s also thinking of adding simulated cooling water discharge, have to see if that happens!


Prep work.


Hopefully, there will be more images to update progress in the yards.



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