Armorial Bearings granted to Robert Lord alias Laward of London in 1510; College of Arms MS L10 folio 105b; copyright of the College of Arms, London. Used by permission.


Recreating historic vessels in miniature...


My inspiration in crafting all these miniature ships and boats has been historical research, connected either with family history or archeological studies done during my career. Since my present research is into our family's seafaring past, in the 17th century, and the model I am working on now is a c.1650 New England coasting vessel, I will start there.

17th Century New England Trading Vessels

Ancient coins.

The Dutch bark of Arent Van Curler crosses the sound from Long Island to the Connecticut River, 1658

"Passage From Long Island - c. 1650" by Len Tantillo (used by permission of the artist)

The painting above resonates particularly with me, and points to my interest in modeling coasting vessels of New England in the middle to late 17th century, because it could well represent the ship of my ancestor, Richard Lord, as described below:

"In April 1642, Connecticut passed a moratorium on all trade with Long Island Indians but made an exception for Thomas Stanton and his brother-in-law , Richard Lord. They were allowed to make one trip to deliver goods already commited and to collect old debts." (Text below from Colonial Connecticut Records, 1636 - 1776, Vol. I, 72.)

Colonial record

So sixteen years before the crossing depicted in the painting above, Richard Lord and his partner, the husband of his sister, made the same crossing "from Long Island to the Connecticut River". And obviously he (they) had been engaged in that trade for some time prior to 1642.

Family History

Richard was the eldest son in the large family of Thomas and Dorothy Lord, living in Towcester, England in the 1620s. (Details on the family can be found at http://www.living-in-the-past.com/lordsoftowcester.html) and a complete presentation of the sea-faring advenbtures of Richard Lord abnd his son can be found at http://www.living-in-the-past.com/lordsofthesea.html. Richard was sent, or struck off on his own, to New England and landed in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1633 at age 21. He settled upriver at Cambridge where he had a house and "shoppe" by 1635, when he was joined by the rest of his family...father, mother and seven siblings!

In the spring of 1636 they all went with the founding party to create the settlement of Hartford on the middle Connecticut River, and it is from that location the sailing ventures of this family evolved. Interestingly at that time there was already a Dutch trading settlement on the opposite bank of the river, and it was to this Dutch landing that the ship portrayed in the painting at the top of this page was traveling. So Richard early on was witness to what might be accomplshed with an English-based shipping establishment serving Long Island and the coastal communities across New England.

Click on the following thumbnail images to see a large version.

Ship Models

"The Hannah - 1777"


Hull length =  10" Overall length = 15"

I had never scratch-built a wooden ship. I had assembled a wooden model kit of an 18th century American ship, The Hannah, and had enhanced that with some scratch-built detailing (above). In the end the model was more detailed and complete than if I had simply followed the instruction sheet, but it has become something of a derelict from being stuck on one shelf or another over the years.

Because it was a kit, it did not receive my respect as much as perhaps it should have. But it was a start in wooden ship model building. It had a solid wood hull and lots of add-on wooden detailing.

Ships in a bottle...

In the late 1970s I became fascinated with ships in bottles, and as the book shops seemed not to carry anything about how to do it, I xeroxed an old book in the State Library describing the process. This involved building the tiny ship completely outside the bottle, using sewing needles as drills and tiny loops of thin wire as deadeyes and pulleys, then relaxing the rigging threads to collapse down the masts and spars flat to the deck. And then painstakingly fitting the ship through the bottle neck. Once inside, using long homemade coathanger wire tools and glue, the ship is fixed to the inside of the bottle. Once dry, with luck, by carefully pulling the rigging threads and coaxing the masts back into their former positions, the ship in a bottle is completed, the threads are glued and cut, and the bottle is corked.


Hull length = 3.75" Overall length = 4.5"

Anxious to build, I completed the three-masted ship (above), being only a couple inches long, before I had gotten the bottle it was supposed to go in. Such bottles have to be big enough inside for the complete ship, and the masts can often be a particular problem due to their height. Plus, the neck has to be large enough to allow the ship inside, about big enough for the first joint of your index finger.

