Ships for Lilliput



SOUTH STREET, New York, was an avenue of enchantment fifty years ago. Tall ships still tied up at its wharves, their long bowsprits reaching across the street to poke out the eyes of the red-brick ship chandlers that lined the other side. There from their deep holds square-riggers debouched foreign-looking merchandise in picturesque containers: carboys, mats, jute wrappers, wicker panniers, stenciled with strange distant names — names not so strange today, alas, as we learn our geography in a cruel and bitter school.

That street gave me my first lessons in naval architecture. I was born a thousand miles from salt water. I never saw a ship until I was twentythree years old. But from earliest childhood I had sought to make them. With only the picture under the word “ship” in Webster’s dictionary as a guide, I had tried to build miniature replicas of those gallant barks that fascinated me so completely. I had never heard of ship models, which was just as well, for the crude vessels I made were models of no ship that ever sailed.

When I arrived in New York to take up the serious business of earning a living I had few possessions, but I still had my preoccupation with the sea and its ships, and a hand familiar with tools. The place where I worked was but a few blocks from Coenties Slip, and all the time I could snatch from a hasty lunch I spent roaming the waterside, studying each vessel with loving scrutiny, often going aboard when bosuns were amiable. I got the feel of a ship as an entity, and my enthusiasm remained undimmed.

But those were precarious days, and there was no opportunity for the indulgence of activities unconnected with the main problem of living. Many years later, when I had a house of my own where I could give rein to such fancies, I set up a workbench and began again as a man where I had left off as a boy, to create miniature copies of those fascinating objects that appealed so strongly to my imagination and sense of craftsmanship.

One reward of making model ships is that there is no known way to fake them. They are works of craftsmanship and can be no more turned out by mass production than oil paintings or Oriental rugs. No matter how simple or sketchy the rigging, it must be done by hand, and in a fullrigged ship the amount and intricacy of the rigging demand patience and skill to an unusual degree. You may sometimes see in souvenir shops the cheap and gaudy papier-mâché models made, I believe, in Germany (or possibly Japan), clumsy contrivances with none of the charm of a ship, unconvincing stage properties that deceive none but the ill-informed.

A real model must be painstakingly set up, following in each step the order in which the original ship was rigged. The earlier the period the simpler the rigging. As men advanced in knowledge of shipbuilding the number of sails increased until we had the full-rigged ship, of which the clipper with its long graceful lines, convex bows, and clean narrow run, was the most perfect type. Such a ship carried thirty sails, with all the horses, tyes, lifts, halliards, clews, sheets, reef points, buntlines, and bowlines needed to set or furl them; and the effect of that bewildering network, all taut and shipshape, every line belayed to its proper pin in the fife rail or bulwark, is an inspiring sight whether viewed in the actual ship or in a faithful and understanding model of it.


A block of hard white pine is best for the hull. There is no need to consider beauty of grain as in carved work to be left nude, for the hull will be hidden by paint, perhaps even coppered. A block thick enough is not easily come by in conventional lumberyards, but an admirable substitute is two or more boards glued together. By having one of the joints in the median line you have a constant convenient base for setting off measurements, no matter how deeply you cut.

This is for a solid hull, sufficient for all but determined realists, as none of the inside construction shows in the finished model. Those determined realists, however, cunningly omit a few strakes from their finished models so that you can peep in and admire their craftsmanship. And craftsmanship it is, that beautiful assemblage of tiny timbers as painstakingly measured and scaled as the interior of a clock. But for my purpose a solid hull is sufficient and gives amusing occupation in my spare time for months.

The hull is shaped by templets, cross-sections of the hull at regular intervals, traced from plans of famous vessels that still exist, reduced to scale. For modern sailing ships the carving is simple; for those of Pepys’s navy, with their gilded sterns in flattery of the sprigs of nobility who nominally commanded them, it is more elaborate.

Not enough has been said or sung about the joys of wood carving. The feel of tool against wood, the mere making of shavings, yield a certain satisfaction. Whittling is an authentic American folkway. The pioneers whittled as they talked. Nearly every village boasted a virtuoso who could and did fashion a linked chain from a single piece of wood. Wood carving is merely advanced whittling. You learn in the first few cuts the disposition of your block, for each bit of wood has its own character that must be humored. “Against the grain” is a saying born of woodworking. One of the finest tonics for the human spirit is that sense of mastery afforded by the extension of the hand with a tool one knows how to manipulate. It gives a thrill the poet must feel who has completed a successful sonnet. For, after all, the word “poet” means merely “maker.” Poetry can be done with a flat gouge as well as with a pen.

Carving ends when the last mast and spar as well as the deck furniture have been fashioned. Then comes the rigging, which is in another category — somewhere between lacemaking and tying hooked rugs. The model-maker combines functions that are separate in the world of reality, for ships were built by shipwrights but rigged by sailors. Scale is as vital in the rigging as in the hull, and this presents some pretty problems. One sees models in which the topsail halliards are as thick as the mainstay, from ignoring the delicate gradation in size as the rig mounts aloft. The different weights of fishline afford an excellent assortment of make-believe ropes ranging from heavy to light. But there are also the seizing (that is, the binding of one rope to another) and the serving of a rope-end so that it will not fray. I long sought a thread fine enough to play the part of the spun yarn with which such work is done, and found it among the gossamer filaments of Belgian lacemakers, a thread so fine its number is 1000. You can guess how small that is by glancing at the numbers on the spools in your wife’s workbasket.

