Recreating historic vessels in miniature...
My inspiration in
crafting all these miniature ships and boats has been historical
research, connected either with family history or archeological studies
done during my career. Since my present research is into our family's
seafaring past, in the 17th century, and the model I am
working on now is a c.1650 New England coasting vessel, I will start
17th Century New
England Trading Vessels
bark of Arent Van Curler crosses the sound from Long Island to the
Connecticut River, 1658
"Passage From Long Island - c.
1650" by Len
(used by permission of the artist)
The painting above resonates particularly
with me, and points to my interest in modeling coasting vessels of New
England in the middle to late 17th century, because it could well
represent the ship of my ancestor, Richard Lord, as described below:
April 1642, Connecticut passed a moratorium on all trade with Long
Island Indians but made an exception for Thomas Stanton and his
brother-in-law , Richard Lord. They were allowed to make one trip to
deliver goods already commited and to collect old debts." (Text below from Colonial
1636 - 1776, Vol. I, 72.)
So sixteen years before the crossing depicted in the
painting above, Richard Lord and his partner, the husband of his
sister, made the same crossing "from Long Island to the Connecticut
River". And obviously he (they) had been engaged in that trade for some
time prior to 1642.
Richard was the eldest son in the large family of
Thomas and Dorothy Lord, living in Towcester, England in the 1620s.
(Details on the family can be found at
a complete presentation of the sea-faring advenbtures of Richard Lord
abnd his son can be found at http://www.living-in-the-past.com/lordsofthesea.html.
Richard was sent, or struck off on his own, to New England and landed
in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1633 at age 21. He settled
Cambridge where he had a house and "shoppe" by 1635, when he was joined
by the rest of his family...father, mother and seven siblings!
In the spring of 1636 they all went with the founding party to create
the settlement of Hartford on the middle Connecticut River, and it is
from that location the sailing ventures of this family evolved.
Interestingly at that time there was already a Dutch trading settlement
on the opposite bank of the river, and it was to this Dutch landing
that the ship portrayed in the painting at the top of this page was
traveling. So Richard early on was witness to what might be accomplshed
with an English-based shipping establishment serving Long Island and
the coastal communities across New England.
the following thumbnail images to see a large version.
"The Hannah - 1777"
Hull length =
10" Overall length = 15"
I had never scratch-built a wooden ship. I had
wooden model kit of an 18th century American ship, The Hannah, and
that with some scratch-built detailing (above). In the end the model
was more detailed and complete than if I had simply followed the
instruction sheet, but it has become something of a derelict from being
stuck on one shelf or another over the years.
Because it was a kit, it did not receive my respect as much as perhaps
it should have. But it was a start in wooden ship model building. It
had a solid wood hull and lots of add-on wooden detailing.
in a bottle...
In the late 1970s I became fascinated with ships in bottles, and as the
book shops seemed not to carry anything about how to do it, I xeroxed
old book in the State Library describing the process. This involved
building the tiny ship
completely outside the bottle, using sewing needles as drills and tiny
loops of thin wire as deadeyes and pulleys, then
relaxing the rigging threads to collapse down the masts and spars flat
to the deck. And then painstakingly fitting the ship through the bottle
neck. Once inside, using long homemade coathanger wire tools and glue,
the ship is
to the inside of the bottle. Once dry, with luck, by carefully
the rigging threads and coaxing the masts back into their former
positions, the ship in a bottle is completed, the threads are glued and
cut, and the bottle is corked.
Hull length = 3.75"
Overall length = 4.5"
Anxious to build, I completed the
three-masted ship (above), being
only a couple inches long, before I had gotten the bottle it was
supposed to go in. Such bottles have to be big enough inside for the
complete ship, and the masts can often be a particular problem due to
their height. Plus,
the neck has to be large enough to allow the ship inside, about big
enough for the first joint of your index finger.
After much hunting around with no success, I finally found a bottle in
antique shop that was JUST large enough, on all counts, to accept my
first ship. Otherwise, it would still be outside. After that I always
got my bottles first,
measured them, and then
designed the ship to fit inside (see two below).
