Build your own lock

Locks are a big feature of most French barge cruises - Péniche Alsacien traverses through 40 locks!

April 2020 • Jules Verne

Build your own lock

Definition of a lock

 A lock is a rectangular chamber with gates at both ends; with both gates closed, the water level within the lock can be adjusted to match the canal water level on either side. Thus, a vessel entering the lock can be raised or lowered in order to enter the next level canal section.

The history of the lock

Flash locks, the first attempts to carry boats over difficult elevation changes on rivers or canals, date from the third century B.C. 

Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing 200 years later, described how Ptolemy II had improved the Nile-to-Red Sea canal by building a type of lock. Consisting of a single gate, flash locks carried boats downstream on a rush of water; boats headed upstream could be pulled forward while floating on the torrent released by opening the gate.

Flash locks were hazardous, and they used large amounts of water. A significant improvement came in A.D. 984, when the first double-gate lock was built on China's Grand Canal. Also called a pound lock (because it impounds water) this was the predecessor of modern conventional locks. Its gates were panels that lifted vertically. 

A similar lock with vertical-lift gates built in the Netherlands in 1373 also controlled its water level by partially opening either the upstream or the downstream gate. Pound lock operation was greatly improved in 1485 when an Italian lock was built with smaller, valve-controlled openings in the gates.

Leonardo da Vinci invented the miter gate in 1480. Two gates, each more than half as wide as the lock, swing on vertical hinges. In the open position, they are flush with the lock's walls. In the closed position, they meet in a V pointed upstream so that the higher water level presses against them to promote a tight seal.

The base of the upstream gate in a lock is higher than the base of the downstream gate. If the lock was very deep, water filling the chamber through an opening in the upper gate would create turbulence or even swamp a boat in the chamber. This problem was solved in France during the seventeenth century, when valve-controlled water channels for filling and emptying a lock were built into the lower portion of the chamber's stone lining.

Until the early nineteenth century, lock gates were made of wood, and lock chambers were lined with wood, stone, bricks, or turf. In 1827, cast iron was first used to build both a lock and its gates in Cheshire, England. Following the development of the Bessemer process for mass production of steel, that material was utilized for construction of locks and gates, both as primary elements and as reinforcing bars for concrete.

How to build your own lock

  • A temporary cofferdam is built around the proposed lock site. Steel sheet piles are driven into the ground to form a series of adjacent, vertical cells that extend above the waterline. The cells are filled with sand. Water is pumped out of the enclosed space to create a dry construction area. The lock site is excavated. If necessary, piles are driven into the ground to support the lock structure.
  • Wooden forms are built to shape the floor and walls of the lock. Space for culverts and valve chambers is included within the forms, as are slots for the gate hinges and recesses to contain open gates. Additional forms are built to shape the approach walls that will guide vessels into the lock.
  • After reinforcing steel cages are constructed in the forms, concrete is poured. When the concrete has cured (hardened), the forms are removed.
  • Control valves for filling and emptying the lock are installed, along with hydraulic and mechanical equipment for operating the valves and gates.
  • Gates are prefabricated and shipped to the site. Very large gates may be shipped in sections, which are welded together as they are installed in the lock.
  • Accessories such as guardrails, mooring posts, and escape ladders are installed on the lock walls.