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Ship Shapers : Museum Guild's Model Builders Take History Into Their Own Hands

February 24, 1997|COLL METCALFE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After watching Sergio Aragones craft the mast rigging of a model ship, with its flea-sized knots and pulleys no bigger than match heads, it's easy to appreciate the level of patience and concentration his hobby demands.

Working with needle-nosed tweezers, delicate dental instruments and a visor complete with magnifying lenses, the 59-year-old Ojai resident carefully looped the hair-like thread around the mast of an 1800s opium smuggling ship during a recent demonstration at the Ventura County Maritime Museum at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.

"It's all in the process," he said. "The satisfaction is in actually building these ships and spending weeks just to get some aspect of the boat right. It's never in getting it done."

When not busy illustrating cartoons for Mad magazine, Aragones shares his passion for miniature ship building with 37 other modelers from the museum's modelers guild.

The guild, founded five years ago, meets monthly and gives members the chance to talk about ships, attend seminars on everything from sculpting mastheads to tying knots and get advice from some of the more experienced shipwrights.

Members of the guild are quick to say that they are carrying on a craft that has been around since the time of the pyramids.

Ancient Egyptian artisans made scale replicas of royal sailing barges out of papyrus reeds and placed them in the tombs of the pharaohs. Those ships, captained by the god Osiris, were suppose to carry the pharaoh's soul into the afterlife.

With that legacy in mind, every modeler in the guild takes his work seriously. It isn't uncommon for them to spend more than a year perfecting every detail on the ship because if something isn't right, someone's going to notice.

"Look at this," said guild member Forrest Scott, pointing to the frayed end of a knot, no bigger than the head of a pin, on a replica of a 19th century tall ship on display at the museum. "That's something you don't want to have on your model. Sailors would have never let something like that happen."

While all the modelers agree that building their replicas is a relaxing hobby that demands as much concentration as it does elbow grease, there's also more to it.

"You have to know about history," said 52-year-old Richard Walton of Oxnard while sanding the skeletal frame of his replica of a 1780s English revenue boat. "When you build these you get a look into what life was like back then and how people lived."

He added that when building the replicas, modelers have to employ the same problem-solving techniques shipwrights used hundreds of years ago.

To get his boat right, Walton visited England so he could see the real boat and take notes on the original plans housed at the British Maritime Museum.

"You put so much of yourself into these models," Walton said. "When they're finally done you're a little sad."

Although most of the modelers have been building their miniatures for years, they still look to guild President Jim Berger when they run into problems.

Berger, who has been a serious modeler for 37 years, doesn't use a kit. Instead, he will start a model from scratch and spends up to five years completing it. One of his models, a 2-foot-long replica of the 19th century USS Constitution, took more than 12,000 hours to complete and is now a permanent exhibit at the maritime museum.

Berger is an encyclopedia of nautical facts. If someone is having problems finding out what type of block-and-tackle rigging was used in 1780, they ask Berger.

"He's the one you go to for an answer," said 86-year-old Henry Alsky of Oxnard, another guild member. "He's got a good coconut on him and knows how to do it."

For Berger, building models has become much more than a hobby: It's a passion that consumes a sizable part of every day.

The 72-year-old Oxnard resident builds his ships in a studio perfumed with a sweet woody smell and stuffed with nautical history books, blueprints, exotic planks of wood and strange tools.

"Even after all these years I'm still fascinated by the grounding of lines because of their geometry," Berger said, pointing to the web of black threads running over the masts, booms, jibs and bowsprit. "They're all triangles and they're that way for a reason."

Berger, who estimates he has completed more than 40 models, has spent the past year on a replica of the Druid, a 16-gun sloop used as an escort ship by the British in the late 18th century to ward off pirates.

To match the sloop's original color, Berger has cut planks of cherry, ebony, holly, Swiss pear and maple to width of Popsicle sticks to form the ship's hull and deck.

For armaments, he machined solid hunks of brass down to finger-sized cannons complete with case moldings and fuses.

Berger, who retired five years ago as a civil engineer, now spends most of the day working on his models. He's now about ready to start "turning the mast" for the Druid.

"You never rush things like this, you just can't," he stressed. "It takes a lot of work and time to get this right."

For Berger and everyone else in the guild, building model ships has become something of an obsession. Each will spend some time daily working on some aspect of the model.

"It's all individual," Walton said. "It's relaxing, but it's not mindless. It takes a lot of preparation, study, problem-solving, concentration and most of all patience."

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