The Zen of Model Boat Building
Copyright Vladimir Kagan October 15, 2015
noun: Zen; noun: Zen Buddhism
a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition.
Several weeks ago I ranted about my niggling personal faults: “I am compulsive - impulsive – slap-dash and never measure!” There is one cure for that: Build a model boat! It teaches patience and precision, resulting in the deep satisfaction of working with your hands. It liberates you from the computer. It is reasonably quick and does not exhaust your attention span. And most satisfying: it gives you bragging rights of having done it yourself and yet one more model to put on your bookshelf or mantle.
My latest accomplishment - a scale model of a Gloucester Dory, in the library of my Nantucket home
A closeup photos of the intricacies of the Gloucester Dory model.
Nantucket is blessed with a number of dedicated craft centers: NISDA, (Nantucket Island School Design and Art) an unofficial offshoot of RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and AAN (Artist Association of Nantucket) founded by artists for artist – have wonderful teaching programs. And there is also the 1800 House, a beautifully restored historic building dedicated to teaching historic crafts. It is one of the NHA’s (the Nantucket Historic Association) notable properties and an example of alternate uses of historic structures
The 1800 House is where my wife, Erica Wilson, taught adorable children’s classes, a tradition now carried on by my daughter Vanessa. It is also where my friend, Mark Sutherland teaches a class in model boat building.
Mark is one of the finest model makers in the country. He has made a career out of his childhood love and builds exquisite models for museums and private collections. It is fortunate that Mark owns a family house on Nantucket and spends part of his summers with us. It allows him to teach this program. This was my second class with Mark.
(At the end of this article, please see a few photos of Mark's work)
This years’ project was a model of a Gloucester Dory. Some fifty years ago I owned one of these beautiful boats. It was unfortunately smashed into smithereens during one of Nantucket’s hurricanes. I had saved the sternpost all these years until finally this spring I cleaned out my garage and asked, “Why am I saving this?” and dumped it into the landfill! (One of my listed faults: impulsive knee-jerk reaction.) Here was my opportunity to create a memorial for this handsome boat.
My original Gloucester Dory photo taken in the 70's with Erica and my three children - note: we had a center well for a small outboard motor
The most famous Dory: A Winslow Homer's painting of a fisherman returning home with his catch
On the first day, Mark provided us with a perfect model of a Dory. We took one look at it and questioned “Was that what he intended us to produce in four half days???” He assured us it would be done!
The bits and pieces that made up Mark's boat building kit.
We were handed a ‘kit’ consisting of a bundle of white pine wood cut to different sizes and shapes. A handful of stainless steel stickpins, a bag of clothespins, an Exacto knife, a sand paper block, pencil, cardboard, scissors, a pair of fine nosed pliers and a variety of fast drying glues. These were all the tools we were to work with. The only machine available was a table mounted belt sander. We were ready to start.
The delicate task of assembling the first planks
The model boat building process is exactly the same as building a full size version. You start from the bottom with the floorboards and add the stern and bow posts. Quickly, we understood why we were given a sand paper block, you must whittle and sand each component to fit perfectly as they will become inaccessible once assembled. This is painstaking, laborious work and the first test in patience! Each lap strait panel needed to be bent to fit the curve of the boat. Pins and clothespins substituted for the heavy clamping used on the full-size boat.
Each day moved us closer to fulfilling our goal. The pleasure was seeing this boat take shape from the ground up. The most challenging and rewarding task was carving the oars. They are so pretty and delicate.
The first lesson in diligence is patience!
Mark Sutherland demonstrating how to set the steel pins.
Satisfaction at last: My finished model on the left - Mark's on the right.
Mission accomplished: Four days later - the proud participants in the class showing off their models
Each year Mark offers a different class of a boat for us to recreate. My first model was a half-hull of an Indian, a venerable day racing boat designed by John Alden in 1927. It is still one of the most competitive classes racing in Nantucket each summer. I have owned my Indian for over forty years.
The half-model of my Indian hanging over the entrance door to the kitchen
Mark Sutherland's models - to contact Mark, use the Link below
Mark Sutherland <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A half model of the whale ship Essex is next year's project: I am already itching to get started!