Friday, February 23rd, 2018

Model shipyard

Note: This is the edited continuation of an essay “The Making of a Model Shipwright,” first appearing on on March 18, 2003, and updated on November 27, 2004.

One durn thing leads to another. It all started when I got hooked on the Patrick O’Brian sea novels, all 20 of them. They introduced this landlubber to the world of those amazing wind-powered machines that traversed the oceans in the 16th and 17th centuries. I discovered that sailing ships are beautiful and sophisticated machines with their billowing white sails and graceful lines. I lost myself in the lore and science of the age of sail.

I said to myself, “Self, why not build a model sailing ship?” Why not, indeed? With my usual unwarranted self-confidence, I purchased a plastic model kit of the HMS Victory, Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar, the last of the great sea battles. Never mind that it was a 105-gun ship of the line, one of the largest and most complex ships ever built. So, let’s get at it – all 2,005 pieces of it.

Fast forward four years: My Victory is still an un-masted and un-rigged hulk, laid up in the ordinary, as they say.

The Victory project stalled out when it came time to rig and install the masts, yards, and rigging. I knew that I had bitten off more than I could chew. The sheets of rigging diagrams weren’t sufficient to get me going. I was dead in the water.

Not to worry, says I. Let us build a lesser vessel, and this time let’s build it of wood instead of plastic. With my usual clueless aplomb I picked the Bluenose II, a famous racing and fishing schooner from Nova Scotia. It even came with a video tutorial geared to the meanest understanding.

Guess what? I didn’t even get as far as the rigging. The hull is built on a framework of bulkheads and covered with thin planks of basswood and walnut. I did develop some skill at planking and fairing, but I was still in over my head. I gained even more respect for the masters of the craft of ship modeling.

Do you suppose I ought to try something simple, a lot simpler?

I acquired kit number three, a little dinghy. No masts. No rigging. Just oars. I bought a few hand tools and started developing basic woodworking skills. I joined an Internet mail list for ship modelers and started listening to the experts. Those guys and gals have all sorts of modeling tricks that they are eager to share.

I have completed the dinghy, and I will proudly display it until I graduate to something a bit more complicated than a pair of oars.

Kit number four was the Armed Virginia Sloop, a single-masted privateer from our Revolutionary War period. A nice fellow by name of Bob Hunt prepared a detailed and illustrated practicum on a CD for building this particular kit. After completing Chapter 1 of the practicum, I have a reasonably good-looking skeleton hull ready for decking and planking. A little confidence is starting to seep back in.

Thanks to Bob’s practicum I was able to persevere to the end and produce an acceptable model. I’m one humbled model shipwright with a new appreciation of the skills involved. Although I referred to the kit plans and instructions from time to time, it was Bob’s clear instructions that in the end saved the day. Here’s how it looks on the launching ways.

Next up was a kit from Germany, the Duke William, a single masted cutter dating from the late sixteenth century. It used a different hull construction technique, and I thought it would help me learn some new modeling skills, so I bought the kit and Bob Hunt’s practicum for it.

Unfortunately it turned out to be a lousy kit. I got to the point of masting and rigging and decided that life is too short to struggle through with this one. I had a couple of other kits in the wings that I was eager to tackle. I set the Duke aside.

In October, 2004, over 5 years after starting on the HMS Victory, I started kit six, Pride of Baltimore II. I will cover the construction of the Pride on another page.