June 1st, 2014

How to build a model ship

Since the first Egyptian was entombed with a miniature boat to meet his travel needs in the afterlife, people of all cultures have been building model ships. Sailors whiled away the time at sea carving replicas of their vessels and often left these models in churches throughout Europe in thanksgiving for their safe return. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, naval architects in England built exquisitely detailed ship models to submit to the Admiralty Board for approval.

Admiralty models remain the finest examples of the model shipwright’s craft and the standard to which serious builders aspire. Needing neither a boat for my afterlife journey nor a contract from the British Admiralty, I took up model shipbuilding just for fun.

As a result of that decision, I have been enriched by the wisdom and companionship of a diverse group of people who come together every month to share knowledge, building tips and stories of technical and personal triumphs and failures. In the spirit of fellowship and good humor that pervades our club, I have learned a thing or two about building model ships and even more about life.

The first lesson I learned was that it is important to start at the right place. The beginning model ship maker has many choices when it comes to finding his or her first modeling project. In our group we are fortunate to have the guidance of a master modeler and teacher who suggests a sequence of projects of increasing difficulty.

Each model builds on the skills learned in constructing the previous model in the series. Following the suggested order of building decreases the likelihood of frustration and maximizes opportunities for success. You have to walk before you can run.

Lesson two tells us that even if we don’t start at the right place, we aren’t doomed to failure. Two of my favorite stories from our club involve colleagues whose enthusiasm and confidence led them to begin models that were far more challenging than they ever imagined. While caution may advise you to start with a rowboat, how can you resist the image of a full-rigged model of the USS Constitution proudly displayed on your fireplace mantel?

Attracted by the history of your subject matter and the eye-catching picture of Old Ironsides on the cover of the box, you can’t be blamed for not noticing that the kit was made in Italy and the instructions written in Italian. You have a friend who speaks the language and he translates the single sentence repeated throughout the remarkably thin instruction manual, “Make it like the picture.” The project teaches you resourcefulness and perseverance and you enjoy a well-deserved sense of pride when you put the last piece in place a decade or so after you began.

Lesson three is simple and one that we have heard before. You will make mistakes and you will learn from them. The first thing you will learn is that not all mistakes are of equal significance. Some things you fix and some things you may choose to ignore. You may want to fix a hole in the bottom of your boat where you ran out of planking material, unless of course you are seized by the impulse to build a diorama of a wreck tossed up on the beach.

It’s the smaller, less obvious mistakes that present us with more interesting possibilities. In model shipbuilding as in any endeavor that requires developing a special skill, you will notice mistakes that no one else sees. When they praise your craftsmanship, you will learn that it is not necessary to tell them that the tiny ship’s wheel that you fashioned under a magnifying glass from 37 separate pieces of copper wire should have seven spokes and not six as you foolishly thought. It’s OK, really, let it go.

Sometimes this letting go is easier said than done. Some of us find it difficult to move on from our mistakes. We keep trying to fix the same thing over and over and, never getting it quite right, we get stuck. Model shipbuilding and a good teacher will help you to move on to the next step. Experience with life and a good friend or a good therapist will do the same.

With more complicated, long-term modeling projects, you will notice that the quality of your work improves over time as you learn new skills. When you learn to do something better, you can either go back and try to improve earlier construction or move ahead, using your new techniques in the later stages of the same model. There is something to be said for allowing our mistakes to stand as a record of our progress. In most cases, the errors are small enough so as not to detract from the beauty of the work. Before we learned to do it better, we probably thought that we had done a pretty good job and, in truth, we probably had. Success lies not in doing something right the first time but in doing it better the next.

Drawn by the lore of the sea and the smell of the salt air, I came to a New England seaport town to learn the ancient craft of model shipbuilding. What I found was a community of friends and mentors who are teaching me so much more: setting realistic goals, moving forward in a reasonable sequence, laughing at our foolish enthusiasms and moving ahead open to new learning and tolerant of our inevitable mistakes. This is how to build a model ship and maybe even a good life.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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