After much hunting around with no success, I finally found a bottle in an antique shop that was JUST large enough, on all counts, to accept my first ship. Otherwise, it would still be outside. After that I always got my bottles first, measured them, and then designed the ship to fit inside (see two below).


Hull length = 2.5" Overall length = 5.25"


Hull length = 3.5" Overall length = 5"

The old whiskey bottles above allowed a ship of about 3 inches length inside, with the masts, built to the correct proportions, just touching the glass at the top. The sides allow a nice window on the result.

In the 1990s I made another of the two-masted schooner (above) as a gift for my wife's uncle in Northern Ireland.

Ship length =  2.5"

The boat above was a way to use an old bottle that was two short to accommodate a full-masted sailing vessel. So I built a two inch long model of a Revolutionary War gunboat that operated on Lake Champlain in 1776.

One year I built two ships at once to be Christmas presents, and since these were copies of one I had built before, I assumed I would find two of the same bottles to put them in.


Hull length = 3.5" Overall length = 5"

But it turned out the modern version of that whiskey bottle is made for a screw-top, not a cork, and the necks are much too small. So I was forced to give the "ships in a jar", mainly just as display items, instead of true works of bottling skill. Everyone had a good laugh.

Durham boats and batteaux....

My interest in Durham boats began in 1983, while directing environmental impact studies in history and archeology at the New York State Museum. We had been assigned a project that included bits of the historic Erie Canal (1817 - 1890). And alongside those remains we found remains of the earlier German Flatts canal, actually built in 1798. This was the first I had heard of an earlier "Canal Age" in New York, and my interest in this era sparked an interest in the unusual boats that utilized the system.

This inland waterway route connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes had been previously passable only in small 30 foot long "batteaux", having to pass over several land portages to complete the journey. But these 1790s improvements allowed the larger 60 foot long "Durham boats" to pass along the entire route without portaging, and led to an expansion of western settlement, trade and national security.


Durham boats were flat bottomed, (see 1808 engraving above) as all boats had to be in a route obstructed by dozens of shallow "rifts" or shoals, many only knee deep. They were double-ended, like batteaux, but rather than poled from a fixed standing position, these boats were poled like the later river boats....or "flatboats"... of the West. Men walked back along cleated boards with 18 foot long iron-tipped poles to push the boat forward, often pressed into their shoulder while they dropped to hands and feet for extra purchase.


Since I frequently gave lectures on our projects, and on this topic of inland navigation and early canals, I decided to make models of these boats (above) as visual aids. First I made the cargo version of a Durham boat (above, left); then a model of the smaller batteau (above, center), and finally a model of the later Durham passenger boat (above, right).

Hull length = 15" Overall length = 18"

My model (above, left) was a 1/4"=1' (1:48) Durham boat set up as a cargo vessel. I had a good set of plans, a block of basswood left over from my ship-in-a-bottle efforts, a set of small woodcarving tools... and just started in.

The hull was carved from solid basswood, and the the extensive cargo hold, which runs almost the entire length, was carefully carved out using chisels. Cleated running boards were added, and dowels used to make the mast and poles. The need for detailed cargo was handled by creating a covered cargo area, a load of bricks, boxes, barrels, a millstone and a farmer's new plow, all headed upriver to the settlements, and all handmade to fit.

Since this was to be educational, to give a true sense of scale to the audience, I needed a crew, and found, purely by luck, a set of Merten "O" scale German railroad personnel at the local model railroad shop. (As it turns out, this was a lucky event, as now (2012) these figures are impossible to find in that scale.)
1980s Merten figures

As can be readily seen, these figures of 20th century European station personnel are simple and generic enough to be converted to 18th century boat crew. By sanding off a few pockets and buttons, the jackets become frocks or hunting shirts (below).