Hull length = 2.5"
Overall length = 5.25"
Hull length = 3.5"
Overall length = 5"
The old whiskey bottles above allowed a ship of about
3 inches length inside, with
the masts, built to the correct proportions, just touching the glass at
the top. The sides allow a nice window on the result.
In the 1990s I made another of the two-masted schooner (above) as a
gift for my wife's uncle in Northern Ireland.
Ship length =
boat above was a way to use an old bottle that was
two short to
accommodate a full-masted sailing vessel. So I built a two inch long
model of a Revolutionary War gunboat that operated on Lake Champlain in
One year I built two ships at once to be Christmas presents, and since
these were copies of one I had built before, I assumed I would find two
of the same bottles to put them in.
Hull length = 3.5"
Overall length = 5"
But it turned out the modern version of that whiskey
bottle is made for
a screw-top, not a cork, and the necks are much too small. So I was
forced to give the "ships in a jar", mainly just as display items,
instead of true works of bottling skill. Everyone had a good laugh.
boats and batteaux....
My interest in Durham boats began in 1983, while directing
environmental impact studies in history and archeology at the New York
State Museum. We had been assigned a project that included bits of the
historic Erie Canal (1817 - 1890). And alongside those remains we found
remains of the earlier German Flatts canal, actually built in 1798.
This was the first I had heard of an earlier "Canal Age" in New York,
and my interest in this era sparked an interest in the unusual
boats that utilized the system.
This inland waterway
route connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes had been
previously passable only in small 30 foot long "batteaux", having to
several land portages to complete the journey. But these 1790s
improvements allowed the larger 60 foot long
to pass along the entire route without portaging, and led to an
expansion of western settlement, trade and national security.
Durham boats were flat bottomed, (see 1808
engraving above) as all boats
had to be in a route obstructed by dozens of shallow "rifts" or shoals,
many only knee deep. They were double-ended, like batteaux, but rather
than poled from a fixed standing position, these boats were poled like
the later river boats....or "flatboats"... of the West. Men walked back
along cleated boards with 18 foot long iron-tipped poles to push the
boat forward, often pressed into their shoulder while they dropped to
hands and feet for extra purchase.
Since I frequently gave lectures on our
projects, and on this topic of inland navigation and early canals, I
decided to make models of these boats (above) as visual aids.
First I made the cargo version of a Durham boat (above, left); then a
model of the smaller batteau (above, center), and finally a model of
the later Durham passenger boat (above, right).
length = 15" Overall length = 18"
My model (above, left) was a
1/4"=1' (1:48) Durham boat set up as a cargo vessel. I had a good set
of plans, a block of basswood left over from my ship-in-a-bottle
a set of small woodcarving tools... and just started in.
The hull was carved from
solid basswood, and
the the extensive cargo hold, which runs almost the entire length, was
carefully carved out using chisels. Cleated running boards were added,
and dowels used to make the mast and poles. The need for detailed cargo
was handled by creating a covered cargo area, a load of bricks, boxes,
barrels, a millstone and a farmer's new plow, all headed upriver to the
settlements, and all handmade to fit.
Since this was
to be educational, to give a true sense of scale to the audience, I
needed a crew, and found, purely by luck, a set of Merten "O" scale
German railroad personnel at the local model railroad shop. (As it
turns out, this was a lucky event, as now (2012) these figures are
impossible to find in that scale.)
can be readily seen, these figures of 20th century European station
personnel are simple and generic enough to be converted to 18th century
boat crew. By sanding off a few pockets and buttons, the jackets become
frocks or hunting shirts (below).
Modern caps are converted to typical round
hats (below) by sanding off the bill of the cap and then filing the top
head round with a "shelf" at the eyebrow level. Then a "brim" is cut
from mylar (or any thin but fairly rigid stock...
card may work but might warp when painted) and a hole the same diameter
as the head knob is cut or punched in the center. The brim is then
glued onto the "peg", which becomes the body of the hat.
