What Is Shipbuilding?

Mary McMahon

Shipbuilding is an industry in which people design, build, test, and repair ships. This industry is one of the oldest professions in the world, as people have been building ships and boats since before recorded history. Leaders in the shipbuilding industry include Japan, South Korea, and China. The opposite of shipbuilding is ship breaking, in which ships are dismantled for recycling of their components after they are no longer seaworthy.

Modern shipbuilders construct cargo vessels that can handle universally sized intermodal containers.
Modern shipbuilders construct cargo vessels that can handle universally sized intermodal containers.

The process of shipbuilding starts with the design, in which engineers discuss the needs of the client and develop a ship which will meet those needs. Engineers can also develop generic designs for mass production, with the firm offering customization in the ship's fittings to meet requirements. After the design is completed and finalized, preparations begin in a shipyard to build the ship. The ship starts out on dry land, with workers laying the keel and framework and slowly building up the ship. They may also start on the interior fittings, completing the fittings after the ship has been launched. Once finished, the ship is taken out for sea trials to confirm that it is safe and to establish performance statistics.

Large vessels are usually built in dry docks and then floated out.
Large vessels are usually built in dry docks and then floated out.

Get started

Want to automatically save money while you shop online?

Join 3 million Wikibuy users who have found 
$70 million in savings over the last year.

Wikibuy compensates us when you install Wikibuy using the links we provided.

In addition to providing shipbuilding services, many shipyards also perform repairs, bringing ships into dry docks to inspect their hulls and complete repairs in addition to cleaning and restoring fittings. Ships see hard use over their lifetimes, and they may need to be overhauled on multiple occasions to address damage caused by wear and tear, and to meet new specifications set out by the ship's owners. Eventually, a ship will be deemed unusable and it will be sent out for breaking.

Shipbuilders may specialize in constructing smaller craft, like tugboats, that are designed to assist larger, ocean going vessels like oil tankers..
Shipbuilders may specialize in constructing smaller craft, like tugboats, that are designed to assist larger, ocean going vessels like oil tankers..

The shipbuilding industry employs people in a wide range of fields, including engineers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and manual laborers. It typically takes place near major harbors and ports for convenience during the ship's launching, and to ensure that ships in use can access the shipyard easily for repair and refurbishing. Some shipbuilders focus on particular applications, such as ships for naval use, oil tankers, or cruise ships, with specialized equipment and personnel.

Boatbuilding, a related field, involves the construction of smaller boats. Boats tend to be easier to construct because they are smaller and not designed for long oceangoing voyages, although some specialized boats can be extremely complex. Just as with shipbuilding, there is also a profession designed to handle boats which have reached the end of their lives, known as boat breaking.

Defense contractors in the shipbuilding industry may focus on building warships like frigates and destroyers.
Defense contractors in the shipbuilding industry may focus on building warships like frigates and destroyers.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


I am sure there is quite a difference in the construction of a ship for the navy as opposed to a luxury cruise liner.

I know that Royal Caribbean had their biggest cruise ship built off the coast of Finland. It cost over 2 billion dollars to build this ship. I think it would have been so exciting to be a part of their very first cruise.

Carnival has had some of their ships built in Italy. I have heard of many cruise ships undergoing major renovations, but have never heard of them being put out of commission.

Like every other ship, there must come a time when it is better to break the ship down than to keep making renovations on it. I wonder what they can recycle from these old ships once they get to this point?


@andee - I have watched a couple of shows on building cruise ships, and they have been very fascinating. For most luxury cruise ships it can take anywhere from 3-4 years for it to be completed.

There is also about a 3 month period where the ship is tested in the water without any passengers aboard.

One show I was watching showed how these ships are built in sections and then connected together - kind of like you would complete a puzzle.

Finding a place large enough to build a ship like this can also be a challenge. I don't think most people ever think much about the time and expense that is involved in building these cruise ships.


I have been on a couple of cruises, and am always in awe of everything that is included on these big ships.

You never seem to hear about where these ships are built or how they are built. It would also be interesting to know how long it takes to build a ship like this. Some of them are very massive and have a lot of luxuries on them.

Once they are built, it also costs a lot to maintain them. Reading this article makes me curious about where these cruise ships are built.

There have been major improvements in these ships over the years, and I imagine coming up with new designs and ideas is always a work in progress.


One of the things that wasn't mentioned here was how dangerous shipbuilding can be, especially in the past.

I had a great uncle who used to work in a shipyard when he was younger, and his main job was the drive rivets into the hulls of the ships. Like you can imagine, using a riveter inside the hull of a ship was pretty loud, and even with ear protection, it still caused him to lose a lot of his hearing.

I know I have heard stories, too, about ship building back before boats where made of steel and where there were so many safety regulations in place. Some people would be responsible for climbing to the top of the masts to attach the sails and things like that, and it was pretty common for people to fall and die while they were doing it.

I suppose it was sort of analogous to coal mining today. Shipbuilding wasn't really the safest job to have, but someone had to face the risks and do it.


@TreeMan - My guess is that things like shipbuilding in America have gone the same way as automobiles. It is just cheaper to send the work overseas and buy the finished products. Even then, like you mentioned, those East Asian countries have a lot of coastline and ship goods to a lot of places.

To add on to your point about Navy ships, I really like looking at how shipbuilding technology has progressed over the years. Just the fact that countries were able to build gigantic ships out of wood is pretty impressive. Not to mention that they were able to withstand the impact of cannonballs and things like that.

One of the main causes of the Revolutionary War was even shipbuilding, since England wanted a lot of the tall trees that were growing in the new colonies. Eventually, the colonists realized they could never branch out and make their own navy without those trees.


@kentuckycat - Interesting question. I don't think I've really thought about how Navy ships would be built. I am not naval expert, but off the top of my head, I would guess that Navy ships would have to have some sort of an armory for handheld weapons, and the ships would probably need to hold a lot more people. I think warships would need a lot more radar and sonar equipment, too.

I think it is really interesting that the United States isn't higher up on the list of shipbuilding countries. I would have assumed our shipbuilding research and production would have been fairly high, since we have a lot of coastline, but I guess maybe no compared to the Asian countries. Plus, I guess a lot of those companies ship things to American and have to have a way to get it across the ocean. I'm still curious where the United States would rank, though.


I guess I never really thought too much about what all would have to go into something like building a boat. I grew up in the Midwest, so I was never really anywhere where I got to see ships on a regular basis.

Something I was curious about while I was reading the article was how ships are built for the U.S. Navy and other armed forces. Am I right to assume that the government doesn't rely on countries like China to build ships that might potentially be used against them? At the same time, I would guess that the Navy wants to have ships built with a certain amount of secrecy so that other countries don't have access to their layout and the various armor and things that are included.

Along the same lines, what are some of the things that are done differently to build a warship as compared to a regular commercial ship? Obvious armor and guns are the main things, but I would assume there are other components most people wouldn't think about.

Post your comments
Forgot password?