The search for both material and tools is part of the game. To secure tools small enough for some of the more delicate operations, I raided the dentist, the watchmaker, and even the manicurist. In space where hands cannot penetrate, lines are belayed, knots tied, by means of a stiff wire with a notch in the end and a pair of long tweezers. The loose ends are snipped off with surgeon’s scissors. Considerable legerdemain is needed at various stages in rigging. While pine does admirably for the hull, for small parts, particularly the numerous blocks and deadeyes, a close-grained wood, not too hard to work easily, is indicated. Cocobolo, a beautiful brown the color of a weathered block, answers the purpose. Blocks are shaped one by one, mainly with small woodworking files.

One of the problems was to find a substitute for the pull of a gang of men on a line to bowse, or tauten, a stay or shroud. If made fast it is too static; there must be a certain amount of give. I am modestly jubilant over my solution. An elastic band with a wire hook bent tight so as to hold a line is made fast to the rail and the stretched hook engaged with the mimic rope to be set up. When the stay or shroud has been securely seized the tackle is removed and the loose rope-end cut off. I hope this is clear, for I was as tickled as Archimedes must have been.

Little ships have a stronger hold on our imaginations than most miniature models. It is the rare mixture of the patient, loving work that has gone to their making with a quickened sense of all that they stand for. To many of us they are Romance — the age of sail and the strong men it bred; the days of oak and hemp, privateering, piracy, slave running, whaling; Columbus, Drake; Frobisher, Magellan, Captain Ahab; glittering argosies, “apes, peacocks and ivory.” How those little galleons, frigates, and clippers fire the imagination !


The very names of types of vessels are full of suggestion — xebec, felucca, polacre, carrick, bilander, hoy, caravel, snow, lugger, junk, sloop, schooner; each a bit of marine history, each a step toward victory in the agelong contest with wind and wave and tide, which do not change but lie in wait to tussle with each new product of man’s ingenuity. And finally came the clippers, the most inspiring structures devised by man, cathedrals of the sea, with the lines of a yacht and a sail-spread never equaled before or since, with tea chests below their hatches, clipping miles off the China run and filling stately Salem mansions with the products of Oriental art.

To some of us they spell craftsmanship — the skill and patience necessary to put together the thousand tiny parts; to rig and reeve the gear at each mast and yard; doing with clumsy giant fingers delicate operations supposedly performed by men an inch high; never forgetting the effect of the whole, the ensemble, the picture the ship should make when completed: taut and neat and shipshape “Bristol fashion,” every rope belayed, all sails drawing, gallant and upstanding.

One joy of model-making is salt-water archaeology — the history of marine architecture, the story of sail from the first coracle with a hide stretched to catch the wind down to the last square-rigger. There are old books with prints and plans to be found by searching, foxed volumes that show how ships were built and rigged in other days — Steel, Charnock, Jal, Captain John Smith, Falconer, Admiral Paris, and “Darcy Lever” — by which the pleasures of book-collecting are added to those of model-making, driving a span of hobbies double harness.

Information is strangely disproportionate. There is no record of what the Mayflower looked like, but we have the veritable plans of Columbus’s three ships. It is a fascinating field of research and he who wishes to make authentic models of real ships, Ark Royal, Great Harry, Constitution, Trafalgar, Dreadnaught, must study old books as well as the writings of modern enthusiasts and experts.

One such expert is the informed and amiable Professor F. Alexander Magoun of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who gives himself a busman’s holiday from his work of teaching modern naval architecture by playing with ancient naval architecture. His researches have added considerably to our knowledge of the Mayflower and the Constitution. R. C. Anderson has gone into marine lore with typical English thoroughness. He is editor of the Mariner’s Mirror, the magazine that binds together what Christopher Morley calls “kinsprits,” from President Roosevelt the collector to Henry Culver the constructor. The magazine has survived one war and is bravely carrying on amidst another. His remarkably clear and helpful book, The Rigging of Ships in the Days of the Spritsail Topmast, is a must for all makers of ships before 1720. And we have Captain Charles C. Davis, published by that conservatory of naval history, the Marine Research Society of Salem, whose three books tell almost all one needs to know to build a Flying Cloud or other clipper. It would be hard to find another leisure-time occupation that has roots in so many inspiring interests.

The love of old ships adds richness to living and affords unfailing amusement. It draws one to the waterside, wharves, quays, ports, docks — especially in the Old World, where sailing ships were still to be seen when I last saw Europe. One looks with new interest on the craft of various countries, noting how different problems are met by different rigs. It is significant, for instance, that on three Italian lakes — Maggiore, Como, and Lugano — only a few miles apart, the rigs of fishermen’s boats are wholly unlike. Each is an inherited tradition. So also the fishing vessels of France have the same occupational diversity. The bateau boeuf, or ox-boat, — so-called because the nets are so large the boats are yoked in pairs to drag them in, — does not resemble the homardier that fetches the lobsters, or the sardinier, or the pêcheur d’Islande that makes the long voyage to the Grand Banks for cod, described so movingly by Pierre Loti.

Much of this innocent pleasure has been blotted out for the time being. “Ship” has become a distressing word in our vocabulary. But nothing can take away from the sequestered satisfaction of making them — an occupation that requires little space, that grows and widens in interest, lasts a long while, and calls upon so many kinds of skill, both mental and manual.

In the brave days of American supremacy on the sea, ships built at Bath or Salem and manned by American-born seamen outsailed the world. Lithographs of famous clippers, Young America, Sea Witch, Red Jacket, Great Republic, were published by Currier and Ives, sold for a few cents. Today such prints sell for hundreds of dollars in Madison Avenue antique shops. The new interest in ship models has spurred many to make them. Some are doing it for love (a literal translation of amateur is “lover”); others are professionals selling models to those who feel they simply must have a little ship to stand on the mantelpiece as the last touch in interior decoration.