To provide contrast of scale, I made a 3-handed batteau using the same
Hull length = 7.5"
Overall length = 10"
German figures had already become hard to find, and I waited months for
the order I placed at the local model railroad shop to come in.
along in the research project I discovered evidence of how the large
freight boats were later converted to passenger use, years before the
passenger packet boats of the Erie Canal would come into being. Details
on an 1815 woodcut broadside (below) advertising the boat service, and
descriptions found in documents, confirmed the design. It was a basic
Durham boat with seats added, covered
with an "awning", and roll-up curtains like a stagecoach.
using the basic freight boat I had first built as the guide, I created
another Durham boat model (below) and then added on the appropriate
passenger accoutrements as described and shown in the documents.
Hull length = 15"
Overall length = 18"
context I modeled a section of the Schenectady harbor waterfront, as it
existed when these boats were in service, and populated it with waiting
passengers and boatmen (below).
A fully loaded passenger vessel required finding lots of seated people,
and Merten carried a set of seated 1950s subway riders, which, with
some modification, became 1790s river boat riders (below).
Some were apparently too good to ride inside with the riff-raff, and
"took the air" outside on the deck (below). The woman's broad-brimmed
straw hat was made using the same "head knob" technique, and then tied
under the chin with thread.
Recall that these boats are made at 1:48 scale, which means this lady,
when standing up, would be just 1 1/4 inches tall.
Colonial Bark - c. 1640
The summer of
2005 (I think) I had the month of August free,
after the end of teaching my summer class and before the start of the
fall semester. And I wanted a project I could complete in that
time to do something to break the academic cycle. I decided to attempt
to build a wooden ship from scratch, and by happenstance I had a set of
1/4" = 1' modeling plans of "A
Colonial Bark - 1640" which I
had purchased in
the 1970s in the shop at Plimoth Plantation; a recreation of the
English settlement as it was in 1627. It was close enough to the type
of ships my ancestors would have sailed out of Connecticut in the 1640s
to give the project a little
extra meaning, and the packet of plans had been stuck on a shelf
gathering dust for nearly 30 years! (Never throw anything away!)
I did not have
the skill, the time or the inclination to
ship as a plank-on-frame model, and so just scaled up the hull modeling
technique of solid basswood hulls used for my other vessels (bottle
and Durham boats). Carving a solid wood hull is relatively
good quality basswood. But next I needed to evolve this into a finished
Hull length = 12"
Overall length = 16"
I decided on a waterline model (above), rather than a
full hull, as I
show it as a ship in action, with figures I had left over from my
previous 1:48 (1/4" = 1') boat projects. This also allowed me to screw
the hull down from underneath to a working plank for construction ....a
of a dry dock.
The idea of scribing planking lines on the deck and hull did not even
enter my mind, but the idea of glueing down tiny planking on the deck,
as tedious as this was, had immediate appeal. Using some very thin
strips of basswood from the local crafts store, I planked the deck
taking probably about as long is it did to plank the actual ship!
A bit intimidated by planking the hull, with the curves involved, I
also had to create the frames which in an actual ship would have
continued above the deck. The only way I could solve this "problem" was
to inlet heavier lengths of basswood into the upper edge of my solid
hull; carving slots at each location, and gluing in the pieces. (Now
much later I find this is the normal way one does a solid hull model,
but at the time I felt I had "cheated" somehow.)
Working carefully, the hull planks could be glued on (above), with the
near the bow eased to fit the curve by boiling them for a few minutes
and then bending them in a jig. Once cooled and dry, they retained
enough curve to make the job easier.
Masts and yards were made from dowels, hatches and hatch covers were
built from thin basswood, eyes for threading lines were made by
twisting wire over a needle, cutting the "tail" to length and gluing
into a hole. The deadeyes and blocks were a major challenge, but since
I did not want any "store bought" parts on this ship, I used the
standard method of trial-and-error, mostly error, to come up with a
For blocks (above) I drilled tiny holes through square basswood stock
perpendicular to each other at what would end up as each end of the
block. Then I cut the blocks from the strip, rounded the ends on
sandpaper, fixed wire through the secured end and threaded the running
lines through the other hole.
