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SCOPE

Craftsman builds wooden warships the old-fashioned way: without electric tools, prefabricated parts, blueprints.

July 28, 1988|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

George O. Wilson spent the slow, summer morning surveying the cluttered deck of the World War II British battleship.

Wilson pushed his glasses atop his salt-and-pepper crew cut. With an eye for detail developed through years of shipbuilding, he crouched to get a better perspective.

Gaping holes dotted the main deck where bombs dropped by German Messerschmitts had scored direct hits. Splinters of wood were left scattered across the ruined planking.

Other parts of the ship were a mess as well. A series of tiny holes from machine-gun fire ran up the superstructure to the bridge. Lines were broken, portholes appeared to have been shot out. The anchor chain was missing.

Then with a quick, approving nod, and a wipe of his weathered hand across his paint-stained khaki pants, Wilson pulled his glasses back in place, picked up his small saw and resumed cutting and sanding the triple-barrel, flattop gun turret that would eventually be affixed to the ship's stern.

The unnamed battleship, still without a complete hull, is the latest in a fleet of intricately crafted wooden warships that Wilson, a longtime Lakewood resident, has built over the past 30 years.

Standing in his garage on Lakewood Boulevard--he calls it his shipyard--Wilson is surrounded by his fleet of World War II-vintage American, British and German fighting vessels. The ships, 10 to 12 feet long, were handcrafted the old-fashioned way--without the aid of electric tools, prefabricated parts or blueprints.

"They start from here," says Wilson, 62, placing a finger on his right temple. "That's the only blueprint I use." Often working 40 hours a week in his garage, Wilson painstakingly creates the ships by sawing, whittling and sanding them either from memory or from a small photograph in a naval encyclopedia.

The hull and superstructure are formed from strips of wooden planking fixed to ribbing. The rest--from the turrets to the lifeboats--is whittled from blocks of wood.

Completing a ship takes about a year, thousands of razor blades and sheets of sandpaper, and about $2,000 of beechwood, pine, redwood and balsa. He adds model airplanes and men to the finished piece for more detail.

The finished product, weighing more than 100 pounds, is then painted gray or a camouflaged variation and displayed at local functions. The British battleship is Wilson's most detailed effort to date, and the first one to bear the scars of an imaginary battle.

Wilson, who was forced to retire in 1979 as an aircraft mechanic with Douglas Aircraft when he hurt his back, is more at home around ships than planes. His specialty is World War II fighting ships, but he also has just finished a 13-foot replica of the 42,000-ton Empress of Britain, a luxury passenger liner that carried King George VI and Princess Elizabeth to Canada in 1939. The triple-stack ocean liner was torpedoed in 1940 and damaged.

"This is my pride and joy," Wilson said as he pointed to the red-hulled passenger liner on his driveway. It is the only non-military ship he has built since he began his hobby three decades ago.

Wilson's love for the fighting ships began during his tour in the Navy from 1943 to 1948. He spent part of his tour of duty in Pearl Harbor, and seven years ago created a replica of "Battleship Row," showing Japanese fighters strafing and bombing the ill-fated battleships during the surprise attack in 1941.

A member of several veterans' organizations in Lakewood, Culver City and Bellflower, Wilson says that he often displays his ships at halls and lodges during patriotic holidays.

The ship that draws the most praise, he says, is his 12-foot Independence-class aircraft carrier. Inside the watertight hull he installed a small electric motor. The twin screws under the ships can push the hulking flattop 5 knots through the water.

"It's as seaworthy as the real thing," Wilson said.

The ship that draws the most criticism from purists is the ship he calls the "blood ship." His personal favorite, the warship is a hodgepodge of American, British and German designs of the time.

Built on a German hull, the 11-foot cruiser sports British gun turrets, an American superstructure and a light-reconnaissance aircraft launcher. It is called the blood ship because of the amount of blood Wilson lost from cuts on his fingers while whittling various ship parts with razor blades.

Wilson says his creations draw a steady stream of curious joggers, drivers and nearby residents looking to pass a little time staring at history.

Jack Van Der Linden, a Paramount official, entertained salesman Brian Quadt with a tour of Wilson's nautical gallery over a lunch break. Six of Wilson's military vessels and the Empress of Britain are stored in the garage. The others are locked in a storage facility because of the lack of room.

"I told you these were great," a smiling Van Der Linden said as other passers-by stopped into the garage for a quick tour and a sea tale or two by Wilson.

Another fan who met Wilson and browsed through his collection wrote recently from the warship Okinawa in the Persian Gulf.

"One day I saw you work as I drove by and so I stopped in to see more and to meet you," wrote Seaman Erin Beckley. "Keep up the good and hard work."

"He's the one doing all the hard work," said Wilson, holding the letter. "I can't believe this affects people like that."

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