There is good reason that oak has traditionally been used in shipbuilding. The wood is incredibly strong, and if tended just right, the grain is straight and true. Going back to the Vikings, the slow-growth trees have been used in Sweden for vessels of all kinds, including naval ships. On the lake island of Visingsö there are hundreds of acres of tall and orderly oaks, all planted with an eye to the long game.
It was around 1830, soon after the end of the devastating Napoleonic Wars, and the Swedish Crown sent out a delegation to search for ideal spots to plant for future ship production. Three of those emissaries came to a small croft on Visingsö, a narrow island in the middle of Vättern (Sweden’s second largest lake). Here they spied three magnificent oaks just outside of an old woman’s farmhouse. They took one with them back to Stockholm, and it didn’t take much to convince the Royal Navy that Visingsö had nearly perfect conditions for lumber production. Over the next ten years, 300 000 oak trees were planted.
Knowing how slowly the trees grow, the Navy was thinking awfully far ahead to supply itself with material to keep afloat well into the 20th century. But by the time the trees were ready, almost 150 years later, they showed no interest in using them, having long converted to ship hulls crafted from iron and steel.
Back in the 19th century, to make the oak suitable for ship production, other species such as ash, elm, maple, beech and silver fir were planted between the rows, to force growth up rather than spreading out. Today the forest, nearly 900 acres (360 hectares), has immensely tall and unusually straight trees. And even if they never see the ocean from the bottom of a boat, the wait hasn’t been for naught. The lumber is ideal for flooring, veneers, furniture, and even whiskey barrels.