For deadeyes (above) I fortunately had a Dremel miniature lathe and put
dowels of the right diameter. I scribed in a shallow groove for the
rope that goes around the circumference of the deadeye and then made a
deeper cut between each groove placed to produce a deadeye of the right
thickness. Then I cut them apart, off the lathe, with a micro-saw.
There was lots of error and waste, and I ended up with about
usable deadeye blank for every five or six I attempted.
Once they were sanded slightly to round edges, I put them in a jig I
made of styrene that held the deadeye flat and had three drill guide
holes used to drill each deadeye. Again, quality control was not up to
industrial standards and I could only use one out of three drilled
specimens. Had I used a higher quality wood, like mahogany or maple,
instead of over-the-counter dowels, the success rate would have been
much improved. But I had just over three weeks to work on this, and the
craft store was a 90 minute round trip, if even they had suitable
dowels or stock, so it made more sense to waste time making them in
substandard wood than waste time driving back and forth.
Fortunately I had several now-impossible-to-find Merten "O" scale
(1:48) plastic German railroad figures
left over from my Durham boat models that were very well suited for
conversion to ships crew. And I had one seated 1950s passenger left
over as well.
Since one figure had his arms upraised and would model up nicely as a
crew member holding up a crate (above), I decided to open up
a hatch into
the hold and have this man coming up the ladder with cargo. That meant
cutting down into the solid hull deep enough for a ladder on which he
would be stepping up. In basswood that is "easily" done, with small
chisels and care.
One of the figures works perfectly, without modification of the arms
and legs, as working the tiller, and the seated man becomes the owner
of the cargo (above), making sure of his investment. The train crewman
extended arm, now no longer holding his lantern, becomes ship's crew
managing one of the lines.
It was interesting learning about the deck "furniture" (above), which
a 17th century capstan, bilge pump and the iron chimney stack for the
galley. Just lots of very tiny scratch-building using the plans and
photos. For scale, the bilge pump (above, left) is less than one inch
The anchor was built with wood and wire and card stock. The
small rail-mounted gun is certainly out of scale, and probably needs to
be replaced. It was the last item, before sails and rigging.
Sails were made of worn cotton sheeting, seams drawn on in pencil,
edges rolled and glued, and then hand-stitched to lines. Dyed
tea and coffee to a brown color, which probably should have just been a
weathered white instead, these were bound to the spars and as they hung
rather badly, I glued the sails to the mast stays. Next time I will
starch the sails to their proper shape first, or maybe just model
furled sails instead.
A 17th Century Ketch
2011) During my attempt at total retirement, I decided to attempt
another scratch-built wooden ship, and after extensive research into
the ships my ancestors were involved with in the Connecticut River from
1635 to 1675, I chose a "ketch" design.
There are no plans from
that period, but the same man who made the drawings for my previous
model ship had plans for both a "pinnace" and a "ketch". Both had been
built at 100% scale as replicas, but the price MIT wanted for the full
set of ketch plans was over $150.00! Too rich for me at my stage of the
so I combined the lines from the pinnace with ample online
of a museum model ketch (see below), and photos of the full-scale
replica as the basis for my model.
Model of museum display 17th century ketch.
there is no perfect record of what vessels my ancestors sailed, other
than ambiugous words like "ship" and "ketch", which in the 17th century
were not exactly applied, and since any "plans" or "lines" made up by
nautical architects in the 20th century are highly hypothectical, even
when based on museum models of the period, I felt justified.
Full-scale replica of 17th century ketch
Hull length =
At this point the solid hull, stem and stern posts in
place, (above) and frames attached. The first few runs of hull planking
are attached. To accentuate the tarred seams between deck planking this
time, I painted the edges of each tiny deck plank black beofre glueing
on, and then sanded down the deck, leaving the nice seams (below).
..to be continued.