Modern caps are converted to typical round hats (below) by sanding off the bill of the cap and then filing the top of the head round with a "shelf" at the eyebrow level. Then a "brim" is cut from mylar (or any thin but fairly rigid stock... card may work but might warp when painted) and a hole the same diameter as the head knob is cut or punched in the center. The brim is then glued onto the "peg", which becomes the body of the hat.



To provide contrast of scale, I made a 3-handed batteau using the same methods (below).


Hull length = 7.5" Overall length = 10"

The German figures had already become hard to find, and I waited months for the order I placed at the local model railroad shop to come in.

Further along in the research project I discovered evidence of how the large Durham freight boats were later converted to passenger use, years before the passenger packet boats of the Erie Canal would come into being. Details on an 1815 woodcut broadside (below) advertising the boat service, and descriptions found in documents, confirmed the design. It was a basic Durham boat with seats added, covered with an "awning", and roll-up curtains like a stagecoach.



So using the basic freight boat I had first built as the guide, I created another Durham boat model (below) and then added on the appropriate passenger accoutrements as described and shown in the documents.


Hull length = 15" Overall length =  18"

As context I modeled a section of the Schenectady harbor waterfront, as it existed when these boats were in service, and populated it with waiting passengers and boatmen (below).



A fully loaded passenger vessel required finding lots of seated people, and Merten carried a set of seated 1950s subway riders, which, with some modification, became 1790s river boat riders (below).



Some were apparently too good to ride inside with the riff-raff, and "took the air" outside on the deck (below). The woman's broad-brimmed straw hat was made using the same "head knob" technique, and then tied under the chin with thread.



Recall that these boats are made at 1:48 scale, which means this lady, when standing up, would be just 1 1/4 inches tall.


A Colonial Bark - c. 1640

The summer of  2005 (I think) I had the month of August free, after the end of teaching my summer class and before the start of the fall semester. And I wanted a project I could complete in that time to do something to break the academic cycle. I decided to attempt to build a wooden ship from scratch, and by happenstance I had a set of 1/4" = 1' modeling plans of "A Colonial Bark - 1640" which I had purchased in the 1970s in the shop at Plimoth Plantation; a recreation of the English settlement as it was in 1627. It was close enough to the type of ships my ancestors would have sailed out of Connecticut in the 1640s to give the project a little extra meaning, and the packet of plans had been stuck on a shelf gathering dust for nearly 30 years! (Never throw anything away!)

I did not have the skill, the time or the inclination to attempt this ship as a plank-on-frame model, and so just scaled up the hull modeling technique of solid basswood hulls used for my other vessels (bottle ships and Durham boats). Carving a solid wood hull is relatively easy in good quality basswood. But next I needed to evolve this into a finished ship.


Hull length = 12" Overall length = 16"

I decided on a waterline model (above), rather than a full hull, as I wanted to show it as a ship in action, with figures I had left over from my previous 1:48 (1/4" = 1') boat projects. This also allowed me to screw the hull down from underneath to a working plank for construction ....a modeler's version of a dry dock.

The idea of scribing planking lines on the deck and hull did not even enter my mind, but the idea of glueing down tiny planking on the deck, as tedious as this was, had immediate appeal. Using some very thin strips of basswood from the local crafts store, I planked the deck (below), taking probably about as long is it did to plank the actual ship!



A bit intimidated by planking the hull, with the curves involved, I also had to create the frames which in an actual ship would have continued above the deck. The only way I could solve this "problem" was to inlet heavier lengths of basswood into the upper edge of my solid hull; carving slots at each location, and gluing in the pieces. (Now much later I find this is the normal way one does a solid hull model, but at the time I felt I had "cheated" somehow.)



Working carefully, the hull planks could be glued on (above), with the ones near the bow eased to fit the curve by boiling them for a few minutes and then bending them in a jig. Once cooled and dry, they retained enough curve to make the job easier.

Masts and yards were made from dowels, hatches and hatch covers were built from thin basswood, eyes for threading lines were made by twisting wire over a needle, cutting the "tail" to length and gluing into a hole. The deadeyes and blocks were a major challenge, but since I did not want any "store bought" parts on this ship, I used the standard method of trial-and-error, mostly error, to come up with a result.



