The Call of the Sea
Local Model Shipwrights Create Miniature Wonders.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.
~ John Masefield from the poem “Sea Fever”
Perhaps it’s the stories immortalizing battles with whales and heroic skirmishes with pirates. Or possibly the vastness of the sea itself tugs at our hearts just as the moon draws the tide. Some people buy boats and learn to navigate nearby waters. Others distill the siren’s call down to its essence, creating scale models of ships, and even bottling them.
Model ships have been around since man took to water. They’ve been used as totems in Egyptian tombs and in churches as votive offerings for safe voyages, and sailors who spent months at sea built scale models as a creative way to earn extra money. These days, this ancient art form is in the hands of devoted hobbyists, and they’re keeping it alive and well in the Merrimack Valley.
A good place to learn about the hobby is at Piel Craftsmen in Newburyport. Owner Bill Partridge and his wife, Rita, have run the shop since 1996. The original owner, Ed Piel, operated the business out of a garage behind his house on State Street beginning in the 1940s. Bill was 17 when he began working for Piel; it was a great job for a kid who liked to build plastic models. Today, the store is nestled on a small side street not far from the Merrimack River. Completed ships, model kits and miniature nautical apparatus of every kind are on display. Stop in, and Bill will tell you about the business and about the A.J. Fisher Ship Model Kit Company, which he purchased in 2003. Piel Craftsmen offers solid-hull kits, which are good for beginners, along with plank-on-frame and plank-on-bulkhead kits, which are more complex.
Bill says most model shipwrights are retirement-age men who finally have time to devote to the craft. Hobbyists typically have a passion for maritime history and a desire to recreate it with their hands. The task requires fine motor coordination and attention to detail, so the hobby tends to draw engineers, doctors, dentists and machinists.
Getting started is affordable and simple. Tools include a craftsman’s knife and blades, a razor saw, a straight edge, files, sandpaper and glue. Basic kits cost $23 to $40. More complex kits run from $100 to $2,000 and can take 500 to 800 hours to complete. Most hobbyists start with kits, and then move on to adding custom details. Advanced builders develop their ships from scratch. Research is almost always part of the process, and advanced craftsmen hunt down obscure ship drawings on museum websites. One modeler Bill knows is working entirely from a photograph.
You can get support and suggestions for project challenges from the Merrimack Valley Ship Model Club, which meets from 8 to 10 a.m. on the second Saturday of each month at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport.
Some model shipwrights take the craft a step further by putting their vessels inside other vessels. “Patience bottles” had been around for centuries before bored sailors in the early 1800s took the idea and swam with it. David Lavoie of Bottleneck Treasures in Methuen has been a bottled-ship devotee for years, and recently was asked to become chairman of membership of the Ships in Bottles Association of America. He makes everything by hand, including all of the fittings, and says, “I define myself as having the Lilliputian effect, because with every ship I build, I imagine myself on the deck of that vessel. If you ever look through the bottleneck of a ship in bottle, you’ll know exactly what I mean.”
David has an unusual specialty: He creates miniatures, fitting micro-ships into pocket watch cases, and even into tiny lightbulbs. He says about 4,000 people worldwide build ships in bottles, but only around 100 create miniatures.
Bottleneck Treasures is a “Martha Stewart American Made 2013 Audience Choice Awards” nominee. The editors choose ten small business entrepreneurs whose art is fabricated completely in the U.S. to receive awards, while readers choose the business that wins the grand prize.
If you prefer to view the art form rather than create it, you can find gorgeous examples around the Valley. The Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover have permanent displays of model ships. The Institution for Savings has a small collection, so keep your eyes peeled when visiting its branches. You’ll find ships tucked away in various bank corners, including a spectacular replica of the “Hancock,” a Revolutionary War frigate.
While looking at miniature ships, you might imagine thundering waves, needles of sharp, salt spray, and the promise of adventure in every port. The lure of the sea can’t be denied, but it can be modeled. And maybe even bottled.
Merrimack Valley Ship Model Club