Personal history of ship modeling

Rants, raves, and opinion

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In the early to late 1950s, I lived in Gardner, Massachusetts. Actually, we lived in what was called "East Gardner", on the grounds of the Massachusetts State mental hospital located there. My dad was a psychiatrist and worked as the Assistant Superintendant there. The doctor in charge, the Superintendant, was Dr. Warren Cordes, who lived across the street from us, in Catalpa Cottage. (We lived in Cedar Cottage). Dr. Cordes was an avid ship model builder and always had a project underway. He and his wife also had a home on the Cape in Chatham and I was told it was full of his models. I loved his models and got hooked on sailing ship models.

My first model, at about 15 years, was a kit of the brig "Cabot", a solid hulled model from Marine Models, I believe. Later I built the "Benjamin Latham" from Model Shipways, but modeled only occasionally through the years until in medical school I made the "Rattlesnake", again from Model Shipways. While working on that model, living in Philadelphia, I found the Philadelphia Ship Model Society and discovered a new world of model building. At that time, the late 1960s, both Bill Crothers and Tom Hornsby were active in the group. If you don't know those names, you should find out about them - they are the men who gave us "Seagull Plans", and worked to the finest standards of historical research and accuracy. If you ever find a Seagull Plan, buy it; each one is as valuable as a textbook. Through Bill and Tom and others in the club, I learned how to research a ship, the importance of accuracy and of documenting your work, and the sheer fun that modeling can be.

Fast forward fifteen years, before I returned to model building. As we prepared to relocate to Saudi Arabia, I had the chance to think about what I would like to do in my spare time, and decided to return to ship model building. I took over several kits, and built one, the "Albatross" as I recall, from a European kit, and another small model of a whale boat, also from a kit. But I spend so much time kit-bashing, that I decided that I would move on to scratch building in the future. During my time in Saudi Arabia and when I first returned to the states, I build the PT boats pictured on this site.

Fast forward again, another seven years, when we left the farm in 1994 and started a new way of life in Oklahoma. There, I started modeling again, beginning with a kit-bashed "Fair American", the old solid hulled version from Model Shipways. Again, I was most fortunate to find the Oklahoma City Ship Modelers, led by Don Cook, and hosted by Tom Woodward at his hobby shop. The group was welcoming and met every Saturday for a group work day. Members brought in work-in-progress, kits, and finished models. The only rule was that no comments could be negative; the group thrived and produced some remarkable models. It was there that I finally got serious about modeling again, and built my first plank on frame model, an anchor hoy, based on plans in Grimwood's book. I drew up the plans and made the model. My planking was hardly accurate, but I had taken the plunge.

The next model was the "Essex" from plans by Portia Tatakjian. Her accompanying book from the "Anatomy of the Ship" series was the source for detailing the hull and for the masting and rigging. The model had the holds finished off with barrels and cordage and spare anchor, and the captain's sleeping cabin was fully furnished with bed and dresser. The cordage was made up of linen with my rope machine, based on one used at the Naval Academy Museum model shop designed by Bob Sumrall. I spent a day there during a trip to Washington, DC to visit the National Archives. I am still processing all the information I gained on that trip!

The next project was actually two ships. I started the "Raleigh" from Harold Hahn's plans, using his method of construction, and at around the same time, began the "Vandalia" from hull plans in the National Archives. Both were at about the same stage, with hull planking partially complete, when we moved to Virginia, where I finished the "Vandalia". While living there, I had the benefit of wisdom and encouragement from the members of the Hampton Roads Ship Model Society. That group is closely allied with the Mariner's Museum and is a great source of information. See http://www.hrsms.org

In 2003, we moved, briefly, to southern California, where I again benefitted from my model building colleagues at the Ventura County Maritime Museum Ship Model Guild, and at the Ship Modelers Association. See http://www.ship-modelers-assn.org for more information on the SMA and some great photos of models. The Ventura County museum, by the way, has an excellent collection and is well worth a visit when in the L.A. area. it is reviewed at http://www.naut-res-guild.org/mis/ventura.html

While in California, I finished the "Vandalia" in time for the SMA's 2004 Western Ship Model Conference aboard the Queen Mary. At the conference, Ellen and I had a chance to visit with Bob Comet and his new bride.

Finally, in the summer of 2005, we arrived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we intend to stay and where I am slowly building my dream wood shop and model shop.

My models are pretty idiosyncratic. I generally frame with maple and plank with red oak. This started because I had a plentiful supply of each from the farm in New Hampshire. Also, it is readily available and inexpensive. I plank one side of the model and leave the other side unplanked and without deck planking, to expose the frames and deck timbers. I leave the models unpainted and do not make much use of exotic wood as is the current fashion. All fittings are handmade, and the cordage is made up for each model to scale dimensions. For the Essex, I used linen; for the Vandalia, I used cotton. In the latte, I even used cable-laid material for shrouds and some of the running rigging, using Steele's as a guide.

Current projects are to finish the Raleigh and further work on the 3/16" scale hull of the Constitution. The Consitution model may just be too large for masting and rigging, so I may just do a hull model, since I am interested in showing the original head timbering, based on a plan from the National Archives.

Next will be to make another anchor hoy, with the double capstan mechanism showing. And a revenue cutter, probably the "Washington" from the Seagull Plan. With that, I have come full circle.