For blocks (above) I drilled tiny holes through square basswood stock strips, perpendicular to each other at what would end up as each end of the block. Then I cut the blocks from the strip, rounded the ends on sandpaper, fixed wire through the secured end and threaded the running lines through the other hole.




For deadeyes (above) I fortunately had a Dremel miniature lathe and put in dowels of the right diameter. I scribed in a shallow groove for the rope that goes around the circumference of the deadeye and then made a deeper cut between each groove placed to produce a deadeye of the right thickness. Then I cut them apart, off the lathe, with a micro-saw. There was lots of error and waste, and I ended up with about one usable deadeye blank for every five or six I attempted. 

Once they were sanded slightly to round edges, I put them in a jig I made of styrene that held the deadeye flat and had three drill guide holes used to drill each deadeye. Again, quality control was not up to industrial standards and I could only use one out of three drilled specimens. Had I used a higher quality wood, like mahogany or maple, instead of over-the-counter dowels, the success rate would have been much improved. But I had just over three weeks to work on this, and the craft store was a 90 minute round trip, if even they had suitable dowels or stock, so it made more sense to waste time making them in substandard wood than waste time driving back and forth.



Fortunately I had several now-impossible-to-find Merten "O" scale (1:48) plastic German railroad figures left over from my Durham boat models that were very well suited for conversion to ships crew. And I had one seated 1950s passenger left over as well. 



Since one figure had his arms upraised and would model up nicely as a crew member holding up a crate (above), I decided to open up a hatch into the hold and have this man coming up the ladder with cargo. That meant cutting down into the solid hull deep enough for a ladder on which he would be stepping up. In basswood that is "easily" done, with small chisels and care.



One of the figures works perfectly, without modification of the arms and legs, as working the tiller, and the seated man becomes the owner of the cargo (above), making sure of his investment. The train crewman with his extended arm, now no longer holding his lantern, becomes ship's crew managing one of the lines.



It was interesting learning about the deck "furniture" (above), which included a 17th century capstan, bilge pump and the iron chimney stack for the galley. Just lots of very tiny scratch-building using the plans and photos. For scale, the bilge pump (above, left) is less than one inch high.



The anchor was built with wood and wire and card stock. The small rail-mounted gun is certainly out of scale, and probably needs to be replaced. It was the last item, before sails and rigging.

Sails were made of worn cotton sheeting, seams drawn on in pencil, edges rolled and glued, and then hand-stitched to lines. Dyed with tea and coffee to a brown color, which probably should have just been a weathered white instead, these were bound to the spars and as they hung rather badly, I glued the sails to the mast stays. Next time I will starch the sails to their proper shape first, or maybe just model furled sails instead.

A 17th Century Ketch

(Spring 2011) During my attempt at total retirement, I decided to attempt another scratch-built wooden ship, and after extensive research into the ships my ancestors were involved with in the Connecticut River from 1635 to 1675, I chose a "ketch" design.

There are no plans from that period, but the same man who made the drawings for my previous model ship had plans for both a "pinnace" and a "ketch". Both had been built at 100% scale as replicas, but the price MIT wanted for the full set of ketch plans was over $150.00! Too rich for me at my stage of the craft, so I combined the lines from the pinnace with ample online photos of a museum model ketch (see below), and photos of the full-scale replica as the basis for my model.


Model of museum display 17th century ketch.


Full-scale replica of 17th century ketch

Since there is no perfect record of what vessels my ancestors sailed, other than ambiugous words like "ship" and "ketch", which in the 17th century were not exactly applied, and since any "plans" or "lines" made up by nautical architects in the 20th century are highly hypothectical, even when based on museum models of the period, I felt justified.


Hull length =  12"
At this point the solid hull, stem and stern posts in place, (above) and frames attached. The first few runs of hull planking are attached. To accentuate the tarred seams between deck planking this time, I painted the edges of each tiny deck plank black beofre glueing on, and then sanded down the deck, leaving the nice seams (below).



..to be continued.

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